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Donald Duck At 90

By Peter Cullen Bryan


 

Only Nixon could go to China. Only Donald could go to Hungary.


When the Soviet Union fell, Ducktales was the first Western animated series to be broadcast there. Some of it was a quirk of timing: Ducktales was recent (produced from 1987-1990) and globally syndicated, but also was connected to the larger, inoffensive Disney brand. Hungary, a recently democratized former Soviet satellite, was one of many countries that broadcast Ducktales, with the series running in a Sunday afternoon time slot. It so happened that Hungary’s first democratically elected prime minister, József Antall, died on Sunday, 12 December 1993, with the announcement interrupting an episode of the series - a moment foregrounded in the memory of Millenial Hungarians to the degree that Hungarian journalist framed it as 'the Ducktales Generation' (Ócsai). The Duck was now inexorably linked in the minds of many to a pivotal traumatic event, ingrained in the sudden history of the period by simple chance. 


We should first attempt to understand what Donald Duck is and what he is not.

Mickey Mouse is static. He is the emblem of the Walt Disney Company for good reason: whether he is playing Bob Cratchit or the Brave Little Tailor, he is always Mickey playing a role. His clean-cut demeanor and good humor appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences, a symbol of friendliness and positivity. His design is easily recognized in silhouette – three circles are both incredibly simple and amazingly mutable in the grand scope of culture. Mickey is pure, boring perfection.


Goofy is endlessly mutable. He can be a football team (two, really), a thousand men in grey flannel suits, a single dad, a superhero. Goofy defies categorization: he is a dog, but not like Pluto is a dog; when he is paired with an opposite-gender Disney character, it is Clarabelle Cow (created to be the girlfriend of the now semi-retired Horace Horsecollar). Against all odds and logic, Goofy can be a single dad. Goofy is everything and nothing, whatever is needed for a situation.


Donald Duck is the middle space. Like Mickey, there is only one Donald. Like Goofy, Donald can be what the story needs him to be. Donald is flexible: he can be an adventurer, a foster parent, a superhero, a construction worker, even a sailor…but he remains intrinsically Donald, never losing his core self. Donald is rough, uneven, imperfect, ambitious, and loving. Donald is us.


Unlike Mickey, Donald can get angry – violent even – he is the id unbound, the wish fulfillment of our day-to-day frustrations and annoyances made flesh and feather. Like Goofy, Donald has continuity, but one that continues to be a point of contention among his fans. 

Donald Duck is the creation of hundreds of creators across dozens of countries, a miracle of translation and adaptation that has resulted in one of the most significant figures of the American Century.


Donald Duck was officially unveiled to the world on 9 June 1934 with 'The Wise Little Hen' (the short premiered 3 May 1934, though Walt marked Donald’s birthday as Friday, March 13th). Impressionist Clarence Nash would voice Donald for fifty years thereafter, cementing the duck’s raspy quack in the pantheon of cartoon characters. Within a year, Donald had been positioned as a rival to Mickey, with 'Orphan’s Benefit' and 'The Band’s Concert.' This first iteration of Donald was a selfish agent of chaos, with glimmers of personality under Nash’s squawks, often the butt of the joke. 


In 1937, he graduated to his own solo cartoons with 'Don Donald' and 'Donald’s Ostrich,' as well as featuring shorts with Mickey and Goofy, where his anarchic nature was sanded down somewhat, still a target of comic abuse by animals and his friends. Further developments followed: Donald was uncomfortable with technology - as in Modern Inventions (1937) - but also ill-at-ease in nature - as in Donald’s Scouts (1938). If this is where Donald ended, he would be fondly remembered, another Disney character to be trotted out for anniversary shorts and occasional revivals. Of course, history took a turn, as it often does.


The outbreak of World War II proved especially disruptive for the Disney Studio, which had weathered the worst years of the Great Depression and 'Walt’s Folly' – a feature-length animated film that seemed to threaten the studio with bankruptcy before it turned out to be Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The war meant the closing of markets in Germany (great fans of Snow White), Italy (Mussolini’s kids were huge Mickey Mouse fans), and ongoing disruptions the world over. It meant an opportunity as well: when Canada needed help to sell war bonds, Walt Disney found a new partner (Shale 32). 'Donald’s Decision' is a minor short by most metrics: just over three minutes in length, without much animation of note, and lacking much in the way of jokes (though a clever visual gag where a spinning mailbox arm becomes a swastika). But it needs Donald. Mickey would simply buy the war bonds out of a sense of duty, but Donald needs to be convinced. He procrastinates, has angelic/devilish versions of his inner monologue play off each other, and resists putting down his hard-earned cash. Donald buying bonds has weight: it represents a (small) sacrifice, but it is a trade-off instead of buying ice cream. Donald, a largely selfish figure to this point, recognizes the importance of the war as so paramount that he can change.


Donald was a natural fit for the needs of wartime Disney. Mickey could not join the Army – he was too clean, too nice, too emblematic of the overall brand. Goofy could, to a point, but his silly nature and clumsiness might undercut the seriousness of service. Donald, however, was perfect: already dressed as a sailor, with an everyman demeanor that embodied the men and women who would serve, and a righteous anger at the unfairness of the world. This mélange led to one of the most memorable propaganda films, Der Furhrer’s Face, which mixed Donald with the titular Spike Jones song in Nazi Germany. Donald portrays a put-upon German worker forced to work 23-hour shifts in a munitions plant – reflecting the life of the average German in a more comedic fashion than fellow Disney short Education For Death – and resulting in a Best Animated Short Oscar. Like many other celebrities, Donald would even be officially drafted into the U.S. Army, serving until 1984, whereupon he retired as a sergeant (E-5). As for Der Fuehrer’s Face, it would be locked in the Vault at the war’s end with most of the other propaganda shorts and was finally released on home media as part of the Walt Disney Treasures - On the Front Lines collection in 2003. 


Donald Duck also served softer diplomacy quite effectively. When the U.S. State Department looked to reaffirm the Good Neighbor Policy, they set Disney to produce Saludos Amigos, a film to emphasize the cultural and economic connections between America and Brazil (Bryan, Three Lifetimes, 53). The structure of the film is a package of shorts, a mix of mildly educational offerings framed around Donald’s adventures through aspects of South America: a visit to Lake Titicaca, a tale of a Chilean mail plane, Goofy as a Gaucho, and finally the creation of Jose Carioca, a Brazilian parrot. The success of this film prompted the development of The Three Caballeros, including Mexico, into the proceedings, released two years later. Here, Donald portrays the American tourist: he is excitable, loud, curious, and a bit of a polite horndog. He is not portrayed as angelic by any means but engages with curiosity with the larger culture and is generally respective.


South American audiences made these films hits (which were very short, at 42 and 71 minutes, respectively), and they did relatively well stateside (Shale 47-48). The greater outcome was reinforcing the Good Neighbor Policy broadly, further entrenching Disney in South American markets, but also contributing to the creation of René 'Pepo' Ríos Boettiger’s comic book character Pepito, among other works. 


It was also a sufficient enough success for Hollywood Producer Walter Wanger to proclaim 'Donald Duck for World Diplomat' as a flagbearer (alongside Hollywood generally) for world democracy (Wanger 452).

This elides the darker side of Donald Duck. Disney is a multinational megacorporation at this point, and one that has benefited from U.S. economic and cultural dominance, with Donald, even more than Mickey, serving as the face of Disney worldwide. How to Read Donald Duck challenged the position of Donald Duck (and America writ large) in Chilean culture against the backdrop of the burbling unrest that would result in the Pinochet regime. It worked to deconstruct all aspects of Donald Duck comics, ranging from economics to family structures to masculinity, framing it as a component of the capitalist/American assault on socialist/Chilean values.

While some of its criticisms are a stretch, and it fails to consider the role that translation played in the comics (which were rendered more anti-socialist by the local publishers), it proved a foundational text for the study of Disney and challenged the homogeneity of the Disney enterprise in ways that remain quite relevant today. These are the same points that Jeremy Tunstall arrived at with his seminal The Media Are American (1977), which also used Disney as a key case study, albeit as a larger culturally imperialist mass media side effect rather than as a concerted effort. More recently, Daniel Immerwahr’s article 'Ten-Cent Ideology: Donald Duck Comic Books and the U.S. Challenge to Modernization' reframes the discussion around these works as more nuanced, positing that the Disney comics could subvert existing narratives of the comics solely as pro-capitalist propaganda, particularly those created by Carl Barks.


As Donald reached his popular position in film, he was undergoing a parallel evolution in another medium. Disney comics existed since 1928 when Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created a Mickey Mouse newspaper strip that they handed over to Floyd Gottfredson after a week. Comics at the time were not considered a serious art form and were not particularly financially successful either, a sideline for newspapers and magazines rather than an artform in their own right. The creation of Superman in 1938 marked a shift in form and function: comic books began to appear on newsstands, with Disney following the trends. The initial comics were standalone stories, often written by current or former Disney employees who were well-versed in the style of the studio and could best replicate the art and humor.


Carl Barks had been a studio man, working from an animation in-betweener to a gag man, before retiring for health reasons. When fellow animator Jack Hannah offered him a job writing for Donald Duck comics, Barks accepted readily, producing 1942’s 'Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold,' a simple story modeled broadly on Treasure Island. When this proved a success, Barks was asked back and produced another story, and then another. He created dozens of characters, most notably Donald’s Uncle Scrooge (look for Scrooge at 80, coming in 2027), but also helped further develop Donald’s personality: he is well-spoken, hardworking, and persistent (Andrae 5). This Donald has faults - he can be a prankster, as he was in the early shorts – but his worst aspects are downplayed - angry tantrums occur but are no longer the default response to the mildest provocation (Bryan, Three Lifetimes, 61-62).




When Barks retired in 1965, he had produced over 700 stories, both as writer and artist, placing him among the most prolific comics creators in history - his output was on the level of Steve Ditko for art or Jim Shooter for writing, though Barks was typically doing all aspects of production (penciling, inking, coloring, writing, lettering). 


The influence of Barks should not be underestimated: the godfather of anime, Osamu Tezuka, cited him as a key influence and even sent him an annual Christmas card as a sign of appreciation.



The comics were the primary way audiences encountered Disney in the post-war years. The American editions of the comics, published by Dell until 1962, were the best-selling comic books of the period (Bryan, Three Lifetimes, 123). More significantly, these were among the bestselling comics worldwide, with Barks garnering fame as 'The Good Duck Artist' worldwide at a time when comic creators were relatively unknown (most readers assumed Walt Disney wrote the comic books that bore his name). Crucial to this spread were the translation efforts – Disney typically licensed the comics to local publishers (Mondadori in Italy, Egmont in Germany) to handle everything, including the translation efforts.  This meant more localized and specific translations, better reflecting cultural values and the nuances of language.


Dr. Erika Fuchs, who held a PhD in art history, was the primary translator for the Duck Comics in Germany from 1951 until 1988. She lived through the Nazi years and worked to incorporate anti-Nazi language into work, as well as myriad references to German art, music, and other cultural elements - notable at a time when authorities were skeptical of anything related to the previous Nazi regime.  Her work was pivotal in positioning Donald Duck as a global figure, and remains well-regarded in Germany to this day. 


I built on work by Ilaria Meloni to locate what I coined as the 'Fuchs Effect,' wherein the translations are so sufficient and specific that readers don’t recognize they are reading translated material (Bryan, Dream of Three Lifetimes, 105). The specificity of Fuchs’s reference to German art and history changed the Donald Duck comics on an intrinsic level, creating something that was adopted by German audiences as their own. German fans worked to map Duckburg, created the long-running fanzine Der Donaldist (originally Der Hamburger Donaldist), and currently hold an annual conference under the auspices of D.O.N.A.L.D. (Deutsche Organisation nichtkommerzieller Anhänger des lauteren Donaldismus / German Organization of Non-Commercial Devotees of Pure Donaldism). Germany is but one corner of the larger global Donald Duck fandom, but indicative of the various potential for the Duck within translation and appropriation: an organized and expansive fan community that developed without any assistance (or likely even awareness) from the Disney company itself.


Donald went into decline in the 1970s: the end of animated shorts on film meant limited appearances for the character, and the collapse of the Dell publishing deal meant an apocalyptic decline in comic sales, with the new publisher Western shifting p to reprints of old stories. Donald stayed strong overseas, but stateside was reduced to a sideline – the largest cultural footprint in the 1970s might have been Rick Dees’s novelty hit 'Disco Duck,' which featured Clarence Nash-esque vocals. Within the doldrums of 1970s Disney, Donald Duck had little role to play.


Just because Donald was in the doldrums in America did not mean this was true elsewhere. Italian writer Guido Martina introduced Donald’s superheroic alter-ego Paperinik in 1969 as a getting back (at least initially) to the Duck’s trickster origins, who played effectively on Italian sensibilities, which tended away from the traditions of the American superhero and more toward the subversive antihero, like Diabolik. Other characters proved more popular in Italy than stateside.


Joel Gray located the appeal of a supporting character like Ludwig von Drake and offers a sense of how Donald succeeds globally and that 'Ludwig's enduring legacy and popularity in Italy are linked to Italian society being broadly and consistently positive about higher education and the profession of university scholar…Ludwig's less frequent and lower profile in the United States linked to a more suspicious view of academics and universities from all sides of the political spectrum' (Gray). 

A key element to Donald’s appeal is the flexibility of his supporting cast – Ludwig von Drake was of little interest to American audiences but spoke to Italians.  Gray speaks to characters like Gyro Gearloose as a figure relevant in multiple spaces for being a (somewhat) positive portrayal of technological innovation, a counterpoint to Donald’s often technoskeptical antics, but clearly in conversation with the character. Donald Duck abroad is a massive topic, one that is regrettably outside our present scope.


Donald’s return to the American spotlight came in 1983 with Mickey’s Christmas Carol - it was a small role as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, but it was enough to change his fortunes, in a roundabout way (this was also the final appearance of Clarence Nash, who would die in 1985). Concurrently, longtime fans Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran began publishing high-quality reprints of the old Carl Barks comics, bringing the stories back into circulation for the first time in decades. The arrival of Michael Eisner as CEO of Disney in 1984 created the perfect alchemy that resulted in the 1987 series Ducktales. Donald, for his part, only appears sparingly, shipping off with the Navy in the pilot episode, setting up Scrooge and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie as the primary characters. Still, it was enough for Donald to gain a new foothold in the public consciousness. A cameo followed in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where he engaged in dueling pianos with Daffy Duck, introducing Donald’s second official voice actor, Tony Anselmo, who remains in the role as of June 2024.


Donald’s role during the Disney Renaissance was often as a stand-in for Mickey, showing up in a variety of cameo roles and even the short-lived Ducktales quasi-reboot Quack Pack in 1996, allowed to be more of a joke than the Mouse. Twenty years later, Donald was featured as one of the main characters of the Ducktales reboot in 2017, where he was (briefly) voiced by Don Cheadle. The series incorporated episodes based on Quack Pack and The Three Caballeros, building on Donald’s deeper history to weave together disparate threads of the Duck (Bryan, 'Disney Afternoon,' 89-90). Donald here embodies a transmedia figure, where each version of the character is, to some extent, rendered canon. 


Donald is easily adapted to the video game medium, appearing in a variety of titles for many systems, though often as a mostly interchangeable function in platformers or edutainment games. For the Squaresoft RPG Kingdom Hearts, Donald was chosen as one of the main companions (along with Goofy) to the main character Sora, as Disney had initially put forward Donald as the protagonist. Once more, Donald proved flexible: Mickey was staid and distant in the games, a powerful figure who lacked much emotional weight within the narrative. Donald was the wizard in the part who could get angry, could make mistakes, could fight with Sora and Goofy, and could act selfishly. A new generation found the Duck here, in a new medium.


Donald Duck’s history places him at many pivotal moments. He helped sell World War II to American audiences. He was the first through the door to the former Soviet Union. Erika Fuchs used him to preserve German culture in a period of intense de-Nazification. Carl Barks built a world around Donald that ensured that he would succeed across countries and cultures. 


Disney has used Donald in more films and shorts than any other character, Mickey included. Donald Duck remains endlessly adaptable: he persists through the generations because he remains flexible yet specific. The Donald of Modern Inventions is not quite the Donald of Kingdom Hearts, but remains recognizable. Donald will persist because he is us.

 

Dr. Peter Cullen Bryan is presently planning a trip to the moon in search of money and adventure, at least when he is not writing about comics, adaptation, and Disney. His second book, examining whether Red Sonja can serve as a feminist symbol, is forthcoming from the University of Mississippi Press. Other current projects include an in-depth exploration of the world of mid-century fanzines and a special issue on the 100th anniversary of Disney for the Journal of American Culture. He hopes to be as vital at 90 as Donald Duck, though hopefully without getting put in mortal danger by his rich uncle every month.


Want more on Donald, Disney, and film? You can follow Dr. Cullen Bryan!


Twitter: @pfxbryan


 

But wait! There's MORE!


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Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)

 

References


Andrae, Thomas. 2006. Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.


Bryan, Peter Cullen. 2021. Creation, Translation. and Adaptation in Disney Comics: The Dream of Three Lifetimes. Palgrave Macmillan.


Bryan, Peter Cullen. 2023. '"What Ever Happened to the Disney Afternoon?": Nostalgia, Remixes, and DuckTales Shared Universe.' In Televisual Shared Universes: Expanded and Converged Storyworlds on the Small Screen, edited by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard and Vincent Tran, 89-108. Maryland: Lexington Books.


Dorfman, Ariel and Armand Mattelart. 1991. How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic Book. International General.


Gray, Joel. 2024. 'A Cultural History Through the Comics of Donald Duck and Friends'. The Journal of American Culture, Disney at 100 Special Issue. https://doi.org/10.1111/jacc.13556


Immerwahr, Daniel. 2020. 'Ten-Cent Ideology: Donald Duck Comic Books and the U.S. Challenge to Modernization.' Modern American History 3: 1–26.


Meloni, Illaria. 2013. Erika Fuchs´ Übertragung der Comicserie Micky Maus. Georg Olms Verlag.


Ócsai, Dorottya. 2009. 'A Generation's Political Awakening' ('Egy Generáció Politikai Eszmélése'). NOL. http://nol.hu/kultura/egy_generacio_politikai_eszmelese__vasarnap_fel_6_korul_megszakadt_a_kacsamesek-327830


Shale, Richard. 1981. Donald Duck Joins Up: Walt Disney Studio During World War II. UMI Research Press.


Tunstall, Jeremy. 1977. The Media Are American. New York: Columbia University Press.


Wanger, Walter. 1950. 'Donald Duck and Diplomacy.' The Public Opinion Quarterly 14 (3), 443-452.


 

Figures


Figure 1: Hungarian street art featuring former Prime Minister József Antall and the Ducktales cast.


Figure 2: Goofy plays football as Goofy and Goofy attempt a tackle. 'Let goofy Teach You How To Play Football.' D23. https://d23.com/let-goofy-teach-play-football/. Accessed 09 June 2024.


Figure 3: Donald in 'Donald's Ostrich' (1937). King, Jack, dir. 1937. 'Donald's Ostrich.' Donald Duck. RKO Radio Pictures.


Figure 4: Donald suffers a haircut in 'Modern Inventions' (1937). King, Jack, dir. 1947. 'Modern Inventions.' Donald Duck. RKO Radio Pictures.


Figure 5: Donald Duck is discharged in this newspaper clipping.


Figure 6: Panchito, Donald, and Jose Caricoa party in front of real life dancers on the poster of The Three Caballeros (1944). Ferguson, Norman, dir. 1944. The Three Caballeros. RKO Radio Pictures.


Figure 7: The cover of 'Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold' (1942). Brightman, Homer, Harry Reeves, and Bob Karp, writers. 1942 'Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold.' Four Color. Issue 9. Dell Comics.


Figure 8: Osamu Tezuka's holiday card to Carl Barks.


Figured 9: Emblem for D.O.N.A.L.D.


Figure 10: Ludwig von Drake with Walt Disney (1961). 'Did You Know? 8 Genius Things About Ludwig von Drake.' D23. https://d23.com/did-you-know-8-genius-facts-about-ludwig-von-drake/. Accessed 09 June 2024.


Figure 11: The Three Caballeros ride again in Ducktales (2017). Johnson, Tanner, dir. 2018. 'The Town Where Everyone Was Nice!' Ducktales. Disney Television Animation.

Figure 12: Donald readies for battle in Kingdom Hearts III (2019). Nomura, Tetsuya and Tai Yasue, dir. 2019. Kingdom Hearts III. Square Enix.


 

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