Why a Duck? Disney Meets Gründlichkeit


The Wall Street Journal has an engrossing column by the distinguished writer and translator Susan Bernofsky on the Germanization of Donald Duck. As a graduate student and later as a publishing visitor I had been curious about the Federal Republic's hip cult of The (Original) Donald. Had I been missing some Aesopian subtext? Bernofsky has the answer: the creative magic of censorship. Here's how it happened:

In the years following World War II, American influence in the newly formed Federal Republic was strong, but German cultural institutions were hesitant to sanction one U.S. import: the comic book. A law banning comics was proposed, and some American comics were eventually burned by school officials worried about their effects on students' morals and ability to express themselves in complete sentences.

Some might call this extreme, since only a few years earlier, sufficiently tall German children could feast their eyes on the pornographically anti-Semitic Der Stürmer in street-corner display boxes. Or maybe that was part of the reason. After all, in the United States, the crusade to clean up the comic book industry, aimed not at Disney but at the gory fare that was the guilty pleasure of a teenage generation, was a high-minded German-born psychoanalyst named Dr. Frederic Wertham. Wertham was no McCarthyite or book burner but an early champion of civil rights. He subscribed to the idea, still held by many thoughtful people, that youthful media influence future mental well-being. A balanced review of Wertham's career and influence, by Jeet Heer, is here.

To fend off political attacks, Donald's German publisher hired a Ph.D. art historian, who had never seen a comic book before, for reverse dumbing down, which she accomplished with her nation's celebrated Gründlichkeit (thoroughness):

Her interpretations of the comic books often quote (and misquote) from the great classics of German literature, sometimes even inserting political subtexts into the duck tales. Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barks's often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular children's comic in Germany to this day.

The German strategy wasn't unique. According to a Web article by the comics historian Dwight Decker, Disney reassured Swedish parents that their own edition was prepared by

Lecturer Per-Anders Westrin, Licentiate of Philosophy, distinguished psychologist and pedagogue.

I'm not sure about the Swedish version, but the German Donald developed a durable cult following as a result of the initial pressure, amusing as it now appears in the age of youth texting culture, let alone Grand Theft Auto.

The biggest positive unintended consequence of comics cleanups was at home. And it illustrates why human resilience is so intriguing. Many horror comic publishers and their artists were ruined by the Comics Code. One of the most notorious, William Gaines, closed his publications as well. (Before developing the horror genre, Gaines had inherited his father's insolvent company, Educational Comics, specializing in Bible stories and history. There's a good account here.) But he and his staff managed to turn one of them into a different kind of youth comic, the satirical magazine, Mad. No wonder its recycled icon, Alfred E. Neuman, had that grin.

Bonus for German readers, and other Donald fans who want to see a detailed map of Duckville and who can tolerate Web translation engines: From Die Zeit, the man who is mapping Entenhausen: "Wer wie Jürgen Wollina dreizehn Jahre lang die Geografie des fiktiven Entenhausen erforscht, muss ein wahrer Donaldist sein." (Whoever has been researching the geography of the fictional Entenhausen for thirteen years must be a true Donald scholar.) Now that's Gründlichkeit!

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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