Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Susan Bernofsky has a fascinating piece at the WSJ (link courtesy of Marginal Revolution) on the history of the German obsession with Donald Duck:
When the Ehapa publishing house was founded in 1951 to bring American comics to German kids, it was a risky endeavor. Ehapa’s pilot project, a monthly comics magazine, bore the title “Micky Maus” to capitalize on that icon’s popularity. From the beginning, though, most of the pages of “Micky Maus” were devoted to duck tales.

Donald Duck’s popularity was helped along by Erika Fuchs, a free spirit in owlish glasses who was tasked with translating the stories. A Ph.D. in art history, Dr. Fuchs had never laid eyes on a comic book before the day an editor handed her a Donald Duck story, but no matter. She had a knack for breathing life into the German version of Carl Barks’s duck. Her talent was so great she continued to fill speech bubbles for the denizens of Duckburg (which she renamed Entenhausen, based on the German word for “duck”) until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 98.

Ehapa directed Dr. Fuchs to crank up the erudition level of the comics she translated, a task she took seriously. 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.

Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell”; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, “The Bell,” in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Hölderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, “Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.”

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