Today’s Wall Street Journal has a lengthy feature article on the popularity of Donald Duck in Germany. One indication that the character has become a cultural phenomenon: an 8000 page German collector’s edition, priced at $1900, came close to selling out upon publication.
The article ascribes the character’s popularity to the strip’s longtime translator, Erika Fuchs, an art history Ph.D. who rewrote Carl Barks’ dialogue to include references to German literature, myth and politics. This is no doubt part of the reason why the strip has inspired an eponymous nonprofit organization, D.O.N.A.L.D., to hold annual scholarly gatherings for the past thirty-two years, but as at least one commenter notes, Barks himself seeded his work with historical and literary references. Surely Barks made a difference as well?
He did, of course–the mythic quality of his Duck work is what made it such a suitable foundation for Fuchs’ elaboration. But the difference in tone is worth noting. Post-war Germany was in the process of restoring its identity after Nazi ideology raised serious questions as to the legitimacy of the country’s cultural heritage. A funny book provided a means for Fuchs to highlight the value of German traditions free from worrisome evocations of the Nazi’s use of German culture to establish ethnic supremacy.
Barks wrote in a radically different context. America’s literary heritage was not morally suspect; to have used Donald Duck to legitimize Melville or Dickinson would have seemed pretentious, if not bizarre. Barks’ visual and verbal rhetoric is instead far more pragmatic–Donald and his retinue are on a perpetual quest to succeed in a world full of baffling new tools and old ways.
What both the German and American versions of Barks’ work illustrate is the strategic value of junk media in remaking society. That so many people continue to view comics as little more than trash is not necessarily a bad thing–it frees the medium for creative expression outside the normative constraints of so-called high art, thereby retaining comics’ power as a cultural trojan horse.