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Second to none

June 9, 2009

The Walt Disney cartoon character Donald Duck is turning 75. He is famous around the world, but no country seems to be quite as obsessed with the quacking curmudgeon as Germany.

Donald Duck, thumping his fist down in anger
Germans find Donald's choleric episodes endearingImage: AP/Ehapa Verlag

Unlike in the US, Donald has achieved a singular pop-icon status in Germany, where he is more popular than Mickey by a mile.

Donald Duck made his first appearance 75 years ago - on June 9, 1934 - as a minor character in the Disney cartoon called "Little Wise Hen."

He was originally created as a foil for the always upbeat Mickey Mouse. But while the irascible duck has always stayed second-fiddle to the cheerful mouse in the US imagination, Europe is a different story.

Donald duck cartoon carrying a cake
'Donaldists' study the intricacies of DuckburgImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

Generations of German children have grown up reading thick, paperback-book sized tomes of Donald Duck comics. A magazine called Mickey Maus, with stories that feature Mickey and Goofy but mostly Donald, sells an average of 250,000 copies each week.

Everyone loves a loser

What is the appeal of the hapless and cranky but good-hearted duck? According to a subgroup of hardcore fans who call themselves Donaldists - they study the goings-on in the cartoon world of Entenhausen (German for Duckburg) like anthropologists study lost civilizations - it is the character's loser-but-not-a-quitter attitude that speaks to the masses.

Gerhard Severin is the acting president of the Donaldists. For him, Donald Duck represents a "modern Sisyphus, who always keeps trying. Despite constant setbacks he starts over again, and shows us that you should never give up."

Donald Duck with Huey, Louie and Dewey
His three nephews are well loved in GermanyImage: picture-alliance / imagestate/HIP

Another aspect of Donald that appeals to the German imagination is his hot temper, Severin said. Donald tends to go off into fits of impotent rage, which "in itself is not so positive.… But on the other hand, you have to say that every one of us has a little bit of Donald in them. We would love to fly off the handle from time to time, but we don't dare to."

In May, literary critic Susan Bernofsky wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal where she compared the German obsession with the pantless cartoon to the French adoration of a certain American comedian.

"Just as the French are obsessed with Jerry Lewis, the Germans see a richness and complexity to the Disney comic that isn't always immediately evident to people in the cartoon duck's homeland," Bernofsky wrote.

Discovered in translation

Donald Duck pointing at his own chest
Donald always believes in himself - an appealing traitImage: AP

Germany's widespread Donald adoration may well be more than just a quirk of cultural taste, however. If his never-give-up attitude appeals to German hearts, it is the strip's writing - done by liberal and free-spirited translator Erika Fuchs - that has won German minds.

Fuchs took great liberties with the original texts by the main artist of the strip, Carl Barks. She lent her character a depth and richness that he simply doesn't have on the other side of the ocean.

There is a historical reason for this: In their earliest days in Europe, comic books were looked down upon as lacking intellectual rigor and were thought to be bad for children. So when it first started publishing Donald Duck, the German publisher Ehapa asked Fuchs to make her translations more erudite.

And erudite she was. The German Donald quotes Goethe and Schiller, Hoelderlin and Wagner. He uses frequent alliterations and has coined phrases that have since worked their way into the language on the street. Moreover, Fuchs often gave the stories a more political tone than they'd originally had.

Stands up to the competition

Daisy Duck
Donald's sweetheart is Daisy DuckImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Today in Germany, Donaldism is so strong that the fan group D.O.N.A.L.D (the German acronym stands for "German Organization for Non-commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism") recently hosted its 32nd annual congress in Stuttgart, with lectures on topics like "nephew studies."

But if Donald's Old World fame is immense, his outlook in the New World is less rosy. Gemstone publishers in the US recently said it would drop its license for Donald Duck comics, amid financial difficulties.

Could it be that Donald Duck's haplessness and inability to keep a job no longer resonates with the American imagination? And should the European Donald undergo a makeover to meet the modern sensibility?

That would be terrible shame, said Donaldist Severin. He pointed out that the magazine Mickey Maus has existed since 1951, and "back then, there was no competition. Now, there is huge competition.… Nevertheless, Mickey Maus is still the most widely read teen magazine, with a six-figure circulation every week. I'd like to see another magazine meet those figures."

Donald Duck at a camping site
Image: picture alliance / kpa

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn

Editor: Kate Bowen