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The Parts That Got Left Out of the Donald Duck Book, or: How Karl Marx Prevailed Over Carl Barks

By David Kunzle

Editor’s Note: David Kunzle, who was one of the guest speakers at the 2010 ImageNext Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, has graciously allowed us to reprint his article, “The Parts That Got Left Out of the Donald Duck Book, or: How Karl Marx Prevailed Over Carl Barks,” in this issue. The paper was originally delivered as a speech at the 1976 Caucus for Marxism and Art at the College Art Association Convention.

All of us, whether we know it or not, write art history from a subjective political position. Occasionally, that position obtrudes upon us with such force that we discover—perhaps to our surprise—our scholarship as part of a larger and bitter political struggle, which spins it out of our control. This is the story of dilemmas and compromises faced in the course of a collaboration between myself, moving gradually and hesitantly out of bourgeois ideology towards Marxism, and true Marxist revolutionaries with a totally different background. I am not, I hope, engaging merely in an autobiographical self-indulgence, but making a self-criticism designed to come to grips with my own subjectivity.

Three years ago, on my way to Chile, I discovered a book just published in that country called How to Read Donald Duck (Para leer al Pato Donald). In Santiago at the University I tracked down Ariel Dorfman, one of the two authors, succeeded in reassuring him I was not C.I.A., befriended him, proposed myself as translator, and engaged to look for a U.S. publisher. I soon discovered that publishers in this country were leery of the copyright problems relating to Disney illustrations, but eventually there turned up an eccentric, one-man, Paris-based publishing firm called International General, who wanted to produce the English-language edition.

I started work on the translation in intensely emotional circumstances. I had just returned from two months in Cuba, which made socialism seem so viable; yet there had just been the fascist counter-revolution in Chile, which was destroying a whole socialist culture, and I feared for the safety of the authors of the book, as well as for that of so many other friends I had made in Chile. I had just been fired for political reasons from the University where I had taught for eight years; I had no paid employment then, or in the offing; and I had lost my house in a divorce settlement. Suffering from a great sense of dispossession, personal and political, I set about possessing myself of and being possessed by the Donald Duck book and its ideas. I added the subtitle Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, and determined psychologically to repossess Chile as I had known it and wrest it from U.S. Fascist-imperialism.

I acquired, at express speed, a new language and a whole ideology based on a range of primordial Marxist concepts which, although not entirely strange to me, I had never seen applied to the comics, and never to any cultural material in so rigorous, impassioned and imaginative a fashion. In making this work my own, I saw my chance to become a true Marxist art historian, and throw in my lot with the Third World.

I began to impose myself on the book. I made some minor editorial changes, and questioned (in the margin of my typescript) some of the authors’ statements. I spit and polished, and laboured over Dorfman’s weird metaphors (Dorfman is also a noted novelist). Then I wrote a long Introduction, to research which I used two primary sources, apart from a few volumes of Disney comics I managed to find in an academic library: Disney Production Archives, and Carl Barks. The Burbank HQ of Disney Productions, which I twice visited the comics editorial offices and the archives, chilled me to the bone. Both the stiffly courteous guard of the comics editor, and the puzzled, cautious helpfulness of the archivist, in whose cramped office I searched sheaves of back issues for the U.S. originals of stories used by the Chilean authors, made me feel like an enemy spy, as indeed I was. Despite my pose as an innocent, Disney-struck comics historian, the archivist and editors might rumble, from my requests for Latin American editions and my cautious questions about attitudes to copyright, that I was working for the enemy, those Chilean commies they knew about from a hostile, politically scandal-mongering AP dispatch issued when the book first made news in Chile. Would I clumsily blow my cover, and be thrown into a Disney or Duckburg jail, and by Scrooge McDuck himself, like one of those naughty, thieving Beagle Boys? Was I not also out to steal Private Property (inside information and pictures I planned to add to those in the Chilean edition) from the Rightful Owners thereof?

With Carl Barks, my experience was totally different. Barks, for thirty years the single-handed creator of the best Disney comics, lives in retirement, modestly (of necessity) in a small house in Santa Barbara. He was all old-world graciousness, apparently flattered that I should consider him worth visiting, open, freely lending me unique copies from his own collection, telling me stories about himself, his failures, Disney (the “machine” he half-escaped when he turned from animation to the comic books), his painstaking mode of creation, and the tyrannical time-schedule and pay-rate imposed upon him. I liked Barks, marvelled at the way he had quietly repressed his anger at Disney, and became entirely sympathetic to him. I incorporated into my Introduction a very favourable estimate of his work, which really is aesthetically superior to all other children’s comics of its time, and reveals—to me at any rate—a very significant ambivalence towards the Disney-capitalist ideology of which he is both victim and critic. I established the artist as example of economic exploitation more typical of industrial than cultural workers, as we normally understand the terms. The immensely industrious and conscientious Barks, the slave to his drawing-board, enriching the bosses with his labors, was exploited by ruthless Uncle Walt Disney like Donald Duck is exploited by the tyrannical capitalist miser Uncle Scrooge McDuck. I saw Barks projecting his self-portrait, and that of the oppressed bourgeoisie, into poor, frantic, neurotic Donald, and this in itself as an act of unconscious rebellion, from which intelligent children might learn to despise capitalist ethics, as Barks truly despises Disney and the avarice of the system which seeks to grind him down. I saw many of Barks’ best stories not as justifications of imperialist adventure, like the Chinese did, but as satires upon it, in which the imperialist Duckburgers come off looking as foolish as—and far meaner than—the innocent Third World natives.


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