Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Poetry of Scrooge McDuck & Disney Comics: A Guest Posting by Brian Greggs

Facing certain graduation and an uncertain job market, Seattle native and Willamette University American Studies major Brian Greggs (pictured here) takes a moment to reflect on his first encounters with poetry which came via Scrooge McDuck and Disney comics. If we here at the P&PC Office are right in detecting more than a touch of wistfulness in Greggs’ tour through the reading of his youth—introducing us to the comic renditions of Robert Service, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dante—then there’s only one cure we can think of: this sounds like dissertation material!

Uncle Scrooge, the world’s richest duck, is perhaps best known for his appearance as Charles Dickens’s Scrooge in Disney’s Christmas Carol, or from the popular DuckTales animated series. But for most of his life he has resided in Disney’s comic book universe, where he was created in 1947 by Carl Barks. According to Barks, Scrooge was raised in Glasgow in the late 1800s, leaving Scotland at age thirteen in order to earn money to support his family. After traveling the world (Austria, South Africa, etc.) in search of gold and always arriving after the party ends, he finally travels to the Yukon. There, against all odds, he strikes it rich.

It is here, at the moment of Scrooge’s success, that Robert W. Service, the “Bard of the Yukon,” makes an appearance in a 1988 story called “Last Sled to Dawson” written by Don Rosa. I grew up reading Disney comics—in fact learned to read with them—so Rosa’s story marks one of my earliest encounters with poetry of any kind. It is difficult to overstate the impact these comics had on me at the time—though, as a pint-sized nature buff, I was drawn more to the frosty, Arcadian landscapes like those in the bottom panel than to Service’s poem, which I only now realize is doubly appropriate for “Last Sled.” Not only is Service forever linked to the Yukon, where both he and Scrooge would find the material that would make them famous, but Service was himself from Glasgow! What better way to celebrate Scrooge’s Yukon triumph than with verse by his countryman, the Scottish-born bard of the Yukon?

This wouldn’t be the only time a member of the Duck family flock met poetry; in “The Not-so-Ancient Mariner” from 1966 and pictured to the left, for example, Donald wins a poetry recitation contest and later accidentally shoots an albatross.

Though long past their heyday in the U.S., Disney comics have developed a remarkable popularity in Europe, where weekly digests are commonly read by adults and children alike. Their popularity is such that the vast majority of Disney’s comics writers and artists are from Europe or South America, where large publishing houses translate their work for consumption in many different countries. The real pioneers of the format were in Italy, where the magazine Topolino (Mickey Mouse) was founded in 1932; it is still being published today.

Mining for material, many Italian writers turned to epics of the past, crafting adaptations of widely-known classics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island and others. The Italians have produced no less than four adaptations of Poe’s tales, though none have ever been published in English. In 1949, Guido Martina scripted what may have been the first Disney comics story thus borrowed: Dante’s Inferno, starring Mickey as Dante and Goofy as Virgil. Taking the parody a step further, Martina versified his script in an elegant meter that follows Dante’s terza rima exactly (the panel pictured above comes at the beginning of Canto IV):

Dante: Where the heck are we?
Virgil: In Limbo!

Soon as off the ghostly boat we dared,
A rocky, tight ravine we ventured by,
Where demons swung poor fellas in midair!

As a gust of yawns blew through the sky
We saw the punished were teachers all!
But… schoolmarms, here? I wondered why!

This English translation did not appear until March 2006, in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, #666. Set in Dante’s meter by David Gerstein, it’s less elegantly rendered than Martina’s, but this isn’t entirely surprising since the Italians have long had an entirely different approach to comics than Americans. As Frank Stajano has pointed out:

Martina had a significant impact on the form and linguistic structure of the entire Italian Disney production: in his stories (and, before that, in his translations) the characters always spoke proper Italian, often using sophisticated words outside the normal vocabulary of a teenager. Contrast this with the American strips where, perhaps in deference to a comics tradition that meant to depict the language of its characters with more realism, slang was quite common and characters such as Goofy would never utter a sentence without “eating out” or somehow distorting half of the words. Martina’s Goofy, instead, speaks proper Italian and so do all the other characters, from the most distinguished academics to the lowliest thieves. This important aspect, faithfully preserved in all the stories of the Italian school, probably also contributed to the very wide acceptance of Topolino in Italy: parents were happy to give the comic to their children because it was in some sense educational (expanding their vocabulary and exercising their grammar) without being pedantic or boring.

In part because many Americans—literary critics included—consider the comics to be a low or popular artform, a lot of the European material hasn’t been translated, and a lot of older comic art has fallen out of print. Recently, however, Fantagraphics has begun reclaiming older comic art—Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Popeye, Prince Valiant, etc.—through their reprint program. Fantagraphics has just announced that over the next 15 years they'll be reprinting the entire Disney work of Carl Barks, so it looks like the ducks and their poetry will be coming back. Better yet? I’ll get to read it all as an adult this time.

Brian Greggs will be spending this coming Summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he hopes to find gainful employment—or strike it rich.


Richie said...

Excellent post. I'll be 34 when Fantagraphics is done with The Good Duck Artists' comics...Looking forward to every single release.

Let's not forget Barks' last Duck work, his inspiring...

"Ode to the Disney Ducks

They ride tall ships to the far away,
and see the long ago.
They walk where fabled people trod,
and Yetis trod the snow.

They meet the folks who live on stars,
and find them much like us,
With food and love and happiness
the things they most discuss.

The world is full of clans and cults
abuzz as angry bees,
And Junior Woodchucks snapping jeers
at Littlest Chickadees.

The ducks show us that part of life
is to forgive a slight.
That black eyes given in revenge
keep hatred burning bright.

So when our walks in sun or shade
pass graveyards filled by wars,
It's nice to stop and read of ducks
whose battles leave no scars.

To read of ducks who parody
our vain attempts at glory,
They don't exist, but somehow leave
us glad we bought their story.
Carl Barks – 1999"


Dave said...

Mike - Brian - what a great read! That could be one heck of a dissertation...