Friday, June 17, 2011

The Two Donalds

Everyone knows Donald Duck, right? Three feet tall, orange bill, sailor suit and cap? This guy?

Donald needs no introduction. He's three years older than Superman, having first appeared in 1934's The Wise Little Hen, from back when every Disney cartoon was a "Silly Symphony." Gaining in popularity steadily throughout the 30s and into the 40s, Donald soon threatened to eclipse Mickey Mouse as Disney's most popular character - much to Walt's chagrin, if the stories are true.

But the Donald we know from the cartoons and even from his appearances in Ted Osborne and Al Taliaferro's Donald Duck newspaper strip, is not the same Donald with whom comics readers are most familiar. As you probably know, the person most closely associated with Donald and his family in comics is a man named Carl Barks.

I don't know - I can't recall - if anyone has ever pointed this out before, but Barks' Donald is not the same character as the cartoon Donald.

Go back up to the top of the post and watch a minute of that Donald cartoon. What's the first thing you notice about Donald? What's the one thing everyone knows about Donald? He talks funny. He talks like a duck. His inability to communicate properly became a trademark, much like Porky Pig's famous stammer. The Ducktales cartoon even specifically referred to it as a "speech impediment," I want to say, in order to explain the fact that literally every other duck in the world could talk normal except for Donald.

Funny voices are just not something comics can do very well. Accents are notoriously difficult, and rightly so: almost every attempt to convey a regional dialect in comics comes across as awful.

Given these limitations, it's probably a blessing that no serious attempts were ever made to replicate Clarence Nash's distinctive quack on the comics page. But in the absence of his recognizable voice, Donald slowly evolved into an entirely different character from the one in cartoons. By 1947 ("The Waltz King") this is what Donald "sounded" like in Barks' comics:

I've always suspected (perhaps its been verified elsewhere) that Barks was fully aware of the discrepancy between the way his Donald spoke and the way the cartoon Donald sounded. The comic Donald is a fast-talker, glib and confident, and that's significantly different from the way Donald was ever portrayed in the cartoons. There's a reason for this: it's impossible to imagine Barks' dialogue for Donald coming from Nash's mouth.
The nerve of that chick! Tellin' ME that I might not be able to waltz well enough to be her partner! I, who invented pressurized tails for zoot suits!
These tongue-twisters would be gibberish in duck-speak.

This is one of my favorite Donald bits, from that same year's "The Masters of Melody":

Three years earlier, the issue of Donald's voice was specifically addressed in the story "Kite Weather."

Donald puts on a show in drag by assuming a different voice altogether, including an exaggerated lisp. It's only after Donald gets popped by the boys' slingshot that he drops the act - "Oh! Oh! I know that voice!" the boys scream.

Barks' interpretation of Donald became the standard interpretation for subsequent generations of Duck artists. In 1987 Don Rosa made his entry into the field with a style that very consciously recalled Barks. His Donald was, just like Barks', an extremely verbal, even loquacious character.

But the Donald we know in the comics could never properly translate to film. When Barks' Duck stories were adapted into the widely successful Ducktales series, Donald was notably absent. He appeared in the first episode and rarely thereafter, leaving his nephews with his Uncle Scrooge to accept a new commission in the Navy.

In Barks' classic Scrooge stories, the dynamic between the flinty, uptight Scrooge and the lackadaisical Donald was central to many plots. Writing Donald out of Ducktales required significant alteration, and so the character of Launchpad McQuack was introduced as a kind of surrogate Donald. McQuack was similar enough in conception that the substitution was relatively painless. Most importantly, however, the character had no speech impediment. His dialogue would not slow down or unnecessarily complicate the expository mechanics of a fast-paced weekday-afternoon cartoon plot. I don't know exactly why Donald was written out of the series, but I can't imagine that the difficulty of understanding Donald's (instantly recognizable and thereby inalterable) voice over the course of a 22 minute cartoon was not a factor. Perhaps someone out there in readerland knows more.

What does "our" Donald sound like? Of course comic book characters exist in a silent medium, but all of us in our heads carry around some idea of what these people must sound like. From a very young age I had no trouble whatsoever discriminating between the two Donalds. I understood that the comic Donald had to have his own voice. He didn't have a noticeable speech impediment. And because I grew up with Carl Barks' stories I always felt that this Donald was the true Donald, and that the cartoon version was a bowdlerized doppelganger. In my mind Donald has always sounded just a bit like Spencer Tracy.

1 comment :

Kais Slim Saidi said...

Quite funny ! Because I have a WHOLE DIFFERENT TAKE ON THE DON ! . Barks did not invent a NEW Donald... he PERFECTED what wlready existed simple as that . And I can read the pages you posted in C. Nash's voice ... they are even funnier that way !XD