At first, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic might seem like a joke. At least, that’s what I asked when a member of our Facebook group introduced me to it some years ago.
Well, it’s not not that. Authors Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman have a wicked sense of humor, and there’s plenty of satire and parody in these pages. They treat popular children’s entertainment exactly how it deserves, which is with both absolutely all seriousness and absolutely none at all.
As for that subtitle, Dorfman and Mattelart never seriously suggest Donald Duck comics are part of a vast international conspiracy to corrupt the youth of their Chilean homeland. (One edition had the much more measured subheading “A Manual for North American Decolonization.”) Oh, they half-seriously suggest it, but there’s always a satirical wink in their grandiose claims — and the word “unconscious” pops up a lot.
The authors never say so explicitly, but they point to an even more disturbing conclusion. The United States doesn’t need to produce explicit propaganda because its covert propaganda has already been so successful. Without colluding with any sinister conspiracy, the writers and artists behind Disney comics — themselves part of the working class thanks to their publishers’ subsistence wages — produce capitalist propaganda for international export just because it never occurred to them to see the world any other way.
And it seems likely the didactically oriented translations by corporations allied with North American business interests introduced a much less unconscious bias. Two crows become “Marx and Hegel [sic]” and Jiminy Cricket says “Firearms are the only things those lousy birds are scared of,” ominously predicting the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Marxist government. The innocent conclusion to Carl Barks’ classic Lost in the Andes depends on an untranslatable pun where Donald’s nephews teach the square-obsessed inhabitants of Plain Awful to square dance. The translator’s solution, reproduced as part of Dorfman and Mattelart’s argument, serves more than one purpose: “We’ll teach them to stand at attention [“cuadrarse, literally “square themselves”] before their superiors!”
I first came to How to Read Donald Duck a couple months ago when I was preparing my own take on Disney comics. I thought it’d give me some usable insights, and besides, it seemed like an educational opportunity above and beyond the immediate subject to trick myself into learning some leftist theory.
It wasn’t a bad idea. At their best, Dorfman and Mattelart’s writing is just as breezy as the material they’re analyzing, and much wittier. More on that later. Frustratingly, the book was irrelevant to my previous article — the authors’ sample of Disney comics and mine rarely overlap. More frustratingly, it was inspiring more ideas than I could comfortably fit into that already overlong piece. But wait, a minute, what’s that date on the copyright page — 1971? Aren’t we getting to that later this year? And so, here we are.
How to Read Donald Duck opens with an introduction from David Kunzle that, in some ways, is even more insightful than the book itself. Dorfman and Mattelart did extensive research into the Chilean Disney comics that dominated the country’s children’s media, even coming up with detailed statistical analysis. But they’re far less knowledgable about the comics’ production.
This isn’t an auteurist criticism. Authors like Carl Barks are never credited for their work. In fact, in what I can only hope is a figurative rhetorical device, Walt Disney himself is treated as the author of the Disney comics, even though he’d been dead for half a decade when How to Read Donald Duck was written and never seems to have even read the comics with his name on them. (In fact, Disney comics’ paradoxical unpopularity in their homeland may make the book a confusing read with all its references to comics-original characters like Scamp, Little Wolf, Gyro Gearloose, and Gladstone Gander). This annoys me less as a fellow critic and more in the missed opportunity for the obvious Carl Barks/Karl Marx pun. (Some quotes in the introduction confirm Dorfman did at least know who Barks was, or learned sometime after publication.)
Based out of that great Disneyland, the United States, Kunzle has more background on the company’s inner workings. He brings to bear the whole history of the Walt Disney Studio’s labor relations, and even digs up the comics division’s official bylaws, confirming they actively promote some of the insidious messages Dorfman and Mattelart found and futilely try to prohibit some of the others: “dirty, realistic business tricks,” “social differences,” or “race and racial stereotyping.”
Kunzle complicates the myth of Carl Barks as the anonymous “good artist” by showing that Disney actively hid from him his international fame and the material rewards it could have brought him and kept his fans from revealing the truth to him.
As for Dorfman and Mattelart, their literary (or “literary”) criticism stands as a work of literature in its own right. Nonfiction rarely gets the same recognition as fiction or poetry, and if it does, it’s for content, not form. But like the writers I most try to emulate — C.S. Lewis, Carl Jung, and Stephen King, who taught me more with the way he wrote On Writing than any of the advice it contained — Dorfman and Mattelart give the book an almost musical approach. Instead of weighing the reader down with unvaryingly dense sentences, they let those passages build up to short bursts for maximum impact. And they show virtuosic command of metaphors and wordplay — all the more impressive since it survives translation into English.
This was a deliberate choice, as they explain in their opening “Apology of Duckology,” and the improbably translatable pun speaks for itself. They write, “The reader of this book may feel disconcerted…because the kind of language we use here is intended to break with the false solemnity which generally cloaks scientific investigation.”
Despite a brilliant middle section, they don’t entirely succeed. Like most of the leftist discourse I’ve encountered, even and especially on social media, How to Read Donald Duck assumes a common background to the point it can be incomprehensible to newcomers. The authors spend multiple pages proving Disney comics promote a view of the city as degenerate and the country as a place for spiritual nourishment but far fewer clarifying why this is a problem.
Dorfman and Mattelart conclude, “To the accusation that this is merely a destructive study which fails to propose an alternative to the defeated Disney, we can only reply that no one is able to ‘propose’ his individual solution to these problems.” Fair enough, but the text has a far more serious problem with denouncing Disney’s fantasies without clarifying their view of the reality it departs from.
Even before the publication of How to Read Donald Duck, Dorfman and Mattelart’s ideas were under attack. As cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende, Dorfman had been involved in providing an indigenous alternative to Disney’s influence, and the US-aligned publishing house Mercurio had knives out. The resemblance to counter-revolutionary rhetoric here in Duckburg is uncanny, most of all the conflation of criticism and censorship.
(The authors get the last laugh with some of the most cutting parentheticals in history when they reproduce the article’s reference to Mickey Mouse in Fantasia: “Did we not see him once as the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in an unforgettable cartoon which was the delight of children and grownups, which preserved every single note of the masterly music of Prokoviev [a reference no doubt to the music of Paul Dukas]? … And one scene, of the utmost splendor and realism, even showed elephants executing the most elegant performance of ‘The Dance of the Dragonflies’ [a reference no doubt to the ‘Dance of the Hours’].
The introduction quotes an even more vicious attack on the authors, featuring further examples of conservative media playing the hits — references to a “government plot,” accusing the authors of “brainwashing” and “poisoning” the youth, the tautological insistence that classic children’s media must be innocent and wholesome, and that no one would question it without sinister motives. There’s also a veiled smear on Dorfman and Mattelart as foreign influences. The hypocrisy of resorting to xenophobia in defense of comics imported from abroad seems to have escaped the author’s critics, but more likely, they just hoped it would escape their readers.
After publication, How to Read Donald Duck was famously burned in the streets. In a preface for the English edition, written after the coup that deposed Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet had forced the authors into exile, they clarify, “To say that this book was burnt in Chile should not come as a surprise to anyone. Hundreds of books were destroyed, and thousands more prohibited and censored.” But that seems more like false modesty than anything.
The authors’ most insightful commentary begins in Chapter II: “From the Child to the Noble Savage.” Even the most capitalist-leaning modern readers will be uncomfortable with the stereotypes Donald and his Uncle Scrooge encounter in their globetrotting adventures. Their presence becomes especially disturbing in light of the comics’ domination of the media landscape in the countries being mocked.
Dorfman and Mattelart uncover something even more insidious than lazy stereotyping. Their exhaustive study finds comics full of childish “savages” who happily part with their gold because they don’t want it. In other words, a wishful historical revision of past and current Western conquest. “According to Disney, underdeveloped peoples are like children, to be treated as such, and if they don’t accept this definition of themselves, they should have their pants taken down and be given a good spanking. That’ll teach them!”
The implications of Disney comics’ focus on Uncle Scrooge, a heroic international businessman, should be equally obvious, but Dorfman and Mattelart dig deeper. His money doesn’t actually come from business, but treasure hunts in foreign lands. “Just as money is an abstract form of the object, so adventure is an abstract form of labor.” The comics train kids to see capitalism as fundamentally innocent, and the authors show how every aspect of the process is abstracted to make this possible. The treasures come from long-dead civilizations who left no heirs, just artifacts that could have grown on trees. Raw materials come out of the ground and turn into coins as if by magic. “The stork brought the gold.”
Wealth is innocent of labor all along the social hierarchy. Dorfman and Mattelart can find no evidence in the comics of any type of working class — even the factories are empty as if they’d achieved full automation. The only products are luxury products — the authors prove at length that even the supposedly broke Donald only ever needs money for indulgences — that are “never produced but always purchased.”
Disney comics aren’t unique in that way. You’d probably find similar results from a survey of current Hollywood movies. It’s impossible to live for long in the modern world with an awareness of where all its abundance. The sweet treats we reward children with are produced by slave labor. The toys they play with and the clothes on our backs come are made in such miserable conditions by such underpaid workers they might as well be. Capitalism isn’t unlike a monster from a Lovecraft story. Look at it too long and you risk losing your mind. In that light, it seems awful nice of Disney to spare the little ones this horror. But it seems more likely they’re more concerned with the alternate reaction to this revelation — the conviction to slay the beast once and for all.
But blissful ignorance is easier now than ever. How many “solutions” to homelessness and other problems caused by poverty amount to “out of sight, out of mind?” Life in the modern United States looks suspiciously like the Disney comics’ worker-free fantasy. What is outsourcing if not the Disneyland dream made real?
As for the writers’ time and place, the international forces they found lurking between the pages of Disney comics made their presence violently felt in the three-dimensional world beyond their covers. Covert aid from the Disneyland to the north funded opposition to Allende’s Popular Unity party. And contrary to the usual pattern, leftist politics won in the chambers of democracy and conservative forces resorted to violent revolution just four years after Donald Duck’s publication. Somewhere in the depths of his money bin, Uncle Scrooge laughed.
True to the authors’ Marxist ideals, How to Read Donald Duck is available for free on The Internet Archive