Long time readers of this column know that my interest in Disney history ranges from animation to theme parks to the life of Walt Disney to merchandise to just about everything. Most historians specialize in a particular area but I have always been fascinated with just about everything Disney, including comic books.
I had the opportunity to interview director-animator-teacher Jack Hannah while he was teaching at California Institute of the Arts out in California in the 1980s about his work on the very first original Donald Duck comic book story and while going through my files, I recently located it and felt the readers of MousePlanet might enjoy it as well even though some of this material has appeared in print elsewhere.
Hannah joined the Disney Studios in 1933 and spent five years as an animator, another five years in the story department where he was teamed with Carl Barks as a story team, and then close to 20 years as a director of animated shorts.
He worked on far more than 100 cartoons with Donald Duck, Chip’n’Dale and Humphrey the Bear among many Disney characters. Eight of the cartoons he directed were nominated for Academy Awards. He also directed 14 hour-long Disney television shows, many of which featured Walt Disney interacting with Donald Duck.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Disney comic books being produced by Whitman/Western reprinted the Disney comic strips but they were running out of material so it was decided to create original comic book stories featuring the Disney characters.
The West Coast editor of Western, Oskar LeBeck, was given permission to look through the Disney files of cartoon ideas that were shelved. He found more than 800 numbered sketches for a film to be titled Morgan’s Ghost, which was to feature Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and, at one time, Pluto, as well. The sketches had been done by Disney storymen Harry Reeves, Homer Brightman and Roy Williams.
LeBeck felt it could be adapted into a Donald Duck comic book story. Bob Karp, who was supplying gags for the Donald Duck comic strip at the time, was brought in to prepare a script based on the storyboard. Karp concentrated on the action sequences, limiting the dialogue in the final script.
It was an epic story of Donald and his nephews meeting a parrot named Yellow Beak and finding themselves searching of the lost treasure of the pirate Henry Morgan. Unfortunately, Black Pete wants the treasure as well.
John Rose who seemed to be head of the story artists for the animated shorts suggested Barks and Hannah as artists to illustrate the script into the final comic book story. Not only storymen, Barks and Hannah were both talented artists as well and had produced detailed storyboard illustrations for Donald Duck cartoons for quite some time. Barks used the May 1940 issue of National Geographic Magazine for inspiration for the sea port town and Black Pete’s ship.
Barks and Hannah divided up the drawing chores. Barks drew pages 1, 2,5 and 12-40 with the rest being done by Hannah. Barks remembered doing very little tinkering with the story.
The book was released in the Dell Four Color series. It was Four-Color No. 9 and officially titled Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (October No. 7 in 1942) and was the first original Donald Duck comic book story created for comic books.
Wade Sampson: How closely did the animation department work with the artists in the comic book and comic strip departments?
Jack Hannah: There was no co-ordination between the comic strip and comic book departments and the animation department. They were completely different departments, located in different areas and we obviously had very different ideas on how to draw the characters, especially Donald Duck. I never saw the comic strip unless I ran across it by accident in a newspaper I was reading.
I certainly didn't care for the style of drawing Donald with that long neck. To be honest, the comic strip people probably didn't care for the way I preferred to draw the Duck. It's funny. Even though Al Taliaferro, who was the artist on the Donald Duck comic strip, and his wife used to go out socially with my wife and I we never discussed it. I guess I was trying to avoid arguments or more likely, it probably bored our wives if we talked about work. I always remember Taliaferro as just a comic strip guy. I don't remember him doing anything else around the studio. He and Gottfredson were the comic guys. I can't remember reading their work because at the time, I just wasn't too interested in comic strips.
WS: And yet, you and Carl Barks became the artists on the very first original Donald Duck comic book.
JH: A fellow named John Rose, and I’m not exactly sure of his position at the studio, approached Carl and I and took us to meet Eleanor Packer who I believe was in charge of Whitman/Western Publishing. They wanted us to draw 64 pages of a Donald Duck story. I suspect the reason we were chosen for this assignment was that it was a more story related project. We were doing all the Donald Duck stories for the shorts and doing all the story sketches at the time so I’m just guessing that they probably felt we could work out this story as well, maybe even add in a few touches to help it flow properly.
We were given a typewritten script broken down into panels. The script had a brief scene description for each panel and, of course, the dialogue that needed to appear in that panel. It was left up to Carl and I on how to divide up the pages. I can’t remember now how we decided to divide the thing up but I’m sure it made sense at the time.
WS: Bob Karp, who supplied gags for the Donald Duck comic strip, did the adaptation from a script for a possible animated feature.
JH: In recent years I’ve been told that the story was being developed as a possible feature film to star the Duck. That always surprised me because I never felt the Duck was a strong enough character to be able to work as the star of a feature. Also, I think you’d go crazy trying to understand him over the period of time it takes for a feature-length cartoon.
It was hard enough to understand him for just five to six minutes in a short. I honestly, to this day, don’t think it would ever really work.
At the time we were doing the comic book, neither Carl nor I had any idea that this was a proposal for a feature. It certainly seems strange that we never heard, because along with Jack King, we were directly responsible for all the Duck shorts coming out of the studio. Still, if it were being developed as a feature, somebody may have felt it wasn’t any of our business because we were just doing the shorts and this was a feature so it would involve an entirely different group of people. They certainly never told us. We were just given a typewritten script to work from and that was it.
WS: So you basically divided up the pages so that Carl did most of the outdoors scenes and you primarily did the interior ones.
JH: We divided up the pages and worked on weekends and evenings. It was understood that the comic book work was not to be done on studio time. I’m guessing I penciled about a page and a half to two pages a weekend. We would draw it up in blue pencil and then it would have to be seen by the publishing company before we went ahead with the inking. The inking went quicker than the penciling and I can’t recall that there were any major changes we had to make on our blue pencil stuff. Carl and I had several meetings on the weekends so that the props we were drawing looked the same and that the room setting would be the same.
There would be the same pots on the stove or that kind of thing. We didn’t have any difficulty synchronizing our style. We both fell into it easily and I think we were both surprised at how close the drawing was, especially since we were doing it in two different homes. After all, when we did story sketches for the shorts, we had our own individual ways of drawing the story and both ways seemed to get the job done.
As you mentioned, our art styles were a little different. So, in some ways, it was a real surprise to see the comic book work drawn so similar that it would be hard to tell which one of us drew the page.
WS: So you never talked about the comic book while you were working at the studio?
JH: We never did any of the actual work on the story at the studio. We may have discussed the story at the studio but I can’t recall it so that probably means that type of discussion was infrequent at best. I’m sure there must have been a question or two that might have come up while we were drawing. We’d ask the other person about it the next day at the studio, but I can’t recall a specific incident. I don’t remember us using any particular resource material. I know Carl did most of the exterior shots on the ship and obviously some resource work was used, but I don’t remember looking up background material.
WS: Did you have fun doing it?
JH: Oh, yes, I remember having a lot of fun with it. It was a new experience drawing comic books and this was my first attempt at it. It was easy doing it at night and we only got together on the “hook-ups” to be sure that our story flowed together, so that wasn’t difficult at all. Also, I was able to pick up a little extra money doing something I liked. As I said, looking back on the artwork now, it’s sometimes difficult for me to tell on some pages whether it’s my work or Carl’s. That’s how close we were on our thinking on this thing. Whitman Publishing must have given Carl and I a couple dozen copies of those issues. (Barks commented: “I must have been gone from the Studio when that happened. The only copies of Pirate Gold I got were two I bought in a grocery store.”) When I think of how I let my kids tear through those issues….!!! But in those days, they were only a dime and nobody ever knew they were really going to be worth something. We thought nothing of it at that time because they were only comic books. Now, I understand that issue is a rather valuable asset.
WS: This was the first original Donald Duck comic book. Did they ask you to offer any input on future issues?
JH: I was never asked to supply any input or suggestions on the comic book version of Donald Duck even when I became the primary director on the Duck shorts.
WS: Yet you did a handful of other comic book stories.
JH: I remember very little about that work I’m afraid, because it just didn’t seem significant to me. Until you showed me the Xeroxes (of some comic book stories), I would have said that the only comic book work I did was Pirate’s Gold. Those stories are definitely my work. I can tell by the way the Duck is drawn and by some of the things in the background. Little things like the position of a hand or a foot are dead giveaways. People think the Duck is always drawn the same because of the model sheets, but each artist has his own little touches that are like a signature that stands out if you’ve worked with the character as long as I have. I can’t remember doing the stories but it’s obvious I did them. I really had no contact with the people at Whitman. I can’t recall ever being given any guidelines on how to do this work and I’m sure I would have remembered if I had been. I was probably given some typewritten scripts and drew them up. Obviously, I did this work to pick up some extra cash. But I don’t know why I didn’t do more comic book work.
WS: I know that over the years on the side, you did other unusual artistic projects with Donald Duck.
JH: In the 1940s, to pay a bar tab and earn a little extra cash, I got permission from Roy O. Disney…I didn’t dare go to Walt…to paint a mural on the inside wall of a San Diego bar. Roy told me not to publicize it because he was afraid that other Disney artists would want to earn some extra cash by doing paintings of Disney characters. The finished mural was a series of three Donald Duck poses where he was bowling and the final pose was him twisted out of shape and still clinging to the ball that he was throwing down the alley. I can’t remember the name of the bar and I am sure it was torn down long ago.
WS: Jack, as always, it has been a real joy talking with you. Thank you for filling in some information about the first Donald Duck comic book.
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Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.