Happy Birthday Donald Duck Comic Strip!by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Thanks to the generosity of my good friend Lonnie Hicks (and make sure you say "hello" to him when you visit the American Adventure at Epcot's World Showcase and have him share some stories of the attraction), I got to attend the D23 Fanniversary event at the Atlantic Dance Hall at the BoardWalk on Friday, March 8.
I thought it was a very well done presentation celebrating the dozens of Disney anniversaries this year.
I hope one of the things the Disney Company takes away from this event is how much the audience loved the clips from the early Disney television shows, and that those shows should be made available for sale to Disney fans. Ironically, one of this year's anniversaries is the birth of the Disney Channel, which was a beloved showcase for Disney fans of all ages to see those shows .
One of the things I took away from the presentation was the idea that I should devote a few columns this year to some of those anniversaries.
Seventy-five years ago (1938) was the birth of the Donald Duck comic strip, drawn by Disney Legend Al Taliaferro. I have written about Taliaferro before.
Charles Alfred Taliaferro, better known as Al Taliaferro, was born on August 29, 1905, in Montrose, Colorado. His family moved to Southern California in 1918 where he graduated from Glendale High School in 1924. The yearbooks from his high school years are filled with his early cartooning efforts. After graduation, he attended the Art Institute in Los Angeles and his cartooning education was supplemented by correspondence courses.
While working as a designer for a lighting fixture firm in 1931, a fellow Glendale High School graduate let him know that there was an opening at the Disney Studioss. He went for an interview and was hired on the spot. Shortly afterward, he was assigned to inking the Sunday Mickey Mouse comic strips being done by Floyd Gottfredson.
As the Disney comic strip department expanded, Taliaferro found himself penciling and inking the new Silly Symphonies Sunday comic strip that occasionally showcased Disney's new cartoon star, Donald Duck.
Taliaferro worked on this strip for the next six years, doing stories of Bucky Bug; adaptations of Silly Symphonies, including The Wise Little Hen that marked the debut of Donald Duck; and some original stories starring Donald that were featured from August 1936 to December 1937.
The October 17, 1937, strip introduced Donald's three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, who were created by Taliaferro and later appeared in the April 1938 animated short, Donald's Nephews.
A memo from the Disney animation story department, dated February 5, 1937, reads: "Inasmuch as we have decided to actually put a story crew to work on Donald's Nephews, we would like to recognize the source from which the original idea of these new characters sprang... Thanks."
Most sources credit Disney writer Ted Osborne with supplying the gags for that strip. Taliaferro claimed, as did his wife after Al's death, that Al wrote most of the gags for the strip himself, although that might have meant that he "tweaked" the gags that he got from other writers.
A daily Donald Duck comic strip drawn by Taliaferro first appeared in newspapers starting February 7,1938, 75 years ago. Actually, it wasn't an easy path for Donald to debut in daily newspapers.
Taliaferro's fellow comic strip artist, Floyd Gottfredson, described the situation: "Al was dying for his own comic strip. He was a pretty ambitious guy, hard working and a fast worker, too."
Donald's growing popularity inspired Taliaferro to try and convince Roy O. Disney that Donald deserved his own comic strip, just like Mickey Mouse. Roy, who was in charge of the comic strip division, wasn't interested in expanding into more comic strips.
Undeterred, Taliaferro wrote and drew three weeks of samples and convinced Roy to show them to King Features, the syndicate distributing the Disney comic strips. He even decided to go over Roy's head and approach Walt.
King Features loved the idea, but found the gags weak. A second attempt with Merrill DeMaris—who had written for the Mickey Mouse strip supplying some gags—and Taliaferro doing the penciling and inking also failed to meet King Features standards.
Finally, a combination of gags from other Disney storymen including Homer Brightman, Roy Williams and Bob Karp were submitted and accepted by King Features.
Eventually, Karp became the regular writer on the strip, although he and Taliaferro rarely met. Karp mailed in the gags from his home in Santa Rosa, California.
Robert Louis Karp was born in 1911 and died in 1975. He wrote the Donald strip right up until his death.
He was the writer who adapted the unmade feature script in the Disney vaults into the very first original Donald Duck comic book, "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold" illustrated by Carl Barks and Jack Hannah. Karp wrote for many of the Disney strips.
In addition to the daily and Sunday Donald Duck strips, he wrote the gags for the Merry Menagerie strip as well as material for the True Life Adventures daily panel.
Roy O. Disney wanted Karp to have a credit on the Merry Menagerie strip but King Features objected, feeling that the name of "Walt Disney" on the strip would have more selling power to newspapers.
Unlike the Mickey Mouse comic strip that was doing continuities, the Donald Duck strip focused on unrelated "gag-a-day" situations although there would be occasional loose continuities like Gus Goose coming to visit.
Taliaferro really was ambitious and flew to New York on his own to convince King Features to introduce a Donald Duck Sunday strip as well.
The first Donald Duck Sunday strip appeared December 10, 1939. With this additional work on top of the daily strip, Taliaferro employed the help of other inkers including Bill Wright, Karl Karpe, Dick Moores and George Waiss.
Al was diagnosed with cancer in 1952 but continued penciling and inking the Donald Duck strip himself until around 1965.
Other Disney artists like Al Hubbard, Kay Wright, Ellis Eringer and Frank Grundeen quietly assisted on the strip for Taliaferro's last few years.
Grundeen took over the Donald Duck strip upon Taliaferro's death in 1969 and continued drawing it until his retirement in 1976 when Frank Smith took over until 1986.
A host of other artists, like Jim Franzen, Ulrich Schroder, Daan Jippes, Jorgen Klubien, Tony Strobl, and Bill Langley, drew the strip after Smith's death in 1986. Pete Alvarado took over officially on April 1987 and continued until January 1990 when a new joint arrangement between Disney and King Features to produce the strip resulted in King Features staffers writing the strip and Larry Knighton drawing it until the mid-1990s when the strip went into reprints.
Al Taliaferro died on February 3, 1969. He was made a Disney Legend in 2003.
One time, when he had to undergo surgery to remove some of the cancer, he left a surprise for the doctors on his stomach. He had drawn a cartoon of him being cut open and feathers flying all over the place while in the corner Donald Duck was saying: "What do you expect? He's been drawing me for 30 years!"
When there was big outbreak of polio in the 1940s, Taliaferro was visiting relatives in Arkansas when he heard about children with polio in the Little Rock hospital. They were in a special ward separated from their families by a sheet of glass. He volunteered to go inside the ward and draw some Disney characters for them. For the first time in a long time, the critically ill children laughed and were filled with joy. The City Council renamed the street running next to his family farm as Taliaferro Road.
The Donald Duck strips consumed Taliaferro's time and his work was reprinted in the Dell comic books. Apparently, he also did some original non-Disney work for comic books through the Jim Davis and Sangor shop for ACG.
He did find some time to do some original artwork with the ducks in the Cheerios Premium Giveaway for Donald Duck: Counter Spy (1947) and the cover of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories No. 107 (August 1949). His work also appears in two books Donald and His Cat Troubles (1948) from Whitman and Donald Duck and the Hidden Gold (1951) from Simon and Schuster.
Three generations of Taliaferros worked at the Disney Studios. Al's father, Lucius, worked in the commissary. Al's two children spent summer vacations from USC at the Disney Studioss. Al's son, Bill was employed for a time at WED as an architectural designer and he helped design some of the new facades for Fantasyland in the mid-1980s.
Shortly before his death, Al and Lucy were making plans for a vacation in Hawaii.
In 1968, I was attending Hoover High School in Glendale, California, and taking a journalism class. Part of the responsibility of the journalism class was to produce the school newspaper. I pitched the idea of doing a column on celebrities living in Glendale.
Eventually, I wrote a column on Al Taliaferro and two other columns on television actors who lived in Glendale. My father was the Emergency Services Coordinator for the City of Glendale and knew Taliaferro's wife, Lucy, through her involvement in community affairs.
She had cajoled her husband to create an anti-litter mascot that still decorated city trash receptacles decades after Al's death. In 1967, Taliaferro drew a very "Disneyesque" burro with a sombrero carrying saddle bags that proclaimed "Every Litter Bit Hurts" with the Verdugo Mountains in the background.
Taliaferro's little burro was eventually named Litter-Not and to this day is the official mascot of the Committee for a Clean & Beautiful Glendale.
My dad contacted Lucy Taliaferro and was able to set up an interview with her husband for me. The two of them were very gracious, but since it was one of the first interviews I had ever don,e plus the fact that I didn't want to abuse their generosity or embarrass my dad, it was a very short experience.
Lucy Taliaferro showed me that she had a hand-drawn valentine for each of their 33 years of marriage and Al showed me copies of his originals for the Donald Duck strip.
After Al's death, Lucy remarried and imagine my surprise when years later I was taking a botany class at Glendale College and found that Mr. Yarick, who was one of the best teachers I ever had, was her new husband. It truly is a small world after all.
While this interview is short, I believe it is the only interview of Al Taliaferro ever published. Although the Glendale News Press did do a short article on Taliaferro after my article in my high school newspaper.
Here is an example of how an aspiring Disney historian got started:
Jim Korkis: Where were you born?
Al Taliaferro: I was born in Montrose, Colorado where my grandfather was one of the first settlers.
J.K.: When did you move to Glendale, California?
A.T.: 1918. I attended Glendale High School and graduated in 1924.
J.K.: What type of art training did you have?
A.T.: I knew I was going to be a cartoonist. I've always believed that if you want anything bad enough and you work hard enough for it, eventually you'll get it. I used to do drawings for the high school yearbooks and studied art. After I graduated, I studied at the Art Institute in Los Angeles.
J.K.: How did you begin working at the Disney Studios?
A.T.: A friend from school told me there was an opening and I went in and was hired on the spot. January 5, 1931. I started inking Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse Sunday comic strip. Soon, I was penciling and inking Bucky Bug, the Three Little Pigs and other Silly Symphony characters including Donald Duck for the Sunday comics.
J.K.: Donald looked a lot different in those days.
A.T.: He was horrible. He had a longer neck and jutting beak and generally lacked the charm of his older seasoned self.
J.K.: How did the Donald Duck comic strip start?
A.T.: I ran into Walt in the hall one day and told him I thought it would be a good idea to do another strip using Donald Duck. Walt had a habit of raising his eyebrow and you'd know you'd hit a chord somewhere.
J.K.: When was the first Donald Duck comic strip?
A.T.: The first newspaper to carry the strip was the Pasadena Star News on February 7, 1938. It soon outsold other comic strips and is printed worldwide.
J.K.: Do you write the strip as well as draw it?
A.T.: In the beginning, I wrote all the gags myself. It was originally pretty much a pantomime strip with no word balloons. Personally I loved to do the gags myself but it just got to be too much for me. A fine writer named Bob Karp has been supplying gags.
J.K.: How long does it take to do a Donald Duck comic strip?
A.T.: Once I receive the gag in the mail, it only takes a matter of moments to transfer the gag to paper. I was never at a loss to how to illustrate a gag, although more than once I was the victim of my adding something to the strip.
J.K.: Can you please give me an example?
A.T.: One time, I included my own telephone number as the number of Donald's phone. The number of calls I got was enough to convince me to never do that again. Although, I did get in trouble with the telephone company one time because one of the Donald strips seemed to be giving the idea of chopping down telephone poles. That was not my intention but the telephone company objected.
J.K.: Does your family help you with the strip?
A.T.: Only in terms of inspiration. Some of Daisy Duck's actions are inspired by my wife. Grandma Duck's behavior was modeled after my mother-in-law. My wife loves hats so I would often put one of her favorite hats on the heads of fat old ladies in the strip.
J.K.: What does your wife think about that?
A.T.: She has a good sense of humor. She married me. Whenever there is a tugboat or a ship in the strip, I would name it the Lucy Ann after my wife. Or if there was a sleek, trim sailboat, I would name it the Cheryl Ann in honor of my daughter.
J.K.: Did your wife work at the Disney Studioss?
A.T.: Yes, she was one of the ink and paint girls at the old studio when it was on Hyperion. We were never formally introduced but I noticed she sat by a window and would smile at the animators as they walked by. One day I just tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she wanted a lift back home. I didn't know she lived all the way in West Los Angeles. If I had known, I don't know if I would have offered her a ride.
J.K.: So it was love at first sight?
A.T.: This was 1935. We met in February, had our first official date in March on her birthday, were engaged in April, she quit her job in May and we were married in June. It was a whirlwind romance.
J.K.: So you use some of your own life in the comic strip?
A.T.: I think every good cartoonist puts himself into his work. Some of the early gags in the strip were based on real life situations from Boy Scout trips to something funny happening at home. One time I got in trouble by putting my dog in the strip.
J.K.: Could you please tell me that story?
A.T.: I gave Donald a dog. A big dog. A St. Bernard named Bolivar who acted like our little Scottish terrier. Readers liked the dog except for the readers in South America. They thought we were making fun of their hero, Simon Bolivar, and demanded we quit using him. So we had to put the dog to sleep.
J.K.: Thank you, Mr. Taliaferro.
A.T.: My pleasure. Send me a copy of the article and drop by again some time.
If you love Disney comic strips, you should be purchasing the Fantagraphics reprinting of the Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse comic strip.
I highly recommend it not only for the wonderful strips themselves but for all the outstanding historical supplemental material provided by Disney Historian David Gerstein who knows more about Mickey Mouse than just about anyone.
Maybe if this series sells well, the publisher would be encouraged to print a "Best Of…" collection of Taliaferro's Donald Duck comic strip. As usual, foreign countries have already done this type of collection.