In Germany, to this day, there are so-called Donaldists: men and women who apply rigorous scientific and anthropological methods to understanding the world of Donald Duck and Duckburg, his hometown. That’s right, in Germany, Donald Duck—not Mickey Mouse—is the star. He’s the reason that Micky Maus, the German-language Disney comic magazine, is the fourth best-selling comic magazine of all time, surpassing a billion sales over the course of its 60+ year run. Considering that no other Disney comics rank so highly in their respective formats, the tremendous ongoing success of Micky Maus warrants some explanation. How did these magazines become best-sellers—and how did Donald Duck surpass the world’s most iconic small rodent in popularity?
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
In 1930, Germany banned the Mickey Mouse cartoon Barnyard Battle (1929) for its depiction of Mickey fighting off cat-soldiers in German military garb. This was only the beginning of Mickey’s strained, controversial relationship with the German people and government. As the thirties wore on, this lone act of censorship would burgeon into full-fledged anti-Disney propaganda. Mickey Mouse was ousted from theaters and subjected to vile, overtly anti-Semitic screeds (even cartoons weren’t safe from the Nazi iconography that equated the Jewish people with rats, a fact that Maus-creator Art Spiegelman emphasized and explored in his works). The fascists in Italy would eventually ban the cartoons as well, though Mussolini dragged his heels for years because his children were reportedly very fond of Mickey.
Once the War was over, Disney was no longer subject to the same censorship, but it was a focus for considerable skepticism. Comics in general (especially super hero comics) were regarded warily by many older German citizens who believed that they would lead to cultural decay and mass illiteracy among children who were more interested in looking at pictures than reading. Der Spiegel called comics the “opiate in the nursery,” and they were hardly the only ones to levy objections to the loud, colorful, morally-dubious content that was slowly being made available to children. As a result, the first Micky Maus magazines (released in 1951) didn’t make much of an impression. Soon, however, they would change the way the German public thought about comic books.
An Act of Translation
In the original American versions of Disney comics, each character lived in a separate town. Mickey and the other mice live in Mousetown, Donald and co. stay in Duckburg, etc. Erika Fuchs, the comics’ German translator, changed all that. Not only did she desegregate these worlds, she translated them into a specifically German context, placing the entire cartoon world somewhere in Upper Franconia and adding in classic Bavarian architectural touches. This was already a radical transformation, but she didn’t stop there; she also added in elements from German literature, putting quotes from Goethe and Schiller in the mouths of her cartoon animals.
These high-cultural references had a transformative effect on Donald Duck in particular. In the German version, he oscillated back and forth between his trademark apoplexy and moments of literate quotation. Something about this spoke to a huge swath of the population; for many, he represented something fundamental about the German national spirit—a plucky, outlandish counterpoint to the stereotype of Germans as orderly and efficient. By undertaking such a bold act of translation, Fuchs helped to carve out a place for German-ness within the world of comic books (which were otherwise strongly and often negatively associated with American culture), helping the populace to overcome their initial aversion to the medium. For his part, Donald would quickly come to get more screen time (or, rather, page time) than Mickey Mouse himself.
Kids and Collectors and Donaldists, Oh My!
As Micky Maus began to take on a life of its own, sales took off like a shot. The comics peaked in popularity in the early ‘90s, selling more than 800,000 copies of each issue on average. As a result, the early, largely unread editions from the ‘50s have become fairly collectible, frequently fetching thousands of dollars per issue. Since the magazine’s peak, sales have dropped down to more modest levels, but you’re still more likely than not to see shelf space devoted to Micky Maus in your average comic shop.
And who, exactly, is buying them up? Largely it’s children, as you might expect for a children’s comic, but roughly half of the comics' readers are actually over the age of sixteen. Some of these adult readers are collectors, but many of them are the aforementioned Donaldists, who treat Donald Duck’s world as a record of fact and use every means of inquiry at their disposal to better understand the world of Duckburg.
Why does this fictional world inspire such devotion after all this time? Perhaps it’s from a sense of nostalgia—a belief that children’s media can speak to society in a way that adult content often can’t. Or, as the German punk band Die Toten Hosen (“The Dead Trousers”) put it, “Duckburg stays stable.”