Monday, September 17, 2012

Scrooge McDuck and the Flying Kiwi

The Italian division of Walt Disney was founded in 1938 and was the first of its kind in the world. In those early years its magazine was allowed to operate in spite of the regime’s censorship after Mussolini returned the list of banned foreign comic book characters drafted by the Minister of Popular Culture with a note that said: ‘All except for Mickey Mouse’. There was a brief interlude in 1942-43, when finally the company was forced to replace Topolino – as Mickey Mouse is known in Italian – with Tuffolino, a homegrown, inanely comic substitute, but the magazine was relaunched in 1949 and has been a mainstay of the Italian comic book scene ever since.

An early issue from 1933, when Topolino was still published by Nerbini.

I loved Topolino when I was a child. By that stage it was published weekly and my father would bring a new one home every Saturday after work. It was a decade graced by the work of Romano Scarpa, Giovan Battista Carpi, Giorgio Cavazzano and other very accomplished artists. The stories were smart and the writing in particular was inspired. There is a line spoken by Donald Duck to Uncle Scrooge that has stuck with me since not longer after I learned to read. ‘Ah, che disgustosa ostentazione di plutocratica sicumera!’ Which roughly translates as ‘ah, what a disgusting ostentation of plutocratic presumption!’ I didn’t know what half of those words meant, but somehow when they appeared altogether in a sentence I could tell what they meant, and they rolled off the tongue – and the eyes – quite beautifully. The typical lines of dialogue were rather less portentous, of course, but the editorial approach was bold, and included a long line of literary parodies (of The Iliad, The Frenzy of Orlando, even The Betrothed) which quite a few years would be my main source for pretending I knew something about the source works.

From Mickey Mouse and the Siege of Troy

Topolino is still going and is still quite good. I know because my eldest son is into it now. Earlier this year we visited my mother in Italy and between trips to the newsagent, swaps with a neighbour and the largesse of a cousin he gathered a suitcase-full of these books, some dating back to my own childhood.

When you revisit this sort of things as an adult, the first thing you notice is that the they aren’t quite as good as you remembered. I mean on average: it turns out that there was quite a lot of filler in between the classic stories. Moreover the cheerfully educational content that I remembered, full of exotic or unexpected subjects, presented its share of problems. Here’s one example that Joseph greeted with glee. ‘Look, Dad, this story is set in New Zealand!’

In Scrooge McDuck and the Flying Kiwi, Rockerduck learns of the discovery ‘in New Zealand, near Wellington’ of a rare specimen of flying kiwi, but so does Uncle Scrooge, who immediately packs Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie on a jet in a bid to acquire the inestimable bird ahead of his rival.

‘The Kiwi is a kind of flightless goose,’ explain the three nephews at this juncture, and had I been a child I would have instantly believed it, for they possessed the knowledge of the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook, and besides there was a sort of pedagogical bond of trust involved, meaning that we had come to expect to be occasionally informed as well as reliably entertained. So, jumping ahead in the story, here’s what a kiwi looks like according to this Italian comic from 1986.

Whereas much more shockingly – and really I must apologise for this – these are the (presumably Māori , although the word is not used) inhabitants of the village of ‘Maara Koora’ who assist our heroes in the capture of the bird.

The Fascist-era imagery of the African savage is given an ironic twist by making the villagers highly articulate and literate (one of them declares an interest in Hegelian logic), but the clumsily confounded expectation, if anything, makes things worse.

Joseph was shocked, if not entirely unamused, by these misrepresentations. I don’t blame him. As a child you expect a certain integrity in your fictions. There is that bond of trust. Whereas as an adult it’s easier to be aware of the underlying templates. This is ‘Wellington’ according to the Italian branch of Disney, but it looks just like Duckburg or any other generic modern city.

Even the local police is still drawn in the style of Carl Barks.

And so I guess that if you had to draw indigenous birds and indigenous people of a very remote nation you might also resort to a familiar style and to known tropes. (Also, possibly: to the things you know how to draw.)

It strikes me however that this it is a very pre-internet scenario, one in which you wouldn’t even bother to look up the most basic details, and could count on your readers not having access to instant competing images of real-world referents. It’s a differently mapped world nowadays, and this applies to the way knowledge is organised and presented to children as well. Ironically enough, the instant availability of basic facts about everything was the very promise of the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook, which all of us dreamed to own in real life. But, as it turns out, sometimes the book lied.