Dell Comics released The Funnies in 1929, which is credited as one of the first publications of a comic book with original material. The book was published in tabloid-size, as opposed to the traditional comic book format, which would become standard in 1933 with the release of Famous Funnies (and setting up the long standing tradition of comic publishers releasing thinly-veiled rip-offs of rival publications). The form would find its footing in 1939, with the release of Action Comics by Detective Comics, Inc/DC Comics.
In 1953, according to a full page ad marketed their wholesome books, Dell Comics purported to be the world’s largest comics publisher, selling 26 million copies a month. This isn’t surprising. At the time, Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was nearing publication and the public backlash against crime, horror, and superhero comics was at its height. After helping to launch the medium nearly 25 years prior, Dell got its chance to be at the top. The vogue of the time was wholesome and Dell was more than happy to deliver.
Much like Marvel and DC today, Dell’s appeal came from publishing books with popular movie characters; though instead of big-budget action films, it was the staples of the animated shorts. With the properties of Disney, Warner Bros, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Dell basically had access to all the cartoon characters of the time.
In fact, it is because of Dell Comics that Donald Duck is the most published, non-superhero comic book character of all time. So while Mickey rules the screen, Donald reigns in the world of comics.
The Duck universe of the Walt Disney’s creations was built in the comics by Carl Barks and lesser celebrated writers and artists like Don Rosa, Tony Strobl, Al Taliaferro, and Bob Karp. Though the characters made appearances in Walt Disney shorts, the Ducks wouldn’t get their proper animated treatment until DuckTales, which premiered until 1987. But this allowed the creators to develop one of the richest cartoon worlds in comic books.
Carl Barks made an effort to make Donald Duck more comic book friendly, becoming so successful that his own creations soon overshadowed Walt’s original ones. Donald is much more vocal in the comic books than in the early shorts. His voice was built for his cantankerous personality and his angry fits of rage, but not particularly useful for exposition. In the comics, where he loses that voice to written dialogue, Donald is allowed to be calmer, smarter, and more articulate, especially in contrast to his supporting cast.
Enough praise can never be given to supporting characters of Donald Duck, which is basically the Frasier of comics, only even more successful. Taking place in the town of Duckburg, Donald Duck lives with his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who, as Junior Woodchucks, leap at every chance for adventure. Donald also spends time with his uncle, Scrooge McDuck, a self-made “multiplujillionaire” and life-long opportunist.
When paired with Mickey and Goofy, Donald becomes manic and violent; but the hair-brained schemes of his uncle allow Donald to be the straight man in these stories.
A year removed from the publication of DC’s Showcase #4 and start of the Silver Age, Donald Duck #63 (1958) is a book split between the past of the Golden Age and the future of the Silver. At the point in publication, Scrooge McDuck had just celebrated his tenth anniversary, making his 1947 debut in the Donald Duck comic book; and Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, just celebrated their 20th, with their first appearance in the Donald Duck comic strip in 1937.
The first story, “Secret Safari” is classic a Golden Age humor story: the trip to Africa. In this particular case, Donald and his nephews are travelling to Nairobi to catch a rare butterfly. Uncle Scrooge seeks to meet the Governor and instantly becomes jealous when he sees Donald is on a first-name basis with the Governor. Donald reveals that he and the Governor are both members of a butterfly collecting society and Scrooge could get an introduction if he were to catch a rare butterfly, the African Nut-Thatch.
This story is filled with the “harmless” racism of the day, when politicians and parents fought against the salacious part of comics (crime, violence, sexy stuff, etc.) but say nothing about the demeaning depictions of Africans in a children’s comic book.
Once Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie arrive in Africa, they meet with their safari leader, Congo Conway, “King of the White Hunters.” And the story ends with Scrooge’s butterfly being eaten by the chief of the pygmies, who is then held upside down and bonked on the head by Donald. Though these aren’t major parts of the comic, their presence (like so many other books from the time) awkwardly hang over the issue.
The second story looks to the future. “Donald Duck and The Grounded Flying Saucer” is a decidedly Silver Age story about Donald and his nephew trying to take a picture of real-life aliens for $100 from the local newspaper. Daisy, Donald’s longtime girlfriend, also appears and gifts her boyfriend with a book about understanding children that recommends you “do not shatter their dreams or they may become upset and break things.” Donald ends up following that literally when he comes across the real aliens while his nephews play make-believe elsewhere.
At this point in their development, Barks had moved Huey, Dewey, and Louie away from their mischief maker persona, which was popular in comic strips at the time of their debut, into the more wholesome, ingenious characterizations, similar to the Hardy Boys and their depiction in DuckTales. The humor is in them having fun pretending and Donald trying to convince them their game is real. In older stories, Donald’s nephews would have tricked their uncle into a situation like this, usually being the source of his confusion and frustration. But Barks used the opportunity of comic books to flesh out Donald and his family.
The Dell Comics series is where these characters first came to life. Save for Donald (who has healthy representation across a variety of mediums), the rest of the Duck universe are at home when printed in four colors.