Does Donald Duck Read National Geographic?

By Maggie Turqman

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo

Donald Duck’s official birthday is June 9, 1934, according to his Disney bio—and his friends at National Geographic want to wish him a happy 79th.

While Donald may never have picked up an issue of National Geographic, his longtime artist Carl Barks was a faithful subscriber for more than 60 years and routinely used the magazine as a source of inspiration.

Illustration courtesy Disney Enterprises
Barks used details from National Geographic photographs or sometimes even entire scenes, such as this one of the Colossi of Memnon. Illustration courtesy Disney Enterprises.

“I used to rob from the Geographic,” Barks told a 1983 interviewer. “It was my best reference. I still have all those old issues; I’ve been carrying them with me for years and years, moving from one place to another. Over half of what’s in my stories is visual information, and if I didn’t have something like the Geographic for establishing what things looked like in other places and times, I wouldn’t have any means of making things realistic.”

The Colossi of Memnon are 60-foot figures of Amenophis III.  Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic
The Colossi of Memnon are 60-foot figures of Amenophis III. Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic.

Barks was an armchair traveler who did not take his first trip outside North America until he was 93 years old. “That’s my travels there, those National Geographics,” he said.

Walt Disney also called National Geographic “an invaluable research tool.” In the August 1963 feature article “The Magic Worlds of Walt Disney,” author Robert De Roos spotted the magazine everywhere he went inside Disney Studios—from the costume shop to writers’ desks to the machine shop, in addition to the whole wall of Geographics in the studio library.

An Egyptian cargo boat. Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic
Barks designed Donald’s felucca based on this photo of a cargo boat in the April 1940 issue of National Geographic. (Photo by Anthony B. Stewart.)

Evolution of a Duck

Donald’s June birthday is based on his film debut in the Silly Symphony story “The Wise Little Hen.” He was a secondary character, but became an instant hit—and over the next decade, he would go on to appear in films, Sunday comics, and comic books, surpassing even Mickey Mouse in popularity.

In the 1963 National Geographic article, Walt Disney offered some insight on Donald’s popularity: “We’re restricted with the mouse … He’s become a little idol. The duck can blow his top and commit mayhem, but if I do anything like that with the mouse, I get letters from all over the world. ‘Mickey wouldn’t act like that,’ they say.”

 Most of the credit for Donald’s rise to stardom goes to Carl Barks, who joined the animation unit in the late ’30s and shifted to writing and illustrating Donald Duck comic books from 1942 to 1966. Barks filled in Donald’s character, making him more sympathetic and building his relationship with his three nephews, who always seemed to need a babysitter.

He also created Donald’s miserly uncle Scrooge McDuck (who was recently included on the Forbes Fictional 15 list) and a host of other characters in Duckburg, USA. Through Barks’s inventive storytelling, they became a family of adventurers and explorers who traveled the world.

Fusion of Fantasy and Realism

Scholars of the Donald Duck oeuvre (yes, there are Duck scholars!) have found that Barks used National Geographic in more than a dozen comic stories, in settings from ancient Persia to the Everglades, from the Andes to pirate ships at sea. He based Dismal Downs, the ancestral home of the Duck clan, on photos in a 1947 article about British castles. In 1943’s “The Mummy’s Ring,” he adapted photographs of the Colossi of Memnon and an Egyptian cargo boat on a river to create a colorful image of a boat sailing by the huge seated statues. And in another panel, the Step Pyramid of Djoser can clearly be seen behind one of Donald’s nephews as he sits at the rudder.

Illustration courtesy Disney Enterprises
The Step Pyramid of Djoser in Anthony B. Stewart’s photo (see below) can be seen here behind one of Donald’s nephews in “The Mummy’s Ring.” Illustration courtesy Disney Enterprises.

The comic book stories were ten or more pages long, allowing for a more complicated plot and setting, perfect for adventures drawn from real-world inspiration, including National Geographic.

After “The Pith of Peru: A Journey from Talara to Machu Picchu, with Memorable Stopovers” was published in the August 1942 issue, Donald and the boys found their way to the land of llamas and mountains in a whopping 32-page story called “Lost in the Andes.” The bright colors of the clothing, the llama images, and of course the famous stone block construction of the Incas all made their way into the story.

Men tend to their camels near the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt. Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic
Men tend to their camels near the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt. Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic.

A decade later, Scrooge McDuck and the others headed for the lost city of Tralla La months after National Geographic published “At World’s End in Hunza” in the October 1953 issue. The valley looks even more lush and much more fantastical in the cartoon version, of course.

Barks’s Duck family adventures influenced generations of others in turn—including film legends like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In fact, the rolling rock sequence at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark is inspired by the Uncle Scrooge story “Seven Cities of Cibola.”

And even more recently, the plot of the movie Inception was linked to a Barks comic (see this AV Club article), although that one hasn’t been the subject of scholarly research just yet.

So let’s take a moment to celebrate Donald’s years of adventure, travel, and exploration—all topics likely to appear in the pages of National Geographic. And whether the explorers are ducks or people, the goal is the same: telling a story, and inspiring people to learn more about the world around them.

Hats off to Donald Duck, and happy birthday from National Geographic. Since we just had our 125th birthday, turning 79 makes him seem like a spring chicken. Or should we say duck?


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