Donald Duck's First Comic Appearance

Posted by Mark Wilson on 10/9/2012

A dedicated Disney hobbyist sifts through history to discover the true first appearance of the beloved cartoon duck.

As a Disney collector for more than 30 years, I have always spent time researching the characters that have become popular and endearing to a world-wide collector base. Timelines have been created for each character — where they first appeared, when, etc.

When you speak of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, you are speaking of world-famous characters. Not only are their cartoons shown globally, but their appearances in books, comic books, on toys, clothing, jewelry, school supplies, furniture, linens, food and countless more products, have made these characters the world's most recognizable images for several generations. What helps spread their popularity with each generation is the 11 Disneyland theme parks across the globe. And that number will continue to grow. No company promotes their characters as well as Disney. Even outside of comic book history, these two characters stand firmly above all others — including all superheroes.

As a historian, finding a character's first appearance in a book or comic book is a compelling adventure. We must dig into the past, carefully sifting through the many publications that were printed. In Donald Duck's case, he was born (created) during the gloomy years of the Great Depression, so some of the publications are very obscure with low print runs due to the lack of money in the troubled economy of his early years.

Donald Duck first appeared in the seven-minute Silly Symphonies cartoon theatrical short "The Wise Little Hen," released to theaters on June 9, 1934. It ran all through that year at various theaters in the US and Europe. Although it was given a June 9 release date, remember that things were quite different in 1934 than they are today. Trucks and trains were the way these movies were shipped to the various theaters, and there were far more theaters than there are with today's multiplexes and home theaters. (With no television, going to the movies was the only way to see a cartoon.) This meant that many of the smaller theaters would show this film for the first time as late as December 1934. Movie film reels were not created by the thousands in those days, but were created in very limited supply and then sent to theater exchanges, who would then distribute the film and the advertising materials (posters, banners, etc.) to the theaters. If a large theater kept the film for four weeks instead of two (for example), the next theater in line would have to wait until it was available. Cartoons were a freebie, as was the news reel, and were shown as a warm-up for the main feature, so the budgets were extremely tight for everyone involved.

Donald went on to co-star in two more cartoon shorts that year, "The Orphan's Benefit" and "The Dognapper." His personality was slowly being formed and defined as the dim-witted, quick-tempered, lovable duck with the voice that made everyone laugh ... and would later try to imitate. If you could imitate Donald's voice, you became an instant hit with your friends. His incredible voice was supplied by Clarence Nash and it set Donald apart as a star.

It was late in 1934 that Disney released a truly beautiful book called The Wise Little Hen. The art was illustrated by the Disney studio and it is a difficult book to find these days. It was in the stores by Christmas of 1934 with hopes of strong sales. A perfect Christmas gift for children, as it taught a valuable lesson that is often missing in today's self-indulged society. We are introduced to Donald as a happy and funny (but very lazy) duck who lives in a boat on the water with his partner Peter Pig.

Disney eventually dropped Peter Pig, which gave Leon Schlesinger (head of Warner Brothers Cartoons) a great idea. Instead of Peter Pig, they called him Porky Pig and gave him the amazing stutter that we all remember. Porky first appeared in the Warner Brothers cartoon "I Haven't Got a Hat" on March 9, 1935. Although Disney was miffed, no action was taken and Porky became the cartoon star for Warner Brothers ... until a rabbit popped up out of a hole in January 1940 and became the mega-star of the following decades — Bugs Bunny.

At this point, Donald had only been seen in one comic book series. A very small publication that originally sold for a nickel in the early years, but was then changed to a premium giveaway for dairy companies to promote their milk. It was a kids' comic book called Mickey Mouse Magazine. Inside were stories, cartoons and games, plus always a reason to drink more milk! Beautifully illustrated by the Disney studio, this series was later given to Kay Kaymen, Walt Disney's advertising genius, who expanded the series to a massive-sized comic book and filled it with an incredible array of merchandising ads. It was then heavily promoted and sold in stores. The stories and art are top notch, but the ads are incredible! If you never collected these early comic books and love Disney characters, it is time to give them a very strong look.

It took The Overstreet Price Guide more than 30 years to recognize that Donald appeared on the cover of Mickey Mouse Magazine V2 #5 in March 1935, which was then considered his first comic book cover appearance. The Wise Little Hen book is three months older and also has Donald prominently on the cover, but it is not considered a true comic book by Overstreet standards, so the V2 #5 became the book to find as the price jumped up very quickly and distanced itself from all other issues in that series.

For what is the first appearance of a major character worth in the comic book hobby? Look at Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four, (and many, many more examples) and consider the values placed on their first appearances and their #1 issues. Even Mickey Mouse four-color #16 sells for a huge price tag ($51,000 for a CGC 9.2 back in 2009) even though it is definitely not the first Mickey Mouse comic book appearance — not even close, as Mickey appeared in hundreds of publications before the 1941 Dell issue. But collectors have and always will respond to what is written in the price guide. (History needs to be cleared up for Mickey Mouse — that is for certain — but it is also for another article.)

What escaped everyone's notice, however, was that Donald Duck made his very first appearance in Mickey Mouse Magazine V2 #1, a November 1934 issue that was printed and distributed at the end of October. You will find him on page six of this comic book, dancing a jig next to Mickey, complete with his iconic sailor suit and hat, plus wings for hands. It is a full half-page illustration and it is definitely Donald Duck. But it was missed because no one took the time to read through these early issues (which is understandable, as they are quite scarce).

So, unless someone comes forward with new illumination, this is the first true comic book appearance of Donald Duck in history, making Mickey Mouse Magazine V2 #1 a key issue in the hobby.

What is a bit humorous is that I discovered this appearance and wrote an article about it back in the early 1990s, but because it was in the days before Internet popularity, it had very little impact and appeared only in my comics catalog. The staff at Overstreet Price Guide will read this article (thanks to the Internet), so look for this issue to jump in price quite radically in the future. After all, it is the first appearance of a world-famous Disney character in a comic book.

But read on...

There are are two other print forms that Donald appeared in, even before this very rare comic book. On Sept. 16, 1934, (as The Wise Little Hen was playing in theaters across the nation), Donald Duck made his official debut in the Sunday comic strip titled Silly Symphony, dancing a jig in one panel. It was a teaser that introduced the characters and primed readers for the brand-new The Wise Little Hen series that would continue each Sunday until Dec. 16, 1934. This original series is quite scarce today and the first opening page is rare. If you can find one, keep it, as it will become quite valuable in the future.

And now for the earliest known printing of Donald Duck in history ...

An issue of Good Houskeeping magazine, dated June 1934 but released one month earlier in May 1934. Disney used this family-oriented publication to advertise upcoming cartoon theatrical shorts. Much like an older version of today's theatrical trailers, Disney used brilliant art to create a synopsis of the cartoon on a full page. The earliest existing images of Donald are in two of the panels. If you can find this magazine intact, keep it, as only few collectors are aware of the importance of this issue.

Mark Wilson offers a wide selection of CGC-graded comic books with an emphasis on the highest possible grade. Visit the PGC Mint website to learn more.

This is a guest article. The thoughts and opinions in this piece are those of their author and are not necessarily the thoughts of the Certified Collectibles Group.

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