Donald Duck, by Taliaferro
Donald Duck (Sunday, 13 September 1942) - © Disney

Al Taliaferro was an American newspaper comics artist, and a pioneer in Disney comics. Taliaferro originally adapted some of the company's animated shorts into newspaper comics, but gained more importance when he created long-running features about individual Disney characters. Taliaferro was the first artist to transform 'Bucky Bug' and 'The Three Little Pigs' into a comic strip. But his most significant contribution was giving 'Donald Duck' his very own comic strip. In 1937 the aggressive duck made his debut as a newspaper gag comic. Bob Karp wrote the jokes, while Taliaferro illustrated them. Soon 'Donald Duck' became a popular comics star, even surpassing 'Mickey Mouse' in terms of international distribution and sales. Gags are still reprinted in all Disney magazines worldwide. While Taliaferro never drew longer adventure stories starring Donald, his contributions to the franchise should not be taken lightly. He proved that the animated star translated well into a comic strip, effectively paving the way for all 'Duck' artists who followed in his wake. Together with his writers he originated several characters still used by Disney artists today. Among them Donald's girlfriend Daisy, his relative Grandma Duck, the nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey and Donald's St. Bernhard dog Bolivar. Contrary to popular thought some of these side characters even debuted in Taliaferro's comics before they appeared on the big screen! As such Al Taliaferro remains one of the "Big Three" in 'Donald Duck' comics, along with Carl Barks and Don Rosa. But none of them would have gained that status without his important pioneer work.

Later-day Mickey Mouse strip inked and presumably also pencilled by Taliaferro (30 January 1938)
Later-day Mickey Mouse strip inked and presumably also pencilled by Taliaferro (30 January 1938) - © Disney

Charles Alfred Taliaferro was born in 1905 in Montrose, Colorado into an Italian-American family. The Taliaferros moved to Glendale in Southern California in 1918. He studied at the Art Institute of Los Angeles and initially worked as a designer for a lighting fixture firm. In January 1931 he was hired by the Walt Disney Studios to work in their comics department, which was at the time mostly a vehicle for Floyd Gottfredson's 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper strip. One of his first jobs was inking Gottfredson's drawings. Also in this early stage, Taliaferro's slick and clean inking line appeared on a modelsheet featuring 'Mickey Mouse' in several poses, which is used for Disney merchandising to this day. While Mickey was Disney's most popular star at the time, Walt Disney had launched a separate animated series named 'Silly Symphonies' in 1929. These were mostly one-shot animated cartoons based on fables, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, novels and classical musical pieces. Others were stories about anthropomorphic characters created by the Disney studio itself. Originally the 'Silly Symphonies' only received a lukewarm reception. The majority were mood pieces and none of them starred Mickey. To help audiences warm up to them a newspaper comic named 'Silly Symphonies' (1932-1939) was created. It debuted on 10 January 1932 as a weekly colour feature published on Sundays. The original writer and artist was Earl Duvall whose drawings were inked by Taliaferro. From 1933 on Taliaferro became a penciller too, since Duvall left Disney to join Warner Brothers. From that moment on Ted Osborne wrote the scripts, sometimes alternating with Merrill De Maris.

Bucky Bug by Al Taliaferro
'The War with the Flies' (1932-33) was one of the most memorable 'Bucky Bug' storylines during Taliaferro's run on the feature, featuring some of the most inventive uses of recycling by the Junkville inhabitants. © Disney

Oddly enough, the first 'Silly Symphony' comic to debut on that day wasn't an adaptation of a pre-existing animated short at all. 'Bucky Bug' was a completely original creation by Duvall and Taliaferro. The little bug was not only the first Disney character to debut in the comics, before being adapted into an animated cartoon: he was also one of the first besides Mickey to receive his own long-running series. In fact, Bucky Bug only appeared on the big screen once(!): in Burt Gillet's 'Silly Symphonies' short, 'Bugs in Love' (1932), which premiered nearly 10 months later on 10 October 1932. 'Bugs in Love' was also the final 'Silly Symphony' to be shot in black-and-white. 'Bucky Bug' is a funny animal series set in nature. All action is presented from the point-of-view of insects and other invertebrates. The series started as a "coming of age" feature. Young Bucky was born as the only son in a family with sixteen daughters, got his name throught a readers' contest and then heads out into the world. He eventually settles in a town composed of human garbage: old shoes, rubble, flower pots... fittingly titled "Junktown". Bucky marries June, the daughter of the Mayor. His best friend is Bo Bug, a hobo in a high hat who functions as his sidekick. Other recurring characters are Junior Bug, June's sister, and the old and wise Bootle Beetle. 'Bucky Bug' later became a character in Western Publishing's Disney comic books, with Carl Buettner, Vivie Risto and Ralph Heimdahl as prominent artists. The character has been featured in many newspapers and Disney magazines worldwide, but only in the American version did the characters speak in rhyme. Translators found it too difficult to keep this gimmick up and therefore just translated the sentences normally. 'Bucky Bug' starred in the 'Silly Symphonies' feature until 4 March 1934.

Three Little Kittens (Silly Symphonies, 28 July 1935)
Three Little Kittens (Silly Symphonies, 28 July 1935) - © Disney

As the technical and narrative skills of the Disney company improved, audiences soon warmed up to the 'Silly Symphonies'. Moviegoers were charmed by the innocent, child-friendly and dreamy atmosphere of these shorts. In 1932 the Silly Symphony 'Flowers and Trees' won the first Academy Award for "Best Animated Short". During the same ceremony Disney also received a honorary Oscar for the creation of 'Mickey Mouse'. Finally accepted by audiences and the establishment, several other animation studios started their own 'Silly Symphonies'-like series, such as Warner Brothers' 'Merrie Melodies' and 'Looney Tunes' and MGM's 'Happy Harmonies'. Yet none of them could compete with Disney's talent for storytelling and overall higher professionalism. He also raised his budget by merchandising his cartoons on a global scale. Comics played an important part in this. Every time a new animated short hit the big screen Taliaferro and Osborne adapted it into a comic strip. Some of these shorts would spawn new characters around which long-running comics series were created.

The Further Adventures of the Three Little Pigs (Silly Symphonies, 5 July 1936)
The Further Adventures of the Three Little Pigs (Silly Symphonies, 5 July 1936) - © Disney

One of these was 'The Three Little Pigs' (1933) by Burt Gillett. Disney's adaptation of Joseph Jacobs' world famous fairy tale was a huge hit from the start. It became the most popular non-Mickey short of the studio. The title song 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' by Frank Churchill was a nation-wide hit and resonated with people destined to overcome fear of unemployment during the Great Depression. The catchy tune was also the first of many musical Disney standards. 'The Three Little Pigs' had a tremendous influence on popular culture. Virtually all adaptations of the classic fairy tale nowadays follow the family friendly Disney version in which the pigs are not only individualized, but none of them get eaten by the wolf either. 'The Three Little Pigs' was so popular that Disney was asked to create sequels. He reluctantly did so, but knew beforehand that they could never top the success of the original. Indeed, the three sequels ('The Big Bad Wolf', 1934, 'Three Little Wolves', 1936, and 'The Practical Pig , 1939) all flopped. In the same year the second sequel came out, 1936, the characters also made their debut as comics characters in the 'Silly Symphonies' feature. Al Taliaferro was the first to draw them, later followed by Carl Buettner, Gil Turner and Jack Bradbury when the characters made their appearance in the comic books. The 'Big Bad Wolf' comics proved to be far more enduring than the animated sequels. Countless episodes were written and drawn. All of them revolve around the Big Bad Wolf's non-effective plans to finally eat the little pigs.

The Barnyard Symphony, by Al Taliaferro
The Farmyard Symphony (Silly Symphonies, 23 October 1938) - © Disney

Al Taliaferro adapted several other Silly Symphonies into comics, such as 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (1934) and 'Elmer Elephant' (1936). However the most significant was 'The Wise Little Hen' (9 June 1934). This animated short marked the debut of a duck who would soon rival Mickey's popularity: Donald Duck. Like all Disney characters Donald was not created by Walt himself. The duck in sailor suit was designed by Dick Huemer, Art Babbitt and Dick Lundy. Originally he had a rather long beak and his iconic temper problems only became a defining character trait in the Mickey Mouse short 'Orphan's Benefit' (1934), which marked his second screen appearance. From that moment on Donald became Disney's second biggest star. He was paired with Mickey and Goofy in several other shorts until he finally received his own series in 1937. Starting with 'Don Donald' (1937) by Ben Sharpsteen, the temperamental duck would star in more individual shorts than any other Disney character. The studio found it easier to write storylines for Donald since he wasn't as limited as Mickey. Children loved the big-eared mouse so much that after a while Mickey couldn't express any troublesome behaviour. Donald has always been more of an anti-hero. His unluckiness and furiosity made him more relatable to audiences. And since the bad consequences of his behaviour were always shown parents didn't worry about the duck being a bad example to their kids.

The Boarding-School Mystery, starring the Toby Tortoise and Max the Hare (Silly Symphonies, 30 December 1934)
The Boarding-School Mystery, starring the Toby Tortoise and Max the Hare (Silly Symphonies, 30 December 1934) - © Disney

When Donald received his own animated series it seemed only natural to give him his own comic strip too. Taliaferro and Osborne published the comic strip adaptation of 'The Wise Little Hen' between 16 September and 16 December 1934. Donald also appeared in Floyd Gottfredson and Ted Osborne's 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper comic, but as a side character. Between 30 August 1936 and 5 December 1937 Donald returned in a series of largely pantomime gag-a-week strips by Taliaferro and Osborne as part of the 'Silly Symphonies' series. The first longer solo-stories with the bad-tempered duck were however produced overseas. On 15 May 1937 William A. Ward's 'Donald and Donna' was published in the 67th issue of the British Mickey Mouse Weekly. This was an adaptation of the cartoon 'Don Donald' and happened to be his first long adventure story too, covering 15 pages. Meanwhile the Italian publishing house Mondadori created official 'Donald Duck' adventure comics on a regular basis nearly five years before a similar project was started in the United States! On 30 December 1937 Federico Pedrocchi drew the first 'Paolino Paperino' story, as Donald is named in Italian. So, while Taliaferro was the first to turn Donald into a comics character he wasn't the first to give him a regular comics series. But he would become the first American to do so, even inspiring other duck artists by enlarging the cast with new characters. Al Taliaferro continued to draw the 'Silly Symphonies' Sunday page until February 1939, when the feature became a gag-a-week series with 'Pluto the Pup' (1940) and 'Little Hiawatha' (1940-1942) by Hubie Karp and Bob Grant. From then on, he devoted all his time to the ill-tempered duck.

Early gag with Donald and his nephews (Silly Symphonies Sunday page, 7 November 1937)
Early gag with Donald and his nephews (Silly Symphonies Sunday page, 7 November 1937) - © Disney

On 17 October 1937 Donald's triplet nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey were introduced in the aforementioned Sunday comic. The characters' names were thought up by Disney writer Dana Coty and borrowed from U.S politicians Huey Long and Thomas E. Dewey and Disney animator Louis Schmitt. The ducklings themselves were inspired by Mickey's own nephews Mortie and Ferdie in Floyd Gottfredson's 'Mickey' comics. Taliaferro and Ted Osborne also established the now classic origin story why the three nephews live at their uncle's place. As it so happened their never seen mother Della sent them to stay with Donald "for a while", while "their father is in the hospital after a firecracker exploded under his chair." It soon becomes apparent that she merely wanted to get rid of them, as the little ducks are mischievous little brats. Though Donald more than often gives the bad example himself by playing pranks on them as well. Nevertheless Huey, Louie and Dewey would never return to their parents. There is some controversy over who created the characters. Taliaferro and Osborne used them first in comics and are officially credited by the Walt Disney company as their creators. Yet Don Rosa has claimed that Carl Barks told him personally that he was their actual creator, as he was a writer for Donald's animated cartoons in those days. Whatever the case the boys have remained the second most famous characters in the Duck universe, after Donald and Scrooge McDuck, the latter created by Barks. In the original cartoons Huey, Louie and Dewey often finished each other's sentences, but this made the seven minute cartoons more time-consuming to make. The gimmick worked much better in the comics and has remained a running gag ever since.

Strange enough, even though Donald's cartoons were very popular and some comics had already been produced around him Taliaferro still had difficulty convincing his bosses to give the duck an official comic strip of his own. He approached Walt Disney's brother Roy, but he wasn't interested. After drawing three weeks worth of episodes Taliaferro convinced Roy to show them to King Features, which syndicated all Disney comics. It wasn't until he informed Walt too that the idea started to grow. Still, the first samples were rejected for having "weak gags". Taliaferro brought in Disney writer Merrill De Maris, who'd also written gags for the 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper comic, but this team-up was also rejected. Finally jokes written by Homer Brightman proved to be acceptable and the project was greenlighted.

Donald Duck, drawn by Al Taliaferro (21-2-1938)
Donald Duck (25 April 1938) - © Disney

On 2 February 1938 'Donald Duck' officially became a daily newspaper comic, followed by a Sunday page on 10 December 1939. Taliaferro made the drawings while Homer Brightman wrote the gags. However, halfway the year Brightman went back to write for the animated shorts instead and was replaced by Bob Karp, who would remain Taliaferro's creative partner for the rest of their respective careers. Taliaferro was assisted by inkers Karl Karpe, Dick Moores, George Waiss and Bill Wright. Other Disney artists like Ellis Eringer, Frank Grundeen, Al Hubbard and Kay Wright occasionally helped out too. Contrary to 'Mickey Mouse' or Pedrocchi's 'Donald', Taliaferro's comic strip was not an adventure series, but a daily gag comic. Each episode featured Donald dealing with some problem or unexpected humorous situation. The majority were stand-alone gags, though occasionally a loose continuity was followed. Dialogue was sometimes used, but many episodes are basically pantomime comics, allowing for easy global translation.

First appearance of Grandma Duck (27 July 1943)
First appearance of Grandma Duck (27 September 1943) - © Disney

Taliaferro and Karp were the first artists to expand on Donald's universe. Some characters were lifted from animated shorts, like Donald's St. Bernard dog Bolivar who first appeared in 'Alpine Climbers' (1936) and made his debut as a comic character on 17 March 1938. The colossal dog rarely listens to Donald and was inspired by Taliaferro's own dog, which was a Scottish terrier. Bolivar met with a hostile reception in Bolivia, where the local government accused Disney of ridiculing their founder Simon Bolivar and asked for the character's removal. On 7 June 1940 Donald received an official girlfriend, Daisy Duck, in Jack King's animated short 'Mr. Duck Steps Out', which was scripted by Carl Barks. Though Barks can be credited with creating Daisy it was still Taliaferro who gave her her comics debut. On 4 November of that same year she was introduced as Donald's neighbour in the papers.

Donald Duck (18 May 1951)
Donald Duck (18 May 1951) - © Disney

Other characters were in fact created by Taliaferro and Karp before they appeared in a Disney cartoon. Donald's lazy and gluttonous cousin Gus Goose, first irritated him on 9 May 1938, before making his screen debut nearly a year later on 3 May 1939 in Jack King's 'Donald's Cousin Gus'. The final recurring character created by Taliaferro and Karp is Grandma Duck, who was first seen on 11 August 1940, in a framed picture hanging on the wall. From 27 September 1943 onward she appeared in person. She was inspired by Taliaferro's own old-fashioned mother-in-law, but her official name, Elvira, was only added by Don Rosa nearly half a century later. Taliaferro established Grandma as a farmer who believes in hard work but is completely unaware of any technological advancements. In the comic books she was eventually paired with Gus Goose, whose laziness provided a humorous contrast with her workaholic nature. After the Disney feature 'Cinderella' (1950) the two mice protagonists, Gus and Jaq, became cast members too. Taliaferro was futhermore responsible for creating Donald's iconic red car, which could first be seen on 1 July 1938. Although not created by them, Taliaferro and Karp also brought Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge to the newspapers on 13 February 1951, and on 25 September 1961 also Ludwig von Drake.

Wartime Donald Duck strip (5 April 1945)
Wartime Donald Duck strip (5 April 1945) - © Disney

Taliaferro's 'Donald Duck' comic strip became the most distributed Disney series in the world. They were also popular as reprints in Disney weeklies and pockets. The Dutch Disney weekly Donald Duck had a recurring feature called 'Een Weekje...' in which seven thematically connected episodes of Taliaferro's comics were grouped together from Monday to Sunday. Other Disney artists have used Taliaferro's characters in their own comics too. At the time 'Donald Duck' was so popular that when Taliaferro used his own telephone number for Donald's phone number he was instantly plagued by several calls from readers. Another time he drew a gag in which Donald chopped down a telephone pole. A telephone company complained that some people did this in real life and blamed the episode for inspiring them to do so.

Donald Duck by Al Taliaferro
Donald Duck: Counter Spy (Cheerios premium giveaway, 1947) - © Disney

The artist remained associated with Donald's newspaper comic for the rest of his career. He had little to do with the actual comic books which featured longer adventure stories starring the eponymous duck. Those were mostly created by Carl Barks. Though Taliaferro did create 'Donald Duck: Counter Spy' (1947), a special mini-comic for Cheerios, and a couple of covers for the Dell Comics comic books. Taliaferro's comic book work further included two 'Bucky Bug' stories for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories (1943, 1945). He also illustrated two children's books: 'Donald and his Cat Troubles' (1948) and 'Donald Duck and the Hidden Gold' (1951). One of Taliaferro's final projects was the design of Litternaut (1967) the mascot of the Committee for a Clean & Beautiful Glendale. He kept drawing 'Donald Duck' until 10 October 1968, when he retired from the daily comic but still made the Sunday page for four months extra until his death in 1969.

Donald Duck by Al Taliaferro
Donald Duck Sunday comic (3 April 1960) - © Disney

The 'Donald Duck' comic strip was then continued by Frank Grundeen, who had already taken over most of Taliaferro's work by 1967. Bob Karp remained on board as scriptwriter until he retired in 1974. He was succeeded by Greg Crosby (1974-1979) and Bob Foster (1980-1989). Later artists on the strip were Frank Smith (1976-1986), Jim Franzen (1986), Daan Jippes (1986-1987), Ulrich Schröder (1986), Jørgen Klubien (1986), Tony Strobl (1986-1987), Bill Langley (1987) and Pete Alvarado & Larry Mayer (1987-1989). Larry Knighton wrote and drew the final five years of the strip (1990-1995). From July 1995 on, King Features turned to reprints. After nearly 57 years of uninterrupted publication in the papers, 'Donald Duck' came to an end. The world famous duck, however, still sells well in Disney magazines and associated comic books where Taliaferro's timeless gags are still reprinted. Therefore, in 2003, he was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend.

For those interested in Taliaferro's work: the complete 'Silly Symphonies' were compiled into two volumes by IDW in 2016. The publisher also began collecting the complete daily and Sunday comics of 'Donald Duck' in 2015.

Al Taliaferro

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