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Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The Case of New Treasure Island

The history of the manga is not simple, complicated first by the fact of it being a collaboration, second by conflicting accounts and seeming half-truths concerning its genesis, and last by its patchwork of influences from literature, the movies, animated shorts, and comic books. For now I am going to focus on only the very last of these nodes, the sourcing from American comics books. While never mentioned by the artists, from internal evidence I have found that there are two that Sakai and Tezuka had on hand, one of which as I said in the beginning was Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold. The second comic book, along with other potential sources, I will unveil and discuss another time. If you heard the expanded version of this at SPX, for now please keep the rest to yourself.

Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (October 1942).

Since I imagine there will be people reading this not versed in American comics, let me back up and sketch out some history. For those who know more than I do about the matter, any additions or corrections would be most welcome.

Disney comic books date back to 1933 and the first issue of Mickey Mouse Magazine. It was a mix of games, prose, miscellaneous fan offerings, single and half-page cartoons, but no strips. In 1939, the magazine was taken over by Western Publishing, reorganized with more newspaper strip reprints and into something gradually more like a standard comic book. The same year, Western was hired by Dell (an arrangement that would continue until 1962) to package its new Four Color series, largely collections of newspaper strips ranging from Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates to Popeye and Little Orphan Annie. The first Disney title in the series was Walt Disney’s Donald Duck, published in early 1940, reprinting newspaper strips written by Bob Karp and drawn by Al Taliaferro. This was the first all-color Disney comic in English. Its success urged Western to complete the transformation of the competing Mickey Mouse Magazine into a full-fledged comic book, renaming it Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in September 1940. In the mid 1950s, WDC&S would become the world’s top-selling comics magazine, with single issue print-runs topping three million. Tezuka – as I know from interviews, swipes in his work, and having had the privilege of peaking inside the cardboard box at Tezuka Pro containing the artist’s comic book collection – owned a fair number of WDC&S and Four Color issues, though the specific issues used in New Treasure Island are missing and never are they mentioned otherwise. Given that Sakai is the one credited for the book’s “story” (gensaku) and “layout” (kōsei) – which is to say those things that come first in the making of a comic book – it is quite possible that he and not Tezuka owned the Disney comics in question.

As I said, initially the Four Color series was composed of newspaper reprints. But with both Four Color and WDC&S eating up the reserve, to keep publishing going new stories had also to be created. Pirate Gold was the first such comic book original – which is to say, the artwork had not been published elsewhere prior. The underlying storyline and graphic ideas, however, did not originate with Western. Interestingly considering the “cinematic” reputation of New Treasure Island, Pirate Gold was a salvage project: a comic book adaptation of the scrapped feature-length animation, Morgan’s Ghost.

Morgan's Ghost, storyboard panel.

“Of the 600-odd cartoon shorts and other films that the Disney organization has abandoned over the last 55 years, Morgan’s Ghost was one of the best,” wrote Bruce Hamilton in 1984. “If it had not been for the outbreak of World War II, when much of Disney’s efforts were diverted for the duration, I don’t think Walt would have let this one go.” This had been an adventure story starring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy searching for Morgan the Pirate’s lost buried treasure. Hamilton says it was abandoned with the changed priorities of wartime, but one suspects that the animators’ strike at the Disney Studio in the spring of 1941 had also been a factor. At any rate, the film was not made, but some twelve hundred storyboard drawings remained.

As Thomas Andrae tells it, “In 1942, Western editor Oscar Lebeck came to the Disney Studio in search of a story on which to base a full-length Donald Duck comic book. The discarded ideas through which he looked included Morgan’s Ghost.” Andrae continues, “Lebeck contacted John Rose, head of the story department, and asked who would be able to draw it. Rose recommended Carl Barks and John Hannah, who had been working as a team on the Donald Duck cartoons for the past two years. Bob Karp, writer of the Donald Duck comic strip, received the job of turning the storyboards into a written script.” The work was split more or less evenly between the two artists, according to Hamilton, with Hannah drawing most of the indoor scenes and those on the island, and Barks the outdoor sequences at the port town at the beginning and those on the ship. It would make for a heroic story of one comics legend influencing another across the Pacific to say that Barks inspired New Treasure Island. But the Duckman was still anonymous at the time of the manga’s creation, and while Barks’ ship scenes potentially made the deepest impression, citations by the Japanese artists are too various to say definitively Barks over Hannah.

Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (October 1942).

Pirate Gold opens much like Stevenson’s novel, at a seaside inn. It is run by Donald and his nephews. One dark and stormy night they are visited by a peg-legged parrot named Yellow Beak, a tubbier Jose Carioca playing Billy Bones. In this story, the map is stashed behind one of the bricks of Donald’s hearth. The evil Black Pete witnesses the scene eavesdropping through a window. He connives to hijack the treasure hunt by posing as a seaman’s widow and selling Yellow Beak his own ship and crew. A large portion of the comic book is taken up by shenanigans on the ship, Black Pete attempting to procure the map without blowing his cover, and Donald and his team trying to save their skins once the mutiny has been revealed. The hunt on the island itself (which I will touch on below) is squeezed into the last fourth of the book’s 64 pages. The production team’s experiences with daily strips (Karp) and films (Hannah and Barks) seems to have ill-prepared them for the pacing required by the new format of the full-length comic book.

However, inexperience can be the mother of invention, as it is here, resulting in innovations that, to my knowledge, were not further developed in American comics. In more ways than one, Pirate Gold was a product of re-mediation, a translation of animation sensibilities into the format of the comic book. In an interview from 1976, Hannah claims to have worked only from a typewritten script, no images. But as Hamilton points out, some of Barks and Hannah’s drawings are too like the original storyboards for the artists not to have made reference to them. For example, there is Black Pete’s surprise at finding himself surrounded by explosives upon illuminating a dark storeroom with a match. There are motifs like the Skeleton Tree, through which Yellow Beak and his team locate the treasure’s resting place, that were clearly copied from Morgan’s Ghost.

But more suggestive than specific motifs is the pacing of the breakdowns, the bigness of much of the art, and the deliberate changing of perspectives particularly in the action sequences that would suggest anywhere else a general relationship to cinema, but in this case, given the occasion of the comic book’s making, indicate if not a direct translation from animation storyboards to comics page then at least the application of principles from the preparatory stages of producing animated films, namely the creation of storyboards (reportedly a Disney Studio invention) and key frames. The way stories were “gagged” at Disney is also very much at work in Pirate Gold.

Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (October 1942).

There are a couple of sequences in the comic book, all taking place on board the ship, attesting strongly to this re-mediation. First are the scenes in which Black Pete, still dressed in his unconvincing widow’s costume, tries to steal the map. He sneaks behind Yellow Beak to learn where it’s hidden, only to find a grocer’s bill. Later at night he rifles through Donald and friends’ sleeping quarters. Granted it is late and the villain is trying to keep silent, but this entire sequence, like the previous one, is premised on staging movement in a manner to create suspense and humor purely through visual means. They could awake at any moment, and should given Black Pete’s ungentle handling. But they don’t, and it is through the disjoint between what is depicted and what common sense dictates that the drama is transformed into a joke.

The lack of verbiage is key. “That’s why there is so little dialogue in Pirate Gold,” Barks once explained. “Bob took it from the storyboards. In animation, they wanted things moving on the screen; they didn’t want characters in held positions moving their lips.” Even in those panels in which a head is isolated and talking, the face takes over for the cropped-out body, keeping the “animation” going with exaggerated brows and mouths. The dialogue is generally pithy, never dragging on the story’s forward momentum or tipping the balance from image to text, except perhaps in the book’s beginning when the story is being established. And when there are verbal sound effects, they are often condensed in symbols, with stars and reverberations and the like – by no means unique in comics from this period, but here probably derived from the division in animation production between animated image and sound track, and the placement of utterances as captions under storyboard panels.

The other sequence of note follows soon after these, after Black Pete is revealed to be the bad man that he is. Aside from the opening battle yelp and one cry for help, there is no speech for three full pages as Black Pete and his goons chase after Yellow Beak and his mates, centering on Donald’s flight up the riggings and barely dodging Pete’s knife-swipe. As he falls, Donald sets off a chain of reactions so typical of earlier animated shorts: falling into the bucket, the bucket’s rope cut by a flying dagger, bucket and duck plummeting to knock out one of the mutineers below. This is a far cry from the dynamics of the superhero comic, so dependent on emphasizing action with the verbal punctuations of the biff-bam-boom or “Take that!” varieties. In almost every panel, one can see the classic Disney principles of character animation: the characters well defined through their distinctive bodily dynamics, actions caricatured (but not grotesquely so) to make them more legible and dramatic, actions rendered at a point of tension that anticipates the next to follow, bodies alive even when at rest.

And notice also the emphasis on plane and mass over line and graphic facture. Pirate Gold sold as a Donald Duck comic, but the real star in aesthetic terms is Black Pete and his large spherical mass. He is the center of gravity in many of Pirate Gold’s panels, the center around which perspectives rotate, a large color sphere set off against the lines of background architecture. He is, maybe, the animated cel given character form, something that comes out starkly when set against solid monochrome fields as he is often is.

Critic Ōtsuka Eiji once wrote, based solely on formal observations, that the “cinematic” qualities of New Treasure Island should really be described as “storyboard” qualities. He was more right than he could have known. It took two former animators (Barks and Hannah) to adapt animation storyboards into an “animational” comic book. And as I see it, it then took another former animator (Sakai) to interpret Pirate Gold in a way that the product not only retains the feel of its roots in a former animation, but emphasizes them even further.


2 Responses to Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The Case of New Treasure Island

  1. Pingback: MangaBlog — Let’s read manga!

  2. KUMI Kaoru says:

    I’m impressed with your insightful argument. Why not try to write a book on this subject? When you decide to do it, e-mail me. — a Japanese translator/anime historian.

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