Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The Case of New Treasure Island

One history of postwar manga might begin in Burbank in the late 1930s and early 40s, amidst the trials and tribulations of the Disney Studio after the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

The Nazis began their march across the continent; between forty to forty-five percent of the studio’s film market was lost. Pinocchio, intended heir to the fortunes of debutante feature-length animated film Snow White, failed to recoup production costs after opening in the spring of 1940. Fantasia, released in November 1941, also did not make a profit. And without the promise of returns on projects of similar scale, a number of films at various stages on the drawing board were cancelled. Then, in the spring of 1941, the situation was compounded by a labor strike at the Disney Studios, a combination of long-standing grievances regarding overwork and uneven pay, on the one hand, and straightened budgets and layoffs caused by the war’s shrinkage of overseas markets, on the other.

World War II Military Insignia.

If war in Europe created problems, the conflict’s expansion to the Americas compensated with opportunities. The troubles plaguing the studio were promptly solved by commissions from the Department of State and the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, resulting respectively in many of the Donald Duck soldier shorts and the Good Neighbor films, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. The studio was also asked to do design work for the war cause, beginning with insignias for numerous military units (approximately 1100 worldwide for the Allies), to posters encouraging Americans to buy war bonds and donate blood, and (on an informal basis) helping the nearby Lockheed factory camouflage its buildings and decorate the side of its crafts with Disney characters. “By far the most popular,” writes Richard Shale in his book about wartime Disney, “was Donald Duck, who appeared on about 20 percent of all insignia. Donald was not only Disney’s most popular character on the screen, but his feisty, combative nature made him a well-suited representative for wartime military units.” And don’t forget, though now largely in the Army, originally he dressed like a sailor and cursed like one too.

Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (October 1942), cover.

Of the projects that were abandoned by the studio, not all went to waste. The storyboards of one were picked up and transformed into the first original Disney comic from Dell, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, published October 1942. Drawn by longtime Duck animator and director Jack Hannah and onetime inbetweener and gag and story man Carl Barks, the book was strongly shaped by the artistry and working methods of Disney’s animation studio. It has the added reputation of being the first of Barks’ many Duck comics from Dell, read voraciously in later decades not only in their home country but also throughout the Americas and Europe. As there had been a Donald Duck newspaper strip since 1938, so there would have been original Donald comics regardless. But had it not been for wartime contingencies in Burbank, those comics would certainly have taken a profoundly different shape. Barks claimed that one reason for leaving the studio in November 1942 was the oppressive war air. And as I said, the material for Pirate Gold came from Disney’s temporary “inability to animate.” There is nothing in the comic book that expresses war explicitly, except perhaps for the choice of Donald, Disney’s war star. But very much a product of the war it is, nonetheless.

And precisely because of the war, it helped redirect comics history – though not in the United States, where it’s singular experimentation with animation studio techniques seems to have been pursued in neither subsequent Disney titles nor comic books at large.

Sakai Shichima & Tezuka Osamu, New Treasure Island (January 1947), cover.

But in Japan, the impact of Pirate Gold was significant, being one of the core inspirations and perhaps even the primary inspiration for Sakai Shichima and Tezuka Osamu’s legendary New Treasure Island (January 1947), the best-selling children’s akahon often championed as launching not only Tezuka’s career but even postwar manga itself. It appears to have been one of at least two American comic books that the artists had on hand when crafting their manga in the summer and fall of 1946. Since published after Pearl Harbor, there is slim chance that it entered Japan prior to the Occupation. It was presumably one of the many comics books gifted to the artists by their acquaintances amongst the American G.I.s. As you know, Tezuka claims receiving a caché of “ten-cent comics” in the spring of 1946 from a singing serviceman he nicknamed “Opera Joe.” Meanwhile the older Sakai seems to have had a parallel experience, as described by one of his acolytes in 1969:

Once, when Sakai Shichima was at a Kyoto hotel drawing portraits of the occupation troops, he found a bunch of comics in the hotel’s lobby and thought “this is it.” He got hold of these comics, took them to the young Tezuka Osamu, and said let’s go with this.

Tezuka supporters might balk at this anecdote’s order of things, but I will leave the sticky question of who introduced these sources into the collaboration, and thus into manga history, for another time. To judge that issue, first one needs to see the evidence.

New Treasure Island is one of those books that everyone has heard of but few have actually read. Until a facsimile edition published in 2009, the legendary manga was largely inaccessible even in Japan, general readers having to settle for (and many critics often unwisely relying upon) a top-to-bottom rewrite from 1984. Furthermore, so much attention has been paid to its opening sequence, showing its little boy hero Pete racing in his roadster to the wharf, that most of the rest of the book has been ignored. In a future article, I will offer my own reading of those famous first pages, which are based on a second Disney comic book. In this post, I want to look instead at how New Treasure Island was, as its title advertises, a rendition of “Treasure Island.”