Donald Duck, the hot-tempered and mischievous bird, did such a good job at hiding his alter ego that I had absolutely no idea he even had one, but, I guess, that’s why they’re called secret identities. With his contributions to fighting Heartless, it shouldn’t be such a huge leap for his character to become a superhero, and in Italy it’s not at all.

The creation of Paperinik

Donald Duck is a hugely popular character in Europe. Norway even coined a term for the study and research of the comic strips, but more recently the fandom, as “donaldism”] back in 1973. His popularity over other Disney characters overseas could be due to the fact that he has a slightly different personality than the one we are used to. In Germany, Donald is philosophical and cultured, and in Italy he’s known for being a little meeker and less temperamental – and much more unlucky. He was so down-on-his-luck that comic strip readers wrote into Disney and wished for a story where Donald, known there as Paolino Paperino (the surname meaning “little duck” or “duckling,”) actually succeeds at a task.

This prompted a 60-page, two-part story in 1969 by artist Giovan Battista Carpi and writer Guido Martina where Donald mistakenly obtains an estate that his cousin Gladstone was supposed to inherit. There, he finds the old costume and gadgets of Robin Hood-esque Fantomallard that swooped through Duckburg in the late 19th and early 20th century. After discovering these treasures, Donald decides to don his mask and call himself Paperinik in the original Italian version and Duck Avenger in America. Not as a hero, though, as one would expect for a children’s comic series; instead, he wants to seek revenge on all of the people that have wronged him in the past, including his aforementioned cousin and his miserly uncle Scrooge McDuck.

Donald swiping Uncle Scrooge's mattress after drugging him. Sheesh, Donald.

Evolution into a hero

Doesn’t sound like much of a hero, does he? Even so, the creators thought this was the answer for fans who were frustrated with Donald always losing in life. With an alter ego, the usual blunders during the day when he’s Donald Duck don’t seem so cruel when he’s secretly playing illegal pranks on people he thinks are jerks at night. He’d keep his identity as Duck Avenger a secret because he didn’t want his cousin to discover that he held ownership to a house that Gladstone was supposed to receive, and he’d get to bounce around the city as a masked avenger with a cool cape. Awesome, right? Well, for a little while.

After a few stories about Donald committing crimes, like stealing Scrooge’s mattress that held his life savings inside, to get back at his family, the creators figured that making Donald a full-time villain probably wasn’t a great idea. So they changed him. While he still employs shady and sometimes illegal methods in crime fighting, they turned him into a caped crusader in the depths of the night, taking down the evil fiends that inhabit the city. He’s very Batman-like, but with a much less tragic backstory and less terrifying villains. (Just look at him kneeling on the building. Very Batman.) The comic even pays respect to the actual Caped Crusader by using the same signal in the sky, but with Donald’s signature hat sitting on top of the bat. He beats down the baddies in a similar way, too: with his fists, wits, and nonlethal weapons he gets from his friend Gyro Gearloose.

Even when those particular methods and his battles within Duckburg started to bore readers after the years, the series evolved. Other series rebooted the original and introduced aliens, cool tech, and time traveling villains, so his adventures became even more like the wacky comics we’ve loved through our lives.

Coming to America

As popular as he is in Europe, even after almost 50 years, you’d think he’d make an official appearance sooner than 2015, the year Duck Avenger’s origin story finally released with an English translation in America. There were other attempts to bring the Duck Avenger into America, but they didn’t take off — even then, they were still thirty years after the hero was first created. And that’s the problem.

He first appeared in Disney Adventures, a children’s magazine starting in 1990, as the protagonist of “The Secret Origins of The Duck Avenger.” Donald Duck is called on by his uncle Ludwig von Drake to defend the Earth from evil Zondarrians, a race of aliens looking to steal the Universal Code. This is the first instance of Donald Duck in costume being called Duck Avenger, and once the official Italian story was translated the name just stuck, although British translations use Superduck. And considering there were no other instances in which the Duck Avenger popped up again before the magazine’s cancellation in 2007, it’s obvious that no one was begging for more.

The other appearance of the Duck Avenger was two years later in a GameCube and PlayStation 2 video game called PK: Out of the Shadows, and the game absolutely bombed. So that didn’t help pique interest for the lovable duck. It wasn’t until last year that IDW Publishing released the original origin story of the Duck Avenger that kids first cracked open 47 years ago in Italy.

Why were kids never interested in him in America when Disney half-heartedly tried to introduce him? Well, obviously, they half-heartedly tried, only putting him into a magazine once, but also because Disney comics, in general, have a puny US audience. As much as we love our comic books and comic strips, Disney comics are not popular in the slightest. In Europe, they’re everywhere, but here? Not so much.

It could be because Disney’s home base is the US, so we’re absolutely surrounded by Mickey Mouse and friends, and it’s not a novelty seeing the classic characters anymore. It’s nothing new to see because we’ve seen it on cartoon shorts, movies, theme parks, advertisements, Valentine’s cards, T-shirts, folders, cooking utensils, or any other object you can buy at the Disney Store. And maybe it’s because with the initial decline of comics in the 80s due to the rise in kids television programming, Disney thought it better to put more resources in a growing medium rather than push for older entertainment.

It’s not completely clear, but if the Duck Avenger would have come to television instead of the lackluster conversion to an English comic or two, it definitely would’ve taken off. Unfortunately, Disney comics are not a good way to introduce any new spin-off or character to an American audience.

Photos via Paperinik Magazine, IDW Publishing