Donald Duck holds his own in the north
Aku Ankka comic albums introduced Finnish baby-boomers to the modern world
By Katri Kallionpää
The trouserless duck in the sailor's hat puts even Helsingin Sanomat to shame. He has more readers than the largest daily newspaper in the Nordic region.
And at 56 years of age, Donald Duck is more popular than ever. What is the secret of the phenomenal popularity of the strip cartoon albums that go by the Finnish name of Aku Ankka?
"Aku Ankka came at the right time", says artist Kaj Stenvall, who was born in December 1951, in the same month and year that Donald's comic albums made landfall in Finland.
Stenvall learnt to read with the help of the Aku Ankka strips, just like hundreds of thousands of others. And the duck won over the hearts and minds of the baby-boomer generation.
Now they order the comics for their children and their grandchildren.
The circulation of Aku Ankka has grown for seven straight years in succession and hit a new record early this year, at 320,514 copies.
Aku Ankka is Finland's largest magazine, not including some free magazines put out to customers by store chains and the like.
The circulation is greater in Finland than anywhere else in the Nordic countries, or even in the United States itself, where the Walt Disney character's weekly and monthly comic books play second fiddle to the actual cartoons. In terms of individual copies sold, Aku Ankka still lags behind the roughly 426,000 claimed by Helsingin Sanomat - published by the same media group, SanomaWSOY.
But in terms of actual readers, Aku Ankka shows a swifter turn of webbed foot. It boasts a readership of nearly 1.4 million.
According to surveys taken by Taloustutkimus, the comics have 1,084,000 readers over the age of 12 years, and Sanoma Magazines Finland's own assays report there are a further 300,000 under that age.
By any standard, Aku Ankka can be described as SanomaWSOY's lucky nickel, which the then editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat Eljas Erkko found lying in the street in the 1930s.
The rival newspaper Aamulehti had initially bought the rights to Disney's Mickey Mouse strip cartoons (Mikki Hiiri in Finnish) in 1930, but chose not to renew the contract after a couple of years.
Way back when, the then Printing Works Director of Sanoma Corporation Risto Kavanne described the Aku Ankka brand as "a veritable goldmine", and there is little doubt that the motherlode is still delivering fist-sized nuggets today.
The comics' publishers Sanoma Magazines Finland do not release individual figures of the revenue from the magazines, but a simple multiplication sum suggests that the subscriptions generate net sales of around EUR 20 million a year.
This is around 10 per cent of Sanoma Magazines Finland's annual turnover.
The Aku Ankka comic books are produced by an editiorial staff of four. This covers the weekly magazine, monthly magazines, and Internet pages.
The weekly magazine itself (it was actually a monthly until 1956 and then appeared fortnightly for the next four years) has not changed to any great degree from its Finnish inception. In the 1990s the other Scandinavian publishers increased the number of pages to 64, but in Finland it remains at 36 pages.
According to editor Jukka Heiskanen, this means that the comics in Finnish are of better overall quality than elsewhere. "We can take the best stories for Aku Ankka, and we can also put in what we want, for instance the longer stories by classic illustrators such as Carl Barks and Don Rosa", says Heiskanen.
It is only as recently as 1997 that the names of illustrators have been added as byelines to the comics.
In the view of Jukka Heiskanen, one of the factors behind the runaway success of the Aku Ankka books in the Finnish market is that they do not have to compete for children's pocket money on the shelves of newsstands and kiosks. In the Finnish model, Aku Ankka is subscribed and delivered directly to homes, so the magazines are paid for by the parents. The tradition began already in the 1950s, when Helsingin Sanomat's own sales agents were also busy promoting the duck.
Another trump card is the clear and clever use of language in the cartoon speech-bubbles.
This goes back right to the earliest days, and to the magazine's very first editor, Eljas Erkko's former secretary Sirkka Ruotsalainen. Erkko was himself convinced that the reason for the initial poor take-up of Kalle Anka & Co., the Swedish equivalent of Aku Ankka, was that the slang used was turning off adults.
Because of the crisp language style adopted here, Aku Ankka soon became a magazine for the entire family, and not just for children. And when the parents were doing the buying, this was a serious business consideration.
Good examples of the sort of language that appeals and has won plaudits are hard to translate off the cuff, but they include the cultivation of regional dialects, wordplaying, and the witty "localisations" of names of characters.
This could mean for instance calling a motor racing driver "Mika Säkkinen" [after F1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen], or juxtaposing syllables - "Ladvin Eine" for the Finnish film director Edvin Laine, or making transparent "direct" translations of names like "Clint Itäpuu" [Itäpuu is directly translated as Eastwood].
"The adults get the allusion and smile at it, and even if the children do not always catch it, they find the names funny in any case", says Heiskanen. It is a win-win situation.
In the Duckburg world (Ankkalinna to Finnish readers), there is no mortality, no eroticism, no religion, no alcohol or substance abuse, and no party politics. So what exactly is it that fascinates the Finns?
Author Hannu Raittila takes the view that a Finnish reader recognises something of himself or herself in the character of Donald.
"Donald is forever getting into difficulties or coming under threat from some direction or another. The duck hero has to get himself out of all manner of unexpected and unreasonable scrapes using only his wits and the slim resources he can put his hands on, all of which meshes nicely with the popular image of Finland as driftwood in the crosscurrents of world politics."
Donald Duck also has something of another, more ancient mythical bird about him.
He shares with the phoenix an unquenchable spirit of regeneration. "When he's been tarred and feathered and battered and rolled in the mud, he always jumps to his feet with the same cheerful never-say-die optimism and vigour", says Raittila.
Up in the North, it is Dogged Donald who is the most popular character in the Duckburg universe, while in Central Europe he comes second to the "smarter" Mickey Mouse. Mickey is a born winner, and Donald, well, he might lose a fair bit, but he's a trier - and we relish our heroic failures hereabouts, as the attached IntEd article from 2004 may indicate.
It is probably no surprise to note that in elections in Scandinavia, protest votes are given to Donald Duck, while in the United States it is more likely to be Mickey who gets the write-in vote when all other candidates fail to please.
According to Hannu Raittila, there is more to Donald and his chums than mere identification, however. He argues that the world presented in the Aku Ankka pages helped to guide the baby-boomer generations through the extensive changes that Finnish society underwent over the same period.
"For the big generations in the post-war era, their lives coincided with Finland's metamorphosis from an agrarian state to a post-modern, post-industrial one."
"Little boys and girls in the rural Finland of the 1950s thirsted for the tales from Duckburg, which contained such modern features as urban life, the spread of the motor car, self-service shopping, large supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and golf. These were details taken from American culture that have subsequently become part and parcel of the reality of a modernised Finland", suggests Raittila.
Marko Leppälä - an Aku Ankka collector and a member of the Aku Ankka enthusiasts group "Ankistit" - points out that the comics initially had little or no competition, which made the task of conquering the Finnish market that much easier.
He notes that from the outset the magazines were printed on decent paper and were an attractive product, and the stories were top quality, which meant that even after the novelty wore off, the initial popularity was sustained.
At the same time, he tends to take the traditionalists' view that the newer comics do not hold a candle to the classics of the genre by the likes of Carl Barks. "But that's a matter of taste, of course", Leppälä adds.
Finland's vibrant duck-culture has also spawned a certain amount of export. The Finnish Donald Duck illustrator Kari Korhonen (b. 1973) has his own coterie of fans around the world.
The famous comic book writer and illustrator Don Rosa is huge in Finland - in fact his name here is probably a good deal bigger than in his native USA.
He has visited Finland on several occasions, and his 1999 Uncle Scrooge album entitled Sammon salaisuus (officially translated as "The Quest for Kalevala", though the direct translation of the title is "The Secret of Sampo") was a massive local bestseller. It explored the national epic in Rosa's own inimitable style and featured images of Helsinki in the 1950s, and it has subsequently been translated for readers in 15 countries, including the US and Brazil.
A quite separate and equally powerful phenomenon has been the oeuvres of Finnish artist Kaj Stenvall, mentioned at the beginning of this article.
His work is immediately recognisable by the duck figures, quirkily and often absurdly transposed into otherwise familiar landscapes and settings (see external link below).
Stenvall himself says that Donald was the starting-point for the "very familiar-looking duck" he used when embarking on the series of paintings in 1989. "Quite soon, however, I wanted to cut the umbilical cord to Walt Disney's character. I developed a kind of ‘Everyduck', containing ingredients from a variety of sources, including the Warner Bros. cartoon figure Daffy Duck."
Nowadays Stenvall gets almost annoyed when his paintings are called "duckworks".
"The character I'm using is a hybrid, who is there to replace the classical human figure in paintings. The viewer can see through it to something that is personally touching."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.4.2007
More on this subject:
BACKGROUND: When Aamulehti rejected Mickey Mouse
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish Donald Duck on display in Washington (20.3.2007)
Donald Duck and the noble art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (15.6.2004)
Don Rosa´s mighty ducks in Kalevala, the Land of Heroes (an ancient IntEd article from November 1999)
Don Rosa´s Secret of Sampo already in 4th edition (23.12.1999)
Aku Ankka (Wikipedia)
Aku Ankka Official Website in Finnish
Kaj Stenvall, artist
KATRI KALLIONPÄÄ / Helsingin Sanomat