Merci, Oncle Picsou (thanks, Uncle Scrooge)
I have, for as long as I remember, been a fan of comic books. Not the "adventure" or "super hero" comics, but the funny ones - Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and so on. My parents didn't discourage these when I was young, but I knew that some of my friends' parents didn't like them. Perhaps that created a sense of protest which fueled my desire to read them and contributed to making me an enthusiastic reader later in life.
I still have some of those old comic books around - the age is evident by the cover price, 10 cents each for the oldest I have. They are not valuable collectors' items, they are much too torn and dog-eared. But they are still enjoyed not only by me but by my grandchildren.
By my 20s, I'd found another way to enjoy them. When I was trying to learn foreign languages, I discovered that comic books existed in translation and were a wonderful way to get started in a foreign language. On any trip abroad, I'd seek out a used book store and hope to find cheap torn copies of the adventures of "Oncle Picsou" (Uncle Scrooge, in French), "Dagobert Duck" (in German), or even "Zio Paparone" (the same elderly gentleman - rather, duck - in Italian). I won't normally pick up a serious book in French or German for 15 minutes, just to stay in practice. But I do enjoy rereading a comic book for a few minutes, and it helps keep the language in mind.
In fact, comic books have an advantage - they actually show examples of the spoken language, as opposed to the more formal or impersonal language of books and newspapers. And if I'm not sure of a word, the pictures help.
Donald Duck and his "Oncle Picsou" are a wonderful place to start - I know many of the stories, and have a good idea of how the characters will react to a particular situation. But one needn't stop at translations of American comic books. An entire school of comic books exists, the Franco-Belgian school, in which many of the books have been widely translated.
The many volumes of Asterix the Gaul may be better known internationally than Donald Duck. Certainly I've found languages where I could find translations of Asterix but not of Donald. Asterix, however, has a wide vocabulary and a strong current of multilingual puns, so it may have to wait until one is pretty comfortable with the language. As an English speaker, I get the pun when a tribal leader is named Vitalstatistix or a somewhat sluggish Roman soldier is named Crismus Bonus, but I suspect I'm missing many more puns in other languages.
Another perennial Franco-Belgian favorite - one I've collected in several languages - is Lucky Luke, the American cowboy. I wonder how many foreign children get their early impressions of American history from Lucky Luke's adventures exploring the West? He chases bandits, protects wagon trains from Indians, and Indians from slick confidence men. Many of the stories have an interesting bit of real history or folklore in them, although they take considerable comic-book license. In "The Bridge Over the Mississippi," men building the first bridge at St. Louis have to deal with alligators in the river.
And I'm entranced with the political and economic spoofs in Achille Talon, again available in most European languages, though I've never seen it in English. I would love to see how the whimsical foreign accents represented there would be translated.
As my wife and I have traveled in Europe, we frequently have been invited into people's homes. We've been amazed at how well American comic books have been received as hostess gifts.
Some years ago we were walking on a local hiking trail in Gif, a suburb south of Paris. A family was in their backyard, gardening, and my wife struck up a conversation through the back fence. Soon we found ourselves invited to dinner, and the comic books were an enormous hit. The parents wanted their children to study English, but rather disapproved of comic books. The kids loved comic books, but had little interest in reading English. English-language comic books seemed the perfect solution, as comic books had been when I was a child.
We became such good friends that I exhausted my supply of comic books and went out to search for more. Seeking English- language comic books in Paris is not an everyday task. I did find a store on the West Bank that had them - the French ones translated into English, rather than untranslated American ones, but that met the need.
Now, of course, the Internet has changed the whole enterprise. I can easily order a new Asterix, Lucky Luke, or Achille Talon from my own home without even having to go to a large city's foreign-language bookstore or a large university bookstore.
But it is more expensive this way, and I still treasure the cheap, dog-eared and torn copies I found years ago in used-book stores. Now that I think of it, maybe that's why I'm such a fan of Oncle Picsou.