The Terror That Flaps In The Night, Once More
Honestly, it was never about the guy not in the pants.
Pirates Gold or not, Christmas on Bear Mountain or uncovering the Old Castle’s Secret, Donald Duck was just a platform, a fictive launch-pad for the legendary Carl Barks’ development of an entire world, a fully-developed setting. Donald Duck was a gateway. To Uncle Scrooge and his perennial rivalry with Flintheart Glomgold. To the nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, and their continual fascination with The Junior Woodchucks. To John D. Rockerduck, Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone Gander and even Magica de Spell and the Beagle Boys. Barks’ evolution of a Disney property, his shaping of the world of Duckburg, was an appeal to the shaping of postwar America. Duckburg feels like a beginning, and Barks could be understood to be a cultural equivalent to Japan’s “God of Comics”, Osamu Tezuka.
If Superman at its inception was the fictive FDR, righting wrongs and securing popular support for a new kind of government with a New Deal, then Duckburg and all its residents, philanthropist, kooky genius and social malcontent alike, was a flash of postwar optimism. The dying embers of a dream that all elements of society, no matter how aberrant, might still find a place in society. Duckburg is what we thought we could be, before Joe McCarthy, before Fred Wertham, before the assassinations of Kennedys and Dr. King.
Boom Studio’s Darkwing Duck then, despite carrying a “Boom-Kids” label, is very much a unique challenge to adult readers. Can writer Ian Brill and artist James Silvani find the same charisma of composition that Barks did? Will St. Canard, the usual haunt of Darkwing and his alter ego Drake Mallard, be a mashup of West Coast cities in the same way that Duckburg was of Midwest cities? Will the supporting cast, Launchpad, Gosalyn, Honker, develop the fictive world in the same way that Duckburg’s cast did?
While the expectations are substantial, Darkwing Duck is also a completely different character. One that is structurally different, at a more basic level. Rather than focus solely on articulating the world that might have or perhaps even should have been, Darkwing Duck is a second-tier optimism. As a character, Darkwing Duck is itself the resurgence of the superhero. It is a last gasp of a genre, in the same way the original Duckburg extended a pre-McCarthyist chagrin. With Darkwing and his supporting cast and his town, readers come up against the idea of the superhero at its most basic. It is a glimpse of the genre before Watchmen, before Sandman.
And like the world of Duckburg, the new Darkwing Duck is the site of a secret sociological drama. Like Barks before him, in relation Disney’s ownership of Donald Duck, Brill wrestles with what journalist Malcolm Gladwell defines in Outliers as the Power Distance Index in cultural production. Cultures with a high PDI find themselves reliant on established traditions and specific social hierarchies to navigate the world. Low-PDI cultures however, nurture their heirs on the notion that the world is awash in ambiguity, complexity and that meaning can be made rather than existing as predetermined.
The drama of a culture’s PDI haunts human literature like a specter. It can arguably first be seen in Sophocles’ classical Greek tragedy, Antigone the conclusion of the Oedipus trilogy. Antigone’s quest to bury her brother’s desecrated remains, only to herself be buried alive, and thereby break the Theban social system, is itself a statement on the organizational capacity of a society to determine the individual. Whether with Duckburg, tilting at the better tomorrow hoped for immediately postwar, or with titular hero as a recursive for the superhero genre as a whole, Darkwing Duck feels like another kind of tomorrow.
Brill’s deliberative, meditative reworkings of popular superhero microgenre (the psychological meltdown of superhero identity from Mark Waid’s The Return of Barry Allen, or the sociocultural crises arising from robotic policing as in Frank Miller’s Robocop 2) seem very much like the writer’s picking up of the gauntlet. Brill it seems, is ready to confront the construction of the superhero directly, on its own terms.
But far and away from the Antigone Tomorrow, that is shaped by overarching cultural dramas, you’ll read Darkwing Duck because it’s fun. Because you’ll share it with your kids. Because there is an interminable lightness of spirit to the book. Because there is a cultural sheen that for a moment sets aside the grim realities. Not because it’s a celebration of what the world, and the superhero should have been, but because it’s not.