Great shows: Darkwing Duck

He's the terror that flaps in the night!
December 11, 2009
The year was 1991. The U.S.S.R. officially went back to being Russia, Comedy Central was released in its current format, and Magic Johnson had come out and announced that officially has HIV. In addition, Nickelodeon's Nicktoons were running wild, and Nintendo's new Super Nintendo and Sega's speedy blue hedgehog Sonic were both mega-hits in the video gaming world. At this time, Disney's two-hour long block of four half-hour long series called "The Disney Afternoon" was in full swing. Consisting mainly of a group of soft and safe series that was instantly successful (to the point of having the "Disney Afternoon Avenue" in Disneyland), the block had just finished it's first season. Now for Season 2, the block would start introducing at least one newer series, bumping the oldest show from the block for the new show (in this case, Adventures of the Gummi Bears was dropped and aired on Disney Channel). The fifth Disney Afternoon series was a superhero-spoof called...

Initally conceived during production of the very successful Disney Afternoon series "DuckTales", the episode "Double-O Duck" was being done as a hopeful spin-off, remaining true to fans' claim that Disney may have Mickey Mouse as a mascot, but the studio loves ducks. The theme would center on the titular character acting as a send-up of the spy genre. However, in light of the success of the 1989 film "Batman", the spy theme was retooled into a superhero satire called "Darkwing Duck". The first Disney Afternoon series to emphasize action rather than adventure, I happened to love "Gummi Bears", "DuckTales" and Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers" very much (not really "TaleSpin", though...maybe I just never saw what "The Jungle Book" had to do with cargo piloting?), but one of my immediate favorites starred the self-proclaimed "Terror that Flaps in the Night".

The basis behind "Darkwing Duck" centers in the town of St. Canard, a Gotham City-like metropolis infested with crime. While criminals run rampant throughout the city, there is one duck, donned in a costume, together with his faithful sidekick, who would fight the various wrongdoings in the name of justice under the name of Darkwing Duck.

The series' main protagonist--and titular hero--is Darkwing Duck (voice of Jim Cummings). With his grenade launcher-like Gas Gun, he pledged to stop crime wherever it may rise. What drives his need to be a hero is likely due to an ego streak; he may not have a dark, tortured psyche that we know about, but he's something of a break from all the 'great power comes great responsibility' heroes that are seemingly made from a cookie cutter. He is not exactly the most popular character in town, which clashes with his ego; constantly he must grapple with obtaining fame and being a good role model for his adopted daughter Gosalyn. In a sense, he's an ideal everyman from the 1990s--not a multi-millonaire, not an invincible super soldier, not anymore powerful than the next guy standing next to you, just an average Joe who proves you can do anything even without wealth, power or fame. When not fighting crime, his alter ego is ordinary suburban dad Drake Mallard. Much like Batman, he has no superpowers, defending justice solely on finesse, intelligence and mortal weapons. He's prone to hold grudges and strives for more limelight, but once he puts down personal issues and his own ego, criminals don't have a chance against him.

His sidekick is Launchpad McQuack (Terry McGovern). Wait, you ask, wasn't he originally on "DuckTales"? Yes, but being what Disney Afternoon fans may call the Disney Afternoon mascot, he got to appear in a second series, probably enforcing the idea that this show is set in the same universe as "DuckTales". Being a huge fan of the underappreciated hero, he became (eventually, in the series' pilot) Darkwing's sidekick. Having designed and built the ThunderQuack (a plane shaped like DW's head), he still gets to fly--and he's still no better at landings. At one point, it was speculated that he was to be the star of "TaleSpin", but the guys at Disney figured he may work better playing off someone rather than be the main focus; and given his popularity among fans it seemed likely that he would appear on another series after Disney chose to end "DuckTales"...and that show was "Darkwing Duck".

Darkwing's adopted daughter is Gosalyn Mallard (Christine Cavanaugh). However, she doesn't refer to herself as adopted--she fully embraces the idea of being his birth child. Born Waddlemeyer, she is a nine-year old hell-raising tomboy who's about as hard-headed as her new dad. She's an afficiando for horror movies and extreme sports and lives in an everyday suburban home with her adoptive father figure and his sidekick to give her some sense of a normal life. Gosalyn is a critical element in Darkwing's life--the episode "Time and Punishment" establishes that! Series creator Tad Stones once stated in an interview that he based Gosalyn off what he imagined his then two-year-old daughter would eventually become once she had grown older.

Gosalyn's best friend--and the only other one who's aware of Darkwing's secret identity--is Honker Muddlefoot (Katie Leigh). A shy and booksmart boy-next-door who we can imagine would later develop romantic feelings for Gosalyn, he's the odd-man-out of his family--consisting of big doofus Quackerware salesman dad Herb, proper and scatterbrained mom Binkie and his bully of a big brother Tank, his intellect is clearly not genetic. He's clearly helpful towards Darkwing and Launchpad for logical answers.

Then there are some secondary characters. Beyond Honker's family, there is J. Gander Hooter, S.H.U.S.H. director who highly regards Darkwing to the chagrin of his by-the-book top agent Gryzzlikof, duck-turned-dinosaur Stegmutt, protector of the sea Neptunia, criminal sorceress-turned-reformed love interest for Darkwing Morgana MaCawber, and GizmoDuck, also ported over from "DuckTales" as Darkwing's more popular rival.

And of course, St. Canard wouldn't have need for protection without some regular villains, right? And Darkwing Duck does indeed have a wide variety of colorful villains that he would oppose. Amongst them included a very powerful crime lord named Taurus Bulba (Tim Curry), the not-evil-just-misjudged doctor turned mutant plant duck Dr. Bushroot (Tino Insana), the bottled water salesman turned sales pitch talking 'slippery villain' Liquidator (Jack Angel), complusive cleaner Ammonia Pine (Mitzi McCall), the destructively starving artist Splatter Phoenix (Dani Staahl and later Andrea Martin), Cajun-fried Bayou Bully Jambalaya Jake (Michael Gough), the darkness-obsessed mechanical genius Moliarty (Jim Cummings), the film-making schemer Tuskerninni (Kenneth Mars), the insane toymaker-turned supervillain QuackerJack (Michael Bell), the frazzled, electrically charged nutcase Megavolt (Dan Castellaneta), Steelbeak (Rob Paulsen), the top agent of F.O.W.L. (short for Fiendish Organization for World Larceny) and Darkwing's evil impostor, the psychotically sinister NegaDuck (Jim Cummings).

The show itself is rather uneven, in the sense it tries to do a whole lot of things at once. This isn't a bad thing though--the writers were many times excellent at executing each type. There's everyday tasks like typical sitcom scenarios (write a comic book), and superhero stuff ranging from the routine like catching a common crook or foiling a heist, to the fantastic elements like time travel and alien invasions. The episode "Twin Beaks" (an episode I'm sure would fly right over any and all children's heads) was like a long, extended riff on David Lynch's cult-favorite surrealism-oriented series "Twin Peaks" (David Lynch was actually involved with many episodes). The show does have a good amount of humor and sarcasm that are prevailant, as you'd probably expect. It is capable of making non-lowbrow humor to please mature audiences, so one can't say this show is forever stuck in the early 1990s.

Another little thing that I liked was the occassional morality it would give. One of my favorite episodes was the episode titled "Dead Duck". Against Launchpad's urgings, Darkwing doesn't want to worry about something like his helmet while hot on Megavolt's trail, and he winds up crashing his Ratcatcher motorcycle into a brick wall and supposedly meets his demise (that would do it, alright). While Darkwing finds himself consoling a grieving Launchpad and Gosalyn, he tries to have Morgana find a cure for death. Now seemingly struck with stardom, Megavolt is now a talk show host and while Darkwing still tries to stop him, he soon finds himself on the run from the Grim Reaper (surprisingly yes, that was an actual episode!). Near the end, Morgana uses the following line: "While the common cold goes away in 3 to 5 days, death is a...little more permanent." While it later turned out to be a miracle that Darkwing survived, I really like this episode because it still proves that the audience can sympathize with an animated character and it stresses the important safety rule of wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle.

Did I mention there's also the occassional Hidden Mickey?

The show itself manages to fresh and funny, and still succeeds at what it sets out to do as a joke on superhero lore. However, one little problem might be that it's probably best taken in little bits. It has lots of wacky slapstick to make little kids laugh, but as I once stated in an earlier article, that can prove to be a little monotonous for a mature viewer. Because each episode is only a half-hour long, and puts action and slapstick over narrative, that can be a problem if one watches too many episodes at once.

At the same time, one little recurring question about our main hero that everyone seems to have is essentially guilty of some "Fridge Logic". It's like this--so, when you're Darkwing Duck, your job is to fight crime, solve mysteries, stop bad guys, uphold justice and keep the city of St. Canard safe. Okay, I get that. But...when you're Drake Mallard, do you have like, a day job? Where does Drake (and well, Launchpad) necessarily get his money from when he's not being Darkwing Duck? How does he eat, buy gas, buy gadgets, own a house, support himself and a child if we don't know if he's got something like a 9-to-5 job? I suppose it makes perfect sense if you're a child and money is only relevant to buy candy, but for adults it raises a few questions. I guess he DOES work, we just don't see him routinely going to it (it's not like everyday we see Honker's dad doing his job--hell, we don't need to know if Gosalyn is actually at school and trying to write an English essay, that slows down the fun). The other answer is probably that he is a S.H.U.S.H. agent and they probably fund him to go undercover. My best estimate.

Another thing is if you were to watch the episodes in their original broadcast order, you'd find some inconsistencies. One such a problem (though it's not the only Disney cartoon series to do this) is the way certain things are set up. In the proper broadcast order, one sees the episode "Beauty and the Beet", which gives Bushroot's origin and a later episode like "Night of the Living Spud" have him established as a villain. In another case, Megavolt was initally seen as a common villain in the show, only to later have him become established to have known Drake back when they were in high school together. This isn't too bad, but there is also the confusing setup of NegaDuck. One may initally see in an episode like "Just Us Justice Ducks" that he is already established as a regular villain in St. Canard and everyone is used to his antics, but then there were later episodes like "Life, the Negaverse, and Everything" (establishing where the character came from) and "NegaDuck", which acts as an origin story of how he (presumably) had got a physical body. I thought the origin was supposed to come first...?

Now, I know what you're thinking. How could one character have two origins, as I said in that last paragraph? Well, it's true. There were two different versions of the character NegaDuck. The character idea was properly introduced in the episode titled "NegaDuck". In this episode, it says he's the result of Darkwing, while in the middle of foiling a heist by Megavolt, had been zapped by Megavolt's tron splitter--ie. the result of Darkwing's good side being seperated from his evil side. In an attempt to stop the heroes from remerging him with the good Darkwing, the evil Darkwing set himself out to smash Megavolt's tron splitter and was accidently zapped again, becoming galvanized. Naming himself "NegaDuck", he went on a rampage only to later have to fight the galvanized "PosiDuck" and they were later remerged. In "Life, the Negaverse, and Everything", the current NegaDuck is revealed to be a seperate entity, supposedly being a Bizarro Darkwing. He would act as a leader of the Fearsome Five--a ragtag group of villains consisting of Darkwing's worst enemies. Where he came from and what he had to do with the first character was never fully explained. There was a planned upcoming episode that was supposed to explain the link, but it was mighty cryptic. In one interview with Word of God Tad Stones, he explained that the character was something of an afterthought; he was once intended to be a one-shot character, but the writers liked him so much they decided to turn him into a regular villain.

Then again, I think Darkwing had more than one origin: one in the episode "Paraducks" (where Drake is a little geek who thanks to Darkwing was inspired to be a hero) and "The Secret Origin of Darkwing Duck" (which acted as a send-up of the origin of Superman). Hmm...maybe this is best left as stand-alone episodes.

Another thing I once read about involved the character QuackerJack. He is something of the series' obvious spoof of Batman's Joker, and was originally supposed to be very dark and malevolent (again, like the Joker), but due to Disney, well, not tolerating excessive violence and terror (some fans can say that due to the company being what it is, it can leave you wishing for something more ominous), he became more of a silly, eccentric villain. As a result, Tad Stones claims him to be one of his least favorite characters in the show. That doesn't seem to stop him from being a popular character though...

Not an actual screenshot, but the final episode of the show, called "Extinct Possibility" dealt with Darkwing, Launchpad and Gosalyn being called to the museum by J. Gander Hooter. There they discover...Darkwing himself encased in a block of amber?? Using QuackerJack's Time Top, they time travel back to the Dinosaur era to seek an answer. In the end, Gosalyn and Launchpad return to the present without Darkwing, who later gets himself encased in sap. Millions of years later (or rather, once Gosalyn and Launchpad return to the present), they...just let him out. Yeah. Face value, it's the final episode, but doesn't act much like one. If this is intended to be metaphoric for "Darkwing Duck is dead and it'll be eons before we do anything with him again"...yeah. Not satisfying either. The show, I understand, was supposed to continue for another season, but some executive meddling set in. It seemed evident that the show was supposed to continue, but as it is the show didn't truly end; it just sorta...stopped.

Having ran from September of 1991 until December 1992, "Darkwing Duck" had an impressive episode haul. With a total of 91 episodes, it was probably beat only by "DuckTales" for total episode count. All of which were a full half-hour. That episode total would allow "Darkwing Duck" to run everyday of the week for at least four times a year. It would have been truly epic, but unfortunately there was never a feature film about "Darkwing Duck" (Maybe the failure of "DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp" had something to say about that--after all, there was a "Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers" movie planned but the DuckTales movie's failure halted it's production). Now, "Darkwing Duck" was not the final "Disney Afternoon" series that fans considered memorable--fans claim that to be the very tonally-different "Goof Troop", released in 1992. It was part of "The Disney Afternoon" until 1995 (where it was bumped from the cycle to make room for "The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa") and briefly returned for the season of 1996-1997 (and at that point, The Disney Afternoon was starting to wear itself out). However, it found itself a nice home airing on Disney's cable channel Toon Disney. There were a few episodes that Disney would only rarely air though--I know some episodes are recognizable for being edited due to some rule that...well, they will not show girls being hit, for one thing. One episode known for being pulled was the episode "Hot Spells". It was an infamous lost episode which was about Darkwing and Gosalyn visiting Morgana's old school of witchcraft. Due to it's character of Beezlebub--ie. Satan--and Gosalyn accidently selling Darkwing's soul--Disney will probably not air this episode publicly anymore.

And of course, there was a wide plethora of Darkwing Duck merchandise. This list is not complete, but there were children's books, coloring books, stickers, comic books, figurines that you'd find in Kellogg's breakfast cereals, a replica of Darkwing's gas gun that blows bubbles, a plush toy of the main hero, and there was even a Halloween costume made! There were also four VHS cassettes made, titled "Darkwing Duck: His Favorite Adventures". Each tape would contain two episodes of the series: "Darkly Dawns the Duck" (two-parter), "Comic Book Capers" (titular episode and "Brush with Oblivion"), "Justice Ducks Unite!" (two-part "Just Us Justice Ducks") and "Birth of NegaDuck!" ("NegaDuck" and "Tiff of the Titans"). These tapes came with 8 different collectable cards of the series' characters (2 in each tape). And don't forget the Pizza Hut promotion--this is such an awesome selection of merchandise!

Then of course, there was the chance to see Darkwing Duck in Disney's World on Ice show, the chance to greet him at DisneyWorld and even a music video! Seriously, Disney knew how much we loved Darkwing and his pals!

Oh yeah, and there was also the Valentines. Seriously, when I write one of these articles, despite being a holiday nut I constantly forget about the Valentines! You could buy 'em at K-Mart, include some candy and address them to all your buddies at school. What better way to wish your classmates a Happy Valentine's Day than with Darkwing Duck?

Not all of it was successful though...I remember there also a short-lived toyline that was produced by Playmates, the same company responsible for all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys. I still remember the commercial selling them that ended with Darkwing crashing into a brick wall and he lands head first in a trash can saying "Boy, do I need a vacation!" Each figure had a specific wacky feature, ie. Darkwing's fedora hat would fly up off his head and spin around. This action figure toyline lasted only one wave and had the four main heroes (Darkwing Duck, Launchpad, Gosalyn and Honker) as well as four of the main villains (Tuskerninni, Bushroot, Steelbeak and Megavolt). They even made vehicular toys of the Ratcatcher and the ThunderQuack! For what I read, there was supposed to be a second wave which would have introduced more of the characters (including QuackerJack, Moliarty and yes, NegaDuck), but it was cancelled, and now these toys themselves are extremely rare to find nowadays. My estimate is that these toys were recalled for the reason being they presented a possible choking hazard.

One more thing...Darkwing Duck was also featured on Nintendo Power issue #36. Does this mean there was a Darkwing Duck video game? You bet there was! Two in fact!

Designed by Capcom in the catalog of their licensed Disney action platformer games, "Darkwing Duck" became available in 1992 for the NES and was ported over to the Game Boy in 1993. Playing similar to a Mega Man game, you play as Darkwing Duck, traveling all over St. Canard stopping most of the major villains from the show, including Wolfduck (???), QuackerJack, Moliarty, Liquidator, Bushroot, Megavolt and finally Steelbeak. I very much enjoyed this game, it was Capcom's way of establishing how to do a licensed game right. Controls are solid, characters look like what they are supposed to be, and it still proves fun to play right now. For flaws, well, I think it would have been really cool if NegaDuck could have been incorporated into the game somehow (maybe one more stage after you beat Steelbeak?) and it's not the most forgiving retro NES game (one hit = you're fine, two hits = you're okay, three hits = you're in trouble, four hits = you're dead). As a whole, it's not quite as good as the earlier releases of "DuckTales" and "Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers" but that's faint criticism; it's still a fun, polished game and it's still worth dusting off your NES to play!

Now, I said there was two, but wouldn't that mean it should one game on two platforms? Actually no. As cool as I would imagine a Darkwing Duck-themed Street Fighter-type of game would be (they did Mega Man, so why not?), there was another Darkwing Duck video game. This was a game made for the TurboGrafx-16.

Yep, the floundering TurboGrafx-16 from NEC had a Darkwing Duck video game. It was made by Radiance (who made the best "TaleSpin" game, though that's not saying much), and was released in 1992. The plot involves Darkwing Duck being called upon by S.H.U.S.H. to piece together a slashed up painting. It turns out that Steelbeak has united St. Canard's most powerful criminals and plots to build a crime weapon to seize control of the city. This game is much different than the NES and Game Boy games, in the sense it's not simply run-and-jump but it also uses a puzzle piece collecting theme. What can I say about this game? Well, if the NES and Game Boy games are considered the 'good Darkwing game', this you can dub the 'bad Darkwing game'. Probably the only thing it does better than the NES game is the fact it has more visually appealing graphics. What's wrong with it? For starters, within the game you fight fewer villains from the show. Yeah, on a superior console, you would fight only four villains--Tuskerninni, Moliarty, Megavolt and Steelbeak. This won't cut it compared to the NES game, which gave you at least six recognizable characters! For the controls, Darkwing jumps like his feet are stuck in hardened cement which makes it difficult to make simple jumps. Not only that, but this is your primary means of attack. You can use Darkwing's Gas Gun, like in the NES game, but you have limited ammo--your primary way of fighting the criminals is by jumping on their heads a la Super Mario Bros. The aforementioned problem with jumping is bad, however, what makes it completely INEXCUSABLE is the abundance of cheap hits! You're not just risking damage by coming close to an enemy but you'll take damage even if an enemy's attack clearly misses! That's terrible programming, this game is just barely playable. Oh yeah, and there's also a little gameplay element too...

You're better off playing through the problems than standing idly...

...yes. You get 'punished' by the game and lose a life just because you made Darkwing stand still for too long.

Bottom line? Stick with the NES and Game Boy games.

What has Darkwing Duck done after his television run? ...To be honest, nothing really. Darkwing Duck made an appearance on the 1993 Disney Afternoon cartoon "Bonkers", but that isn't exactly the world's newest show. The series itself had a home on Toon Disney back when the channel was first launched, but after six years it was pulled entirely from the network along with a whole bunch of other Disney series in November 2004 so Toon Disney's Jetix block could run throughout the night.

But that's not all folks! Darkwing Duck made his official DVD debut in 2006.

...well, it's a start. Very half-assed start, but a start nonetheless. As a company, Disney is notorious for acting like their movies (ie. Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) are a work of higher deities and command respect, while at the same time, they treat these Disney Afternoon series like they need to be quarantined in a death camp. If you look at the above pic, that's the menu for the first disc of the first DVD boxset. Instrumental theme that loops in the background, static artwork, options for languages, subtitles and some trailers, absolutely no special features of any kind, and hell, even the title of the show is MIA! Did I mention these episodes also seem to remain in their edited format?? C'mon Disney, this show deserves better treatment than that! There was another set that was released in 2007, but so far no improvements. There's a total of 54 of the existing 91 episodes that are on the two existing sets, with 37 remaining episodes to go. However...Disney, at least as of this writing, seems to have refused to complete the DVD treatment (along with "DuckTales", "Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers", "TaleSpin" and "Adventures of the Gummi Bears") by claiming it's due to "low sales" (That's a lot of crap...they are ignoring the fact that people are more than happy to buy a TV show by the season, and there is a lot of retro nostalgia-based cash to be made off shows like this!), and seemingly put a veto on cartoon series collections. And let's not start on the other Disney Afternoon series that have yet to see any form of a DVD set release. Disney, seriously...your movies are nice and all. But that doesn't have to be anything and everything; there's more to Disney than just the parks and the movies. I mean not every last movie that came out was a shining beacon of class! I honestly feel they need to stop pushing all this "Winnie the Pooh" and "Disney Princess" merchandise (they'll even admit they are overexposed) and synergize these old Disney Afternoon series, they're much, much, MUCH more appealing! It's possible that things can change in the future, but...we'll see. For all that the Disney Afternoon did for the company in the 1990s, they don't seem like they really want to give back.

Finally, I close by saying I'm proud to have taken the time to know "Darkwing Duck". Still cool with people everywhere nearly 20 years later, he's left a lot of fond memories for us all. Of course I can't find Darkwing Duck guilty of being something wrong, he's got crime to fight! What's left?

"Let's get dangerous!"

Many thanks to all who helped!
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