Twenty-five years ago this month, "Darkwing Duck" debuted on ABC's Disney Afternoon after a trial run on the Disney Channel.
Created by veteran animator Tad Stones, the series drew on elements familiar to the Disney stable while creating something wholly unique: It was of a piece with Carl Barks' iconic ducks, yet featured almost entirely new characters; it served as a thematic follow-up to the recent hits "Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers," "DuckTales," and "TaleSpin" but set apart in tone and style. Perhaps most unusual, even as several different trends have come and gone that would have offered ample opportunity for a follow-up -- the direct-to-video era, the spinoff, the nostalgia kick, the reboot craze -- in 25 years, despite two Daytime Emmy Award nominations and a ravenous fan following, "Darkwing Duck" has not produced a clear successor and has not been tapped for a major revival. The closest it's come is the release of two comics series, the first from BOOM! Studios and the second the recently launched title from Joe Books. More than one-third of aired episodes remain unreleased on DVD and streaming services. So what, then, is the lasting influence of "Darkwing Duck," if any?
"Darkwing Duck" was both an action show and a send-up of action shows, spoofing Batman and The Shadow even as it reveled in the tropes that made those heroes popular. The first thing most casual fans will remember is Darkwing's catchphrases, parodies of the over-serious epithets given to pulp heroes. "I am the terror that flaps in the night," he begins; then, "I am the pustulant blister that bursts in your boot!" Or, "I am the paper cut that ruins your morning." Or, "I am the parking meter that expires while you shop!" And, of course, "Let's get dangerous."
Accompanied by his sidekick Launchpad McQuack (imported from "DuckTales") and adoptive daughter Gosalyn, Darkwing, alias Drake Mallard, fought the super-criminals of St. Canard. The show came about during a vital period of animation, amid the likes of "Tiny Toon Adventures," "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and "Batman: The Animated Series" (which debuted the following year). And of course Disney itself had found a formula for success taking well-known characters like Chip 'n' Dale and Scrooge McDuck and placing them in new contexts. "Darkwing Duck" may have succeeded, in part, because it felt familiar while doing something a bit different. These are all new characters (save Launchpad and a couple of villains), but the trail had been blazed for Disney animals having amazing adventures. It was a parody, so it felt a bit dangerous, like being in on a secret.
Oh, and it was really good.
Darkwing's origin, unsurprisingly, comes from "DuckTales," although it's not as much of a straight line as one might expect. Stones cites as a genesis point the "Double-O Ducks" episode, which features Launchpad as a secret agent in the James Bond vein. "I tried to develop [a show] with Launchpad and Gizmoduck," Stones told Anime World News in 2004, "but I said, 'This is just a parody, it's got no sense of family, of characters, whatever.'" Producers at Disney believed Stones was on to something, but also agreed that it needed work. "I got to thinking of the Green Hornet and The Shadow, all the comic book stuff that I loved, the [Julius] Schwartz/Silver Age era of DC Comics, Jimmy Olsen turning into Turtle Boy, Elastic Lad. Yeah, I'd like to do something with that. Then when we wondered, 'What if Batman had to raise a little girl?' the idea finally gelled. That's what gave the show the real heart, the real dynamic." Stones based the character of Gosalyn on his own daughter, then two years old; the mixture of heart, satire, and good, old-fashioned super-heroism proved dynamite.
"Darkwing Duck" aired for just three seasons, between 1991-92. In that period it was nominated for two Daytime Emmys, spawned four unique video games, cut commercials for Cocoa Crispies and Frosted Flakes, and ensured its immortality via perhaps the ear-wormingest cartoon advertisement ever produced ("Whack! Smack! What was that?").