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?”).
So where is Darkwing now?
In 2010, already almost 20 years after the TV series ended, “Darkwing Duck” made his much-anticipated return, although in comics rather than animation. BOOM! Studios had acquired the publication rights, and launched “The Duck Knight Returns” miniseries by writer Ian Brill and artist James Silvani; the success of the miniseries led to it being extended into an ongoing series. BOOM! would lose the license just a year and a half later, however, and controversy erupted when former editor Aaron Sparrow claimed he wrote many of the early issues, a charge Brill and BOOM! deny; a recent compendium of the BOOM! issues from current license-holder Joe Books credits Sparrow as the sole writer after he rewrote the dialogue and Brill requested his name be removed from the project. Sparrow is writing the current series of new stories from that publisher, with Silvani once again on art.
For comics folk, then, “Darkwing” is with us, even if the publication history is a bit murky. But perhaps the most meaningful legacy is in the animators it inspired. That’s even muddier, but that doesn’t mean the influence isn’t real. If “Ren & Stimpy” paved the way for “The Amazing World of Gumball,” “Darkwing Duck” likely gave us the modern heroic humor cartoon, from “Teen Titans GO!” to “Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!” Or even “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” — watch any previous iteration of “MLP” (I dare you), it’s a very different show.
“Darkwing Duck” set several precedents. Drake Mallard was a single father and very much approached things as a dad, setting him apart from nearly every other major Disney character, who were always “uncles” (Scrooge, Donald, Mickey); later, Goofy was allowed a son for his film franchise. It also proved, after the reinventions of beloved heroes in “Rescue Rangers” and “DuckTales,” that Disney could spin a hit action series without established characters; “Gargoyles” would follow in these footsteps a few years later, albeit with a markedly different tone. The closest thing to this Disney has done in recent years may be “Jake and the Neverland Pirates,” which features original heroes but imports the villains and settings from “Peter Pan.”
But will the Terror Who Flaps in the Night ever return to television? The comics, the 2010 mobile game and a robust showing in a fan poll for playable Disney Infinity 3.0 characters suggests a revival is at least on Disney’s radar. But whenever rumors of a new animated series crop up they tend to be quickly quashed.
At this stage, nostalgia is not a compelling enough reason for Disney to sink resources into a new “Darkwing Duck” cartoon. Future success, however, just might be. Cartoon Network revived “Powerpuff Girls” after 10 years away (the original ended in 2005; a highly stylized special reintroduced Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup in 2014 before a more familiar-looking series premiered in 2016). In this instance, the sharp writing and knowing humor that made the original a hit were retained, while subtle tweaks to animation and tone brought the show up to date for today’s kids (and their parents). The same could be done for “Darkwing Duck,” if only someone at Disney picks up the gas gun and runs with it. Let’s get dangerous.
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