Monday, February 7, 2011

Desperately Seeking Urizen (DuckTales, DuckTales 2)

Part 3 of an occasional series on the Disney Afternoon. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found by clicking on the obvious places within this sentence. 

A firm foundation - terra firma, so to speak. But what does that mean when one is building an archeology - when one's entire purpose is to disrupt the ground? If there is a lesson of ducks, it is that the firmest ground one can find may well be an illusion.

DuckTales is notable as the only licensed game to routinely make "best of the system" lists for the NES. Which is rare enough for any system - licensed games are usually key parts of the vast glut of mediocrity that makes up a given system. If the superlative is employed to describe them, "best" is usually not the word of choice.

When the Disney Afternoon launched, DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale were its anchor points - TaleSpin was the unknown new property, and the block's original kickoff show, Gummi Bears, was a rubbish holdover that had made its way through two networks before settling in to a dotage in syndication. It was the 3:30-4:30 hour that was where the magic was.

The video game launched more or less concurrently with the Disney Afternoons, and so is clearly part of this definable cultural moment of 1990. As most of the series had aired when the game was released, the designers had a rich tapestry to draw from, and did so freely. Many of the levels correspond loosely to the concepts of episodes of the series, with recognizable monsters in amongst video game standards. For instance, the boss of the African Mines level is recognizable as the Terra-Firmian King from the first season episode Earth Quack.

In this episode, Scrooge and his nephews discover the vast subterranean world of the Terries and Fermies, who create earthquakes with their occasional contests to roll into the pillars holding the earth up. The episode is completely bonkers - it's a mad, absurd premise that is thus perfect for afternoon cartoons because they necessarily get out of the story and on to something else before the novelty wears off.

The thing is, a savvy viewer of Duck Tales in 1987 would have caught something else significant about Earth Quack, which is that it is itself recognizable as an adaptation of Carl Barks's 1956 comic story "The Land Beneath the Ground!" So in the iconic 1990 video game DuckTales is a reference to an iconic 1987 cartoon episode that is itself an adaptation of an iconic 1956 comic story. And notably, the majority of the audience of the video game and the cartoon episode could be assumed to be unaware of the antecedent. That is, most players of DuckTales do not go "Ooh, I remember that episode" upon reaching the end of the African Mines, nor do most viewers of Earth Quack go "Ooh, I remember that comic."

Which is grimly ironic for Carl Barks, whose life is basically defined by being one of the best comics writers never to get a meaningful amount of credit for his work. In the 1940s and 50s, when he was at his prime, he was drawing the most popular comics in the world - Disney's duck comics. He invented almost every duck character that isn't Donald - Scrooge, the nephews, Gyro Gearloose - all of them were Carl Barks creations. DuckTales, as a concept, is nothing more than "let's make an animated series out of those old Carl Barks comics."

Except that for most of his life, he was anonymous. Company practice was that all comics would be ghostwritten, with Walt Disney's signature on them, in order to maintain the illusion that Disney himself did them. People were not generally fooled, and the mythos arose in the late 1950s among afficianados of the comics of "The Good Duck Artist" - the anonymous figure who could be identified stylistically as producing some of the best duck comics going.

In 1960, Carl Barks was finally identified. Shortly thereafter, he retired, but due to his popularity and contributions, managed the then-unprecedented feat of obtaining permission from Disney to privately sell duck art for a living, surviving in retirement off of selling oil paintings of the duck characters, and living until August of 2000.

DuckTales, for which Barks received no royalties, amounted to an attempt to adapt the comics to half-hour cartoons for a new generation of children. (Put in a more cynical way, this massive franchise, created by a company that is one of the most zealous defenders of intellectual property laws, amounts to a decades-long exploitation the intellectual work of one man who died with no significant estate or major assets. Ain't history grand?)

Because the impact of the Barks stories really is absolutely massive. The Disney comics he wrote are still a titanic deal in Europe - in fact, his main successor on the duck books, Don Rosa, basically made his career on comics that saw first publication in European translations. Furthermore, there is Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart's bizarre and intriguing 1971 book How to Read Donald Duck, a Marxist cultural critique of the then-popular-in-Chile duck comics.

Certainly this is a fascinating study in cultural artifacts worthy of some AV Club or I Love The 80s retrospective on DuckTales. But that's not what the Nintendo Project is. The question here is whether there is some essential insight to be found this bizarre thread of memetic DNA that has, improbably, survived for over 30 years in a recognizable form through two transformations each of which is major enough to shear off most of the memetic DNA.

This requires understanding exactly what the memetic DNA is. Which is not just a matter of analyzing the role of the Terra-Firmian king in the African Mines level (which is itself designed brilliantly as a loop circling a centrally-positioned boss monster, thus quietly reinforcing the "king of the center of the earth" concept).

This could be done via an extensive analysis of the Barks material and its impact. But to do so would essentially be a matter of repeating the life work of Donald Ault, Professor of English at the University of Florida, member of my PhD committee, and all-around genius.

I am not the best person in the world to write about Donald Ault. He has numerous students who worked more closely with him. And this is in some ways a very difficult entry, because things that I would feel comfortable saying with ten years of hindsight about people who haven't seen me this millennium are a different proposition when talking about someone who was grilling you on whether you could get your PhD less than a year ago.

Adding to this complexity is that, although Dr. Ault was a major influence on my graduate career and intellectual life, our personal relationship had its tempestuous moments for reasons that are firmly both of our faults. On top of that, vast stretches of his scholarship are functionally unpublished, existing only as introductions to collected editions of Barks comics from decades ago. Plans continually exist to compile these articles in a new edition, whether printed or online, but they are stymied by what can only be described as one of the most catastrophic failures of version control I have ever seen.

See, the trouble with Dr. Ault is that he is, by his own admission, the living avatar and re-embodiment of  Donald Duck himself. By which I mean that he is spectacularly mishap-prone. On top of that, he is also the archetype of the mad professor - his house a mad thicket of memorabilia and archives. He does not so much suffer from as revel in an inability to buy one of anything, instead buying three of everything in case he loses one, losing all three, and buying three more to replace them. His research is characterized by a wonderfully gritty, material focus on things like the differences between various edits and transmitted versions of cartoons, and so he will buy something on every format it has ever come out for. His office, as of about 2007, still had multiple working Betamax machines in it in order to support this tendency.

But within the completely mad contours of his head lies one of the most jaw-dropping intellectual landscapes I've ever brushed up against. His reading of Carl Barks, to put it broadly, is an insane genius. You can see much of it in this article if you like, but I want to call attention specifically to paragraph fifteen, in which he observes the startling lack of coherence in a Carl Barks cover, despite the fact that the cover is an extremely simple gag that a complete idiot could get.

Central to his interpretation of Barks is the fact that he reads the Barks comics as taking place in a fundamentally chaotic narrative space that is structured entirely around a sense of wonder and gags. So, for instance, in the cover gag, one of the nephews is caught by Donald vandalizing a pumpkin pie. His knife is in the pie cutting out a Jack-O-Lantern style mouth, and that slice is actively being eaten by the other two nephews at the base of the table. So the single panel simultaneously includes the moment of the vandalism, the moment of reveling in the results of the vandalism, and the moment of getting caught, despite the fact that these three moments are necessarily non-simultaneous. Which raises the question, what, exactly, is the cover image a picture of?

This uncanny weirdness is not surprising when one considers that Dr. Ault's other main research passion is William Blake. Indeed, one way of looking at his career is as a concerted attempt to explain why a research career consisting of William Blake and Donald Duck is actually one research project and not two completely separate ones. Unfortunately, it is this work that is least well-represented among what is readily published and available, although hints of it can be found in the article linked above.

The thing about Blake is that the poor man is woefully misrepresented in English classes, where The Tyger is usually treated as a designated stopping-off point in a larger tour of English Romantic Poetry. This should, generally be speaking, treated as one of the biggest mercies English teachers show, because the alternative would be to do something truly nuts like try to hack through the Book of Urizen, which would result in reading things like:

In anguish dividing & dividing
For pity divides the soul
In pangs eternity on eternity
Life in cataracts pourd down his cliffs 
The void shrunk the lymph into Nerves
Wand'ring wide on the bosom of night
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided 
Before the death-image of Urizen
For in changeable clouds and darkness
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch'd immense: 
And now seen, now obscur'd, to the eyes
Of Eternals, the visions remote
Of the dark seperation appear'd.
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space, 
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life blood trembling

Which, while awesome, is enough to reduce most undergraduates to tears. Actually, it's enough to reduce most teachers to tears, which is probably why it's not widely assigned. Because Blake, like Barks,  offers a world in which contradiction is possible and generative - in which metonymy and synecdoche are fundamental parts of the world, and pataphor is not an esoteric philosophy of art but a survival kit.

Buried among the terries and the fermies, this vein of ideastuff runs deep to a point of uncanny power. The surviving memetic DNA is not merely incidentally potent, but consciously potent, kept alive by a strange power inherent in the ideas.

But it is more than that. Duck Tales 2, another rightly forgotten late-NES cash-in sequel, offers little of the referential power of Duck Tales. Only the Scottish castle level has any sort of resonance back with the old Carl Barks material, and that's faint at best. No obvious monster parallels presented themselves as with the Terra-Firmian King. The memetic DNA has gone cold only three years after the glorious original.

It is not merely that there is powerful memetic DNA buried in the secret histories of these games. The NES had an arc with a specific moment - a few years in which all roads led to it in the psychic landscape. Before that is the story of how the NES came to be. After that is the story of its decline and giving way to a new world. There are only a few years where the NES reigned supreme.

What is it about that small band of history that makes it firm ground for these explorations? Why this spot of terra firma in the mental landscape?

And how far down, exactly, can the digging go?


  1. I miss Ducktales so much. The music, the gameplay, all of it.

  2. This stuff is great. I love learning these "secret histories." Thanks for your work.

  3. Love the blog Phillip.

    Funny to call Ducktails the terra firma though. I might just be getting lost in the synecdoche - it always seems to lose me - but I’m not sure I want to be standing on the cartoon ducks of possible contradiction when I could be standing on ground more… firm. Anyway, I still think this is possible in the Ducktails environment.

    Take the moon level, where the player seeks Green Cheese. Talk about memetic DNA! Here’s how Wikipedia has the moon/cheese myth beginning: A simpleton sees in the lake a reflection of the moon and, thinking it’s a round cheese, jumps into the water. Recall “the firmest ground one can find may well be an illusion.” Recall Don Quixote. This is a game about having adventures while seeking treasure, a trope steeped in memetic DNA. Maybe recall Sisyphus here too, given that no amount of treasure will ever be enough for Scrooge McDuck.

    If pataphor is all you’re looking for, look no further than the Mario, whose later stories have given the beast Donkey Kong a personality, family, and many games of his own. Patahor is everywhere in early Nintendo. If you’re looking for a place to stand, though, I suggest looking no further than a fun, Disney-made (if not Disney-inspired), adventure. They’re a lot of fun.

  4. Duck Tales was a really solid game. I hosted a sleepover once (or my parents hosted it, really) during which another kid and I played the game so long I fell asleep. In the deep of night the game's ridiculous moon music lured my father into the room, where he scared the hell out of my friend.

  5. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Just wanted to let you know that the "part 1" link appears to go only to the homepage.

    Keep up the great work.