Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we reflect on the epic adventure saga that is DuckTales and the extraordinary reach of artists Mark Mueller and Carl Barks.
Walt Disney Television methodically planned their stab at syndicated programming. By the late 1980s, they were slowly reconstituting confidence. The company’s cinematic output struggled for much of the decade, but their small screen entertainment gave them a much-needed boost of credibility and conviction.
The kids devoured The Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The New Adventures of Winnie The Pooh. Disney knew the market could support a syndicated series as long as they threw a bunch of money at it and created something that stood apart from the usual Saturday morning crowd. If they backed the right property, there would be more than children’s eyes to distract. Adults were no longer afraid to appreciate ‘toons.
Disney crafted DuckTales to appeal to those seeking both humor and adventure. The show was not some frivolous showcase for visual gags and bits, although there were plenty of those to be found. DuckTales relied on character as much as story to secure the loyalty of its audience. The citizens of Duckburg were three-dimensional creatures fighting for the same dreams experienced by those on the other side of the screen: wealth, purpose, and the admiration of family.
And, they were backed by one banger of a theme song:
Life is like a hurricane
Here in Duckburg
Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes
It’s a duck-blur!
Might solve a mystery
Or rewrite history!
DuckTales! whoo hoo!
The earworm took songwriter Mark Mueller forty-five minutes to concoct. After a career of not-too-shabby collaborations with the likes of Captain & Tennille, The Pointer Sisters, Lou Rawls, and various others, Mueller birthed a glorious warble he will never escape. Jump on over to YouTube where you can find every possible kind of rendition: acapella, slow jam, K-pop, country, etc.
The theme was an extension of Disney’s desire to think beyond the expected. DuckTales demanded a pop song, not the sugary dreck of most cartoon jingles. Mueller delivered, and Disney blared it across the globe. This was their “Flight of the Valkyries.” Domination followed in its wake.
To secure syndication, however, sixty-five episodes were required. Disney couldn’t pussyfoot. They couldn’t try eight episodes here, twelve episodes there. They needed to go all-in immediately. To accomplish such a feat, the studio needed a whole lot of story.
Most of what you think of as DuckTales sprung from the brain of Carl Barks. He first came on the scene at Disney in 1935 as an inbetweener (an animator responsible for the intermediate frames between two images, which creates the illusion of movement). While tooling away, he occasionally submitted plots to the story department. As popularity grew around the character of Donald Duck, Barks joined a team of creators responsible for developing Donald shorts.
During World War II, many took umbrage with the working conditions at Walt Disney Studios. In 1941, the animators put their pens down. The strike was meant to garner a fair wage, but after five weeks, Walt Disney fired a massive swath of his team. Barks missed the ax by quitting before it was swung.
At the time, Barks attempted to make it as a chicken farmer in the desert outskirts of Los Angeles. Money was difficult. While he was at Disney, Barks anonymously illustrated several comic books based on their characters. When the chickens refused to roost, he sought out the Disney partner Western Publishing, hoping they could assign him a few gigs.
Barks became the go-to-guy for Disney Duck comics. Building out from Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Barks invented a massive universe of characters. It was in Four Color Comics #178 where Scrooge McDuck, the wealthiest Duck in the world, made his first appearance in the Barks’ story “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” In his footsteps sprung forth Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, Goldie O’Gilt, and dozens more.
Taking on the chores of script and art, Barks shaped Donald Duck into a painfully struggling common man, or duck, as the case may be here. Barks’ stories were delightful renderings of a person trying desperately to do his best while battling the elements and his inevitable self-destructing frustrations. You felt Donald’s agony of success because it mirrored your own.
The artist rarely explored beyond his front door, but he made sure that his characters traveled far and wide. Barks’ Duck tales were grand adventures that saw Scrooge and the nephews hiking the Klondike trail for gold, scaling into the unknown regions of South America for square eggs, and vacationing in bear-infested woods. He drew inspiration from the comedy of Buster Keaton and the heroics of Prince Valiant.
Barks toiled away in Duck comics for a little more than a decade, but in that time, he built an empire. His stories served as the foundation for Walt Disney Television to erect their first syndication pillar. In the first season, Donald Duck is immediately sidelined when he joins the Navy. In doing so, he leaves Huey, Dewey, and Louie in the care of their cantankerous Uncle Scrooge. He’s a greedy, gruff beast, but he recognizes his wards’ wanderlust as his own.
The first season of DuckTales cherrypicks concepts from Barks’ stories, but most importantly, the series lifts his spirit of adventure. In always seeking the horizon, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Scrooge inspire their audience to do the same. Duckburg is a mighty fine town, but not as fine as the castles, caves, and oceans that stretch well past its borders.
Barks’ stories offered a universe to navigate, and DuckTales charted his map deliberately. Walt Disney Television willed a success to fruition by placing a big bet and following through with it. They sank their money on a radical theme song, mountains of merchandise, a video game, and a syndicated timeslot that placed DuckTales in front of kids (and adults) after school, not before it, or sequestered to merely one day a week.
We tend to think of the Disney Renaissance igniting as a result of The Little Mermaid hitting screens in 1989, but in actuality, Disney’s return to pop culture control started with the whacko Adventures of the Gummi Bears and spread into DuckTales. From their success, Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, and Gargoyles would emerge. Dominating the small screen meant dominating homes, and that’s where battles are won.