Tales From Euro Disney: Donald Duck No More

So I don’t know if you know, but Donald Duck is a Superhero. Specifically, he’s a sort of Batman (or Phantom)/Spiderman mashup masked crimefighter called The Duck Avenger or PK (short for Paperinik (short for a mashup of the Italian name for Donald and Diabolik…look, theres only so much context I can give)). This means he has the high-tech gadgets and solitary confidant/handler (Gyro Gearloose) of Batman, and the luckless poverty laden private life of Peter Parker- and well, of Donald Duck. There’s a general awareness from the other characters that Donald knows the Duck Avenger personally but this varies from story to story, and mostly everyone is completely clueless about Donalds’ secret identity. This concept goes back more than 50 years and I wont bother telling of his exact “canonical” origins because frankly, it doesn’t matter. I once saw it summarized somewhere that “the Duck Avenger is ONLY canon in stories wherein the Duck Avenger appears”, which seems about right. And as a kid, Donald having a secret crime-fighting identity in some stories but not others is just something you roll with.
But the important thing about the Duck Avenger is: Donald is a shockingly competent crime-fighter. He might fail early on in a story and need to regroup and try again to beat the villain, but this is the same as for any other superhero story, and not related to his chronically awful luck or bumbling nature. In a lot of stories the Duck Avenger is merely a way to do simple Donald vs Villain stories (a weather-manipulating bankrobber appeared! The Duck Avenger must stop him!), and if the Avenger/Donald duality was more heavily featured, it would often be as a way to let the otherwise luckless Donald get revenge on people who wronged him in his normal life, like Scrooge, Gladstone Gander, or even Daisy to an extent. As much as I like Donald to get a win sometimes, these stories always struck me as meanspirited and manipulative.

Conversely, todays story digs in and says, “no, really, what’s it actually like to live as both Donald Duck and the Duck Avenger?”

Donald Duck No More, Written by Pietro Zemelo, Art by Renata Castellani, first published 2017 in Italy

Available in the US?: Nope

We start the story with a speedrun of various common tribulations of being Donald Duck. He’s late for work polishing coins for Scrooge, he bungles helping the nephews prepare for a Junior Woodchuck play, he pisses off Daisy by bailing on helping with said play…only the twist here is that the Duck Avenger is the source of his troubles this time, as Donalds’ private (and professional) life suffers from him having to run off to stop crimes as the Avenger, a complication that normal Duck Avenger stories would often ignore. To really twist the knife, Scrooge and Daisy also compare the seemingly unreliable Donald unflatteringly to the Duck Avenger, and Donald is quickly launched into a crisis, blaming the Duck Avenger for all his misfortune.

The play rehearsal happening in the background is “the importance of being Earnest”, naturally, which is a bit too much for me to translate here, but hopefully I’ve retained enough to give you the general idea. Also, Donalds face at the end there is a whole mood. Jesus.

Since this is a comparatively short story we arrive at this turning point rather quickly, and I can’t help but wonder how it would land for a potential new reader. But I suspect it would work because even if one is unfamiliar with this specific version of Donald it can still resonate due to his wider, more generally known status as a luckless fuckup, as well as knowledge of how the “secret identity” deal usually works for superheroes.  We’re basically going full Sam Raimis Spider Man-style melodrama here, and I love it.

Especially due to the resolution Donald comes to, which is the exact inverse as that of Peter Parker: If things are working out as the confident superhero, whom everyone respects…why not choose to live THAT life, 24/7? And so, we get to the moment of the header image, and the nephews wake up the next day to find The Duck Avenger cooking them breakfast, and selling them a flimsy, hastily concocted excuse about Donald being on a mission to the South Pole for an indeterminate amount of time.

I love how incredibly dramatic this all is. Lightning and everything! Of course it’s a homage to Spidey, but it still does the work to set things up and execute the scene, it’s not just a quick reference. Once again, I’d wager this would play to kids unaware of old Spidey references just as well.

Donald then treats the kids to the enviable experience of being dropped off at school by a superhero, excitedly musing to himself that the kids “finally have someone to be proud” of (red flag!). Free from the constraints of bothering with a civilian identity the Avenger doubles down on crime finding, and his popularity soars. He takes Daisy on dates in Donalds place where they’re treated as celebrities as he tells her that she’s no longer hanging out with the “invisible Donald Duck” (Red Flag!!), AND he gets to leave to fight crime with no warning with her full accept and understanding, sweet deal. He stops the Beagle Boys from breaking into the moneybin to Scrooges’ approval, and when Scrooge asks where Donald is anyway, the Avenger gets to live the dream of telling his boss “he aint’ coming back soon, so better shine your own coins!”, scoffing at Scrooges exclamation of “But Donald is the best at shining coins!”. Things finally take a turn on another Daisy date, when the Avenger returns to a waiting Daisy from a long crime-fighting absence, and gets the offer to take her to a fancy restaurant for free due to being the town hero. High on his own supply the Duck Avenger remarks that this is more than what Donald could ever offer, at which point Daisy has enough, and sticks up for Donald, to the his bafflement.

It’s not “deep” per se, but I’m still amused that theres’ stuff like this to unpack psychologically, in this Duck comic for kids.

Coming back home, The Duck Avenger finds the nephews too pining for Donalds return. And why wouldn’t they? Being visited by a superhero is cool, but you’re gonna miss your actual guardian eventually. Still in denial that people would want Donald around the Duck Avenger talks of how much of a mess Donald makes when he tries to help, how imperfect he is…but the Nephews won’t hear of it, happily reminiscing about Donalds efforts to help them out, even if the end result was messy, finally proceeding to break my -and Donalds-heart by professing how much they miss Donald. This is again all played completely straight, theres’ nary a joke to undercut any of this in sight. And if theres anything to snap an adult out of his funk, it’s sad children.

Ultimately, Donald returns from his “trip”, apologizes to Daisy, and gets back to work for an impressed Scrooge; the last thing would be a bummer in a different story where Scrooge is more directly abusive, but here he’s more of a stern employer who expects you to show up to work on time, and when Donald returns he offers a welcome back, which is about as much on an affectionate Scrooge display you’ll get out of a regular Duck comic. Donald and the others head off to watch the Nephews’ theatre production, Donald content in the knowledge that the Avenger is there if he’s needed. The End.

I was surprised how much this got to me. The excellent expressions drawn by Renata Castellani really help – I’m not used to see Duck characters so earnestly emotional!

Similar to Spider-Man the story never really resolves the problem that Donalds’ private life will eventually suffer due to his dual identity, but it does resolve the more emotionally compelling issue of how Donald views himself. One thing I really like is that this story is not about subjecting Donalds family to a “Wake-up call”, where they realize how much they like him once he’s gone; It’s all about Donald realizing that he’s valued, that his regular-ass self has worth. Because the thing about Donald is that he TRIES goddammit, which his nephews recognize, and when he’s given grief from Daisy and Scrooge it’s because they want him to be around, not the inverse. At least in this story – in the next, Donald may very well be a fickle jerk, such is the plasticity of the character.

I feel this is a more sentimental, contemporary read of Donald – something I believe the 2017 Ducktales Reboot also tapped into, with Donald as a doting surrogate parent. And as someone who’s been reading comics of Donald Duck getting chewed up by the world and berated by his friends for close to my entire lifetime, and am a father himself now, I am here for this sentimentality. The people writing contemporary Duck comics are most likely people who grew up with them such as myself, so its no wonder they might be even more fond of the characters than their predecessors. It can also be that the sheer massive amount of prior stories naturally prompt a more introspective, sometimes meta, character-centric approach.
Regardless, this really plays for me, and would be unheard of in a comic 30 years ago. The whole thing is also helped by absolutely great artwork in terms of panel layouts and facial expressions, a field where Duck comics have become increasingly ambitious over the years, no doubt influenced by more mainstream comics.

Elsewhere in the Euro-multiverse:

  • Unsurprisingly, the Duck Avenger had his own spinoff comic, which was Darker and More Epic in a 90’s way; the art was more detailed and dynamic, Donald was in Avenger mode pretty much the whole time, the stakes were higher and there were actual character deaths. The main storyline involves the Duck Avenger fighting an imperialistic life-force stealing alien race called the Evronians, and has an actual continuity it follows unlike most of the comics I cover here, as well as its own cast of characters. This cast includes the ultimate badass and possible Captain Marvel homage Xadhoom, who’s worth the price of admission alone. You can actually find English versions of these comics on various places on the internet if you know where to look.
She’s not as uh, conventionally attractive as Carol Danvers – in fact she looks unlike anything I’ve seen in any Duck comic. That just makes her even more rad though.
  • In an interesting companion piece to this story, mailman Donald gains actual superpowers after ingesting some Science Juice. He does this after he chides the nephews for reading superhero comics all day, prompting the devastating retort that it’s not as embarrassing as being an “overgrown newspaperboy”, prompting Donald to get incredibly conscious about what sort of role model he is. He then sets out to impress his nephews with his newfound superpowers, while the nephews, regretful for the outburst and oblivious to Donalds many attempted super-feats, worry that he’s losing his mind.
    The story is by Euro Disney comic superstar and American Don Rosa, who’s probably most known for his devotion to the “Canon” of stories established by Disney legend Carl Barks, but as far as I’m concerned his real claim to fame – apart from his excellent art and incredible comedic timing- is the pathos he invests in the characters as seen here.
Oh sure, just make the entire thing I’ve written a whole column about explicit why don’t you. Still warms my heart though.
  • Yet another more recent “Meta” story follows the nephews as they attempt to track down Donald after he fails to return home, as they gradually sift through the chaotic aftermath of the cartoony antics Donald usually gets embroiled in, passing through an elaborate Casablanca reference (Donald goes there to hide from the angry mobs/debt collectors, he’s a regular see) before ending up back home, and facing existential despair at how insane their lives are.