So as I started working on this, I looked up the career of Jim Cummings and realized that he really needs to go on the Celebrating the Living list. He’s been pretty much everyone—you’ve got to be impressed by someone who is both Winnie the Pooh and Jonah Hex. Still, he apparently considers this to be his favourite of all the roles he’s done over the years, because it allowed him to have the most fun. There was room for improv and creativity, presumably mostly in Darkwing’s snarky asides to the camera.
Drake Mallard lives a quiet, unassuming suburban life by day, foster father to young Gosalyn Waddlemeyer (mostly Christine Cavanaugh). He lives in what these days would be assumed to be a gay relationship with Launchpad McQuack (Terry McGovern), who has moved to the city of St. Canard from Duckville. By night, Drake Mallard transforms into the terror that flaps in the night, etc., Darkwing Duck. He and Launchpad fight such criminals as Negaduck (Cummings again), Bushroot (Tino Insana), Megavolt (Dan Castellaneta), and so forth. Darkwing’s competence varies, but since his villains are almost universally less competent, it all works out.
Actually, I don’t think Drake has any interest in Launchpad; to me, it feels considerably more like a Bert-and-Ernie situation, wherein they’re just roommates that people have projected all these things onto. Drake ends up in a relationship of sorts with Morgana MacCawber (Kath Soucie), and Launchpad is kind of not bright enough to pursue a relationship with much of anyone. They live together because it’s convenient. It also means there’s always someone there, at least in theory, to take care of Gosalyn; this is yet another of the Disney Blended Families that people don’t often notice.
In fact, this is the most explicit blended family, I think, because we aren’t monkeying around with nephews or whatnot here. Gosalyn is an actual orphan. Her grandfather was murdered in the pilot. Darkwing took her in because he believed she was the key to solving the case and saving the city and so forth. He returns her to the orphanage at the end, only to adopt her in his Drake Mallard persona. It’s awfully heartwarming to see how happy he makes that abandoned little girl, and that she grows and thrives in his home is a credit to him—and, I guess, Launchpad.
I never got why this show got less attention than DuckTales. I think I have a weakness for The Clever Show That Doesn’t Do As Well, which is why I’m the only person I know who regularly extolls the virtues of Freakazoid! It isn’t just that this is a full-on lunatic Batman parody with ducks, though goodness knows that’s an awful lot of fun. It’s that you get characters whose very names are parodies of other, not necessarily related, fiction. There’s a Dr. Gary and a Dr. Larson in one episode. There’s a superhero organization called S.H.U.S.H, a parody of U.N.C.L.E. and S.H.I.E.L.D. And so forth.
No, the mysteries are never terribly complicated, and not just because we the viewer often see the villain before Darkwing does. A plant-based crime? That’ll be Bushroot. Toys? Yup, Quackerjack (Michael Bell). Films? Tuskernini (Kenneth Mars). And so forth. It’s a Rogues’ Gallery, with all the baggage that comes with one. It’s hardly as though you have to be the World’s Greatest Detective to figure out who’s stolen a priceless cat-themed object in Gotham City, though, right?
One of the things I love, though, is that you do get that level of thought in the villains. Taurus Bulba (Tim Curry), the villain from the pilot, is a play on a Gogol character and also a dumb pun, since he’s of course a bull. Yes, all right, sometimes it feels as though the villains exist because someone came up with a silly name, but I can’t exactly fault anyone for that, given that I have created not one but three Dissolve subgroups based on having come up with a good name for a group that was vaguely agreed to need to exist.
I also like that you get regular portrayals of the neighbours. Gosalyn is best friends with boy-next-door “Honker” Muddlefoot (Katie Leigh), who’s sort of a sitcom nerd. But that’s the thing; the Muddlefoots are a sitcom family. Amiable dunce dad Herb (Jim Cummings doing his best Andy Devine), flighty mom Binkie (Susan Tolsky), and bully older brother “Tank” (Dana Hill) round out the family, and the Muddlefoots are in some ways an even bigger problem for Drake than Steelbeak (Rob Paulsen).
It’s not that I necessarily thought DuckTales was bad. It’s that I thought it was, let’s be honest, a bit childish. I was ten when it initially aired, which you might think is too young to consider things childish but is in fact right when kids start being old enough to do that. When Darkwing Duck came along in ’91, I was fourteen and ready for the silliness. I was also old enough to get a lot of the weirder jokes, and there’s a certain appeal to that sort of thing for a teenager. That said, we’ve showed this to my four-year-old, and while he still likes DuckTales better, his response about DW is “I like that one, too.”