The Glorious Spirit Of Donald Duck

 

Not long ago, a friend of mine asked me a question. He’d seen me slowly, but surely, go down the rabbithole of Duck Comics and DuckTales. He’d seen me freak out over moments both spectacular and small. And through it all, he witnessed me falling in love with this entire enterprise. The Duckverse.

And perhaps understandably, he was somewhat confused. Why this? And more vitally, and crucially, he had a simpler question: Why Donald Duck?

It’s a fair question, as he kept seeing me freak out over this duck hero, and couldn’t quite make sense of it. Why was this simple, classic character I’d known forever, which everyone had known forever, suddenly such an obsession? What about him pulled out this passionate response from me? Why am I obsessed with Donald Duck?

What followed was me unloading a mini-essay onto him about why Donald Duck matters, why he is beautiful, and wondrous, and why I love him.

This is not that essay.

But what I hope this will be is a better version of it, that gets down all the answers to the above questions, because those are questions I found myself asking as I fell deeper in love with this strange world of anthropomorphic creatures.

Let’s lay down some rules first: This isn’t going to be about one precise iteration of Donald, as there have been so many across the years. So it’s not going to be specifically the Carl Barks version, or the classic cartoon take, or the later Rosa or Van Horn iteration. Instead, it’s going to be about the collective idea of Donald Duck. The one that forms across numerous iterations, through both their presence, and the gaps in between. We’ll be focusing a good deal on the DuckTales (2017) iteration, the ‘current’ one, to help filter in and discuss the character, but suffice to say, it’s a lens to get at that larger idea of Donald. And what appeals to me about that idea of Donald. It’s very much how I see Donald, and what speaks to me about him. The ‘All-Star’ Donald Duck, if you will.

With that said, let’s begin.

Donald Duck is a character that fundamentally works because he’s an everyman. He’s not the rich guy. He’s not the smart guy. He’s not really any kind of specialist of note. He’s just…a guy. He’s Donald Duck. ‘Duck’ being the Duckverse equivalent of a last name like ‘Smith’ in our world. He’s exceedingly common, and ordinary. 

He dresses in this sailor outfit. His speech is incomprehensible to most people, and they fail to understand him. It sounds like he’s speaking rubbish. He’s a fairly goofy character, who’s known for getting himself into trouble, and getting very, very angry. 

But amidst all of that, there’s a real emotional core that makes the poor Duck tick. It’s something the recent DuckTales has mined to great effect, and it’s what I cannot get enough of.

Donald Duck is someone who has spent his entire life feeling isolated. Nobody can understand him. Literally, yes. But also beyond that. They do not see or understand him for who he is. They don’t see the person on the inside. They listen to his speech and wave him off or put him aside. They hear him, but they do not listen. They see him, but he might as well be invisible. Donald’s very attempts to express himself to people next to him prove futile. He’s the weirdo, the ‘funny guy’. People raise their eyebrow or laugh at him before they even consider him or take him seriously.

And that sticks. That sort of thing does not go away. It is defining. It builds and builds, making him feel like an outsider, like he doesn’t belong, like he’s some aberration. There’s this deep well of rage, this anger, and fury, at the world for being what it is. Anger at the world that constantly feels like it’s out to get him, rage at the fact that no one will ever understand him, truly. And fury at the fact that it’s him of all people it had to happen to. ‘Why me?!’ a feeling we’re all familiar with, when fate chooses to fuck us over.

Through all that, you get his greatest terror, his most potent insecurity: That no one will ever love him, that no one ever can love him, truly. That this is his fate, now and forever. To be doomed and damned, alone, never understood, not listened to. To be seen, but overlooked, like a ghost, like he was never there at all. To feel invisible. To be judged, with no true place of acceptance or belonging.

All of this isn’t helped by the fact that Donald Duck has, quite literally, the worst luck in the entire universe.

His cousin, Gladstone Gander, happens to have the best luck in the entire universe, which is just another case of rubbing salt in the wound.

So you have a man who already has it pretty bad and rough, but then you add this element of the dude having the absolute worst luck, and it gets so, so much worse. It’s the comical screwup bit you’ve seen a billion times over in cartoons. Nothing goes right. It’s all a mess. It’s funny, sure. But how does it feel? How does it feel to have all of that happen? To really, truly, feel like the universe has it out for you? That the world hates you? That this is all you’ll ever be or get, and you’re destined to eternally suffer. And you don’t even know what you did to deserve it! Again, the ‘Why me?!’

The pain that springs from that, the rage that erupts from that, that’s real. Especially as Donald looks at Gladstone, his lucky cousin, and only sees all of which he can never have. And even wishing he did would end poorly, because it all ends poorly for Donald. We’ve all had that moment, where nothing goes right, where everything we do feels pointless, where no matter what we try, it fails. The moments where we wanna just break something, where we feel helpless, cornered, alone, small, against the vast expanse of a cruel universe out to punish us for reasons we’ll never know. Moments wherein we try and take account of our loves and wonder what it is that we did so wrong, to be deserving of this, of all this. ‘Why me?!’

This all gets substantially worse when Donald Duck loses the one person who was closest to him, in a real sense, who could understand him the most: his sister, Della Duck. She’s gone, this pillar that meant so much to him. This person who he treasured, even as he argued with and yelled at her endlessly, as one does with siblings. That’s the story of Donald, isn’t it? To feel like you have something, some security, something to rely on, and even that gets pulled out and taken away from you. That which matters most to you vanishes away in an instant. It’s nothing, nowhere, and absolutely gone, like it was never there at all.

It all feels like a cruel trick. Like believing or having faith at all was a mistake. It feels like being a fool, who got punked. The only thing you have was there only to be taken away. The most precious relationship and bond he shared was suddenly no more. And the rage grew and grew, much like the pain did. Much like the weight and burden did. He now has these three little ducks, the only remnants of his dear sister, who need a parent. They need someone to take care of them. But even their presence feels painful. They remind him of what he lost, but also what he might stand to lose again. It’s a painful reminder of how all his life has been. Thinking he had something, only to lose it, with the cycle repeating. He is cursed. He should not be near these kids. They need someone good. They deserve better than him. What if he raises them, and they all turn out like him? The last thing he would want for Della’s kids is what he has. If they are with him, they will suffer. But at the same time, they have no one else. Who will take care of them if not him?

The life of Donald Duck is one of incredibly hard, painful choices. It’s adult choices. It’s difficult decisions and mature ones. It’s responsible actions, for all the juvenile undercurrents and hi-jinks in his life.

Him being a father figure is put into even greater perspective when one learns that Donald’s own personal father-figure, Scrooge McDuck, is literally the most successful man in the world. He is the richest duck alive, the most accomplished individual out there, and can do so much. He’s a legendary heroic adventurer, a hyper-competent businessman, a man who has turned every dime into a fortune. His touch is gold, but that was not the result of luck, akin to cousin Gladstone, but genuine hard work. And yet, for all his impossible hard work, Donald Duck cannot ever achieve what Scrooge did. In fact, whatever he does achieve would be quite minuscule in comparison to the impossibly grand legacy and myth of McDuck. Donald Duck is a man made to feel small, with a father-figure whose shadow looms large, with a sister whose absence crushes him, with a cousin whose fair fortune stings at his very soul.

And yet, despite all of that, he makes the right choice. He chooses to be a parent, knowing what the price of that would be, what the burden of that would be, and the terror and fear he will further carry on, due to it. He doesn’t try to pass it off. He doesn’t try to evade it. Donald Duck accepts responsibility. It would be so, so easy to give in, to give up, or to even just run away. But he doesn’t.

Donald Duck stays. Donald Duck does what a good man does, what a responsible man does.

And he goes to therapy, he seeks help on his anger management, because he genuinely wants to get better, not just for him, but for the children he must raise. He wants to be a good parent. A good father. He wants to be the best person he can be, to raise the best people he possibly can. And it’s not easy. It’s not a ‘fix’. It’s not perfect. It’s not some clear, cut-and-dry solution. It’s a process. It’s a journey. And one he’s willing to embark on, to live up to his responsibilities.

And slowly, but surely, something changes, as he raises these kids. The change is slow, small, and gradual, but his raw, potent anger, his fury at the world, its unjust nature, for all the ways it has hurt and wronged him, becomes something else. It becomes pure protective instinct. The rage isn’t just for him, abstractly aimed at the world and circumstances, but it’s for these children he’s raising, who he cares so, so much about. They deserve better. They should be the best they can be. And he’ll go to hell and back again because he lets the world take that from them. He will not let the world do to them what it did to him. He will give them a better, happier life than he had. They’ll never be alone, and in pain, the way he was. They’ll always have each other. He’ll protect them. He’ll be there for him, the way he wished someone was for him, always. He’ll be the father he wished he had.

Whatever life he was going to have, whatever dreams he had and held before his sister vanished and he was left with the kids, they’re gone. They’re dead. That life, that potential, those dreams, all of that is sacrificed for fatherhood. He gives up his youth to do what’s right. And he never complains about it. Not once. Never do you see him hold that above anyone or get mad about it. It’s a price he was willing to pay. And while all the terrifying factors we discussed above are vital in considering if he’s going to be the kids’ parent, they’re not ones that ever dissuade him from doing the right thing. Not for a second does Donald think ‘No, I’m not going to do this’. He knows he must. And he knows he will. And that might feel like an ‘easy’ choice to some, especially given how Donald makes it, but it’s not. It’s the right choice, yes. But doing the right thing is never easy. Yet Donald is able to do it, knowing full well the difficulty, the price of it, because that’s who he is.

And in so doing, he finds things to love again. He finds people to love again. He changes and becomes a different person, bearing and carrying all the baggage from who he was. Fatherhood changes him, even as he continually struggles with so much of what he’s struggled with all his life.

I think back to an episode like The House Of Lucky Gander from Season 1 of DuckTales (2017), and it’s such a crystal clear encapsulation of who Donald Duck is. Gladstone Gander is here, and he’s being admired by the kids, as ‘The Cool Uncle’, unlike Donald, with Louie especially taken by Gladstone’s promises. This is upsetting to Donald, obviously, especially given his entire youth trying to compete with Gladstone, and feeling like shit, like nothing, just by standing next to him. He can never match what Gladstone’s got, but also he refuses to give in. He desperately stands by one of his sons, trying to prove he, too, is ‘cool’, and worthwhile, the way Gladstone seemingly is. He wants to be seen the same way, with that same special glint in the eye of the child. Like he matters, like he’s a good father, one the kids are not ashamed to have, given Donald himself is ashamed of himself, and struggles with a great deal of shame. This matters to him.

And when the whole affair is revealed to be a selfish trap on Gladstone’s part, which will hurt and screw over other people, while preserving him, the true nature of things are laid bare. In the end, only a race remains, a race that’s been happening in numerous ways, across all of Donald Duck’s life: The race with Gladstone Gander, the luckiest duck alive. If Gladstone wins, as he has in so many matters of life, Donald and the family is doomed. But Gladstone doesn’t quite care, as he’s always cared more about himself over anyone else. If Donald wins, they all have a chance.

Thus Donald stands, trying to do what he has never been able to do all his life. Gladstone is a man of incredible privilege, which is to say reality itself bends around him and adjusts itself to privilege him and benefit him. Donald has no such fortune, as reality actively bends and adjusts itself to screw him over. And as he’s beaten, battered, torn and hurt, as always, as he has been all his life, feeling small, pointless, trying to wrestle against a world that seemingly hates him, against fate that seems determined to strike him down…he’s tired.What’s the point?” Donald asks, seemingly defeated. And Louie responds, with that special glint in his eye that Donald’s waited for all this time:

“So you have the worst luck in the world! Who cares?! No matter how bad things get, like really, really bad, you keep going! It’s kind of ridiculous. You never had the common sense to give up before! Why start now?!”

And so Donald Duck manages a grin, through everything. He stands up, grits his teeth, and through sheer anger and will, he keeps going. He defeats a cosmic tiger, climbs the impossible obstacle and leaps through the finish line. He’s done it. He’s finally done it. He’s accomplished the impossible, with even the universe deadset on making sure he fails, with the odds all stacked against him.

And that is Donald Duck in a nutshell. It’s his fundamental essence. It’s not easy. It’s never simple. It’s so, so hard. Everything feels impossible. But you stand back up, and you keep going anyway, because that’s just what you do. It’s what’s right. It’s what’s decent. And Donald doesn’t know any other way to live.

It’s easy to do the right thing when it’s easy, when it doesn’t ask much of you, when there is no price, and when it might even come with a reward. But Donald Duck? He does the hard thing when it isn’t easy, when it asks so, so much of you, to overcome your greatest fears and wrestle with your deepest pain, when it comes at a searing cost, and when the only reward is…nothing, really. Donald Duck isn’t blessed. He’s never gonna be successful. He’s never gonna be filthy rich. He’s never gonna have anything super remarkable, the way many do. What he does have is a far greater, far more precious thing, that which is invisible- the will to do what is right, even when no one is watching, even when it seemingly matters not.

Donald is every person you know who went to painstaking lengths, at great personal cost, to help you, for no reason beyond the fact that it’s…just what you do, it’s just what’s right. Donald is The Doctor in Heaven Sent. Donald is the best parts of what Superman represents. If Darkseid represents every moment you were presented with the right choice and the wrong choice and made the wrong one, Donald represents the alternative. Donald Duck is knowing how hard the right choice is, and doing it anyway, while staring down the dark side. Donald is every moment you remember of Ben Grimm beaten, standing back up, to tell you ‘You can’t beat me! I’m too dumb to quit. I’m too stupid to stop.’



Donald Duck is the himbo hero who will make the hard choice, because it’s the right one.

And yet, all of this isn’t to illustrate Donald Duck is somehow ‘perfect’ (or to assert some kind of absurd purity to the character). Lord knows that’s not true. The entire appeal is that he isn’t. He’s screwed up plenty. He’s made so many mistakes, and he keeps making more and more mistakes. He does make wrong choices, but when it really counts, when it really matters, when you need him in your corner, he’s there. 

I think back to The Town Where Everyone Was Nice! from Season Two of DuckTales (2017) and how real it felt to me. The episode is, effectively, a big school reunion story. It’s the reunion of Donald with his college friends and band-mates, Panchito Pistoles and José Carioca. The Three Caballeros get together once more, and (ostensibly) Panchito and José seem to be quite successful and well-off. They seem to be rockstars now, with a tremendous catalog of achievements.

And so when these old mates ask Donald what he’s been up to, Donald is terrified. Faced with the seeming success of his peers, who’ve gotten so far ahead, who’ve done so much, who have so much, Donald is crushed. 

He needs to go aside and take deep breaths, while coiled about in a ball, to prevent a potential anxiety attack. And this is the moment where Donald fully crystallized for me:

‘I’ve done nothing with my life! I’m a failure!

There was something tangibly real about this duck. Much more so than most of the Big Two characters, most ‘icons’ and heroic figures I’d read about. This character embodied real things in ways I’d never expected. In Donald Duck, I saw my own father. I still remember the shock of seeing the man who raised me first cry, first breakdown and struggle, feeling he’d failed, the father who thought he’d just never done what he should’ve, been the man that he should’ve been. The dreams of the past shattered by the reality of the present, and the feeling of failure laced throughout all of that. I see that. I see myself, feeling the terror, as I see what all my old schoolmates and peers have been up to, when I see people my age accomplishing incredible things, especially in fields and spaces I yearn to do do something in. It’s the same feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve seen in so many of my own friends, and peers. It’s a feeling we all know.

Donald Duck breaks down, just like we do. He suffers, just like we do. He’s anxious and messy and flawed, just like we are. He is, for all his fury, rage, and impossible nature, incredibly vulnerable. And I love that. I have seen few icons I treasured from my youth, whether it be Batman or Superman, be that. In a lot of ways, the Donald Duck fantasy is a lot more adult in its underpinnings. It’s not about a man of great power doing the impossible. It’s about a single dad trying to be the best parent he possibly can. And while that aspect isn’t uncommon in corporate comics/fiction, and is a key part of, say, Batman, it’s never quite the emphasized core definer in the texts the way I feel it is for Donald.

In all his cartoonish, impossible unreality, Donald feels more tangibly real. His ‘unreality’, if anything, only makes him more human. He’s not a human, but a duck, obviously, but due to the nature of cartooning, due to being free of any ostensible laws of physics or the human form, existing in the realm of pure cartoon logic, he gets to embody human feelings. And he gets to embody them with a sort of purity that is otherwise hard to capture. All his physics-defying crazy jumping, reactions, and wackiness are unrealistic, yes, but they’re all visualizations of how certain things feel. And a character like Donald Duck, an anthropomorphic duck, feels more believable and ‘real’ than Batman to me. Which is kind of wild.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any Big Two story wherein the superhero had to do his taxes, and that was a serious scene. Batman doing his taxes? You probably haven’t seen it! But Donald Duck doing his taxes? You betcha! And that contrast, the ‘real’ being clearly the bigger artifice, while the ‘unreal’ of The Duckverse being the more truly real, it fascinates me.

Duck Comics speak to very real things, very real emotions, for all their cartoonish veneer. It’s like how Captain America is a fictional mechanism to embody the dream of America, and nothing except the pure, powerful, all-inclusive dream, whereas a character like Scrooge McDuck, a leading character, represents openly what America actually is, as opposed to a dream. He’s America in all of its imperialist and gluttonous nature. He’s the white capitalist who hoards all, swimming in gold, while everyone else suffers. He’s more real, in all his ridiculous and wacky setups, than Captain America, or even Superman.

Rooting the absurd in real things we know and understand intimately, that’s what Duckverse does best, and it’s at the core of Donald.

But perhaps maybe the best part of Donald is that he is a character of impossible versatility and range, who works as everything from cruel prankster to a traditional superhero to a selfless parent. He is, akin to Batman, a diamond that cannot be broken, a construct of elastic potential that can be stretched any which way. You cannot break him. It’s why he’s even been a proper superhero, going by the name of Paperinik and even The Duck Avenger at times. And yet, for all this silliness, there’s something quite tangibly real and true about Donald Duck. He feels like he expresses a truth, and there’s a sincerity there that resonates with me.

It’s why once Donald raises the kids, and mends the relationship with his father-figure, and things start to change, it genuinely gets you. It means something. Finally, he has a place. He belongs. He is loved. He isn’t all his fears, the way he thought. The journey feels meaningful and real, in a powerful way. Fatherhood paid off. And when the whole family is, finally, together at last, with even Della returned, it feels worth it. It feels like suddenly maybe everything isn’t a cosmic joke. Maybe there is hope.

Maybe working hard, putting in the effort, and doing the right thing, doing one’s best, they’re all worth it.

And it all only gets better when he finally meets Daisy Duck. All his life, he’s believed that people just forcibly tolerate him, and that is unloved, he cannot be loved. As he slowly comes to realize maybe that isn’t true, and it isn’t the case, he is still very much missing a different kind of love. He wants to be loved beyond just his family, who are very dear to him. And deep down, he is still haunted by the fact that it’s impossible, he cannot be loved, he is unlovable, as no one can even understand him. Then comes Daisy Duck, the one person who does. The one girl who can hear him for who he truly is, on the inside, how he wishes to be heard, deep down.

And it melts him. He’s finally no longer alone. He can be understood. There are people out there who will. There is hope for him. And all he needs, all he ever needed, was that one person who would listen, who would be there. And it meant the world to him that a person like that existed.

And again, like we’ve discussed above, amidst all the ridiculous wacky Donald Duck-speech, is this very real idea and metaphor, of just wanting someone who will understand us. Of needing someone who will love us for who we are, who will care about us, and not just merely tolerate us. It’s wanting someone who you have a connection and a bond with. And all of that deep yearning, of wanting to be understood, of needing to be heard, is made into a beautiful song, as we hear what Daisy hears, as see Donald Duck for who he really is.

It is, as you can guess, supremely beautiful. It’s tender, it’s touching, and as lovely and real as any great beat I’ve seen in anything.

The fantasy of Donald Duck, if it can be described as such, is comparable to that of Superman. But there’s a vital difference. Superman is the fantasy of (and for) the ordinary working class man, his ability to transform into the platonic ‘super’ version of himself, something ‘greater’ and beyond what he is, to accomplish great wonders. Donald Duck is the fantasy of (and for) the ordinary working class man, wherein just being that is enough. That’s okay. It’s not the power or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or any of that. It’s the assurance and power in the knowledge that putting in the work, day after day, doing the right thing, making the effort, can be a life well lived, that it can be worth it. It may not be all that you dreamed of or hoped for, but then neither is the world. And if you did all you could, it was enough. 

The appeal is in the fact that no matter how bad it gets, if you stick around, if you are a good, responsible man, it’ll all turn out okay. It’ll be worth it. Being a good man is its own reward.

You may not have lived the life you imagined, but perhaps life will find a way to surprise you with imagination of its own.

“Uncle Donald, you’re very successful. You raised three boys and are rich in love. Isn’t that the true measure of success?”

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