The Luckiest Pest in Town: A Case for Gladstone Gander by Sean Dillon

 

“He is attractive because all magic is fascinating and because, in his perverse way, Gladstone is sincere, believing wholeheartedly in his own myth. As Barks suggests in one story, Gladstone might easily have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was a great king of luck! He was so lucky that nothing bad could ever happen to him!” So his perfect luck propels the story like a familiar legend, a plot to which we already know the ending.”

-Geoffrey Blum

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is a real tragedy!”

-Oscar Wilde

“It so happens Gladstone loves rainy weather!!”

-Donald Duck

Within the canon of Duck Comics, the best characters are often the ones who oscillate between two binaries: underdogs who fight against all the odds and utter bastards who should be knocked down a peg or two. The most obvious of these is Scrooge McDuck. In his earlier appearances within the works of Carl Barks, Scrooge was a traditional miser who hated everyone around him. Someone who would hold various members of his own family in debt so he wouldn’t have to pay them the full amount they deserved. At the same time, even in Barks’ work, there’s an edge of hard won victories to Scrooge, such that he’s “tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties.”

But it’s with Don Rosa that this aspect of the character shone the brightest (perhaps, at times, too much), creating a heroic adventurer who acquires treasure not for their monetary value, but the memories they spark within him. You can see this in various other characters as well, from the cantankerous underdog Donald Duck, who will also put on a mask and terrorize the people he loves out of spite (sometimes, he doesn’t even bother with the mask); or the villainous Magica De Spell, who has her own underdog values given her Sisyphean quest to obtain Scrooge McDuck’s number one dime.

But it’s perhaps Gladstone Gander who, on the surface, seems to break this mold of delightful character in the Duck Comics landscape. By all means an extremely lucky (and highly punchable) character, Gladstone is someone who always wins. No matter the odds, no matter the stakes, he will always win. Not through the determination of Scrooge or Donald, but rather because he is Gladstone Gander and has been possessed with inexplicable, unbreakable luck. This has, in turn, made him a quite unlikable character amongst a decently sized number of Duck Comics fans. But there is also a surprisingly sizable number of fans who like this flash bastard and it’s perhaps reasonable to explore why that is.

To start with, let’s consider that claim about Gladstone always winning by turning our gaze to one of the most beloved Gladstone Gander stories: Carl Barks’ Trail of the Unicorn. As with many of the early Gladstone stories, our lucky pest is a side character to the main character of the book, Donald Duck. This was, after all, at a time when even Scrooge McDuck was a side character in the life of Donald Duck as opposed to the main character of numerous comics, television shows, and video games. As such, in the pen of Barks, Gladstone Gander is an antagonistic figure within the story, attempting to steal the reward Donald and the triplets worked so hard to get by any means necessary.

One such method is, rather unfortunately, by painting himself up in blackface and pretending to be a racist stereotype in order to get Donald and the triplets to take a fake unicorn to Uncle Scrooge while he takes the real unicorn as well as the money in Donald’s wallet (a measly $10). As with many of the works of Carl Barks, the racism is rather inextricable from the work in a way that has poisoned the well for many Duck stories throughout history.

(To this end, creators following up Barks have dealt with this element of his work by either ignoring it completely, leading to the racism resurfacing such as in The House of the Lucky Gander!, the introduction episode of Gladstone in the 2017 incarnation of Ducktales; revisiting directly without fully dealing with its implications, such as in Don Rosa’s treatment of Bombie in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck; or directly confronting the racism head on and actively critiquing it [albeit slightly clunkily in terms of the methodology of critique], as can be seen in Sarah Jolley’s The Trial of the Unicorn. All of which to say you really want someone who isn’t white to actually confront this issue head on.)

This inextricability can be highlighted in the way in which this ploy fails utterly for Gladstone. It’s not that the boys and Donald immediately recognize their cousin, Gladstone, under the blackface makeup. Indeed, the only reason the boys are suspicious of Gladstone’s character is because he doesn’t fully commit to the bit and uses a lightbulb instead of a crystal ball. Rather, it’s because the boys knew he’d pull something like this since they noticed he also snuck aboard the plane to India. (Rather than tell Donald this, the boys let the con go without a hitch before stealing the money from Gladstone because they, too, are absolute shits you can’t help but love.) Through a later thought from Gladstone, he concludes that the reason this ultimately didn’t work was “because cheating is a form of work! Anyone, as lucky as I, should just sit around and let dame fortune dump a bale of mazuma in his lap!”

Gladstone, as initially conceived, is the antithesis of Donald Duck. Where Donald is a caregiver who frequently has to deal with a lot of bastards ruining his day, working hard in countless fields, be it exterminator, gofer, or whipping boy, Gladstone doesn’t. He just sits on his ass and lets what come may. Any attempt at actually doing the work needed to steal the unicorn (as opposed to it conveniently coming to him) will result in the same rotten luck that Donald faces. And, in the end, Gladstone is able to get the unicorn to Uncle Scrooge before Donald, ultimately winning the $10,000 reward.

And yet, there’s another wrinkle to this. While certainly not one to let Donald off easily or even always let him win, Barks nevertheless gives Donald the win. For while Gladstone was able to luck into finding the Unicorn, Donald’s hard work lead him and the boys to find the moss the unicorn would eat, leading them to receive a reward of two million dollars. This, in turn, leads to a final image of the extravagant car Gladstone bought with his luck given earnings contrasted with Donald’s even more extravagant car (complete with personal drivers).

And thus we see a key aspect of the nature of Gladstone’s luck in Barks’ fiction. In many regards, it’s the mirror image of Lance Parkin’s conception of Doctor Who. In his novel, The Gallifrey Chronicles, Parkin opens with an epigraph simply stating “The Doctor never loses.” Fans of the show, even prior to the more angst fueled modern series, could see that there’s something amiss with that claim. One look at the adventures featuring Jammie McCrimmon, Sara Kingdom, or Peri Brown would tell you well enough that Doctor Who has seen their fair share of losses. And yet, every adventure featuring Doctor Who ends with them beating insurmountable odds. This is perhaps best highlighted in the final moments of the novel, wherein two characters argue about how the adventure is going to turn out, one claiming an “Everybody dies” scenario while the other pitches a more traditional action climax befitting of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, the book’s prose supporting the latter take over the former. While it does not necessarily lead to an ending where people don’t die, it does contextualize what it means for Doctor Who to lose. It’s not that Doctor Who will win every single time, but rather that they will not lose.

From this, we can see Gladstone as a mirror experience of Doctor Who. Where Doctor Who never loses, Gladstone Gander always wins. No matter what competition he is faced with, no matter the odds, his luck will see him to the best possible ending he can have. This does not, however, preclude him from having to deal with a degree of loss, be it the aforementioned Donald getting the larger reward or having a reward that, ultimately, amounts to a booby prize, the victories of Gladstone Gander can taste like ash where defeat would smell of roses.

And yet, Gladstone himself has faced some horrible losses. One of the more famous examples comes from Don Rosa’s The Sign of the Triple Distelfink. In many regards, Rosa’s story is considered by many to be the explanation of Gladstone’s luck. Not that he is a character lacking in such explanations (from being kissed by Lady Luck to being blessed by Fortunia), but many consider this to be the definitive one. Unlike Barks’ more programatic take on Gladstone’s luck, wherein it only works when he’s not trying, Rosa approaches the luck as if it’s a magic spell placed upon him.

Or, rather, one Gladstone inherited from his mother thanks to a hex sign or, for the comics crowd, a sigil. Sigils are a rather odd concept. As Grant Morrison describes them in their essay Pop Magic!, “The sigil takes a magical desire or intent and folds it down, creating a highly-charged symbol. The desire is then forgotten. Only the symbol remains.” And while the sigils presented in Pop Magic! ultimately look less like three distelfinks looking at one another and more abstract in nature, the base premise remains. It’s not so much the design that’s key as the meaning. (Also notable is their claim that sigils ALWAYS work.)

And we are given the meaning for the Sigil of the Triple Distelfink explicitly in the text: it gives good luck to those born under it and, when inverted, gives only bad. Gladstone, up until his [insert whatever age you think Gladstone Gander is here] birthday, was unaware of the meaning. In Gladstone, the desire for good luck was forgotten, obscured by memory until this moment. And yet, its effect has been able to fuel luck of cosmic scale. This is best highlighted in Gladstone experiencing just one day a year of bad luck comparable to his good luck, frequently approaching death and suffering from astronomical sources. Quite literally.

It would be easy to say that it’s comparable to the luck Donald Duck typically experiences. As Sarah Jolley put it in Wild Goose Chase, Donald’s bad luck is constantly trying to kill him. And yet, there are two key distinctions between the lucks of these two cousins. The first, as Scrooge McDuck notes, is that Donald has an eternal tendency towards self-destruction. It’s not that the universe is out to get him, constantly throwing lightning, avalanches, and opera singers at him, so much as Donald’s own temperament and behavior get the best of him and, ultimately, hurts him more than anyone else.

This aspect is highlighted in The Sign of the Triple Distelfink itself. We open the story on Donald, rather cruelly, preparing a “gift” for Gladstone’s birthday that will literally blow up in his face, much to the disdain of Huey, Dewy, and Louie. Instead, it blows up in Donald’s face due to his own actions. Indeed, the suffering Donald goes through in The Sign of the Triple Distelfink contrasts with the noble suffering that Barks presented us. Every time Donald does something bad, it bites him in the ass. Cruel pranks get him electrocuted, as does cruelly trying to steal Gladstone’s luck, which directly leads to the reversal of Gladstone’s bad luck birthdays.

In many regards, the determination of who is the ultimate victor of these stories is, fittingly enough, akin to that of Tom and Jerry. As many people are aware, Tom and Jerry is a cartoon about a cat trying to catch a mouse. The popular understanding of the cartoon is that, no matter how outlandish the attempts Tom takes in catching Jerry, Jerry will always win. This is not, strictly speaking, the case. Rather, the character who ultimately wins the confrontation is the one who is the most sympathetic. For example, in the cartoon The Year of the Mouse, Jerry and an off model Nibbles try again and again to convince Tom that he’s subconsciously trying to kill himself. The cartoon ends with Tom trapping Jerry and Nibbles in a bottle with a revolver pointed at them. For a less mean spirited example, there’s The Million Dollar Cat, wherein Tom inherits a million dollars so long as he never harms a living animal, especially a mouse. Jerry takes this opportunity to torment Tom to increasingly abusive ends, leading to Tom forsaking his fortune in the name of happiness.

So too is this the case in the stories of Ducks. When Gladstone is the more aggressive of the two, his victories will hollow at best. Whereas Donald being a cruel jerk will often end with a comeuppance of his own being dealt. This holds true with the rest of the Duck stories characters, from Scrooge’s miserly antics leading to his wealth being stuck underground to the open viciousness of Flintheart Glomgold just leading to him getting more and more beaten down by the universe.

And yet, the relationship between Donald and Gladstone is far more complicated than the mirror imagery of Scrooge and Glomgold. Take, for example, Donald’s Lucky Day by Doug Gray and Massimo Fecchi. As this is a more obscure story within the Duck Comics and one that exists in English only through fan translations, a brief summary may be required. After a bout of bad luck and a run in with his cousin Gladstone, Donald finds himself in the presence of a five leaf clover. Hoping it’ll bring him luck, Donald takes the clover with him home. The next day, Donald finds himself in a bit of inexplicably good luck. Luck that should never happen. “Scrooge McDuck gives Donald money” good luck.

Meanwhile, Gladstone is facing the exact opposite situation, having suddenly lost all of his luck for unknown reasons. The two, out of sheer terror at the wrongness of the world, meet under a bridge to hide from this horror. Out of sympathy, Donald gifts Gladstone the five leaf clover and the world returns to normal the next day with Donald walking away saying “easy come, easy go.”

While previous stories discussed presented the two as adversarial in nature, Donald’s Lucky Day shows us the two as members of a family. For all that they fight and, in normal circumstances, don’t get on with one another, they nevertheless care when the other is in pain. When the world has gone absolutely mad, they bring each other a degree of comfort. Be it small gestures such as giving an unlucky cousin a lucky clover or large gestures of saving a family member from drowning. For all their bickering, fighting, and distrust, when things get down, they will have each other’s backs. Because they’re family. Indeed, this can be seen as far back as A Christmas for Shacktown, wherein Gladstone helps Donald find $4 for no other reason than because it’s Christmas.

This dynamic, however, is better highlighted in Bruno Sarda and Franco Valussi’s Ekol’s Pendulum, especially since it includes a third element in Fethry Loon. A riff on Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (a common practice within Duck Stories, with other stories riffing on a variety of works from Fantômas to Pride and Prejudice to Blade Runner), Ekol’s Pendulum begins with Donald and Fethry working as reporters for Uncle Scrooge’s newspaper and doing a rather bad job at it. Scrooge wants them to find a scoop, and tasks them with searching through the catacombs of his personal library to do it. Immediately, Donald comes to the idea that they should call their cousin, Gladstone for some help.

As you can tell from that last sentence alone, this is a markedly different relationship between the cousins than we’ve discussed thus far. Sure, Gladstone doesn’t work for free or out of the kindness of his heart, but he’s not trying to con his family out of money or even revel in their misery. Even Donald’s Lucky Day started out with Gladstone running into Donald initially to ask for some money he owes the lucky git so he can go on a date with Daisy. (The relationship with Donald, Daisy, and Gladstone is… complicated, ranging from a Love V to a Love Triangle to “So everyone’s an asshole who only go on dates to mess with other people.” The full extent of this dynamic is perhaps saved for an article on Daisy Duck [and one preferably written by someone who isn’t mostly a guy].) But here, all Gladstone asks is for a free car wash from the two and credit on the article.

In many regards, the subgenre of Duck Comics about the three cousins going on adventures tend to be the place where Gladstone is at his most sympathetic. Sure, there are one off stories where Gladstone is heroic, even, dare I say it, likeable (just as there are three cousins stories where he’s a lout). But by being in the dynamic with the put upon Donald and the quite mad Fethry, Gladstone’s harder edges get softened. Instead of a flash bastard who ruins people’s lives, he’s a rather snarky pal who genuinely enjoys being in the company of his family.

And yet, there’s a degree to this story that’s slightly out of step with how his character has been presented thus far. For starters, there’s the matter of Gladstone’s luck. Now, while previous stories have presented his luck as being nigh infallible (in the sense that he never loses), frequently within Ekol’s Pendulum, Sarda and Valussi present the luck as (while still quite high, as demonstrated by a very humorous sequence involving two cult members trying to kidnap him) somewhat fallible. Gladstone can still be the victim of pain, of torment, of all the other aspects of the universe that characters like Donald, Scrooge, and Fethry are known to face. Indeed, the ending of the story, wherein the trio are on the run from Scrooge McDuck for screwing him out of the philosopher’s stone, is perhaps one of the more unfortunate ends for Gladstone. While we’ve noted that Gladstone’s victories aren’t always the best ending for him, typically they’re along the lines of “I don’t have as big a car as Donald” or “I’m stuck with these two live turkeys I’ve won.”

And yet, there is a potential answer through another aspect of the story that seems out of character for Gladstone: he works. That is to say he does work. He takes on the position of a journalist and does the research, writing, and translation implied by that job. As we’ve discussed with The Trail of the Unicorn, Gladstone’s luck tends to not fully work when he’s putting any effort into things. If one were interested in tying all of the Duck Stories into one coherent union, one could argue that the very act of being a working professional dims Gladstone’s luck to such a degree that he could feel pain. (Indeed, Barks himself would imply a degree of shame in Gladstone doing any amount of hard work in The Good Luck Charm.)

But then we’d be missing out on something far more interesting that Gladstone’s presence within Ekol’s Pendulum adds: Gladstone is into magic. A common trait in many Gladstone stories is that he has a mild interest in the occult. He is able to notice symbols of power, frequently consults horoscopes, and literally has a big book of magic. So it is fitting, then, that Gladstone would end up in a story where he (alongside Donald and Fethry) has to deal with an occult conspiracy to find the philosopher’s stone. Because he is absolutely the sort of person who would be into the vast, arcane implications of magic. What’s more though, is Gladstone’s ultimate role in uncovering the occult conspiracy. It’s not that the three have found some obscure text that gives them all the answers or overheard the right conversations at the right time. They’re immediately booted out before they can hear the secrets and the obscured texts they do find are full of holes.

So they do what any good occultist does when faced with something incomplete: They made it all up, and it came true anyway. That’s the funny part.

To explain the significance of this for those coming in from the duck side of the equation rather than the comics side, Gladstone Gander’s luck is so powerful that by coming up with a fantastical lie to fill in the holes of the story being told, it was able to make sure they were the lies that were true. In many regards, this is akin to the famous Doctor Who quote “when someone writes about an incident after it’s happened, that is history. But when the writing comes first, that’s fiction.”

The act of writing a story (or the creation of any sort of art) that changes reality is an aspect within many mystical practices. Aleister Crowley, for example, famously changed the Tarot Card for Temperance into one of Art, saying, “Pour thin all freely from the Vase in thy right hand, and lose no drop. Hath not thy left hand a vase?/Transmute all wholly into the Image of thy Will, bringing each to its true token of Perfection. Dissolve the Pearl in the Wine-cup; drink, and make manifest the Virtue of that Pearl.”

But perhaps the most famous magician to explore the relation between stories and magic is Alan Moore. Moore is a rather prickly writer for a number of reasons, not the least of which being suffering the misfortune of fans coming at him in a bathroom to talk about how Rorschach perfectly captured what they were like as if that was a good thing. This chance encounter turned Alan Moore off from attending comic conventions, highlighting his atypical and prickly nature. Most would simply put up a sign on their tables that asks people not to ask them about Watchmen.

In terms of mysticism, however, Moore’s seminal work is From Hell, an extremely dense work that, if properly explored, would turn this short tangent into a massive essay. I shall note that, for our purposes, the most important character from that comic book series is Robert Lees. Lees was a minor figure in the court of Queen Victoria notable for being a psychic. He would be able to commune with the dead or see visions of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders the book is ostensibly about.

The most important thing about Lees (within Moore’s text) is that he is completely and utterly full of shit. He doesn’t see the dead or find the lost pet or even figure out who Jack the Ripper is. He just lies, be it out of a sense of pride, greed, or melancholy. And yet, his lies always come true. The cat he first predicted to be found was found when he said it would be. The dreadful, bloody war he predicted came true in the fields of Flanders. And the man Lees accused of being Jack the Ripper because he wounded his pride turned out to be Jack the Ripper. Famously, he confesses to his charlatan nature by looking directly at the reader and saying “I made it all up, and it came true anyways.” More importantly, this occurs in the prologue of the story. We are well aware of his nature as a huckster trying to get by, relying on his ability to lie. And yet, we are not meant to view this man as villainous. Not necessarily heroic, but not akin to Jack the Ripper.

For Moore, the creation of anything (be it a work of art, a good con, or a child) is an act of magic. The best kinds of magics are the ones that change the world. Be they a story about scary monsters and super creeps leading to the end of the cold war, an idea so powerful that it can’t help but spread, or even something that prevents one from killing themselves. The aim of any self-respecting magician is the same of any self-respecting artist: to change the world. For Gladstone Gander, as with Lees, the desire to change the world is secondary to his own happiness.

(To extend this tangent just a little bit longer, another connection between Gander and Lees is the fact that they are both dandies. The dandy, in the modern context, is largely an aesthetic choice on the part of those who take on this role wherein one takes on a clean and orderly appearance, speaks in refined language, and takes on a leisurely lifestyle. Both men, in their own way, subvert the dandy persona, be it Lees’ late in life rejection of it or Gander’s tendency to use blue collar language. Gladstone, it should be noted, was not raised in an aristocratic environment, but rather on a farm, shortly after his parents died of eating too much at a free picnic.)

Of course, that’s just in the context of Ekol’s Pendulum. If one casts a wider net on the history of Gladstone Gander, then we must confront his most direct interaction with the occult: A Gal for Gladstone by Carol and Pat McGreal and Massimo Fecchi. It is perhaps inevitable that this article come to this story. Indeed, in many regards, it’s considered to be one of Gladstone’s defining outings as a character and the origin of one of the most beloved ships in the Duck Stories Community: Magicstone.

For those who don’t follow various Duck Fans, A Gal for Gladstone tells of the titular Gladstone Gander losing his luck and having to actually work for a living, much to his chagrin. As time moves on, Gladstone becomes used to his lot in life and finds a degree of enjoyment in it, not the least of which due to meeting a nice young woman named Matilda who takes a fancy to the melancholic vibe and potential to be more than he is. However, unbeknownst to Gladstone, Matilda is the one responsible for the loss of his luck. For this is all part of a scheme to get what she wants most in the world: Scrooge McDuck’s number one dime. For Matilda is, in fact, Magica De Spell! But what she never considered was that she would, in the course of having a relationship with Gladstone, fall in love.

There is, one could argue, a similarity between this story and the earlier Date with a Munchkin by Kari Korhonen and Vicar, wherein Magica De Spell takes on the persona of Daisy Duck (while having the real Daisy tied up) to use Donald to get close to the dime, only to be foiled by romantic feelings towards the duck. However, where in that story, she fell for him in part due to a mixture of a love smog gone wrong and empathy towards Daisy Duck, here the feelings are based on going on a series of dates with the formerly lucky Gander.

As is to be expected, their relationship ends in tragedy as Magica opts to return the luck she stole from Gladstone at the cost of her disguise and, subsequently, her chance at the number one dime. Both look lovelorn and saddened by the turn of events, pondering what could have been. The stories of the luckiest man in the world suddenly losing everything are common in the stories of old. Be they an emperor being brought low by being turned into a llama or a nobody being shown a world where he never was. In the stories of Gladstone Gander, the loss of luck is likewise a common affair.

We have previously discussed one such story, but with A Gal for Gladstone, we see it not as a means of semi-cosmic horror, but as a tragic romance, an odd man out in terms of the subgenre of “Gladstone loses his luck” stories (which are about as common as the “Gladstone finds love, only to lose it” stories: not often, but notable). Indeed, the majority of tales of Gladstone losing his luck are typically caused by villains out to use his luck to take over the world or something equally dull. But here, Magica’s taking of the luck is more a means to an end for the number one dime. In turn, their relationship is allowed to blossom, even as Magica is explicitly using Gladstone’s feelings for her to her advantage.

And yet, the love they share is genuine. They did have a connection, a desire to be together. There is a case to be made that Gladstone didn’t fall in love with Magica so much as Matilda, her persona. However, there is a sense in the story that Matilda isn’t too far off from who Magica is. Note the things she appreciates in Gladstone: The suffering in his eyes, the unbounded potential, a glorious sunrise in her bleak life. She’s a lonely spinster who never found love because she never met anyone equal to her standards. Yes, there’s a degree of flattery on her part, but these are, nevertheless, things that someone like Magica values in a partner. There is genuine worry on her face as Gladstone climbs down a small cliff to get her flowers. More than either would like to admit (as noted by Gladstone lying to Donald that he saw through Magica’s disguise), they did love each other.

This relationship is explored in more depth within the work of Sarah Jolley. Now, with this article, I have tried to keep discussion away from just one person’s approach to writing Duck Comics. There are a great number of reasons for this, but among them is the simple fact that Duck Comics conversations outside of fandom circles often end up being discussions of the works of Barks or Rosa. And while it is certainly understandable that these two would get a lot of the focus, it is nevertheless worth exploring the wide range of possibilities that Duck Comics can offer. From Massimo Fecchi’s comedic depiction of the cosmic horror that is Donald Duck getting a raise from Uncle Scrooge to the abstract cartoonish style of Silvia Ziche, there are a great number of storytellers whose work is underappreciated in the shadow of giants.

In the case of Sarah Jolley, however, we have a case of the single greatest artist to do work on Duck Comics. Now, this does have a small degree of qualification. Where most of the Duck Comics writers and artists have demonstrated a lot of the potential of their craft within their Duck Comics, Jolley’s potential is largely shown in work outside of their Duck Comics. Or, to put it another way:

For those of you unaware, The Property of Hate is a web comic about a young Hero traveling with a Monster that has a TV for a head in a fantastical landscape in order to save it from destruction. It’s a story about the stories we tell, the meaning of heroism, and the delight one can gain from the presence of a sentient sock. Additionally, it’s one of the most beautiful web comics I have ever seen, easily placed alongside works like Lore Olympus and Kill 6 Billion Demons in terms of sheer mastery of craft.

That isn’t to say that her Duck Comics work isn’t good or even well made. Rather, by their own admission, this is doodling done on the side while working on other projects. And yet, there’s a degree of detail to these doodles. Take for example this crowd scene from Hidden Potential:

Though the characters in this moment are largely squiggles, each one is nevertheless given a degree of detail that makes them distinct from each other. Some have top hats, some are in wheelchairs, and some are same sex partners dancing to their hearts’ content. If you look carefully, you can even spot Gladstone and Magica within the squiggles. It’s this attention to detail, even in sketch work (not to mention their wit, use of color, and willingness to go in new directions even if they don’t always work), that makes Jolley the best Duck Comics artist ever. (That said, you should seriously read The Property of Hate, oh my god it is so good!)

But on the subject of the relationship between Gladstone and Magica, we must turn our gaze firstly to The Sorceress’s Apprentice. In this story, Gladstone Gander is accidentally summoned to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where Magica lives. While not happy with this location, Gladstone begs Magica to let him stay for a while, mainly because he’d much rather not have to deal with Scrooge giving him lectures about getting a damn job already. Magica accepts on the grounds that his luck could be of use to find ingredients for a spell (to summon Scrooge’s Number One Dime).

Unlike their previous time together, we are shown their relationship without the veil of performativity that Matilda allowed for Magica. As such, there’s a degree of hostility between the two early on (not the least of which because Gladstone was genuinely hurt by Magica’s Matilda persona), the affection the two shared during their initial relationship is allowed to blossom. They share things about one another from Gladstone’s secret love of gardening to Magica’s skills as a magician. It’s a story that could have worked out well for the two. Maybe not as romance as the shippers would like it to be, but a student/teacher relationship could have been forged.

But then, Magica receives the ingredients for the spell and puts Gladstone between a rock and a hard place: Does he retain the relationship he has been developing or does he help his family? It’s not that he initially turns on Magica in this moment. Gladstone does try methods beyond mere snatch and grab trickery. He offers a relationship not forged out of petty spite and catch and release style antics, but a partnership that could change the world. Magica retorts that she’s been at this for years; if she were to give up now, she’d have wasted all that time.

But then, she asks a question: why would destroying the dime ruin their potential. Why couldn’t their partnership continue on after all was said and done. It’s not as if anyone else saw Gladstone as anything but a lout. It’s not as if anyone thought Gladstone had potential if he put himself out there. But the thing is, for all that he’s a jerk; for all that he’s lazy; for all that he’d much rather do anything else, Gladstone loves his family. He loves Donald and Fethry and even Uncle Scrooge. The destruction of the dime would break their hearts, and he doesn’t want to see that happen. So he makes a wish for a dime and returns home.

Of course, the relationship between Gladstone and Magica would simmer under Jolley’s stylus for quite some time, involving adventures featuring dancing, body swapping, and everybody’s favorite billionaire, Flintheart Glomgold, before climaxing in Enough Time to Fall. Once again, we see Magica with the dime in her possession, about to melt it to create an amulet that will give her the Midas Touch. And, once again, Gladstone stops her from doing this. The running gag of her time as Matilda is brought up again (as happens in Jolley’s comics), but this time Gladstone wants to have the uncomfortable conversation about it.

Where their initial conversation in the story is full of banter and wit, this one is just raw anger about an uncomfortable situation. Sure, Gladstone is used to being used (more on that in a bit), but with regards to his luck, never his feelings. She retorts that he’s a self-absorbed prat, and he responds that at least he has some degree of self-worth. If Magica had any, she wouldn’t need to bring him down low in order to start a relationship with him. She wouldn’t have to lie about who she is to be with someone, be that Gladstone or Donald.

And so, once again, Magica de Spell takes away the luck of Gladstone Gander. And so, once again, Gladstone is left with a choice. Not that of his family or a new relationship, but between his luck and his family. Yes, he values his family, but his luck is a part of him. It’s the only thing he has of his late mother, who died when he was a child. It keeps him alive in this mad world of magicians, science experiments gone awry, and evil billionaires. It’s a part of who he is. And he must choose between that and his family.

Of course, just because he cares for his family, doesn’t mean they care for him. Frequently, Scrooge will view Gladstone as less a person and more an object to use. A luck magnet to find something. His cousin Donald wants nothing to do with him, frequently avoiding him, if not actively trying to hurt him. And then there’s the matter of his parents— I mentioned previously that his parents died from overeating at a picnic, but you might have noticed something about that sentence: they died at the same time. Isn’t that a tad bit… unlucky?

There has been a lot of speculation in regard to the parents of Gladstone Gander (as there has been with many Duck heroes). What were they like? What happened to them? Who is Gladstone Gander’s father? We know his mother is Daphne Duck, but she only appears in a scant few stories with barely a line of dialogue. His father only appears in family trees that contradict one another (Gustave Gander or Luke Goose?). Among the many answers provided, there is Sarah Jolley’s The White Balloon, where she expands upon a notion she developed in the Donald/Fethry story Reflections: Gladstone Gander’s parents died on one of his birthdays.

He spent the remaining years of his childhood being raised by everyone’s beloved Grandma Duck on a farm, somewhat isolated from his friends. Even at a young age, people recognized the luck less as a byproduct of a person and more a commodity to use. As such, why bother to act polite? Why bother to care about other people if they just see you as a resource? Who cares what other people think and say? Just tune them out with the beats of rain! Even Donald has been known to use Gladstone as a tool rather than a person. In the story O’Lucky Man by Kari Korhonen and José Colomer Fonts, Gladstone is having a rotten day and feeling down in the dumps. So the triplets ask Uncle Donald to help cheer him up. At first, he’s apoplectic about the situation until Donald realizes that he could use Gladstone to make money to pay for a date. It ends poorly for Donald, as to be expected, but this behavior is far from unusual in Duckberg when it comes to cousin Gladstone.

This brings us to the second contrast between the lucks of Gander and Duck. For all his misfortune, all his tendency to self-sabotage and lash out, Donald has people to call his own. He has friends, family, and so many other people to call upon for help. Gladstone, for all his luck, is alone. He can have momentary friendships, even relationships. But they will never work out in the end. His luck will always take precedence above all else. Enough Time to Fall ultimately ends with Gladstone and Magica admitting to each other that it would never work out. Imagine the Thanksgiving dinners. Other romantic interests Gladstone has had have ended either with similar conversations of incompatibility or anger at Gladstone’s expense.

Is there any hope for a man such as Gladstone? Could he just walk away from it all: his luck, his family, his privilege? Can Gladstone ever find happiness? This is explored in Marco Nucci and Stefano Zanchi’s Gladstone and the Solitude of the Four-Leaf Clover. On a typical day in Duckberg, Gladstone runs into Fethry, who can’t stay due to having to attend a class on coming up with a good excuse to get out of unwanted conversations. Gladstone, naturally, is suspicious of Fethry’s story, so he follows him. What he finds is truly depressing.

I have this anxiety where I get the sense that people are secretly talking behind my back about how much they hate me. How they only talk to me as a means of setting me up for a fall and, if they could, they would actively try to avoid me at all cost. This anxiety isn’t helped by a recent experience wherein I discovered that someone I thought I was on good terms with actually thought I was a dullard not worth being around. Only to be used to prop himself up. And while I had already known he was a vile person, the discovery that this anxiety was, in fact, valid even in just one person threw me through a loop. I spent many nights thinking about the guy and his words about me.

And while I didn’t make the decision Gladstone did, I understand the urge to simply walk away from everything. After all, if those anxieties are true, if people were just using me rather than wanting to be around me, why bother being me? Why not just leave everything behind? Not just the life that you lived, but the very character of Gladstone Gander himself. Just because you always win, doesn’t mean you’re always happy. Upon this revelation, Gladstone leaves Duckberg and moves to a farm. It certainly fits with his oft mentioned love of gardening, but he still has to learn difficult skills like using a hammer or boiling a potato. Because for all his former luck, Gladstone Gander was a himbo.

He also isolates himself from people. As he puts it, “No people, no luck.” His luck, it would seem, is dependent on the presence of other people. This, of course, makes sense. The character of Gladstone Gander is a member of an ensemble cast of wacky animals who go on madcap adventures. By removing himself from other people, he removes himself from the story. He removes himself from being Gladstone Gander.

But he doesn’t remove himself from stories completely, try as he might. For this is still a comic and there are other stories. In this case, he is introduced to a small cast of characters including Mr. Blossom and Fitzy, an adorable (never explicitly stated, but come on) gay couple and Priscilla, a school teacher. Curiously, when pressed to say his name, he responds with “Donald.”

When these characters press gang him into being part of their lives, he fears that his luck will come through and make everything easy and, in turn, cause everyone to hate him. Instead, true to his name, Donald ends up finding absolutely nothing in their mushroom hunt and ends up getting into several cases of bad luck. And Donald couldn’t be happier. He is free of the curse of luck, the curse of being Gladstone Gander. He can be a new person with a new story.

Except, in the old story, the one of billionaires, witches, and luck, everything is collapsing. A terrible storm is raging in Duckberg. One that has already hit the fabled bin of Scrooge McDuck, toppled several statues, and forced many of the residents to leave. When one such resident, Grandma Duck, finds Donald in his farm, the story he built up for himself, the one where he wasn’t the luckiest pest in the world, finally collapses. Because it was built on a lie. He isn’t an unlucky fellow. In fact, he’s the luckiest duck in the world. He’s Gladstone Gander.

And so, he’s left with a revelation as opposed to a choice. Upon hearing who he truly is, his friends tell him to take a hike on the grounds that he’s a lying bastard who lied to them for no good reason whatsoever. And, upon realizing this, he considers returning to his life of isolation. Instead, he returns to Duckberg to save it from the cataclysmic storm that is destroying it. Because though they see him as a commodity, though they don’t like him all the time, Gladstone nevertheless likes them. And so, the town of Duckberg is saved. Because, as much as they may not like him, they need someone like Gladstone. He is their lucky charm.

Yet that doesn’t solve the issue of his commodification. Sure, it’s nice to be needed, but there’s a difference between being needed and being used. For that, we need look no further than to Sarah Jolley. In their story Wild Goose Chase, Donald, Fethry, and Gladstone are sent to find something left behind by a departed friend of Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge leaves them a note about it, but it doesn’t tell them squat about the location of what they’re looking for or even what it is. Donald comes to the conclusion that Scrooge asked noted layabout Gladstone Gander to come because his luck could be used as a treasure detector.

This, in turn, leads to an argument between the cousins culminating in Donald saying “The only thing that’s good about you is your luck!” And so, Gladstone leaves, disheartened. But Donald and Fethry get into a scuffle, leading Gladstone to have to save them from some people with guns. As they escape, Donald shouts at Gladstone to use his luck to save them while all this madness is happening. To prevent them from dying. Gladstone responds that he is. This is how his luck works.

Gladstone elaborates his feelings of objectification. Sure, he’s safe. But he’s not a person. He’s a resource to be used like a lamb to slaughter. All his relationships are based on how he can be used by other people. Any friend he could make would just use him in the end. Even Donald. Because they don’t love him. They don’t see anything of worth in him. They just see the luck. And so, for the people he loves, Gladstone is willing to give himself up. To throw away his chances at happiness.

When placed in these kinds of situations, Gladstone is often rewarded with some degree of validation. In Gladstone Gander and the Solitude of the Four-Leaf Clover, the friends Gladstone made under the guise of Donald ultimately decide to allow him a second chance at friendship. Though it was under a guise of falsehood, there was enough potential within his persona for a relationship to form. And in Wild Goose Chase, it’s revealed that Uncle Scrooge actually did leave the location and nature of what the three cousins were searching for.

On the back, there’s a note from Scrooge explaining why he asked Gladstone to come with them. It’s not because of Gladstone’s luck. Rather, it’s because of who he is as a person. He is well aware of how much the luckiest pest in the world cares for his family, will do anything to save them from any potential harm, and make their lives better. He may not always like Gladstone Gander, but he loves him nevertheless.

Indeed, the same is true of Donald and Fethry. When they put together the nature of the late Gander parents, they are genuinely mortified by this and try their best to make sure Gladstone doesn’t meet their fate. They rib on him, mess with him, and fight with him. But, as Wild Goose Chase notes, they’re practically brothers.

To close, a note about something you might have noticed: these stories contradict each other. Specifically with regards to the nature of Gladstone’s luck. We’ve made some attempts at trying to rationalize the contradictions earlier in the article, but, upon seeing a wider scope of Gladstone’s character, they don’t really hold up to scrutiny. An active Gladstone is still an extremely lucky son of a gun who can avoid danger at any turn. A selfless Gladstone is luckier than a selfish one. It doesn’t add up. Indeed, Gladstone’s character and role within the narrative seems to shift from story to story from anti-hero up against villains worse than he is, to melancholic wanderer trying to live his best life, to out and out baddie making those around him suffer. We could try curating the Gladstone experience to the ones that fit, but that just removes a breadth of weird and interesting stories. And, oftentimes, from white male voices who see nothing wrong with a little blackface.

The fact of the matter is, it’s all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip. The 2017 Ducktales series is as real as the 1987 one, which is as real as the 1938 Donald’s Nephews. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is as real as Lost in the Andes is as real as Kingdom Hearts. Dickie in Duckberg and One for Sorrow; The Three Caballeros and The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse. Paperinik and the Duck Avenger and Darkwing Duck. It’s all real and it can’t ever fit together in a nice package. But what makes Duck stories special, truly special, is that the various creators, be they writers, artists, musicians, and so much more, have rarely, if ever, tried to forge a singular vision of what Duck stories are.

There isn’t a singular version of Gladstone Gander that is considered the be all/end all take on him. There is no defining text because it’s all scattered around the world in a wide range of styles, languages, and implications. The stories of old can be used, not for mere curation and repetition that superhero stories are wont to be trapped within. There are too many holes to be found, too many rabbit holes worth exploring. Magicstone is just one potential avenue. There are so many stories to tell about these talking animals, even relatively minor and obscure ones like Gladstone Gander.

The case for Gladstone Gander is the same for any and all of the characters of this kind of story: because he’s more fun in it than out of it. Be it as a heel, a melancholic dandy, or the romantic lead that warms a witch’s heart, Gladstone Gander is just a lot of fun. Aren’t they all?

Special thanks to Brandon Masters and Kyle Ross for proofreading this article.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting article! Though, as a black reader of modmad’s (Sarah Jolley’s online handle) work myself, I would argue that her story the Trial of the Unicorn is pretty undeserving of being written off as ‘clunky’. Nobody within Disney has really addressed the racism in those comics in more than a footnote in the back of a hardback; certainly never in a story. It was a hugely brave move on her part that earned her a lot of criticism (nearly entirely by white readers), and could well have completely smashed her possible future publication in the canon comics. Personally, I found it validating, refreshing, and cathartic. I showed it to my father, who used to read the comics to me as a child, and he asked if she was black. When I said no, he was shocked; that someone white would even try to do something as brazen as this- and how sad is that? To expect that only people who would care enough to make a story like this would have to be the people directly hurt by it. Trial of the Unicorn is Not Perfect, sure, but nothing is, and being loath to reward such courage is only going to encourage people to keep quiet. If all people get when they try to face up and square off with racism is criticism, who is going to want to? Silence is compliance, and she could have stayed silent so easily. Nobody would have called her out, or even noticed, but she didn’t- she actively made a choice to do something nobody, literally nobody, has tried before: using the characters to discuss the problem- not in an article or a debate panel- but inside a comic with a compelling narrative all of its own. More to the point, modmad could have used any of the duck characters; Scrooge, Donald, the triplets, who have all done disgracefully racist things in the early comics, but instead she used her (plainly) favourite character to take the blow. What does that tell you about integrity? What does that tell you about courage? I think it says a lot.

    I grew up loving the duck comics, but they were always tainted by that ugly shadow of Barks (and other artists) horribly mistaken representation in the early days- even in later stories it would show up again and again, like the depiction of Native Americans speaking in ‘ums’, or having children playing cowboys and indians- wearing feathers in headbands, which was so widely accepted for such a long time. All of this frustrated me, because I loved Donald so much, and even as a kid I knew it wasn’t his fault that some writer used him so badly, but there it was in print.

    (part 1- blog wouldn’t allow full post in one go!)

  2. So then, what hope is there for this message to get across if people who try- people who face racism in comics head-on like Ms Jolley- are brow beaten and condemned for daring to do something nobody in the professional circle has, would, or even could? I think she was aware of that, too. She has constantly been using her position as an outsider, someone who isn’t part of the Disney company, and the creative freedom that comes with it on purpose. To create a massive game-changer of a story like this was probably a terrifying thing to attempt, knowing how uncomfortable it would be for some of her followers to read, but if discussing racism makes you uncomfortable perhaps you need to sit down and think about why that is. Yes, it’s not perfect, but could you have made a better go at it? I don’t think I could! I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job than that. Blank Panther was bad when it started, but look at the legacy it has now. We all have to start somewhere, and I think this is a pretty damn good (and overdue) start.

  3. the writing about Gladstone? okay. the white person who did nothing criticises a white person who actually got off their ass and represented shit? I sleep. good read on the character side but you really asking for it with this holier than thou grand standing- can you see our boy Jon Gray making a comic like Trial o.t. Unicorn and keeping his job? no. can you see a black person making a comic like that not getting blacklisted/trolled/shot down with abuse from all angles? thought not. should have kept to the analysis and taken a backseat with that unless you’ve done something of equal merit (and don’t think I didn’t see you pointing out the comics racism for brownie points BEFORE saying how Sarah J did the exact same only ten times better and with 1000 times more impact- and only after you coloured everyone’s opinion of her with that ‘clunky writing’ nonsense. the hell does clunky even mean? how about YOU with your ‘vague and dismissive’ writing?). easy to wag a finger and feel smug huh? well hope you felt big it don’t do shit for black folk. support us better.

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