It was 25 years ago this week that Darkwing Duck first swooped onto television sets nationwide. Introduced during the second season of the phenomenally popular Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block (it joined Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and DuckTales), Darkwing Duck drew upon a variety of influences and wrapped it around a nifty concept: What if egotistic superhero Drake Mallard (voiced by Jim Cummings) also lived a quiet life in a suburban area, along with his best pal Launchpad McQuack (Terry McGovern, a holdover from DuckTales) and adopted daughter Gosalyn (Christine Cavanagh)? The show ran for a whopping 91 episodes and remains a fan favorite (a new comic book series just launched earlier this year), serving as a key lynchpin of the Disney Afternoon programming block.
And the man behind Darkwing’s purplish mask is creator and executive producer Tad Stones, who graciously chatted with me for over an hour about the history of Darkwing Duck and his incredible career with the Walt Disney Company.
Stones’ first job with the company was with Walt Disney Animation Studios. His first day was June 11, 1974. “That was four or five months after Ron Clements started and two or three months before Glen Keane,” Stones said. “Those were the days.” He was first an in-betweener, filling in poses for lead animators, and animated a sequence in The Rescuers. For Fox and the Hound Stones was moved to the story department, before working on an educational short that led to a job at Walt Disney Imagineering, helping with the initial wave of pavilions at what was then known as EPCOT Center. (His first assignment was working on the transportation pavilion with Ward Kimball, followed by a brief period working on a space pavilion with consultant George Lucas, and then finishing with work on Imagination pavilion with Tony Baxter.) After his time at EPCOT, he went back to Walt Disney Animation Studios to produce a series of documentary films that were scheduled to air on network television alongside the opening of the Park. Looking back on those pieces, which eventually became a short called “Fun with Mr. Future,” it’s staggering to see the talent behind the scenes: story man Joe Ranft, Frozen director Chris Buck, and Pocahontas visual development artist Mike Giaimo were all a part of them.
And then Stones got a call that would change his life.
“I got a call on a Sunday and they asked, ‘Would you mind coming to Michael Eisner’s house on Monday to talk about television animation?’” Stones explained, about the beginning of the project that would eventually become Walt Disney Television Animation. “So there were about ten of us there and they were very creative people with various backgrounds. Disney is the premiere name in animation and the feeling was that wherever animation was, Disney should be. So Disney should definitely be on television and it should be the best animation on television.” So while the meeting was productive (Stones pitched a series with Mickey and space pirates), he went back to feature animation and didn’t think much of it. After working on a few odds and ends projects, including a parody of the movie Stripes with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, called “Swabbies,” and serving as part of the legendary Gong Show-style pitch marathons (“I was sitting next to Ron Clements when he pitched The Little Mermaid,” Stones said), he got the chance to return to television. “The President of TV Animation stopped me and said, ‘Why don’t you come over tomorrow afternoon?’”
His initial position was as an executive in charge of development. But with the demand for new shows steadily ramping up, Stones was back to pitching new projects (things like Metro Mice, a rodent-filled riff on Miami Vice that eventually turned into Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers). In addition to Rescue Rangers, Stones helped out on Disney’s Adventures of Gummi Bears. Soon, Stones was tasked with coming up with a new project. Darkwing Duck was widely reported to be a spin-off of DuckTales so I had to ask Stones: Did Darkwing Duck come out of DuckTales? “Well, it did and it didn’t,” Stones explained. “It’s not a spin-off of DuckTales. They had done an episode of DuckTales called ‘Double-O Duck,’ and executives asked me to develop a show based on that. But by that time everybody had done a James Bond parody and I said that it was just a parody, it’s got no Disney heart in it, and we’ve seen it before. So I went in and reached into the pulp adventures of Doc Savage, The Green Hornet, and The Shadow.”
They also faced a roadblock when they found out that the “00” distinction was property of the producers of the James Bond franchise, since Ian Fleming came up with the distinction. Out went the spy idea, even though they had already handed out promotional buttons with the Double O-Duck logo. An interoffice competition for a replacement name was started, with Alan Burnett giving the show its distinctive title (and winning the office pool).
Still, the show didn’t quite have the hook they needed … yet, so Stones continued to develop. “But we didn’t really get people on board until we came up with the idea of a hero who has a little girl who doesn’t want to stay at home. That became the heart of the show and that’s what really made the show. I’ll appear at conventions and I’ve had more than one person come up and say how much that relationship meant to them. It’s like, Who’d have thunk it? We were just trying to be funny.”
But while the original idea for a direct spin-off was discarded, there were still ties to DuckTales, particularly in its use of specific characters. “Launchpad was in the back of my head because it started with him, but there was no direct connection. It’s always that thing that you need somebody close for the hero to talk to. We reinvented the character, because on DuckTales he crashed all the time and by the time he gets to St. Canard [in Darkwing Duck], he’s an ace pilot. We also pulled Gizmoduck to be our superhero character. So there’s a connection to that.”
Stones was quick to point out that the series was quietly revolutionary in its meta-textual humor and ability to break the fourth wall. “It was very controversial when I wanted him to address the audience every once in a while,” Stones said, noting that this was before the self-referential Genie appeared in the blockbuster Aladdin (which Stones would later adapt as a series). Still, Darkwing’s habit of addressing the audience harkened back to the older Disney days. “We were dipping back to classic Disney where you live in the reality of the moment. And our challenge was taking that craziness and putting a story on it.” Looking back on the series, it’s definitely one of the show’s stylistic hallmarks.
Stones has been recently making the convention rounds professionally (he’s a huge comic book collector and his collection can actually be seen–and purchased–at a comic shop in North Hollywood) and I asked if there was one thing that people bring up more than anything else. “With Darkwing, everybody says, ‘Let’s get dangerous.’ Now I get 100% credit for that because I came up with it and I told my story editors that he has to say this in every single episode. But the metaphors he’s famous for were in the earliest scripts because Launchpad had to masquerade as Darkwing Duck but he kept getting the slogan wrong. Because back then it was just, ‘I am the terror that flaps in the night.’ So Launchpad kept saying ‘I am the road salt that rusts the underside of your car.’ And I said, ‘That’s hilarious, we have to give that to Darkwing.’ So from then on, that’s what everybody quotes and loves.”
One fascinating bit of Darkwing Duck trivia is why it had 91 episodes. Typically syndicated series are only in production for 65 or 66 episodes. That’s so that new episodes can be aired, without interruption, every weekday, for 13 weeks straight. But not Darkwing Duck. It turns out that ABC loved the show so much that they ordered an additional season of 13 episodes, that would air as part of the Saturday morning animated programming block, wholly separate from the main run of the series. And that was such a hit, they ordered another season of 13 episodes. “That’s how we got to 91 episodes,” Stones said. “It was unique with that deal with ABC. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh it’s a huge hit, let’s do more episodes.’ But creatively it was great.”
When I asked what he thought about Darkwing Duck, looking back on his career, which has included directing both Aladdin sequels (and, contrary to some theories, Stones, an avid comic book collector, did not model Aladdin’s father on Doctor Strange–I asked), and working with comic book creator Mike Mignola on a follow-up to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. “It’s one of the highpoints of my career,” Stones said succinctly. “It was such a fun creative group on Darkwing and our Disney Australia unit did incredible, feature-quality work.”
It’s clear that the enthusiasm has continued for the series. Stones remembers a fateful encounter that says a lot about where the character is now. “Once somebody at Disney came up to me at San Diego Comic Con and said, ‘Fans are starting to age into middle management. You’re going to start seeing more,’” Stones remember. “So that’s when he was a Vinylmation character and there were pins at the Parks.”
Actually, there’s been more Darkwing Duck material out there than Stones remembers: he starred in a videogame in 2010, and characters appeared in the Disney Parks as recently as 2014 (that’s two years ago!), plus the ongoing comic book series, and merchandise. I wondered if Stones would return to the series, should the opportunity arise. And while he said he was reluctant to return to helm new episodes of the series (he’s ostensibly retired although working on a personal comic book project right now), he said that he had visited the offices for the new DuckTales series and would love to see his beloved creation injected into that high-profile reboot. “I’ve been invited to visit the new DuckTales and it seems super great,” Stones said, about the series, executive produced by Matt Youngberg and set to debut on Disney XD in 2017. “I could see Darkwing being brought in second season.” That’s right, folks: Stones could see the character, which was initially born out of episodes of DuckTales, rise again in the new DuckTales. Would you expect anything less from the terror that flaps in the night?