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Regarding the Little Black Duck

No other cartoon star in history is as volatile as Daffy Duck. Is that a strange claim to make? You're probably already thinking of dozens of other cartoon characters with longer lists of property damage, anger management troubles, and general malevolence. You're probably also thinking of the many, many times that Daffy has come out on bottom, especially having been shot, exploded, crushed, or otherwise the victim of other people's volatility. But volatility is not the same as violence. It is the quality of discontent, of failing to be at rest. All of these other characters, as violent and wild as they are, know what their places are. Daffy, on the other hand, has made his career on defying his place.
While one's first immediate thought may be to try and apply this to the image of Daffy as we best remember him - the avarice-ridden coward of the 50s - the real challenge is to see how this applies to Daffy's humble (or not) origins. Porky's Duck Hunt, Daffy's premiere to the world, established Daffy as a role-destroyer from the get-go. Animal cartoons had existed long before Daffy came, to the point where it was already old hat to anthropomorphize animals to the point where some animals were "human" as compared to others. There had even been cartoons in which the human and animal places had been juxtaposed. But before Daffy, no animal had ever fought for the status that the "human" character had held. The switching of the places of prey and predator was so significant after Daffy did it that the near-entirety of the most famous Looney Tunes use that exact conflict. Indeed, Daffy can be considered a trail-blazer; if not for Daffy, the greatest of greats (a certain wabbit) might never have come to pass. Even in his beginnings, Daffy was unsatisfied with merely being the target for a hunter. He had far bigger ambitions.

And these ambitions are more and more visible the higher he rose. The Henpecked Duck shows Daffy as a family man whose attentions are not nearly so much on the family as on self-entertainment (and magic tricks). Yankee Doodle Daffy is a nobody talent agent whose attempts to sell Sleepy LaGoon are transparently based upon promoting himself. The arrival of the Little Man from the Draft Board makes Draftee Daffy desire to change his position from hunted to....well, ignored, really. From criminal to artist (Daffy Doodles). From comic book character to hero of all the novels (Book Revue). From Duck Twacy fan to actually being Duck Twacy (The Great Piggy Bank Robbery). He even tried to trick Porky out of his place as WB's top star in You Ought To Be In Pictures. It is true that cartoon characters' situations and positions change frequently; it's often the only way to keep them fresh. But the characters themselves do not change, their surroundings do. Daffy Duck is the only cartoon character who changes via his own self-motivation. He's currently in one place, and he's eyeing the other with great passion.


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In fact, I believe Daffy was dangerous to those in power. He was the only star in their stables that was unwilling to play by the rules of the game. What do you do with an actor that volatile? I mean, he's stirring up the others! Look at how pissed Porky's been getting in his dealings with this egomaniac! (Boobs In The Woods) He's barging into Jack Warner's office and insisting to be the next Errol Flynn! (The Scarlet Pumpernickel) Now, there are two ways to proceed with this line of thought, and it depends on how you feel about Daffy. On one hand, this ambition that Daffy has nutured and pursued for all of his life finally took its toll on his soul, and his focus switched from trying to gain what is not his (which is, if not entirely honorable, is at least unashamedly American) to trying to maintain himself by making other people lose. He is still self-serving, but there is a streak of vicious desperation to any and all attempts of his in the 50s to be more than he is. Now, it reflects self-defense, a desire to gain more to cover up a hollow core. On the other hand, one inclined to side with Daffy in his upheaval of roles against the suits who put him there (which I suppose in this case would be the artists themselves) and consider this conspiracy theory: Daffy became a villain because he posed too much of a "problem" to them. It became a way of shaping his public perception so that Daffy could not rally public support for his cause, and it allowed them to put him in situations of constant embarassment and physical pain for over a decade of his diva-like behavior! Stupid, you say? Well, I say......stupid like a fox! (Thank you, Homer, for that joke.) In all reality, Daffy's descent into villainy is entirely acceptable and even responsible for some, if not most, of his greatest cartoons. The acceptability of it, quite simply, is because Daffy is a cautionary figure for us. We love him because we can see ourselves being that greedy, that needy, that afraid; however, we also love him because he reminds us to not be like him. His volatility is fun, and there is even a thrill in vicariously enjoying the pursuit of glory that Daffy is always on. But unlike with Bugs, even Daffy's earliest adventures ask us to step away and consider the lesson we learn from this little black duck. We appreciate that he does not want to get shot in Rabbit Seasoning, but we also recognize that we need to be far more aware than Daffy is about the trickery of other people's language when we fight for our cause. Even in his most recent incarnations, the new TV show Duck Dodgers and the feature Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Daffy is both an audience avatar and a societal warning. He really is quite the American: always in search of the better life. Hopefully the rest of us can take a hint by it.


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on March 23, 2004

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