Friday, December 17, 2010

Darkwing Duck and Joseph Campbell

I used to watch Darkwing Duck every day when I got home from school. It was easy enough for a boy to enjoy; a cartoon about crime-fighting animal characters. Fun stuff, right? Darkwing Duck also wore purple and turquoise, the most mind-blowing color combination seen up until that point in history (For further proof, see the beloved 90s' team, the Charlotte Hornets).

What I didn't realize at 8 years old was that this cartoon was created by adults. Now that I'm older, I can appreciate Darkwing Duck on a completely different level. Now I can see story structure and character psychology that wasn't apparent to me before. The adults who made this cartoon weren't stupid, and often infused modern psychology and philosophy into their stories.



Take, for example, The Secret Origins of Darkwing Duck. This episode was unorthodox, even for the usually silly Darkwing Duck show. It's a meta-mythological homage to archetypal heroes for all time. Darkwing even makes his famous entrance saying, "I am the terror that flaps in the night! I am the hero that every culture in every world needs! I... am Darkwiiiing Duck!"

The writers of this episode obviously borrowed greatly from Joseph Campbell's Hero with A Thousand Faces. Honker even takes from a proverbial psychology textbook when he notes in the intro of the show that "Hero worship reflects the hero worshiper's feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and inability." Darkwing Duck is presented as a myth in this episode, something we look up to because of the character's ability to overcome all challenges. He inspires us. His stories are exciting because he accomplishes that which we do not have the ability to accomplish.

Tributes to the monomyth and heroes are made throughout the episode. Darkwing is introduced as "a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths" (Jesus Christ, check). He comes from a faraway world and is sent into the current world (Superman, check.). He is trained by an Eastern sensei in the mountains (Batman, check). And by the end of the origin story, Darkwing encounters his "shadow"/Negaduck and becomes a hero (Star Wars? Sure. Check.).

Darkwing answers his call to adventure as an amateur, but by the time he utters "let's get dangerous!" he's a pro. A hero for the ages. He is even rewarded with various tools and powers by those who come along to help him on his journey. His mask, cape, smoke, and name are all given to him. This is important, because the mythological story of the hero can never be purely existential. Even Superman needed his adopted parents. Luke Skywalker obviously needed Yoda and Han Solo.

By the end, even Honker comes around. He admits, "Well, uh, I suppose every myth has some basis in reality." What a moral. What a thing for a child to learn from a cartoon. That even though our heroes are not "real" in the same sense that our family pet is real, a story (or myth) can be even more meaningful to a culture than a "real"/true story.

And I just love the concept of Negaduck in this show. Negaduck is especially Jungian. The character is altogether selfish, evil and opposite of what Darkwing Duck stands for. They appear similar, but the two are opposing necessities. Negaduck receives his income by stealing, his pleasure is a result of causing harm to others, and he works best alone. Darkwing (the hero) is virtuous because he is not selfish. He gives of himself for the betterment of the community (the city of St. Canard).


Psychologically, we can learn a lot from these two characters. Within our selves are dualistic desires, that which presents a difficult journey towards happiness or heroism, and the shadow which is inclined towards brevity of effort. When we give into weakness, it's similar to taking a job that pays more but involves work we don't believe in. Or buying an infomercial weight loss supplement instead of exercising and eating healthy. But if we want real happiness and peace of mind, we can't give into our shadow. The shadow always goes for shortcuts, for vice, and for instant-gratification. Ultimately, this can result in a psychological issue, usually depression.

As individuals, we can learn how to be content with our own talents and abilities. If we go the route of the hero, we will receive assistance from those who will fight for the greater cause we're inspired by. But if we give in to our shadow, it means self-centeredness and villainy.

Did a kids' show like Darkwing Duck plant a seed for me to take interest in Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Is the psychology of a cartoon capable of speaking to a child's subconscious the same way a lecture speaks to a college student? I can't be sure of either, but I appreciate cartoons now as an adult almost as much as I did when I was a kid. The adults who create these kid-friendly stories are just as intelligent as any other adult, they simply opt to create products that both children and adults can enjoy. You see, the monomyth isn't ageist either.

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