Sunday, August 17, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 93, "The Masked Mallard"

It may not be THE best second-season episode of DuckTales -- it's certainly a strong candidate, but "The Land of Trala La," "Metal Attraction," "The Unbreakable Bin," and "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity" also have reasonable claims to those particular laurels -- but, in terms of overall distinctiveness, no episode of the Fenton-Bubba era (which "officially" closes here, since Bubba will make no further appearances in episodes produced after this one) can come close to "The Masked Mallard."  Outrageous in conception (Scrooge as a costumed hero?!), daring in sociopolitical directness (harshly cynical and engaging in merciless parody of a notorious pop-culture meteor of the late 80s), and remarkable in visual execution (drawing obvious inspiration from Frank Miller's path-breaking BATMAN graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS), "Mallard" posed one of the most direct challenges yet to the "old sourdoughs" who were still reeling from all the accreted changes that DuckTales had made to the comic-book world of Carl Barks.  Many of us who didn't mind departures from the Duckburgian norm greeted the episode with glee, and, while some viewers were less enamored with the results (GeoX, for example), I've never heard anyone seriously argue that "Mallard" ought not to exist -- a minor but notable advance, IMHO. 

At the same time, however, it should be admitted that it is probably easier to respect "Mallard" than to love it.  Sentiment is almost wholly lacking here, and even our supposed "hero" Scrooge gets dinged when Dewey responds to Scrooge's explanation for his costumed doings by saying, "You mean, if nobody knew you were Scrooge McDuck, they wouldn't automatically assume you were doing something greedy and underhanded?"  Like the charcoal palette that is used to depict a grim, silent, nocturnal Duckburg, the atmosphere here is suffused with grays.  Writer Len Uhley manages to bring us through the muck with aplomb, though he stumbles on the same step that tripped up the Darkwing Duck episode "Double Darkwings" when he makes the physical difference between Masked Mallard Scrooge and Fake Masked Mallard Lawrence Loudmouth far too obvious for any denizen of Duckburg with two working brain cells to ignore.  This is a more serious matter than you might suspect at first; as I'll argue below, while some Duckburgians do show some gullibility in believing Loudmouth's populist lies about Scrooge, the population as a whole isn't quite as dumb as one might think at first glance.  Certainly, Loudmouth isn't, for it becomes clear as the ep progresses that the "king of trash TV" saw through Scrooge's cowled ruse from the start.  Uhley also does a slightly less ept job than he should have of explaining Loudmouth's ultimate turn to crime.  Given the tetchy material with which he was dealing, though, I have to give Uhley full marks for turning in a first-rate effort.

Despite the presence of a DuckTales: Remastered version of The Masked Mallard (who doesn't actually appear in the video game's cutscenes, which I have now viewed in full) and various pieces of MM fan art on the Internet, it's safe to say that the costumed version of Scrooge has fallen well short of becoming "canonical."  This is certainly understandable in light of Scrooge's decision to shred the outfit at episode's end, once his public reputation has been restored.  Though it is certainly possible that Scrooge and Gyro Gearloose could craft another Masked Mallard suit and return to crimefighting, it is easier to imagine the practical-minded Scrooge regarding his "heroic phase" as a pragmatic action meant to deal with and solve a specific problem.  It did seem like something of an insult, nonetheless, for the final issue of Boom!'s HERO SQUAD to blithely introduce The Masked Top Hat, a completely new -- and far more annoyingly egotistical -- heroic persona for Scrooge.  Really, how much effort would it have taken for the Italian creators of "Ultraheroes" to have resurrected The Masked Mallard for this occasion, especially since a number of the other members of Hero Squad had assumed previously existing secret identities?  Were the artists simply obsessed with the idea of having all the Hero Squad costumes look alike?

 "But he was very polite"... ah, better check that...

"Mallard" can also be said to have grasped for, but failed to secure, "canonical acceptance" for its use of the real-world Morton Downey Jr. as the clear prototype for the thorny-throated Lawrence Loudmouth.  English scriptwriters for post-1990 Disney comics were to grow comfortable with the idea of inserting versions of contemporary pop-culture references and "slogans of the day" into the characters' mouths, but the use of direct visual parody has never seemed to catch on.  This is no doubt a good thing; as I noted in my review of "Ducky Mountain High," Downey's show was cancelled several months before "Mallard" was originally broadcast, and packing the Duck comics full of similar parodies would have undoubtedly led to even worse cases of obsolescence, especially if understanding the parody were central to appreciating the story.  The good thing about Loudmouth is that he is just different enough from Downey that a viewer 25 years on can thoroughly enjoy the episode without necessarily having to know who Downey was.  At the same time, those who are in on the joke can experience a whole different level of appreciation, much as, for example, familiarity with the 1950s "reincarnation craze" triggered by THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY adds immeasurably to one's enjoyment of Barks' "Back to Long Ago" (UNCLE $CROOGE #16, December 1956).

From the opening bell, "Mallard" is already traveling at a rapid clip, with the Mayor of Duckburg announcing the plans for the "Scrooge McMall" and Loudmouth continuing his ongoing, ratings-grubbing campaign against Scrooge by accusing the latter of all manner of exploitation.  Right here, distinct differences between Loudmouth and Downey are already apparent, at least to those who "know."  Though he calls himself a "reporter" and refers back to "the studio" at the end of the press conference, Loudmouth, like Downey, has his own independent TV show.  However, Downey was primarily interested in cultural issues: smoking bans, atheism, abortion, cloning, people with crazy theories, racism, pro wrestling (yes, really), etc., while Loudmouth acts more like a commentator you'd be apt to find on a modern 24-hour news channel, mixing "hard" and "soft" news in a stew more or less palatable.  The biggest difference of all, of course, is that Loudmouth comes off as a left-wing populist, smearing Scrooge for supposed conflicts of interest, profiteering, and the like.  Forget FOX News and Glenn Beck; a modern-day Loudmouth would no doubt be bloviating on MSNBC.  The main debts owed to Downey are in the areas of attitude, brazenness, and, of course, voice, with Frank Welker delivering a pitch-perfect parody of Downey's nicotine-ravaged rasp.

"Good-natured fun and excitement"... ooooohhhhkay, fine.

Reacting in lemming-like fashion to Loudmouth's accusations -- much as some of them jumped on the rumors about Launchpad being Gizmoduck in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity" -- the other reporters swarm Scrooge and the Mayor, thereby becoming one of the two groups that seem to be completely mesmerized by the stentorian stringer.  The other?  Kids.  Uhley's depiction of the dupable "little dickenses" easily matches Barks for misanthropy.  (Who was this show's target audience, again?)  The "normal" adult population of Duckburg appears to have taken Loudmouth's crusade a bit more in stride, since we hear nothing about any boycotts of McDuck Industries, or any similar actions that are taken routinely today against any entrepreneur who dares contradict the cultural "Narrative."

Greg makes much of HD&L getting skinned up at school for defending Scrooge, and I readily agree that they appear to have taken more physical damage in their fight than at any other time during the series.  (The animators take a while to actually SHOW said damage; it only appears after Scrooge steps in front of the boys' couch to change the channel.)  It should be pointed out, however, that the boys have been in greater actual physical peril on multiple occasions during earlier episodes.

Backed into a corner by Loudmouth and motivated by a televised glimpse of "The Scarlet Brigand," Scrooge makes the fateful decision to don cape and cowl and perform some good deeds to "prove that [he's] a good guy."  Unfortunately, we don't get any sense of elapsed time between the scene with HD&L and the first appearance of The Masked Mallard at Spiffany's.  Given his track record, Gyro probably wouldn't have needed that much time to create MM's suit and gadgets, but then, you have to factor in Scrooge's installation of what looks for all the world to be some sort of "lair" behind his bookcase.  This probably isn't an alternative route to Scrooge's money-canning facility seen in "Metal Attraction," since that basement location had a stairway that clearly led up to ground level.  The only reasonable conclusion is that Scrooge fixed this secret passage up to help him leave the Mansion grounds on "MM missions" without his family or neighbors noticing.  (Since he has no special car, motorcycle, or other means of transportation, he probably has to pick his spots very carefully.)  That had to have taken some time.  So would have Scrooge's training period to master the gizmos.  I think that I'm safe to posit several weeks, at least, before MM is ready to hit the streets... or the air above them.

With the Spiffany's scene, the DARK KNIGHT homages begin in earnest.  The earlier portion of the episode is relatively conventional in its presentation, which makes the sudden debut of the charcoal backgrounds particularly striking -- arguably, even more so than the more abstract visuals at the start of "The Unbreakable Bin," due to the "delay" factor.  There's a momentary glitch when Bouncer Beagle speaks a line of dialogue without his lips moving, but the staging of the Beagle Boys' assault on the Nope Diamond, the dramatic "reveal" of The Masked Mallard, and MM's dispatch of the Beagles (who seem a lot more menacing here than they have for a good long while) are all faultlessly executed otherwise.  Burger's despairing "Oh, darn!" at the prospect of getting "whomped" adds just the right touch of humor to the mix, and we close with yet another superhero homage, as Scrooge swings away from the disbelieving police in the manner of the Bakhski-Krantz Spiderman.  

The episode then goes "full Miller" on us in the scene in which Scrooge learns of the hostage crisis.  The visual homage here is blatantly obvious:

The foiling of the terrorists (that seems like a good description of them, though they come across as equal parts threatening and goofy) could be criticized as a bit redundant, since the Duckburg police are already aware of The Masked Mallard and could easily pass the word along to their higher-ups, but the visuals here are also excellent.  The bad guys' use of a TV puppet show to intimidate the City Council smacks a bit of WATCHMEN, and Uhley serves up another heaping helping of cynicism when the Council responds to MM's "Hands up, felons!" by raising their arms.  (They shouldn't be able to, of course, since they are initially seen tied up.  Good catch, Greg.)  
Act One closes with Scrooge's press conference being torpedoed by Loudmouth's photo-backed claim that "The Masked Mallard has turned to crime."  And so is introduced the single most questionable aspect of the episode, which, in all honesty, would be devilishly difficult to fix under the best of circumstances.  We really reach the point of no return in Act Two when the museum partygoers hear Fake MM speaking in Loudmouth's easily recognizable voice.  Perhaps I can assuage some of the damage by pointing out that Loudmouth, at least, pretty clearly has put two and two together and figured out that The Masked Mallard must be Scrooge, though he doesn't actually reveal his discovery at this point. (Perhaps he was hoping for the kind of mistake that Gizmoduck will in fact make at the end of Act Two).  That deduction, in and of itself, makes Loudmouth one of the more cunning one-shot adversaries that Scrooge has ever had to face.  You would think that, if Loudmouth were that intelligent, he would have known enough to disguise his voice.  I guess he figured that, in a world in which Scrooge routinely overlooks the Beagle Boys' number plates when the Beagles disguise themselves, it would be easier to hoodwink the weaker-minded.

The highlight of Act Two is the marvelous, wordless sequence in which Masked Mallard Scrooge, hunting for the fake, bounces, vaults, and soars through Duckburg, ultimately tiring out and perching on a ledge a la Batman.  I've always regarded the last scene of the sequence as Scrooge's tacit admission that, try as he might, he's really not cut out for the masked-hero game.  Since Scrooge does some tricks here that Darkwing Duck, and, yes, even Batman would give a limb to be able to do -- in terms of the physical abilities involved, it's as if the members of the "Mane 6" who took turns playing "The Mysterious Mare Do Well" donated all of their abilities to Scrooge at once -- it seems apparent that Gyro built enhanced strength, speed, and flexibility into the MM suit in some manner.

There are some general parallels to the Darkwing Duck episode "Let's Get Respectable" in Scrooge's relationship to Fake MM.  Just as Negaduck tried to turn St. Canard against the respect-seeking Darkwing in that adventure, so does Loudmouth hope to queer The Masked Mallard's popularity with the denizens prior to the unmasking of the latter.  Of course, Scrooge never goes to the extent of asking Duckburg's entire police force to go on vacation, or take their annual picnic a little early, just to show what he can do to keep the peace; he is simply operating as an independent agent of justice.  But, like Darkwing, his goal is to rehabilitate his soiled reputation.

Gizmoduck's arrival to apprehend the "criminal" Masked Mallard has a parallel, of course, in Superman serving as an agent of the U.S. Government to rein in The Dark Knight.  This episode features Uhley's only use of Gizmoduck, and, given the ep's overall level of snarkiness, poor Gizmo never has a chance of displaying even the slightest shred of competence; he gets flattened by Fake MM's "surprise package" and then ostentatiously unmasks the wrong vigilante.  In truth, Scrooge is at least partially to blame for this last goof, since he told HD&L that he intended to "lay low" and let Gizmo apprehend the phony -- the equivalent of leaning on a half-broken reed, at least in this hard-edged version of the DT "universe."

Having packed the first two-thirds of the episode chock-full of incident, Uhley seems to have had a spot or two of bother wrapping matters up in Act Three, portions of which move with something more than "all deliberate speed."  There's no question but that Loudmouth's explanation for why he turned to crime leaves something to be desired.  Why should his desire for increased ratings have morphed into a desire to become rich and retire to "Rio de Dinero" with his ill-gotten gains?  Greg speculates that Loudmouth may have be motivated by greed and revenge because he bid on the mall property, only to see Scrooge win the contract.  A better explanation, to my way of thinking, would have Loudmouth's initial grab for ratings and increased notoriety be gradually corrupted (relatively speaking) by a growing interest in exploiting the situation for more direct personal gain.  Given that Loudmouth's stylish apartment demonstrates a keen appetite for the finer things in life, I can easily imagine that kind of switcheroo taking place, especially since Loudmouth plans to frame Scrooge for all the crimes, thus killing a Duck with an additional stone.

The climactic action is a messy melange of improbable fortune (Scrooge's laser-cane cutting his ropes), unlikely displacement (the battle between Gizmoduck and Fake MM abruptly teleporting from the top of Loudmouth's apartment building to the junkyard with no "in-between"), and a legitimately stirring, though somewhat truncated, punch-up between the Masked Mallards.  (I do have to ask: Why would Loudmouth have needed a cane in the first place?  Scrooge has a reason for possessing a cane that predated his assumption of a secret identity; he simply had Gyro augment the cane's, er, powers.)  I might have asked for an additional scene in which the defeated Loudmouth is threatened with death (perhaps by being crushed in the car-compacter) and Scrooge agrees to help him after extracting a promise that Loudmouth will clear Scrooge's name for good and all.  Given all that Loudmouth has done to bring Scrooge low, this seems no more morally questionable than Scrooge getting the drowning Fritter O'Way's signature for receipt of the marbles in "Down and Out in Duckburg."

Regarding the final scene, Greg objected to Scrooge mentioning the "approval" of his mall project by the City Council, since the opening scene clearly intimated that Scrooge had already gotten the OK.  Actually, this could have been fixed very easily had Scrooge said that the Council had "REapproved" the deal.  Following the unmasking of Scrooge, it would have stood to reason that the Council, prospective felons though they might be, would have had second thoughts about its decision and rescinded the rights.  It's a small nit, but, once again, Uhley could have made things clearer with a tweak or two.

The tag-end moral -- that assuming a secret identity can "get in the way" of one's own ability to do good -- actually seems more relevant to Fenton than to Scrooge.  Scrooge will never be tempted to use a secret ID again, because he's presumably out of the business, but the internal tug-of-war between Fenton and Gizmoduck has been going on since "Super DuckTales" and will presumably continue to do so.  (We will see it rear its head with a vengeance during "Attack of the Metal Mites," for example.)  HD&L, on the other hand, evidently need to be reminded of the lesson before they even get started on a crimefighting career...

Even if Scrooge never dons heroic duds again, "The Masked Mallard" will forever stand as the ultimate DuckTales one-off of a dramatically non-Barksian idea.  In terms of its emotional and philosophical approach to the outre subject matter, though, "Mallard" fits very nicely indeed into the Barksian tradition.  Perhaps those hardy Barks fans who, against all probability, accepted and even embraced "Mallard" sensed this and responded accordingly.





(GeoX)  I think the laziness [of the episode] is crystalized in this bit of lampshading when Gizmoduck has nabbed Scrooge, thinking he's the Mallard: "Listen: did you no see both me and the Masked Mallard outside the art museum?" "Yes…" "Doesn't that give ya a clue?" "No…" Come on.

As I said before, Gizmoduck is comprehensively inept here, though this exchange may have pushed Gizmo's credulousness to its absolute limit.

(Greg) The usual press guys are here; including Webwa Walters in maybe her final appearance in the series speaking wise...

Webra, of course, would have one final speaking appearance in "The Golden Goose, Part 2."

(GeoX) We then hear Alan Young's voice so it's clearly Scrooge behind this as we cut to the ceiling and it's Scrooge dressed up in a purple suit and cape wearing a mask with a thunderbolt on top. Now I know a lot of people claim that this is what inspired Darkwing Duck; but this suit is even goofier than anyway Drake Mallard would wear, so I doubt that it was an inspiration, outside of the color.

I am of the same opinion.  The original version of the non-Launchpad Double-O-Duck had a color scheme of white, red, and blue, if the promotional pin below is an accurate indication. 

(Greg) Fenton blows [Scrooge] off as rude and then we cut to the pig mayor in a barricade square with Lady De Lardo (with a different color hairstyle and different colored green dress) as they unveil a new object to be displayed at the Duckb[u]rg Art Museum. And we find out that her new name is Buffy Parfitnew [sic] (Okay; I can live with that) and she is the one who donated this new object under the cloth.

Buffy Parvenu is clearly a different character entirely than Lady De Lardo.

(Greg) It's clear that everyone in the room was in The Status Seekers at one point; so I'm going to guess that Scrooge is in the ASS again which begs the question: How? Last time I checked they blew him off because he liked his non-snob[b]ish family more than they do and then swam in the dirty harbor looking for a really hideous mask.

Seeing as how the crowd at the museum includes characters like Pierre L'Oink ("Duckman of Aquatraz") and Sir Guy Standforth ("Lost Crown of Genghis Khan") in addition to many of the A.S.S. spear-carriers, I'm assuming that the confab was open to a more general class of the "social elite," and that Scrooge was attending as more or less of an independent entity.  The real question is, how did Fenton wangle an invitation?

(Greg) ... Scrooge in his purple robes and the nephews are watching television. They are watching Lawrence Loudmouth and the whole set contains a lot of flaming torches that violate fire codes everywhere and a picture of himself with his mouth open. Yeap; Morton Down[e]y Junior.

That, or Citizen Kane.  I'm somewhat inclined towards the latter interpretation, because the logo of The Morton Downey Jr. Show did not depict Downey himself.

(Greg) After the commercial break; we see Gizmo Duck on the sky shot with Unmasked Scrooge in disbelief that Scrooge is a criminal and cuts another full of himself promo. At least this makes sense in the context of this episode as Scrooge blows him off and wants him to turn around. Gizmo Duck does and it's daylight as Masked Lawrence is gone like the wind. 

I suppose we should give the animators credit for not lazily resorting to the "it was nighttime, and now it's suddenly daytime" dodge, but they're really pushing things here.  It takes about a minute for us to go from sudden dawn to the full light of day!

(Greg) GD claims that he must take [Scrooge] in since Scrooge is the Masked Mallard and therefore a criminal. I realize that this is silly because it's clear that the criminal MM has a different voice and build; but this is Duckberg, USA and everyone believes what they see and hear instead of using their brains. It's a perfectly average commentary on half of America quite frankly.

Ah, but WHICH HALF?  That's what today's political and cultural debates can be boiled down to, frankly.

(Greg) Scrooge admits that he should have left this alone; but since Lawrence gets these exclusive photos; there is something fishy.

Points go to Scrooge for (finally) showing as much deductive intelligence as Loudmouth had displayed earlier.  Interestingly, the presence of all of those photos suggests that Fake MM had an accomplice of some sort, yet Uhley doesn't explore the consequences at all.

(Greg) Okay; moving right along...we segue to another comic book sequence with Scrooge tied up to a vertical flag pole (and Loudmouth does a great job of this. Beagle Boys; take notes..Oh wait; I forgot about Launchpad, never mind.) 

The most noteworthy thing about this segue is the atypical zoom-in shot, reminiscent of the zoom-in on Kimba in "Jungle Thief." 

Next: Episode 94, "The Duck Who Knew Too Much."


Pan Miluś said...

I remember seeing two version of the episode - one with the error of the Beagle Boy not talking and another version when they fixed it.

Jason said...

It's hard not to see a Masked Mallard/Darkwing Duck similarity at first glance, mostly due to the purple outfit, but Darkwing seems a whole lot more inspired by the Shadow, with the hat, coat, etc.

Joe Torcivia said...

After the jaw-dropping surprise of The Phantom Blot in “All Ducks on Deck”, I feel the mid-ep switch to Frank Miller-esque design in “The Masked Mallard” was the second-greatest surprise DuckTales had to offer!

Nice use of the Miller pages to illustrate this.

Comicbookrehab said...

I don't believe "The Masked Top Hat" was new to Disney Comics when he appeared in the "Ultraheroes" tale - there are older images of Scrooge in this guise on the net preceding that...andthe "costume" an even lazier effort back then (it was just Scrooge wearing a cape, with either his hat pulled down over the eyes like a hood or wearing a Beagles-esque domino mask).

I always wondered if the Masked Millard costume was the inspiration for "The Simpsons" Radioactive Man and his costume with the lightning bolt on his head...the episode appeared long before RM's first official appearance.

Chris Barat said...


You'll note that I addressed this in my post of yesterday.


Chris Barat said...


I seem to remember Bouncer's mouth moving, too -- I wonder when they fixed the problem.


Pan Miluś said...

In version of the episode that air in Poland he was talking but in one I seen on you-tube it was not moving. Maybe it was fixed for sindication?

Chris Barat said...


I really don't know, honestly.


Pan Miluś said...

Oh, I wasent asking. Just thinking out-loud ;0