Back in the early 1990s, Disney was in the throes of a revolutionary period. Driven by some bold (and controversial) decisions by then-CEO Michael Eisner, Disney properties were poised to flood all markets, not just with established characters but with all-new concepts. With the purchase of the ABC network, Disney could throw its hat into television programming with ease, and so Disney Afternoon was born. A block of after-school programming — all tailor-made by Disney — Afternoon would go on to be iconic to a generation.
One market Disney never quite lost traction in (at least internationally) was comics. While the US comics market did not regularly have Disney representation, the company found a small corner of that market with grocery store checkout lane staple Disney Adventures, a delivery system of brand-brainwashing in the form of an Archie Digest-sized magazine. With this one-two punch of brand synergy, properties like Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Gummi Bears became an ever-present. . . and super radical. . . force in the lives of American children.
Fantagraphics, ever the comics archivists, have gathered a handful of comics from the era — from Disney Adventures as well as a handful of international sources — in the lengthily titled Disney Afternoon Adventures Vol. 1: Darkwing Duck: Just Us Justice Ducks and Other Stories, out this week. As is their way, the press has bestowed the project with a handsome, high-quality hardcover, which is a sort of prestige that may imply a much higher level of importance on the comics themselves (at least, for those unfettered by the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia).
Indeed, the quality of the comics is sometimes watery. Adventures-originating strips, created for a much smaller format, feel quickly dashed-off. Barely-written, the jokes (such as there are) never quite match the quality of humor of the source material, and full pages feel like filler meant to pad out the story’s length.
All the same, the comics have some great moments and concepts. The titular story is, clearly, a Justice League/Avengers of the Darkwing universe, and features Negaduck’s version of the Frightful Four (Quakerjack, Bushroot, Megavolt, and Liquidator) necessitating a major team-up between DW, Gizmoduck, Morgana, Stegmutt, and Neptunia. It’s the sort of story every fan of the characters dreams of, and supplies a foundation for a potential feature we’ll never see.
The second major story in the book is the official adaptation of A Goofy Movie. Initially printed in a French magazine, the adaptation ratchets up the production value. Detailed backgrounds, often absent from the Darkwing story, and movie-accurate action fill every page — even if iconic moments like Max’s ‘I Want’ song are reduced to a panel or two.
Perhaps the most incredible portion of the book is given over to The Legend of the Chaos God, a five-part story that marks the first major crossover of the Disney Afternoon heavy-hitters. After the TaleSpin gang stumbles on an evil, possessed necklace, we follow its progress into the worlds of Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, DuckTales, and DarkWing. It’s an epic story — one very much in the vein of old Carl Barks/Don Rosa duck stories — that comes very close to cementing a sort of shared universe we wish could have been established (even though TaleSpin and Rescue Rangers don’t quite fit into the Calisota world). The story was even edited by comics legend Marv Wolfman.
Sprinkled throughout are filler stories from various shows—Gummi Bears gets a lycanthropic Tummi, DuckTales gets two Beagle Boys-heavy stories, and even Bonkers, a late-entry in the Afternoon, gets represented.
All in all, it’s a hefty collection best suited for the wistfully nostalgic or the sort of parent intent on making their kids like the things of their childhood. Nothing here ever reaches the pinnacle of Disney comics Fantagraphics is presenting with their Disney Masters collection, but neither does it sink so low as to be a mere Disneyana curiosity — I was surprised how much of this work had stuck around in my subconscious for thirty years, which might illustrate how much staying power the work has. Underrated or forgotten talents are on display, some of whom may get spotlighted in any further volume of this series that may (fingers crossed) follow. Moreover, it’s a relief to know that someone has taken the responsibility for the preservation of so much forgotten comics work, and as always Fantagraphics has my utmost respect for it.
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