"Knight in Shining Armor"
When I was small, I always enjoyed this 1957 ten-pager because Donald gets to be the hero. From my current vantage point, I have two main reactions to it: first, that it's marred by being didactic in a way that is otherwise unheard of for Barks outside of a handful of his Junior Woodchucks scripts; and second, that it nonetheless sort of makes up for this by being considerably more subtle than I could ever have apprehended as a seven-year-old. Indeed, even reading it today, my initial impression was that the story was just really confused. And it may indeed be confused to some extent, but to suggest that that's all it is would be to sell it short.
So there's this party thing. As we will see, there are unwritten, implicit rules for what the acceptable parameters are for these suppressed desires, which is where most of the confusion comes from. It starts here: even if we posit that this is one of those Barks stories in which the kids believe Santa Claus exists (or, indeed, in which he does exist), the fact remains that being an elf is not really a tenable desire. Is this a problem? Well…
Forget it! Knights don't exist anymore! HDL treat it as self-evident that this idea won't go over, but why? Who says the repressed desires have to be "realistic?" Wouldn't that be severely limiting?
Nice variation there on the thing where cartoon characters go flying backwards after hearing a punchline (why do I feel like there's a term for that that I'm not quite able to bring to mind?).
There's a fair bit of slapsticky stuff as he tries to get to the party in his armor (really, what costume designer thought it was a good idea to put sharp spikes all over it?). Often, stuff like this is just here to make time, but in this case it's actually highly thematically relevant, emphasizing the idea that knights are fish-out-of-water in the here and now (which actually seems like a reasonable judgment at this point, given all the stab wounds he apparently inflicted on the passengers on that bus). Good thing HDL just happened to have a miniature derrick handy. We also might wonder why--given that his sword, as we'll see, is made of rubber--he is nonetheless wearing actual metal armor. Seems a tad impractical!
BOY are the guests at this party ever douchebags. You would not believe. Here's where the obvious question really comes up: okay, so Donald's armor is considered laughably archaic, but how, in 1957, is it any less relevant than a cowboy, let alone a guy in some kind of indeterminate Napoleonic Wars getup? Okay, we get it: everyone thinks Donald's ideals as represented by his costume are outmoded, but surely Barks cannot have been unaware of the irony of Daisy crystalizing this attitude while dressed as a medieval princess.
Well…this distinction comes down to the difference between what people are dressed as and what dressing that way really means.
We get an important clue here: that guy isn't a cowboy, he's just a "western movie star" (actually, that doesn't look like the same guy as earlier, but I think it's safe to say that they're at least of a kind). The key concept--which nobody ever actually articulates--is that the rest of the people have a very superficial, dilettante-y relationship to their costumes. For them, everything's only skin-deep; they obviously haven't really thought about the meaning behind how they're dressing. It's all simulacra in the Baudrillardian sense (YES! Triple-word-score pretentiousness!). Donald is the only one earnest or foolish enough to really take the party's theme seriously (indeed, it's possible that he was the only one who had a serious repressed desire, and therefore was able to do so).
This is all very interesting; the only real flaw I see is that Donald doesn't really do anything to differentiate himself here. How do all the other partygoers know that it's not just a lark for him as it is for them? What's the difference?
Then there's this guy. On the most superficial level, it seems kind of brave to just stone cold start trying to tame lions like it waren't no thang, but really it's just delusional: he doesn't at all comprehend the reality of this endeavor; he's just putting the entire party in mortal danger with an insanely ill-advised stunt because he thinks it will look picturesque and imagines it'll be easy breezy beautiful (it's actually very like something Donald would try his hand at in many another story). Naturally, he folds like a deck of cards when the inevitable happens.
So…Donald has to save the day. I really think that this story would benefit if there had been some previous indication of Donald's loftier ideals. Up to now, all he's done is suffer abuse, which may arouse our pity but isn't exactly "heroic." This seems to sort of come from nowhere.
Still, he steps up--and good lord is that narration ever heavy-handed. It's atypical of Barks to insist on hammering the message home like that, not employing a lighter touch and trusting the audience to get the picture.
I don't know…I mean, I generally like it when Donald is triumphant, and I guess I kind of like this, but it just feels as though the deck (maybe the same deck that the lion tamer folded like!) was stacked so heavily that I can't help detecting a certain unearned smugness from Donald's line there. And if there were any doubt as to The Message, those bottom panels should take care of that in a hurry. Barks generally liked to undercut and complicate seemingly simple morals, but not here. It is exactly what it is. The setup is intriguing, and the stuff with Donald and the other partygoers is deceptively complex, but it never quite coalesces, and the ending lets it down. Still enjoyable, but ultimately, I think, one of his more problematic efforts.
Labels: Carl Barks