Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Dangerous Disguise"

This story, from 1951, definitely deserves to be classed as one of Barks' all-time best. It's a convoluted spy story; one could, and perhaps should, think of it as being somewhat in the same spirit as "Donald Duck's Atom Bomb," but it makes me think more of Conrad's Secret Agent than anything relating to the contemporary politics of the time. Perhaps this indicates that the two eras aren't as disparate as all that.

There are several interesting things about this story. Throughout his entire career, Barks depicted human characters as having round, black, dog noses (a practice continued by pretty much all future duck writers--I don't know if it's some kind of arcane Disney regulation, or what). For whatever, reason, however, "Dangerous Disguise" is one of the few exceptions. Why this is, I couldn't tell you, but it gives the comic a very distinct feel--possibly of something closer to the real, or perhaps hyperreal world. I think it benefits the story a great deal.

Also of note is that this is one of the few (again--the only?) stories to feature a number of what to all appearances are character deaths (UPDATE: no, not the ONLY--clearly, my mind's going. But one of the few. There are also Scrooge's parents in the Life & Times, but those are natural deaths.)--including what is surely the only suicide in the history of Disney comics. This, too, lends to the comic's unique feel.

But what is that "feel" exactly, you ask? Well, Donald and HDL are on the French Riviera, having been sent there by Scrooge for reasons that aren't quite clear. But there is a very subterranean, sinister ambiance to the place, and indeed to the entire comic:

There are a LOT of human characters here, and they all--even incidentals who only appear in a single panel--are depicted as sinister grotesques, as above. Even if you don't know what their deal is, they're clearly all up to something. There's an entire world of plotting and scheming to unclear ends of which only the barest glimpses are ever illuminated, and always in an imperfect fashion.

So what of the story? Trying to summarize it is futile; it involves spies and counter-spies and counter-count--well, this sums it up pretty succinctly:

It's a black farce. Basically, Donald and HDL stumble onto a secret spy message type thing:

I HOPE YOU ARE COGNIZANT OF THE MANY EXCELLENT REASONS WHY THE Q-BOMB PLANS CAN NEVER BE ALLOWED TO REACH CHILIBURGERIA. Donald and the kids are, and it's a mad chase to intercept the mysterious Madame Triple X--a task during which, to sum up the story's ethos,

This aura of paranoia and encroaching doom is prevalent throughout. For example:

Okay, never mind that the train is ultimately stopped by means of a wacky joke--the train operators suddenly realize that they're due to go on strike! Oh, those French people! It's actually pretty funny, I think, but it barely undercuts the tension.

In the end, there is a confrontation with an agent from Ironheelia, Donaldo El Quacko, who perfectly resembles Donald--yet another indication of the darkly surreal nature of the landscape. It turns out Madame Triple X is actually on OUR side, and that suicide I mentioned earlier? No shit:

So it turns out that the ducks didn't really accomplish anything except to almost foil the American agent. Or so it seems. But I don't think there's really any good reason to assume that we're at the bottom of things come story's end. The atmosphere lingers on, and there are obviously far more conspiracies and double-dealings than those we know about. That's the way you can compare it to "Donald Duck's Atom Bomb"--both of them depict the Cold War as being something mysterious and unfathomable but definitely deeply dangerous. "Dangerous Disguise," however, is a much more accomplished story. Even at twenty-eight pages, it feels short; one feels one would be happy to watch Barks drawing wheels within wheels indefinitely.

So, bottom line: it's a classic. Get it in Vacation Parade #2 while you still can. Sure, you'll also get some terrible back-up stories, including one featuring goddamn fucking Li'l Bad Wolf, whom I hate to a greater degree than words can convey, but it's well worth it--especially since you'll also get Don Rosa's awesome "Dangerous Disguise" poster (a poor-quality scan of which is here--note that the dude eating popcorn is Rosa himself). A great tribute to a great story.



Anonymous heptapora said...

Yes you are right about the ban on human character. In this interview Barks said they told him not to use human character again after this story. If he was given a chance he'd like to draw them.

April 15, 2017 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Malcolm Smith said...

In fact, in one of the stories, it is actually stated that the characters with black noses are dogs.

April 24, 2017 at 7:21 AM  
Blogger Ducky said...

He jumped out the window, but I doubt it was a suicide. He might have landed on something soft, but Barks didn't depict this. Or maybe he landed on some telephone wires and catapulted off into the distance...

These are comic books after all.

September 3, 2019 at 9:33 PM  
Blogger Ayrton Mugnaini Jr. said...

This story ends with a suicide of sorts:

August 29, 2020 at 6:45 PM  

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