Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"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.



Anonymous Richie said...

If I recall correctly, Barks got the plot from someone else. I want to say his daughter, but don't quote me on that.

It -is- an anomaly as far as Barks' Donald stories go, yet ... If you look at this as being part of the larger Disney empire, isn't it the most clichéd plot possible? Has anyone done more Mocked Underdog Ends Up Proving Their Worth stories than the house of mouse? Here however, it feels alien because Barks' narrative has been subversive more often than not. Stuff like The Milkman is alike plot-wise, but handed in its very own Barks' tone (Don's likable in that one, but he does get sadistically happy when he strikes revenge on the porcine villain). It's interesting to think of this as being Barks' own entry in such an abused tradition.

(I do think Don's smugness is earned, can't blame him after saving the behinds of such jerkasses)

I dig the interpretation you reached here, though, that of people only superficially feeling their roles, whereas Donald has poured his soul in his'. Am I sensing some thematic similarities with the story that started off this blog, No Such Varmint? Don belonging to another era ("That's right! Maybe I'm a throwback!" expressed with such determination in his face), unfitting of this new world, yet succeeding when he just gives his best regardless of what planet Earth is doing at the moment.

The flaws you pointed out can't be ignored, though. A shame, because the story has its heart on the right place, and more elegant execution could have made it a smashing ten pager.

It wouldn't be long before Unca Barks went to the other side of the scale and churned out cynical Donald tales nonstop :P

October 23, 2013 at 11:22 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Hey, good to see you 'round these parts, and good comments. The smugness is earned in the sense that obviously as depicted these guys deserved it; I just felt like the whole narrative was a bit too obviously set up specifically so he could get this comeback. But it's certainly true that a story like this would've been a welcome respite from the likes of "The Olympian Torchbearer" and "Bubbleweight Champ."

Indeed, according to inducks, the idea came from his daughter Peggy. I was going to make some comment to the effect that the simplistic conclusion felt a bit like something a child would come up with, but then I looked further and learned that, in fact, Peggy was in her thirties at the time, rendering that idea inoperative. :p

October 23, 2013 at 11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on "The Olympian Torchbearer". I've not read it myself but your comments about it have really made me curious.

As for this story, I found it vaguely unpleasant even as a kid. I think it mostly has to do with the sheer dickishness Donald is subjected to - Barks really knew how to make periphery characters as unlikeable as he wanted them, an ability I also think came through very strongly in his Micro Ducks story.

One thought I'll add to this is that despite the story's stated moral being that there's more to a knight than just the flashy armour, I get the pretty strong impression that Donald succeeds specifically BECAUSE he's the only one there wearing any armour: It's shown that the lions' claws and teeth are ineffective against him, making them effectively a non-threat.

Given the contrivance of Donald's knight costume including a real steel armour in the first place, I agree this scenario really is too tailor-made to allow Donald to get back at the party jerks. It almost feels like a revenge fantasy, making me wonder what state of mind Barks had to be in when he wrote it and who it's directed against.

October 24, 2013 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Yes! You articulate my problems with the story better than I was able.

October 24, 2013 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


I always thought that this story had a fundamentally different "tone" from the stories that surrounded it in the 50s -- even those stories in which Donald came out ahead, or somewhere near there. I had forgotten that Barks got the idea from someone else. Even given that fact, he dished up the tale in an unusually direct manner, casting Donald-the-knight in almost a symbolic role.

It'd be an interesting exercise to compare this story to the DUCKTALES classic "Sir Gyro de Gearloose." I think you'd have to admit that the TV ep handled the "knightly" material a lot more expertly.

Also: Daisy was, I believe, dressed as a Latin senorita. (I'd like to think that she was reliving her origins as Donna Duck.) And was that Barks drawing himself into the story as the lion-tamer Reggie? I'm inclined to think so.


October 24, 2013 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Joe Torcivia said...

Geo writes:

“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…”

Check the TV listings for 1957, and you’ll find that cowboys were far more “relevant” than so-called “reality stars” are today. And, as you later note, it may be the “western movie star thing” at work.

“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).” - and THAT is a great observation, and probably Barks’ whole point!

“Still, he steps up--and good lord is that narration ever heavy-handed.” Yet, it’s appropriate, considering the vapid guests and their foolish and dangerous behavior. Yay, for Donald, and for Barks(…and his daughter)!

October 24, 2013 at 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Duckfan said...

Of course Donald is the only character with a repressed desire - not only IS he the main character, but he HAS the most developed character because of that!
(...or something like that. I'm sure I'm on to something smart here, but I haven't worded it very well.)

October 25, 2013 at 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The word I believe you are looking for is 'pratfall', Doctor.

It's strange, but could you argue that the way Donald acts early in the story is... Quixotic?

Honestly, looking through this it feels like a story that was done in a rush. That time where you have a solid idea, but you've forgotten to sit with it and give it the "But, wait..." treatment in drafting. Nothing about it feels tremendously polished. Like it either had to be rewritten too many times, or had no time to be rewritten at all, before the deadline. Considering he uses the "Metal in a world gone nylon" line twice, I will bet you good money that this was slapped out.

I'll accept the throwback premise, considering (at the time) the costumes would have been popular things for a kid to say, 'When I grow up...', while a knight would have been much more archaic. It fits what I think the story is trying to do.

But even looking at these excerpts, I'm asking myself why HDL weren't the ones who delivered that hamhanded "I don't hear anybody laughing" line at the end. They never got any real redemption for their naysaying role at the beginning of the story, did they? It would have strengthened Donald's character and given the nephews something non-gaggy to do.

Someone mentioned that the armor itself is metal. There is no reason why it couldn't be something like tin, making the armor symbolic, and Donald's actions more explicitly heroic. No reason why he couldn't have gotten hurt, either, in trying to protect the other partygoers. Or in lieu of actually getting hurt, just one panel where the lion slashes at the swishy helmet thing on his head, and it's totally cut off. It's action, a threat, no injury, and a joke at the same time.

If you're going to hit the superficial versus real... why not actually play that up? Why not have someone superficial actually make a change as a result? Even if it's a little one. Give us some gesture that the actions that Donald took changed the people around him, rather than the tell-tell-tell we're doing here.

Also, I would probably say the nipple spikes oughta go. Not because they're inappropriate, they just look so ridiculous.

It's a Barks story, so even half-baked it's about a hundred times more interesting than Joe Schmoe's ten-pager, but the more I look at even these excerpts, the more I think "Yup, every part of this is a rush job."

Still. A rush job can produce some fascinating things you would have gotten rid of, without ever even realizing it... maybe that's what gives this story its appeal to you, Geo. I just hope Barks enjoyed whatever vacation he was going on once he turned this in.

October 25, 2013 at 7:53 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

The plot idea may have come from Barks's daughter, but as has already been pointed out, the theme of the hero who incarnates virtues associated with the past is thoroughly Barksian. Scrooge himself does this, when his Klondike days are invoked. Grandma Duck. Barko the sled dog. The difference here is that the idealized past is medieval; Barks was more likely to be nostalgic about lost values from a more recent past.

Yes, a Latin señorita. And what's untenable about the wish to be one of Santa's elves? Are you saying it would be ruled out as belonging to a fantasy world, if the medieval knight is ruled out as passé and unrealistic? Not if HDL believe that Santa does exist. I agree that it's silly and contrived to posit that the unrealized desire has to be "realistic" and present-day, but that's the symbolic representation of the contemporary slighting of virtues and ideals valued in the past. If Santa exists, he exists in the present; and the values of consumption he represents are certainly not passé.

October 25, 2013 at 7:56 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I don't know--my assumption was that elfs are *elfs,* and that if you're just some duckling it's not something you can aspire to. But I don't know what the official rules and regulations say.

October 25, 2013 at 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elaine, I am actually pretty sure Donald and the nephews met Santa a couple of times.

A lot of times, actually. I'm not sure what that changes, because... you know, Christmas specials don't count, just ask the Power Rangers. But the cosmology present there does, if you take a Rosa approach, allow you to say that being one of Santa's elves is a viable career option.

October 25, 2013 at 8:01 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

It's a shame Huey didn't say he wan to be an "Elve" (period) without the Santa part. Modern audiance would asume his talking about some sweet Legolas costume.

Then agian - come on guys! Santa is cool! Why not belive in him ;)

October 26, 2013 at 1:21 AM  
Blogger mina said...

One of my favorite barks stories.
Thanks for the article geo.
By the way,what are you working on now?

October 28, 2013 at 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The key line in the story, misquoted by reviewordie, is "a metal misfit in a world gone nylon." For all that the plot requires Barks to create some inexplicably nasty party guests -- Donald's suppressed desire isn't inherently any sillier than theirs -- I disagree that there is anything "slapped out" about it. Consider the high-flown language in the passage that begins Donald's emergence as a hero: "And then from under the pile of cringing humanity, there emerges a comical figure, dressed in the panoply of a long dead age! On his shield is graved a forgotten knight slaying rampant lions, and on his rubber sword is the outworn seal of St. George!" Why does he use the word "outworn" in that archaic sense? I can think of only one possible source: Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon." The poet, regretting that he lives in the present era, rather than in a nobler past, says: "Great God! I'd rather be/ A pagan suckled in a creed outworn." Barks knew his English literature ("Oh my prophetic soul! My uncle!" in the story about the Falcon Rover), and he was harking to a poem that is expressing exactly Donald's feelings.
-- Peter Crane, Seattle

June 29, 2014 at 11:10 AM  

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