Tuesday, April 18, 2023

"The Chickadee Challenge"

 Hey, whaddaya know?  I was on a podcast!  Two, actually, with more to come.  It's Mark Severino's Barks Remarks, and also his spin-off Rosa Remarks, and if you want to know why it took so long for me to do this...well, it was really just a matter of missed communications.  But better late than never; the experience was extremely delightful, so I hope you like them, 'cause you haven't heard the last of me!  Grrr!

We talked about some Junior Woodchucks stories, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to write about "Chickadee Challenge"--one that we were contemplating discussing but then didn't.  All things considered, I think that was the right decision, but it's still worth touching on.

Well, let's get right into it.  The problem is: girls!  Quelle horreur!  Donald, at any rate, has chilled out a bit since the likes of "Ten-Star Generals," his current attitude being more one of bemusement, which seems like the appropriate reaction, really.

"Rugged he-men."  "Send them back to their dolls and teacups!"  Look, let's not beat around the bush: I find this story very confused and significantly flawed.  Maybe, in fact, an out-and-out failure, although you can judge.  HDL's childish sexism isn't very fun to look at, but from this introduction, you would get the very strong impression that they're being set up for a fall.  I mean, how could you not?  That's OBVIOUSLY what the story is setting up.  And then...it just drops the whole idea and never resolves it in any way.  I mean, as you'll see.  Momentarily.  If anyone wants to defend this story, please do, but I have my doubts about it.

Oh well.  I enjoy Donald's more or less detached attitude, anyway.  No getting woodcraft mixed up with his ideas of parenthood here, as we saw in "Generals."  Guffey's Grove.  That is fun.  Has anyone reused that name?

Also, note that in the early days of Barks, the elaborate Junior Woodchucks acronyms didn't spell out words.  But nowadays, it would be impossible for anyone to have them not.

Introducing...her.  There are definitely certain ideas about gender here.  Note also: that flag.  Is that the first use of the Junior Woodchucks logo?  I haven't been tracking these things or anything, but it might be!

Yes, this story introduces the Chickadees as a distaff version of the Woodchucks.  Are they just called that because of association with "chicks" as slang for women, which was well-established when this story was written?  But the thing is, in this story, they are extremely non-distinct.  After the chauvinist-nephews introduction, little or nothing about the story would be different if they were boys.  Disney comics have historically been, it must be admitted, a highly masculine form, and I'm not sure Barks here was really up to the task of creating a girl scouts equivalent, as much as it's a good idea.  Look at how the girls in that top-left panel are bathed in purple and rendered kind of anonymous and indistinct.  That's a good metaphor for their overall depiction in the story, in which none of the girls make any impression.  The only real featured antagonist is the troop leader. She's more the kind of cartoonish grotesque that Barks was comfortable with, and if you think it's unfair and possibly misogynistic of me to describe her as "grotesque," maybe you should wait to see how the story proceeds.  

Right, so here's the thing: the Chickadee leader here is meant to be being conniving.  You wouldn't necessarily know that from just this picture, but it becomes obvious soon enough that this is what Barks is going for.  But why?  What's wrong with this bridge?  Is this crypto-sexism: look at those girls with their "simple" bridge, as opposed to the manly woodchucks with their "real" bridge-building skillz.  Well, that might be an overstatement.  But I'm making it because this story is confused, dammit.  Whatever message it has is not clearly communicated.

This also features some Donald bumbling, though it's fairly low-key in that regard.  It's also a little hard to suss out his motivations entirely: does he share some of his nephews' sexism, or is he just trying to keep the peace?

Regardless, if nothing else, you've gotta give the story credit for this much: "just imagine these posts are thousands of feet long!" is excellent.  You cannot argue with that logic.  Well, you can maybe point out that a thousands-of-feet-long pole probably wouldn't be very stable, but to that, I can only reply, NEEEEEERRD!

See?  See?  The Chickadee leader is meant to be sneaky and underhanded.  Heh! Heh! Heh!  Hee! Hee! Hee!  You can argue about whether this is sexist, I suppose, but I must maintain that whatever it is, it doesn't address the conflict that the beginning sets up.

I MEAN GOOD GOD.  This is one of the most extreme caricatures Barks ever drew.  It ain't great!

Anyway, the ultimate result?  It's a tie.  Is this saying something about gender equality?  If it is, you'd expect the story to, I don't know, hint at that in any way.

Here's the only actual interaction between the boys and the girls in the entire story.  If there had been more, this whole thing might be more interesting.  Perhaps.  I AM amused by the Woodchucks muckety-muck just appearing like that.  The peace-bringer.  A real Christ figure.

Also, I think this story pioneered the idea of just awarding medals in bulk, which is pretty funny.

And yet, in the end, what message can we take from this story?  What moral?  No one was cheered and nothing was discussed.  If you're able to bring more insight to this than I am, please do, but I'm not convinced that this isn't one of Barks' most notable failures.  Still, regardless of how well he used them, introducing the Chickadees was a good expansion of the universe.



Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I don't have any strong opinions about this story one way or other but I agree I would prefer interaction between boys and girls as the main conflict rather then, just making the leader the "face" of the Chickadee's. I guess it's product of the time that Barks could only imagine an militant woman in such position as the manly looking butch feminist stereotype (I'll take a wild guess that in his mind she is also a man-hater) I wonder how this story would read if Barks made her more feminine looking. Still, the bizarre glee you pointed out is funny to me but just in how over the top it is.

It's interesting that DuckTales (both old and new) simply made girls part of The Junior Woodchucks, which I like.

April 18, 2023 at 10:22 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

This is one of the most extreme caricatures Barks ever drew.

I'll see your Captain Ramrod and I'll raise you Mrs. J. Crowsfoot Dryskin of Turkeyneck-on-the-Mohawk, from "Beauty Business".

April 18, 2023 at 10:29 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Well, sure. "The Beauty Business" is surely the ne plus ultra in that regard.

April 18, 2023 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

BTW - I'm listen to the podcasts! Fun time! :)

April 18, 2023 at 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Grande Tiranno said...

Also in the most newest italian stories girls are part of JW. I don't like so much this choice 'cause in the past, in italian comics there was the women' section of JW: the G.E. (Giovani Esploratrici, that can be translated in Young Explorers, but is difficult to do because unlike italian in English there isn't feminine for nouns).
Sorry for my English, but as u can imagine I'm italian ;)

April 18, 2023 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

No problem! Your English is fine, and I appreciate your input.

April 18, 2023 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger reMark said...

Thanks again for joining, Geoff, it really was a delight, and I look forward to dropping the episode on "the Twenty-Four Carat Moon," likely one of my favorite recording sessions! I've been lucky enough to land some Disney Comics creators for some of these episodes (Patrick Block, John Lustig, Mau Hymans, and others) but I was nearly as excited to have you on; I've admired your sharp writing here on the DCR for several years now (and the messages about BLM and Trans Rights prominently on your masthead helped give me confidence to be openly thoughtful when reflecting on some of these stories).

"Chickadee Challenge" is a great story, and one I look forward to covering down the road on Barks Remarks, possibly pairing it with "Dodging Miss Daisy." I actually think I feel much more warmly-inclined towards it than you do, though I agree with many of your points. (but yes, the Chickadee Leader's over-the-top depiction as a Battle Axe is pretty eyebrow-raising) At least the young chickadees themselves come out looking pretty good in this one And a good point about the lack of payoff regarding HDL's early story woman-hating.

For any of your readers inclined to check the podcast out, the conceit of it is that it's a chronological revisiting, in the vein of oh-so-many podcasts put out by 40-something dudes. But instead of revisiting Simpsons episodes, or the Sopranos, or what-have-you, a range of guests and I talk about each "adventure-length" Barks story. Frequently we'll cover select ten-pagers out-of-order, for ease of scheduling.

People might be tempted to start with "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," but I've gotta be honest, those early few episodes are pretty rough, as we were still figuring out the format and recording/editing process, etc. The podcast hit its stride a dozen or two episodes in, so I suggest starting with a favorite from the early ~50s.

In addition to these episodes with Geoff, here are a couple choice ones to try:

"the Trouble with Dimes" (guest host: Disney comics artist/writer Patrick Block)

"Omelet" (guest host: Disney comics writer John Lustig)

Both of these episodes cover all-time classic ten-pagers and feature creators who got to meet and work with Barks and had some great anecdotes to share (and are on the shorter side; some episodes trend a bit longer). Of course, it's a thrill to get creators on, but I've been delighted to have guests who "just" longtime Barks fans, some involved in the editorial process, translation and localizing, and even some newbies, just to get their perspective.

April 18, 2023 at 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Cf. Grande Tirrano's comments on girls in the JWs: on the Feathery Society there's a thread titled "female Woodchucks," where we corporately established that all three European publishers (Egmont, Italy, Netherlands) now show girls as members of the JWs. You can look through that thread for references to particular stories. In the Netherlands it looks like the girls and boys are in separate troops, but the girls are definitely Woodchucks, caps and all. In stories from Italy or Egmont, the girls and boys are mixed together. Italy now has recurrent female Woodchuck characters named Beth and Michelle. There's a recent Egmont story where April, May and June are Woodchucks!

Since I'm mostly in Rosa's camp on timeline, with the stories' "present" being vaguely in the late 50's/early 60's, this gender integration of the JWs is not real in my headcanon. But I'm interested to see how it is being handled by the several publishers and various writers.

April 18, 2023 at 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

And on the "Chickadee Challenge" story: yeah, not great. I'm glad I didn't encounter the story in my childhood. It's bad enough that Captain Ramrod is such a stereotypical, untrustworthy battleaxe, and an insult to all women who served in the military--in addition, as you say, the story is a mess, in terms of its implicit argument. I do like the quarts of medals, though.

It's interesting to look at later stories which pit the Chickadees against the Woodchucks. In most of them for decades, up to and including the Italian GM stories of the 1980's, when the girls outdo the boys it's by virtue of using some girly attribute or knowledge: knitting or cooking or (!) long fingernails. They seldom beat the boys at their own game. Only in post-2000 stories have I seen girls outdo the boys in gender-neutral tasks or skills.

April 18, 2023 at 9:24 PM  
Blogger Psychopathicus said...

Personally, I've always considered 'Chickadee Challenge' to be kind of a satire/commentary on the war of the sexes, and how ridiculously SERIOUSLY some people take it.

I mean, technically, this whole business is a zero-stakes game. There's no trophy to be gained, nothing hanging in the balance - the only thing at stake is that one side will get one over on the other. That's made pretty clear from the start - Donald even points out that, theoretically, this is a perfectly friendly competition between honored equals - but it's treated so desperately seriously, you'd think someone was going to blow up an orphanage.

Now, with HD&L, this is one thing - that sort of little-boy 'girls are icky' sexism is an established part of their characters, and, well, the Woodchucks are their world - but the joke is, I think, that the Chickadee leader, a grown adult, a MILITARY VETERAN, for cryin' out loud, is treating it just as seriously to the point of cackling and rubbing her hands over it like a villain in a melodrama. She, if anything, has even less to gain than the nephews - but she'll still win! Nyahahahaha! FIGHT DIRTY, GIRLS!

And yet, in the end, for all the desperation, for all the sweat and effort and worry and on-the-fly strategizing, NOBODY wins, because really, no one COULD win. A win would mean absolutely nothing, because there's NOTHING AT STAKE. It takes the I.T.S.A.A.D.C.O.T.F.O.I.K coming in at the end to bring everyone back to reality and remind them that, actually, this is just a friendly competition, you nut jobs; pipe down and have a few medals, protagonists, to make you feel like you've done something.

That's the point, I think, if there is one. I kind of doubt Barks was making some big point about women or feminism or whatever; he was, if anything, just exaggerating to the point of ridiculousness the whole 'win one for the team' attitude that both men and women (at least, some of them) seem to have sometimes.

April 19, 2023 at 3:19 AM  
Blogger ramapith said...

> What's wrong with this bridge? Is this crypto-sexism: look at those girls with their "simple" bridge, as opposed to the manly woodchucks with their "real" bridge-building skillz.

First reading this story as a kid, I didn't perceive Captain Ramrod or the Chickadees as cheating here at all. I intepreted this scene as showing the Chickadees every bit the Woodchucks' honest equals, describing what looked like a complex design/maneuver as "simple" to show off their smarts, with Captain R simply winking in smug conspiracy with them.

Since HDL and the Woodchucks treat complex procedures/solutions as shockingly simple in many other stories, kid-me instantly thought "Uh-oh, the rival troops are every bit as good; this will be tough."

That said, Captain R's "battleaxe" depiction does invoke some sexist tropes (even if I sort of like her as a character—go on, tell me she and Neighbor Jones aren't relatives), and the "tie" ending almost plays like Barks wasn't sure how to finish the story.

April 25, 2023 at 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm gonna echo Psychopathicus here. The entire joke here is how seriously everyone is taking this incredibly unimportant competition because of their silly battle-of-the-sexes pride, all the way down to the adult leader of a bunch of kids cackling with glee because a spectator fell into a bog gives them a bit of an advantage. She's not cheating, she's just taking it way too stupidly seriously, and that's what Barks is making fun of here.

April 25, 2023 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

I am conflicted about this. On the one hand, it's a compelling reading of the story. On the other, I really have to be firm here: I don't think this was Barks' intention. And it doesn't have to be to be valid! Death of the author and all. It's just that if he intended the story to be read like this, he did it in a totally deadpan way which doesn't at all match what I think of as his style. I think it's much more plausible that he didn't really have a point to make, and that the story is just kind of muddled.

April 29, 2023 at 4:37 AM  

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