Story of 'Darkwing Duck': The Cartoon With Heart That Brought "People Near Tears"

Creator Tad Stones looks back on the show, which got dangerous for the first time when it premiered 25 years ago this week.
Screenshot/TheMitigating/YouTube

Twenty five years later, he is still the terror that flaps in the night. 

Darkwing Duck, which premiered Sept. 8, 1991, came at a rare time for television, when afterschool TV was ruled by cartoons — before networks began to favor cheaper options like talk shows and shows dedicated to small claims court.

The Disney show starred Jim Cummings as the titular crimefighter, Christine Cavanaugh as his daughter Gosalyn and Terry McGovern as the faithful sidekick Launchpad. It combined the kitschiness of Silver Age comics and the gags of Golden Age Warner Bros. animation — as well as plenty of catchphrases. 

"I told the guys, every episode you have to do at least one catchphrase, and every episode, Darkwing has to say the words, 'Let's get dangerous,'" creator Tad Stones tells Heat Vision. "If you are going to have a slogan you have to commit to it as a slogan."

The show had its roots in DuckTales (though its creator says it is not a spinoff — and actually takes place in a different universe), which featured an episode in which Launchpad is a secret agent called Double-O Duck. Then-Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg liked that concept as a potential series and asked Stones to take a stab at it. Stones turned in a pitch trading off the James Bond theme, one he says lacked heart, and when Katzenberg rejected it, he was relieved … until the exec asked him to try again.

The second time around, Stones got it right, injecting Silver Age comics nostalgia and reconceiving its lead as a superhero instead of a secret agent (as late Bond producer Cubby Broccoli owned the rights to the Double-O name). Most importantly, he injected a healthy dose of heart thanks to the endearing relationship between Darkwing and his daughter.

"I get told at conventions how important that relationship was to people," says Stones. "I've I had people near tears saying they had a rough family life and the father-daughter energy of that show was super-important to them."

In many ways, Darkwing is a show that couldn't be created today. Stones took inspiration from the DC Comics under editor Julius Schwartz, who was famous for having outlandish covers, which Stones only vaguely remembered from childhood (and it wasn't like he could just Google them).

"It was my half-remembered covers of The Flash where the Flash had a beard or was super-fat or had a giant head because he had super-evolved. It was all that in my brain saying, 'OK, here's my story,'" says Stones.

The type of Silver Age cover that inspired Stones.

At the time, some of the best superhero cartoons were obsessed with continuity. Fox's excellent X-Men animated series had episodes-long sagas that were hard to understand if you were unfamiliar with what came before. And today, in a world with the hive mind of the internet dedicated to fan theories about shows like Game of Thrones, it's an understatement to say continuity is king on television. But Darwking purposely ignored continuity, with the character having multiple origin stories within his own series.

"It drives fans crazy, but I was not a huge fan of continuity," says Stones. "I grew up with Silver Age continuity with the comics. Yeah, I know Lois Lane doesn't know Clark Kent is Superman. She suspects something. Jimmy Olsen's his pal. He went to high school with Lana Lang. The basics everybody knew. But there was really no arc or change. Every time you picked up a comic, you knew where you were starting."

He goes on to state that though Launchpad first appeared in DuckTales, the Darkwing version was different. For starters, Launchpad always seemed to crash his plane in DuckTales but was a competent pilot in Darkwing Duck.

"Because Launchpad appeared in DuckTales and we used Roboduck as the Superman character, the hero who gets all the glory as opposed to Darkwing, fans try to connect the two realities. They are two different universes in my book. We work in the alternate Duckiverse," says Stones.

But that allowed Darkwing to do things a show today might be too afraid to do — e.g., ignore its own past for the benefit of a specific episode. That happened with its most popular villain, Negaduck, who was introduced as an evil mirror to Darkwing. There was also a goody-goody mirror to Darkwing that the writers didn't like and didn't want to bring back. Stones told the writers just to bring back Negaduck and forget about the other version, and later they even ignored the original Negaduck origin, instead saying he came from an alternate, evil universe.

Darkwing came to an end in 1992 after running for three seasons and 91 episodes, and Stones moved on projects such as a TV adaptation of Aladdin and two Hellboy animated features, but he still has a special spot in his heart for the masked duck. Should the character be revamped for television, he says despite fan protestations, he's ready for a new generation of creators to take it on.

"You want to do Darkwing for 2017 or '18. Not for 25 years ago, so the show should be different and should have a different life to it," says Stones. "I was writing animation when The Simpsons debuted and really shook things up. Now we have plenty of writers who have never known a world without The Simpsons. So it's just a different situations and a different sensibility at a granular, genetic level almost. You want that sensibility even though you are doing something that is nothing like The Simpsons, but just how broad to go with a gag. How non sequitur. That's what I want to see."

Sept. 10, 11:25 a.m. Updated with an additional quote from Stones about Darkwing Duck taking place in an alternate universe from DuckTales.

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