Duck Family Values

I don’t know when it started to bother me; not anyhow until I was past the age of reading Walt Disney’s Donald Duck (subtitled Een vrolijk weekblad in its Dutch version, a merry weekly). There is a strange pattern of incompleteness in this family. Neither the grandmother, nor the rich uncle, nor Donald or his niece have living partners; and all the children (two sets of triplets) are orphans, of uncertain parentage.

This seems to be a preferred pattern in comics. Try to imagine Tintin with a boy- or girlfriend. Intimacy doesn’t rise above the level of his problematic friendship with an aging single man, a drunken sailor. Duck-type family relations dominate Suske en Wiske (known in English as Spike and Suzy/Willy and Wanda). Like the Duck triplets they live with a second degree relative, their aunt Sidonia, whose strongly emphasized sexual unattractiveness seems to block more intimate relations with the story’s true antihero Lambik (Ambrose).

The life of the greatest Dutch cartoon character, Olivier B. Bommel (Oliver B. Bumble) is overshadowed by absence – that of his “good father”. His friend Tom Poes (Tom Puss) is too sexless to have a mate. That the elderly OBB develops a belated, prepubescent infatuation with his widowed neighbour may suit his quixotic character. But that his very last adventure ends in marriage is, to my feeling, a serious break of the story code (and I prefer to leave this episode unread).

There may be something disconcerting, oppressive, constraining in the image of the regular two parents family. Having been raised in an incomplete family myself, I feel familiar with this perspective. But the popularity of the story pattern suggests that there is an orphan in every child. And adult.

Not only do most readers unthinkingly accept the Duck family’s pervasive incompleteness; they also go along with its incestuous sexuality, implied in Donald’s dating his niece Daisy (Katrien in the Dutch version). An official reading calls her a non-relative, but this is not what I remember from my merry weekly. It also leaves her family name unexplained (a widow? – unlikely).

It is the subject of a longstanding debate in aesthetics: how does fiction make us accept (in some sense) not only counterfactuals, but also inconsistencies, contradictions, and what we might call counter-ethics? I think the explanation must be sought in the fact that we accept all these together: they all piggyback on our playful acceptance of the counterfactual qua fiction. The trick (the magician’s and storyteller’s trick) is sleight of hand, to make it happen in degrees, to lure the attention away from any factual, logical or ethical offense.

What goes for ducks doesn’t go for people. But it remains amazing how much we allow those ducks.