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Tuesday 23 December 2014

Viking Duck

When I look out of my window, the visual display that meets me could easily have been a subject for an Edgar Hunt oil painting. Various breeds of chickens, some Emden geese and even white and blue peafowl colour the green field as they mill about eating the scattered seeds that make up their breakfast. Added to this animated canvas of farmyard beauty are the ducks. Like the chickens, there is more than one breed on show. They include the brown Khaki Campbell and the white Aylesbury. They also include the Indian Runners. These ducks are distinctly different to the rest. Despite a single member who is almost completely black, they are white, like the Aylesbury. However, unlike the other breeds of duck, this bird stands very erect and often with its beak in the air. Like a diminutive goose they march forward with purpose – and nothing stands in their way. For, although many would look upon this scene as the perfect backdrop to countryside tranquillity, I see chaos and carnage.

Viewed from our own perceptions of civilization, love and caring, the human being is often quite struck by the bestial ferocity of the natural world. True, we have inflicted upon each other and the planet we inhabit acts of destruction that dwarf any other known creature in history, but it is the everyday savagery and brutality that seems so alien to the average human living in the developed world. The apex predators have long come to represent our fears of a violent death. From the stalking big cats and wolves that have torn apart those who wondered too far off the beaten track to the crocodilians and sharks that struck like lightening from the beneath surface of our planet’s rivers and seas to the various birds of prey and eaters of carrion that appear like angels of death in our skies to the creeping menace of the smaller predatory creatures that crawl or scurry from under rocks and up over the ground, we have crafted nightmarish tales that stimulate the primitive impulses in our brains. Their lives are daily fights for survival, where directly killing others to live, often their own species, is the norm and the dread of it spilling over into our protected and civilized lives can be chilling. However, we rarely consider the life of the duck with a sense of trepidation. Yet one look at the social life of the domestic duck and you will see a world that, in historical and mythic terms, is comparable to that of barbarian raiders. 

I was not unaware of the ferocity that is commonplace in the avian world. Birds of prey and carrion, as we have discussed have long been recognized for the way they mercilessly butcher their fellow birds. They are richly represented in our myths and fiction. Childhood favourites of mine were the villains the Blue Falcon from the first series of Dogtanian cartoons and Owl Capone from Nigel Parkinson’s famous UK comic strip (not the Disney character). Even the non-prey birds haven’t always been given the soft touch either. My primary school once went to see a stage play called “Birds of a Feather”. The story focused a lot on hierarchical pecking orders within a group of anthropomorphised birds all of different species with the villain being a vulture who held the threat of eating the rest of the cast. These other characters then, in turn, held the same threat over the smallest character. 

As we naturally anthropomorphize different animal species to fit certain stereotypes, the duck has become the natural jester of the bird world. Their upturned beaks elicit the idea that they might be snobby, but this is then immediately contrasted by their waddling walk and ungainly shape. It does not have the size of the goose or swan, which also have the same shape. All three can be characteristically aggressive and defensive, but in the form of the duck it just seems like a silly blustering little character. 

Daffy from Warner Brothers and Donald from Walt Disney are the most recognizable anthropomorphized duck characters. The frantic quacking and swift gait of real ducks probably inspired artists and animators to make Daffy and Donald have highly strung personalities. Daffy is sometimes portrayed as being completely crazy (hence his name), depending on his writer, and arrogant, and Donald is especially quick-tempered and greedy. Both can play the role of the villain and have known to be bullies, although this is usually a very mild and innocuous antagonist who just plays to the Anglo-American love of seeing pompous fools failing. 

Daffy has always been a type of anti-hero in the Looney Tunes franchise, stretching that definition to being an outright villain at times. Tex Aviary’s 1937 first incarnation of Daffy saw him earn his name by behaving in a madcap fashion, as he ruined Porky Pig’s duck hunt. Little time would pass before sympathy would often shift over to Porky and Daffy would be cast as the villain. Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones would see two distinct versions of Daffy emerge which have both been accepted in the public consciousness. He can, at times, be seen as a lunatic avenger for justice and also as a sly, embittered glory hound. There have been further variations of both.  Both Porky Pig and Looney Tunes’ flagship icon, Bugs Bunny, have easily been the most frequently paired with Daffy over the decades. Porky is often Daffy’s straight man whereas Bugs is his rival. However, despite being the obvious influence for the evil Mogwai/Gremlin, Daffy, in Joe Dante’s collaboration with Chuck Jones for “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”, Daffy has never been considered to be a Looney Tunes villain in the same vein as Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote or even Sylvester the cat, who he shares a very similar speech impediment. Even when being bad, Daffy has that Shakespearean Richard III charm that wins us over and we cannot help but laugh with him as well as it him. 

Donald, like Daffy, sometimes plays the heel when he is jealous of his particular universe’s top icon. In Donald’s case, it is Mickey Mouse. He has often played the bad guy role in Chip ‘n Dale’s cartoons and also in stories featuring his nephews, although in both cases he also been the innocent victim to their mischief. Despite having a decidedly evil side, often portrayed by a devil duck complete with horns and a forked tail, that is accompanied by a quacking cackle and then finished with the catchphrase “That’ll fix ‘em!”, the very worst we have seen of Donald is his scary fit of madness in “Mickey and the Beanstalk” when starvation drove him to attempt to slaughter Goofy and Mickey’s cow (which is understandable given the circumstances) and in the Machiavellian way he has tricked bees into getting their honey. 

Even Danger Mouse’s hugely self-delusional villain, Duckula was such a woefully inept menace that he attracted a sympathetic following and ended up starring as the hero of his own TV series. Sharing Duckula’s desire for fame, Darkwing Duck was a superhero that first appeared in Disney’s “Duck Tales” and then went on to appear in his own TV series. Yet again, we see pomposity as a character trait for a duck character. However, the show did provide us with Negaduck, a bonafide duck villain and the evil doppelganger of Darkwing Duck as well as Quackerjack and others. “Pearls Before Swine” has its Guard Duck with his anger issues and Marvel’s Howard the Duck is also known for his grumpy disposition (not to mention the appalling 1986 movie adaptation).  Yet none of them have come close to represent the savage world of the duck as I have seen.  

Of course, we have come to have rather warped views of the animal kingdom that are largely based on ancient mythological representation and symbolism of different species, and these have passed down into an accepted law in the magical world of fantasy fiction. Owls are not wise, but have very limited mental capabilities compared to many other birds. Lions are not courageous or regal in their behaviour; rather they prefer to attack as a group and much smaller animals have been known drive them off, resembling behaviours we normally attribute to bullies. The false attributes come from the anthropomorphic qualities we see in their image. An owl’s faces, especially its eyes, make it appear wise and the lion’s mane makes him seem regal. So, the duck is left with its comical pomposity, further extenuated by its diminutive size and yet the world it inhabits is a pretty scary place.
Ducks war with each other all the time. Small factions form with their respective breeds and they drive each other off. Not content with just claiming a piece of land, they will corner, bully and engage in sexual acts that can easily result in the death of their intended target.  Ducks often mate in water, so it is not uncommon to see one duck mounting another in a puddle, forcing its head down under the water. Males do this as much to males as they do to females. Any duck that appears to be weak in anyway is regular picked on and we often spend a good bit of time protecting it from the feathered yobs. Whether they gang up on one duck or one duck attacks another, they don’t seem to care. If we were to make an accurate analogy, the ducks resemble marauders. Being natural roamers, fighting over a territory is a very temporary thing. Food is plentiful and abundant in their surrounding area, so it isn’t about that. Although, having said that, there is something to be said for the greedy trait that often crops in anthropomorphised ducks. I have seen these birds lure other ducks and seemingly ambush them, and they all often seem to be on the lookout for trouble. I am not suggesting that they derive anything that humans might interpret as joy out of these violent behaviours. 

So I feel it is high time that anthropomorphized animals were revised. We need to start with a clean slate and re-think a universe where animals are represented. I am not making a politically correct request to correct the errors of the past.  If you are going to do fantasy you might as well go the full way and accept the ridiculousness of the premise. What I am arguing for is fresh inspiration drawn from artistic impressions we get from the animal world. Look for new metaphors and symbolism. Why does the lion always have to be king? Why does the owl always have to be wise? Surely, this is just lazy plotting.  

I put it that it can be done and here and there it has been done with good, if isolated effect. I spent a good period of childhood storytelling, trying to reinvent Richard Adams “Watership Down”. Now there is an example of drawing inspiration from the natural world and totally revising our view of the life of a creature. Prior to Adams’ book and the 1978 feature film, rabbits were never seen as violent creatures. Instead, their big feet, protruding front teeth and long ears made them more comical in our eyes. Uncle Remus’s Brer Rabbit tales certainly showed us the danger and projected the mythical cunning of these animals, both of which Adams ran and hopped with in his Homer-esque saga of rebellious rabbits fighting for survival. However, he also showed us violent issues over territories and the various behaviours they had adopted to survive the numerous threats to their species.
In Adams’ world we could fear rabbit characters like the Black Rabbit of Inlé, a spectral figure of death comparable with the grim reaper, Pluto or Hades, and the story’s main antagonist, the brutal General Woundwort. The original animated movie has scared and still scares people today, with some journalists considering it to be something of a horror film, disguised as a family feature film. Adams created a religion for the rabbits and each warren represented different political ideologies and philosophies. The novel is rightfully considered a classic and at no point did any reasonable critic stop to say, as they did about the unintentionally very silly “Night of the Lepus”, how ridiculous the premise would be to have rabbits depicted as vicious killers. 

For the time being, as I return to my marauding tribes of ducks as they descend upon the melee of feeding time and their fellow fowls, I look on the duck characters that come closest to represent the ducks I know. First up, we have Bobby London’s cigar-chomping and lecherous Mr. Duck of the “Dirty Duck” comic strip. He is probably still a tad too sophisticated, but certainly reflects one glaring impulse exhibited by these quacking raiders. Secondly, we have the ex-space pirate, Deadeye Duck from the “Bucky O’Hare” TV series. Pirating certainly seems like a suitable occupation for an anthropomorphised duck. This finally brings us to Kvack, the German pet duck of Helgar, the long-suffering wife of Hagar the Horrible. Kvack might not exhibit any obvious Viking behaviour - she is more of a spy for Helgar and frequently lands Hagar in trouble with his wife -  but she, at least, represents that image.  

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