Thursday, January 15, 2015

DUCKTALES Fanfic Review: "The Sincere Fraud" by "Commander"

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. -- Robert Frost

Of course, what happens AFTER they take you in is often the most interesting part...

I'm back with another DuckTales fanfic focus... and the angst is STRONG with this one!  Thankfully, DuckTales doesn't appear to have inspired nearly as many of these soul-sucking fics as, let's say, Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers (does anyone remember the concept of "Gadget-gouging"?  If not, then be thankful) or Darkwing Duck (the Gosalyn-Drake relationship was always rife with potential for emotional exploitation, and numerous writers have taken advantage).  The TV series simply didn't provide sufficient raw material for the introduction of soap-opera elements.  With THE LIFE AND TIMES OF $CROOGE McDUCK still well in the future, the show's explorations of Scrooge's past were comparatively straightforward, and they focused almost entirely on his individual exploits.  The Nephews and Webby were too young to enter "the dating zone" and similar locales where adolescent Weltschmerz might have a chance to get its hooks into them.  As for Launchpad, he was primarily concerned with where his next crash was coming from.

Of the main cast of DuckTales, Fenton Crackshell came the closest to experiencing some legitimate angst, thanks to his occasionally rocky relationship with Gandra Dee, the demands of his "M'Ma," and his struggles to reconcile his "normal" and superheroic identities.  However, these experiences  were generally played for laughs.  The mere fact that such stories were attempted with Fenton indicates just how promising a character he was... and what a shame it was that he was left abandoned on a metaphorical siding following the TV series' shutdown, with no further opportunities to build upon the ideas that had already been introduced.

The prolific fanfic writer "Commander" appears to have reasoned, logically enough, that, in order to introduce any heavy-duty emotional dynamics into the world of DuckTales as a whole, the characters would have to be pushed forward in time.  OK, I know what many of you must already be thinking...

... and, yes, HD&L are thrust into middle school in the epic under discussion here, but there's little indication that "Commander" was influenced in any meaningful way by Quack Pack.  During the traumatizing events of "The Sincere Fraud, " the boys are anything but ironically detached snark-dealers. 

"Commander" apparently planned to write a whole series of fics set in his personal version of the DT "universe" -- which turns out to be a mixture of the world of the TV series and his own take on Don Rosa's LATO$M timeline -- but "The Sincere Fraud" turned out to be the only major product that survived the vagaries of time and the demands of "real life."  He did, however, manage to set the table for the story in the reminiscence tale "Sepia Tone," which basically consists of the seven-year-old Louie finding an old family album and asking Scrooge to tell him about some of his and his brothers' "foreducks."  It's a pretty quick read, and I encourage you to give it a look if you get the chance, but here's a summary of the significant takeaways.  Some of them will be quite familiar, some not so much.

(1)  The McDuck siblings, in order of age: Scrooge, Matilda, Hortense (as per Rosa).

(2) Matilda married Ludwig Von Drake (as per the Rosa Family Tree) and died young.  Scratch "A Letter from Home" (preferably, while shedding a silent tear or two).

(3) Hortense married Quackmore, and they had Donald and Della two years apart.  That is, Donald and Della were not twins.  This fact actually turns out to be rather significant.

(4)  Quackmore joined the Navy during World War II and died in action when Donald was nine years old.  Since Donald was a "Mama's boy" and never really that close to his Dad, that was what really motivated him to join the Navy... AND, more than that, to make the service an actual career.

(5)  Della was the proverbial "bad seed," getting into repeated, and increasingly serious, trouble as a youngster and developing a knack for conning people into making them do what she wanted them to do.  In the process, she also developed a bad feud with her older brother Donald.  Don's original intention, to keep her from running completely off the "road of life," was actually a good one, but he ultimately got so angry at her that he came to believe that he had always hated her.  For her part, Della resented Donald trying to butt into her life, and he similarly assumed the role of a monster in her own troubled mind. Della ultimately got knocked up by someone or other -- I'm guessing that the picture of Della's anonymous mate on the Rosa Family Tree is meant to be a generic composite; if so, then it's probably an overly flattering one -- and had her triplets, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
 Idealized portrayal of Duck relationship #1

(6) Incapable of supporting herself, yet desperate to provide for her kids, Della tried to rob a bank and was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.  The Nephews, who by that time were three years old, were subsequently transferred over to Donald's care.  The famous 1938 DONALD DUCK Sunday strip that introduced HD&L is therefore in error in at least one respect: The document that was sent to Donald to inform him of the transfer was probably a lot more formal than a simple handwritten note.

(7)  At the age of five -- yes, you read that right -- Donald joined the Navy, and HD&L came to live with their next closest relative, Scrooge.  Commence the events of DuckTales.  IF you can buy the idea of the Nephews being that young at the start of "Don't Give Up the Ship," then this actually explains a lot about why the characters act the way they do during the "dock scene."  As I noted in my review of that episode, it is quite clear that the Ducks of "Ship" do not know one another all that well, and it is therefore next to impossible to imagine them sharing any joint adventures between the time Donald assumed charge of the Nephews and the time he left to go to sea.  Heck, even if they had wanted to have an adventure, there was hardly enough time for them to do so!

Take a moment to consider the consequences of this setup.  "Commander"'s interpretation takes the events of "Don't Give Up the Ship," and subsequently of DuckTales, as being the TRUE Duck "canon," at least in an adventurous sense.  Any previous tales told by Barks (basically, the only Duck-bard who was relevant at the time of DT's debut) are hereby rendered null and void... EVEN THE ONES in which Donald and HD&L went on adventures all by themselves!  We're dealing with the cleanest of whiteboards here!

(8)  Webby was three years old when she and her "grammy" came to live with Scrooge and HD&L.  Despite Webby's occasionally "childish" behavior, that age also seems a little low.  Perhaps young Ducks mature at a quicker rate than humans of a similar age.  (If nothing else, then their memories improve quickly; HD&L do not have any clear memories of their mother, but, in the span of two years, their memories are suddenly working on roughly the same level as a typical adult's.)

Flash forward a decade or so.  Scrooge is older and creakier, and he now allows himself the luxury of a day off every week (gasp!), but he remains feisty and driven.  HD&L are now 14, are in eighth grade, and have developed very distinct personalities.  Webby is 12, is in sixth grade, is about to start dating, and may also harbor a secret crush on Dewey.  Mrs. Beakley, sad to say, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, and Scrooge has become Webby's legal guardian.  Donald is still in the Navy, albeit on leave, and Daisy is pushing him to finally "pop the question" (about time, don'tcha think?). 


THE STORY:  Having secured an early release from prison for good behavior -- or what would pass as such for a character with a temperament that's just as explosive as Donald's -- Della comes to McDuck Mansion in search of a fresh start... and, perhaps, some assistance from Scrooge to help her get her life back on track.  The Nephews have very different reactions to her.  "Troubled kid" Huey is suspicious of her motives, partially because he sees himself in her but doesn't want to end up like her. "Intellectual" Dewey tries to weigh the available evidence and maintain some objectivity.  "Optimistic, sensitive, and creative" Louie, meanwhile, embraces the idea that his Mom has returned and accepts her wholeheartedly.  When Donald proposes to Daisy and is turned down (for a presumed "lack of sincerity" -- sheesh, even Barks' Daisy never came close to being THAT fickle!), Donald has a mental breakdown that requires him to be cared for by Scrooge.  With Donald and Della now forced to be in close proximity, their long-standing feud flares up, in the manner of a particularly wince-inducing hemorrhoid.  When Ludwig von Drake calls from Europe to check in with Scrooge, the increasingly stressed tycoon jumps at the chance to invite Ludwig to his mansion, where the prof will be able to provide some much-needed therapy for Donald and Della.  Alas, Huey chooses this moment to explode in frustration at his role as the "put-upon," least favored Duck triplet, and he chooses his "cousin by adoption," the "perfect porcelain doll" Webby, as his primary target.  Events finally come to a head when Donald and Della get into an ugly fight at a restaurant at the same time that Scrooge, beset by familial dysfunction, finds himself at the mental -- and, more importantly, the physical -- breaking point.  Can this family be saved?...

PLOT:  The unraveling and subsequent reraveling of the Duck family.  That's pretty much all that happens.  (*** out of *****)

One of the problems with "angstfics" is that there is usually quite a lot going on -- of the emotional variety, anyway -- but nothing is actually happening.  To his credit, "Commander" doesn't completely succumb to this trap.  We only hear about Donald's post-turndown breakdown at second hand, from the policemen who come to tell Scrooge about the incident, but the restaurant ruckus is "on screen" and is appropriately nasty, complete with cursing and knives wielded with deadly intent.  Adding to the noxious atmosphere is the fact that Donald had been on a blind date and had been confronted and dressed down by an angry Daisy before Della even got there, making Don's reaction to Della's subsequent arrival all the more malicious.  (You may wonder why Daisy should even care that Donald has plunged back into the dating whirl, given that she had turned down Don's proposal.  Sorry, I got nothin'.)  Apart from this one ugly scene, "Commander" basically sticks to dialogue scenes (frequently involving arguments) and uses very little action. 

I know that there are those who love this sort of thing.  I typically don't count myself among their ranks.  At least "Commander"'s dialogue scenes are usually well-written and, given the characterizations that he has chosen to use here, generally believable.  They're just somewhat painful to read through at times.

CHARACTERIZATION"All over the map" doesn't begin to cover it.  (***1/2 out of *****)

There's no denying it... some of "Commander"'s decisions on characterization here are a little tough to stomach.  Take Huey, now... he's basically a complete asshole.  He "acts out" in school, breaks curfew, bullies the more passive Louie into spying on Scrooge and "his mysterious visitor" (Della), and pelts Webby with crudely sexist insults even before he verbally attacks her (and is apparently also ready to SLUG her!!) for being the cute little "favored child."  He's like the egocentric Huey of Quack Pack with the amp set at "11."  It's hard for me to believe, as "Commander" suggests (through the medium of Huey's thoughts), that Huey got to be this way because of some school pranks that just got out of hand.  There's a definite suggestion of something uglier having been there under the surface all along.  That thought kind of disturbs me.

Donald and Della, whose feud is sufficiently nasty to render them both as contemptible as Huey from the start, nonetheless wind up faring a bit better in the long run.  We all know about Donald's legendary (and supposedly "hilarious") temper, and Don did have a few minor blowups during his infrequent appearances on DT, but his outbursts here seem uncomfortably... realistic.  We are led to believe that the authorities may have had a point in examining Don at the psychiatric hospital before releasing him into the care of Scrooge.   To his credit, though, Donald rallies after Scrooge's cardiac event, pulls himself together, and even manages to make up with and become engaged to Daisy before the end.  (Daisy... fickle.  Just saying.  Actually, the reconciliation is handled very well, with both characters admitting that they will inevitably have arguments as husband and wife, yet deciding to get married anyway.  That's what makes a marriage work... the partners recognizing and accepting one another's flaws while, at the same time, cherishing the more meaningful feelings that drew them together in the first place.)

"Commander," of course, has more direct control over the characterization of Della, and he basically opts for the "female version of Donald" notion... the difference being that Della's temper has tended to have much more serious consequences in her life than Donald's has had in his.  This is why Della suffers through such despair after her fight with Donald at the restaurant gets them both tossed in jail.  She had been making some progress with Ludwig's help and now appears to have tossed it all away.  This was the first moment at which I legitimately felt bad for Della and hoped that she would, indeed, get control of herself and reform.  She subsequently earns additional points by deciding to leave Scrooge's mansion, move into a homeless shelter, and pick up the pieces of her life without being a burden on others.  (In response, Scrooge allows her to keep her job as a janitor at the Money Bin, despite all the problems she's caused.)  The change of heart comes very late in the game, and after Della had amassed a pretty sizable likability deficit, but at least she winds up making some progress, and I do appreciate that.

Idealized portrayal of Duck relationship #2

The rest of the gang is characterized fairly well.  Scrooge is Scrooge, albeit with a few thousand miles extra on him, and Webby is a reasonable advancement of the DT character to the lip of adolescence.  (Webby's "desperate" desire to be accepted at her new school does strike me as a little extreme, though.  Why haven't all of those adventures with Scrooge and the boys given her more self-confidence?)  Ludwig von Drake's bubbly enthusiasm provides a nice counterweight to all of the troubles swirling around him.  He can't completely escape the imperatives of an angstfic -- he is still clearly affected by Matilda's early death -- but he serves as a welcome voice of reason, and his psychiatric dissection of Donald and Della is far more adept than, say, his semi-comical analysis of Launchpad in the DT version of "The Golden Fleecing."  In a sidebar, "Commander" says that Ludwig is one of his favorite Duck characters, and his affection for the loquacious polymath is on clear display.

I also admit to being quite taken with the characterizations of Dewey and Louie.  Dewey is an intellectual with a heart; he wants to be supportive of others but prefers to get as many facts as he can about the case before committing himself.  Thus, he learns that Webby's "big first date" was a disappointment and immediately moves to comfort and counsel her, but he reserves passing final judgment on Della until he becomes more familiar with her.  Louie, meanwhile, is akin to the sensitive-souled kid of Quack Pack who wanted to protect "pugduddies" and such.  The difference is that he is even more trusting and optimistic.

HOMEWORK:   Only relevant when it comes to Duck Family Tree material. (N/A out of *****)

These are basically "Commander"'s own future versions of the characters, so it's not all that surprising that he does not refer to any of the TV episodes.

WRITING AND HUMORThe story is very well-written.  The humor is... well, quirky, for lack of a better word.  (***1/2 out of *****)

"Commander" has an odd way of slipping humor into unlikely places in the narrative.  When two policemen come to inform Scrooge of Donald's breakdown, one of them inexplicably starts acting like a character in a goofy cop comedy:

"Can I tell the story, officer?" asked the other policeman, younger and more hyper than his supervisor.

The older one sighed.  "Go ahead, Korwitz..."

Korwitz spread his arms out dramatically, as if about to begin an epic tale.  "Dateline, Duckburg, eight o'clock last night!  Location, the Dragon's Head restaurant, 825 L Street!  Incident, a broken-hearted Duck goes crazy, overturning tables and eating napkins!  Cloth napkins, not the paper kind!"

Considering that Scrooge, because of the return of Della, is already on edge as this scene begins, this strikes me as not exactly the most opportune time to shoehorn in some (rather forced) comedy relief.  Later, when HD&L and Webby visit Scrooge at the hospital, we get an awkward exchange that I think was supposed to pass for some manner of humor, in which Scrooge teases the youngsters' assuming responsibility for his hospital bill... or, barring that, his insurance premiums. Unnecessary cheapness gags during a family-wide crisis?  Not a smart editorial move.

QUESTIONABLE MATERIALOccasional curse words, though none of the REALLY bad ones, and argument scenes that are sometimes difficult to endure.  Plus, one fairly nasty fight scene.


This one is definitely a matter of taste.  If you don't like watching the Ducks -- even slightly altered versions of same -- bickering like a hypercaffeinated version of The Fantastic Four, then I would suggest that you avoid.  If you're curious, or if you're indifferent to the notion of mutual Duck-breaking, then you're extremely unlikely to find a better version of the DuckTales angstfic anywhere in Googleworld captivity, so have a look.

NEXT FANFIC UP: Time for the Big Kahuna, the Top Boss, the Meat Grinder.  "DuckTales: 20 Years Later."  You'll definitely have to be patient with me on this one.  It's 125,000 words long, it features multiple crossovers, and a WHOLE honkin' load of stuff -- some of it quite untidy -- comes down in the process.  I may even have to break the review into several parts: one setting the stage by describing the world in which the story takes place, the other examining the story itself.  So as not to tease my reading public unnecessarily, I will not announce the review's impending arrival(s?) until I am just about finished with the project.


Pan MiluĊ› said...

I would love if you would review my Gyro fan-fiction comic story. You can trash it as much you please :) I just love to hear your brilliant analyse about something I did :)

Anonymous said...

To me, this story seems like a unwelcome "bridge" between DuckTales and Quack Pack.

As you pointed out in your review, Huey's troubles seem indicative of some sort of mental illness (especially given many arise during adolescence). Good thing Von Drake is there, as in real life it could merely be the start.

Commander (or this story) must be very popular. 88 Reviews puts most of the other DuckTales stories to shame.