An interview with
I've heard a great deal of praise for the Baltimore Comic Con over the past few years, but had chosen to avoid attending due to the drive and stayed closer to home and the New York shows. The main reason that I finally made the trip was due largely to the attendance of Don Rosa, whose masterpiece of graphic storytelling I had also avoided for some time. In both of these cases, I had unknowingly cheated myself out of amazing experiences for far too long. The show was great, with a huge guest list and large crowds, though a vastly less claustrophobic feeling to its floor plan than the NYC conventions. Though some artists had obnoxiously long lines of fans waiting for sketches or simply to pay tribute to them and obtain a few autographs, the artist who I looked forward most to meeting was surprisingly accessible.
Don Rosa is a man that a few years back, I'd have appreciated as an artist, but would never have imagined myself spending much time speaking with due to my own preconceived notions of the character he essentially revolutionized and became famous for working on. The work I am referring to has been collected into the Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck... Yep, that Scrooge McDuck. The Walt Disney character that I'd enjoyed occasionally as a young kid in the early 1970's, but had believed I had grown out of after seeing him as essentially a one-dimensional, miserly character that cared only about money. The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck was a labor of love for Rosa, who wrote and drew the stories in a monthly format for Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge comics. I read the tpb collection this past spring and was immediately drawn into the book. I read it veraciously and was blown away by the deep characterization that Rosa provided to this old Carl Barks character. Rosa took obscure, throw-away references made by Carl Barks throughout his original run on the character and went back to tell the origin of the McDuck from his early childhood roots in Scotland to his trip out into the world to provide for his family, which slowly grew to obsession and then ultimately his growth into what many of us mistake as simple greed. Rosa's visual depictions are stunning (Though I suspect that he'd call them adequate, on a good day.) with sharp clear images that tell the story in a manner that I've never seen more clearly in comic format. He also treats readers to tiny background details and gags that can be overlooked or focused upon for additional giggles or depth, depending on the scenes. The depth that he brings to Scrooge through his series is unmistakable and totally believable, since the character evolves before our eyes, yet retains the inherent decency that he began with. Driven? Certainly. Simply greedy? Not even close. It is also clear that Rosa did massive historical research. Since McDuck is depicted as being born in 1867 in Scotland and then travels from there to various spots in the Americas and even a few in Africa, Rosa surely intended for it to be grounded in reality. As I reflected on the series, the only comparable comparison is to Alan Moore's From Hell series. While the two works are worlds apart in regards to their subject matter and intended audience, Moore's detailed annotations at the end of the collected works went on for scores of pages and if Rosa were to ever attempt such a task, surely his notes would be as lengthy.
Now that I've talked up what immediately, and surprisingly for me, became one of my favorite comic reads EVER, let me get back to sharing with you a little bit of my experience talking with the man. I first contacted by him via e-mail after he had been told by the show's promoters that I wanted to interview him. Throughout the exchanges, it became clear that he was gracious, unassuming and enjoyed people. He bent over backwards in figuring out a time to meet with me and we agreed to get together on the convention floor before the show's opening on Sunday morning. He greeted me with an enthusiastic smile and we sat down behind his table to discuss his work.
When I expressed my surprise at so thoroughly enjoying his work after feeling as though I had “outgrown Scrooge”, he replied that he had as a kid as well and that we actually tell ourselves to outgrow comics. He initially read Barks' Disney Comics and Mad Magazine which he got from his older sister's, which included comics from the late 1940's through the 1950's. He moved onto Superman comics in 1963. Rosa enjoyed these comics edited by Mort Weisinger, and was drawn to Weisinger's introduction of limited continuity, which had not previously been done in comics. He cites Carl Barks, Will Elder, a Mad Magazine artist who added a great deal of busy background action to his illustrations, Mort Weisinger, and Will Eisner, who he describes as “The greatest cartoonist/comic book artist in American history” as major influences.
We discussed my appreciation for the multiple layers that he added to both Scrooge as a character and his history. I commented that it allowed me to relate to the character in a way that I had never been able to previously. While he acknowledged that many enjoy his work, “some diehard Barks fans hate the stuff”. Rosa considered his material to be the equivalent of fan faction while he was doing it, thinking that it would only be appreciated by Barks scholars. Many times since its publication, he has heard that comic shop owners, “who are the old diehard comic book fans”, recommend the book to their customers, who ended up loving it and becoming Barks fans after reading his stories.
His research included vast amounts of notes, ten to twenty times of which he actually used. Rosa acknowledged that history and historical fiction are his favorite genre. Historical accuracy within the McDuck tales was very important to him. While he occasionally used historical theories, he never strayed away from respected historical theories, “but would never use stuff that you could find in the National Enquirer”.
As we talked of the depiction of Scrooge as being greedy, he stated that he couldn't enjoy writing stories or about a character who was simply greedy, so he focused on money as being the trophies of his achievements. He views the character as being very competitive and liking the adventure of making wealth. He aptly pointed out that Scrooge never spends the money and leaves it all in the money bin. “If it was greed for money, he'd spend it.” Scrooge remembers how he makes each coin. It is a collection of his life.
Since our interview took place soon after the announcement of Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics, I couldn't resist asking Don about his thoughts on it and the possibility of a resurgence of Disney Comics in the United States. He pointed out that the stories currently being seen in the U.S. are reprints of Italian stories featuring the characters being turned into superheroes, even using characters that Americans don't know. When asked if he could envision himself working on the Ducks again, he replied that he believed that he was done with it and his previous time working within the Disney comic system “was too depressing”. He also pointed out a belief that Disney bought Marvel for ownership of the characters for toys, video games and movies. Should the Disney comic system change, he did say he'd be open to going back and doing more stories, but his eyesight has also been problematic over the past few years.
It is worth noting that sales for Disney Comics in Europe continue to be very profitable. A friend from Norway told me that Don Rosa is treated like a rock star. This overseas popularity is something that I have heard repeatedly. Rosa's response to this is that he is famous because Barks' Ducks have been national heroes since after World War II. His focus on Barks and the original source material resonated with Europeans and they responded. His ability to go to European conventions allowed these fans to meet and talk with a creator, something they had not been able to do prior to this, since other creators were non-English speaking.
He has a steadfast rule against taking money from a fan for original artwork from him, preferring to swap, since he doesn't believe in paying large amounts for old comics, viewing their worth as “half cover price”. Rosa views the swapping as only costing him art that takes some time for him to produce and, as thus, a good deal. He himself is not a collector of original artwork, since in his words, “Why pay for one piece of original art when you can buy stacks of magazines with many different pages of art for the same price?” He added, “While I do get a kick out of having an original old comic rather than a reprint, I have no interest in getting an original piece of art rather than just a printed version of it.”
Other fun facts about the man that I was able to learn include:
1) The date of Scrooge's infamous “#1 Dime”? Rosa estimates it at 1875
2) When asked about current comics he is following, he stated that he hasn't looked at an American Comic since the 1980's.
3) Sadly, he is no longer writing, except some text for Scandinavian Don Rosa Library Editions that have recently been completed.
4) He is a prolific reader and has never tried to pick a specific favorite book.
5) He cites Citizen Kane as his favorite film.
6) Favorite music includes Jazz, Film Soundtracks, Swing, New Age
7) Favorite food? “I like everything.”
8) He does Duck sketches for convention attendees, though resists doing hero parodies in duck form.