One of comics’ living legends, Don Rosa joined CBR’s Jonah Weiland for a wide ranging conversation on the CBR Yacht at Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss his storied career and his journey to “Uncle Scrooge” and “Donald Duck.” He explains about his journey from engineer to comic book artist, getting into comics via his older sister’s collection and abandoning his family’s construction business. He also explained why his whole life has been marked by serendipity, Fantagraphics’ “Don Rosa Library” and why he doesn’t believe in his abilities as an artist. Rosa also detailed the massive popularity of Donald Duck in Europe and what it’s like living in the shadow of the great Carl Barks.
On why he knew he’d never be a comic book artist and how he came to love comics: I knew I’d never be a comic artist because I was born into a construction company family. I always have to explain that I had a sister who when I was born — I only had one sibling, it’s a sister, and she was was 11 years-old when I was born. She was 11 years older than I was, and she still is, I never get any closer — she was not a comic book collector but she was a comic book hoarder. She had every comic book she had ever had since she was about 9 years-old which was back in about 1949. So I grew up on my sister’s comics. I grew up on the comic books of somebody the age like 10 years older than myself, or 11 years older, rather. She had every comic book published between 1949 and like 1960-1962, every Dell comic, which those were the bestselling comic books in the history of America including the very best selling, which is “Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories” and anything Carl Barks did are the best selling comics in American history. So I grew up on those, but she had lots of others like “Little Lulu” and everything. Dell had vast numbers of comics. They weren’t like DC and Marvel; DC and Marvel were the poor little companies who had to create their own characters. Dell, which was Western Publishing, I think the biggest publisher in America, they had all the money they needed so they bought the rights to every licensed product in existence. Animated cartoons, including Disney, every TV show and every movie that came out.
She had all those, and that’s what I grew up on and into the ’60s and ’70s it was always my biggest hobby, collecting comics and writing for comic fanzines and drawing comic strips and writing information columns about the history of comics and movies and television. But I knew I was never gonna do comics for a living because I knew I was gonna take over the family construction company. It had been around since the turn of the previous century. It was a very big, very famous, prominent company in Louisville, Kentucky. I, like you say, when I went to college I majored in Civil Engineering so that’s what my degree’s in. By the mid-1980s me and my step-cousin were running the ancient, by then 85-year-old construction company. … I think what I used to think about was it was too easy, for one thing. It was no creativity. I didn’t need my Civil Engineering degree. I never used that. I just had to go to college and take something so I just, for some reason I picked the most difficult four-year course there possibly could be.
On why he still doesn’t believe in his ability to draw well: I’m a comics fan. I know good cartooning when I see it, and I can see mine is just, it’s entertaining, it’s amateur — I think when I to work for Europe, there’s so many, you know the Disney comics are still the best selling comics across Europe and South America. They have excellent artists that all draw in a very professional style but I was just like a fan cartoonist. I think the fans, and they’re such big “Donald Duck” comic fans in Europe and South America, they can look at my artwork and see that, you know it’s kind of crude and amateurish-looking, but I think what they’re thinking is ‘Somebody, obviously, to put so much extra work into such bad art they must be having fun.’ And then they enjoy themselves with me because they can see I’m putting a lot more work into than the paycheck indicates.
And people say, “You don’t like your own artwork?” and I say, “No, I can tell it’s stiff and it’s overly detailed.” And they say, “What about your writing?” I say, “Well, I get kind of carried away, I make my plots, especially when they’re based on historical facts, it gets a little complex and overly complicated.” And they say, “Well, you’re too humble.” I say, “No, you just have to ask me the right question. “Are your comics entertaining?” “You’re damn right they’re entertaining.” I’m putting as much work, I cram as much as I can into every single page just to show the fans I’m having as good a time as they are. I’m not like some of these new comics I see that when I look at one page of writing is like three panels and two words or something. Man, I do four tiers of panels and half of each panel is text. I’m writing sixty-page stories and cramming them into twenty pages.
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On being the “Uncle Scrooge” artist for a newer generation and why he isn’t trying to outdo Carl Barks: They used to, even at Gladstone back in the late ’80s when I started work, they were starting to get letters saying, “Oh, this Don Rosa, I like him better than Carl Barks,” and I would say, “I really appreciate that, I think these people are–” Carl Barks came from a generation fifty years ahead of me. His basis for his form of entertainment came from, I don’t know, silent movies and pulp magazines and penny dreadfuls. I come from a much more modern — you know I grew up on TV and movies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s so I think it’s just my pop culture is closer to the modern pop culture. I tell them, “I appreciate people thinking that but please don’t print those letters ’cause it offends me.” The only reason I do the work is to honor Carl Barks. I’m not trying to make a name for myself, I’m just trying to have fun telling stories with Carl Barks’ character.
On why “Donald Duck” has such a dedicated fanbase in Europe: After World War II, you’ve got an entire continent in shambles, literally. There was no infrastructure for any form of entertainment. Starting in 1947, the company that I went to work for — we skipped that part of the story. When I found out I had to quit working for Gladstone, I then found out how popular these comics were in Europe and I managed to get a job working for the world’s biggest — I went from the world’s smallest Disney publisher, little Gladstone Comics, although they were the most devoted. They’re the ones who loved it. I went to work for the world’s biggest Disney publisher in Europe who covered like a dozen or more different countries, a multinational company in Copenhagen. And I still when I visit, I’ve been going over there for 25 years, I’m still amazed at how universally popular “Donald Duck” comics are. So this company I work for in 1947 started releasing monthly and then weekly “Donald Duck” comics across half of Europe and it kept spreading. This was the first inexpensive mass entertainment to appear in a decade or two and Donald Duck became a part of the European culture. He became a household word. I mean, everybody knows Donald Duck, everybody knows all the characters — Carl Barks is a household name.
In fact to this day, it boggles my mind too but you go to Europe and the man on the street would know maybe three names of cartoonists: Carl Barks, Don Rosa and maybe Charles Schulz, I think. They know me, not because I’m so wonderful, but I do “Donald Duck” comics, and I do them in such a way that I really appeal to the fans of Carl Barks. … Europeans have a very strong sense of tradition, and this is universally true all over Europe. A man and woman get married, when the woman becomes pregnant the first thing they do — before the baby’s born — is buy a weekly subscription to the weekly “Donald Duck” comic book. Because the parent’s want to read it too, but now they have an excuse.