Don Rosa is inarguably one of the best-known and most acclaimed cartoonists in the world today, though, ironically, he’s less well known in his home country, the United States. A contributor to numerous comics and fanzines for decades, Rosa’s most famous for his work with Disney’s “Uncle Scrooge.” He never simply wrote and drew these characters; he very consciously crafted stories starring them, in the tradition of Carl Barks. Beloved for his skill at creating historical adventures and for the level of researched detail in those stories, Rosa has won awards from across the globe, including two Eisner Awards and the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.
This year, Fantagraphics begins to release Rosa’s “Duck” comics in recolored, deluxe editions, similar to the Carl Barks volumes the company has published for years. The first volume, “The Son of the Sun,” will debut at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and the second, “Return to Plain Awful,” will be out in the fall.
Rosa spoke with CBR News earlier this year at Emerald City Comic Con about his work, including the upcoming English and French language collections, the new album inspired by Rosa’s comics, “Music Inspired by the Life and Times of Scrooge,” from Finnish musician Tuomas Holopainen, the sign he keeps on his table at American conventions, and why he says he’s finished creating comics, forever.
CBR News: I suppose that one of the stranger aspects of your career is that you’re famous everywhere except the United States, where you’re from.
Don Rosa: In most American shows, I’d say 90-95% of the people who come to my table haven’t the slightest idea who I am or what I do — or that there have ever been Disney comic books published in the world. There are lots of people who do shows who know I don’t bring people in the door, but they know I’m good because these shows have families come, and they know Donald Duck, so if the kids want a drawing, they’ll say, we know this. I stay pretty busy with people who have no idea who I am, which is okay.
I go to Europe, and it’s the opposite. It’s a totally different culture. There’s nothing in America that’s as popular as these comics are in Europe. No matter what you name, a TV show or movie or sports team, there’s nothing in America that one out of every four people do every week the way they read “Donald Duck” comics in Scandinavia or Italy or Germany. Over there, it’s more than I can handle. And they’re all true fans. Every one of these people deserves my full attention, but I can’t do it. They can’t sit down like you do here. It’s all I can do to sign my name and smile at them and shake their hand, and it takes hours just to do that. It makes me feel awful. In Europe, I’ll go for ten, eleven hours nonstop.
I know that you’ll be at San Diego this year, as a Special Guest.
They didn’t explain what they want me to do, but I’m going to go. I always go.
I did want to ask about this sign you had on your table which read that these comics are not “Duck Tales.” I remember the show because it aired when I was in elementary school, but that was about 25 years ago. Do people still know the show?
Every year, more than the last. People say, “Oh, ‘Duck Tales.'” I’ll say, no, and explain it to them. Half of them understand and they’ll be curious, but the other half get mad at me — because it’s my fault that they’re wrong. And they act like I’m purposely making it not “Duck Tales” just to spite them. That’s why I made the sign. They still get mad at me, but I don’t have to deal with them.
They just keep walking by.
They keep walking, but I hear them. I just smile. The other reaction is people who see the sign and laugh. I always ask why they’re laughing, and they say, it’s pathetic that you have to explain that to Americans that these characters, which are the world’s most popular comic book characters — and all they know of it is a kiddie TV show that appeared twenty-five years ago!
I get tired of reading on the Internet that Don Rosa hates “Duck Tales.” I thought “Duck Tales” was probably the best kids animated TV show of the ’80s, but that’s not what I do. I try to tell people that “Superfriends” is to Superman and Batman what “Duck Tales” is to Carl Barks’ actual Uncle Scrooge stuff.
We’re very excited about these new books coming out collecting your work. How did this project from Fantagraphics come together?
They have the license to publish collections of one author’s work, like they do Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks. This is a unique Disney license. They can’t publish comic books or anthologies, but they can publish scholarly collections of one author/artist. I was hoping they’d get around to me. [Laughs] Gary Groth is a guy I’ve known since he was 15 years old and I was 18 years old. This was back in the late ’60s. I go back to the beginning of Fantagraphics. I’m always very proud that the first two publications Fantagraphics published were “Love and Rockets” and “Don Rosa’s Comics and Stories.” “Love and Rockets” lasted a little bit longer. “Don Rosa’s Comics and Stories” lasted two issues. I’ll never forget the word Gary used for the sales: “Dismal.” [Laughs] He and I go way back, and it’s like kismet that he’s the guy who’s going to publish my Duck work in America.
The Disney publishers in Europe, they’re the biggest publishers in the world, but they are not run by people who understand comics — at least they weren’t when I started to work for them 25 years ago. They’re run by business people, or people from children’s book publishing. The publishers don’t know about comics and what makes a comic look correct and the coloring. They don’t understand that. They know that no matter what they do, people buy it.
Fantagraphics sends me every story, and I can examine it, panel by panel. They have different versions of the coloring from America and Europe, they pick the best one to start from. They send it to me, and I tell them what to correct in each panel. I don’t criticize the technique of the coloring, but things are colored wrong. In Europe, they’re sometimes beautifully colored, but the colorists are not told what the story is about — they only see the art. I’ll check the scripts and personally inspect it panel by panel. The editor, David Gerstein, is as anal retentive as I am, and he’s going to make sure that everything is finally as it should be. This is the best collection of my work that’s ever been published in the world — if only because it’s in English, which is the language it was written in. Simultaneously, there’s one in France that I’m inspecting. It takes a lot of time. I have a friend in France who’s not working for the publisher who can check the French translation. He’s my “inspector general.” He’ll report to me and tell me what needs to be changed. Both of these current publishers — Fantagraphics and Glenat — know what a good comic book looks like. It seems simple, but you have to know comics to understand the language of comics. It’s pure pleasure; both are publishers who are really interested in doing it just the way it should be, and they’re very willing to listen to what I say. It’s a totally new experience for me. I’m used to working for big publishers, and they’re nice people, but they don’t want to be bothered with how to present comics properly.
The plan for the Fantagraphics books is to publish your work chronologically, is that right?
Yes, and they’ll add other things in. They got permission to use one page of a comic I did in 1969 when I was eighteen years old which was an underground parody of Disney comics. I did it with a friend of mine when we were both teenagers. It was called “Return to Duckberg Place.” Like “Return to Peyton Place.” It’s going back to the town of Duckberg in, like, 1970, after we hadn’t seen anything since the late ’50s or early ’60s and see what it’s like now. Huey, Dewey and Louie were in college and using drugs, and Donald was working for Scrooge and trying to plot how to murder him and inherit his money. All sorts of things. Fantagraphics actually got permission from Disney to publish it. They got permission to use the most innocuous page from it. In the European Rosa Libraries, they were allowed to publish the entire sordid story, but that’s Europe. They have lots of other extras that have never been seen by anybody in America. I’m just tickled to death and giddy with excitement that people will finally get to see this stuff.
I’ll ask this question point blank, just because many fans know how you’ve been treated by various companies over the years: How are you being treated by Fantagraphics?
Best anybody’s treated me in my life. I don’t know how they could do it any better. I went out to eat with Gary just last night — and he paid for it! What could be better than that? [Laughs]
How did “Music Inspired by the Life and Times of Scrooge” happen?
Well, Tuomas Holopainen was a musician who’s famous — though I never heard of him. He came to a press conference I had in Finland. He just wanted to talk to me. He told me that he had grown up reading Scrooge and “The Last Sled to Dawson” was his favorite story and he had a dream of writing a movie soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist of it. He reported that he could tell when he told me this I was like, well, that’s interesting. Keep me updated. I mean, I don’t even like the music of my own generation — I like the music of the ’40s and ’50s. And this guy was the leader of a metal rock band.
Then two years later, I heard from him again — he said that the score was written and he had a recording session scheduled with the London Symphony Orchestra! Then I was worried — it was going to happen, and I would have to pretend as if I liked it to be polite.
Later, he had me visit his recording studio to film some scenes for the promotional YouTube video for the album. He played some of the completed pieces for me, and it was beautiful — like a legitimate symphonic movie soundtrack. Not metal guitar noise at all! And he was telling me it wasn’t finished yet and wasn’t mixed. The next thing I saw, he’d done the video. I never dreamt it would be so good. I watched it over and over. It’s like a modern movie soundtrack. This is like Hans Zimmer or Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman. It’s just brilliant. It’s such an honor. One of my main hobbies is collecting movie soundtracks, and this guy made a soundtrack to a “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” movie that doesn’t exist! Between this and the book sets, it’s just amazing.
You also drew the album cover.
I did, but what you see is not my work. It follows my work. I told him I couldn’t draw too well anymore. It’s a small piece and he gave it to a computer colorist who turned it into a real work of art with all sorts of lighting effects which I can’t take any responsibility for. It looks magnificent.
Between the colors for the album cover and the Fantagraphics editions, is this how you wanted your work to look?
I see again how much better coloring helps the artwork. I mean, I hope people give me credit for the coloring, but that’s somebody’s else’s work altogether. [Laughs] I made some suggestions. They didn’t want to change anything. I drew the moon and I wanted to put a glow on it, so I put a series of ink lines for the glow, but when I realized what they could do [with coloring], I said get rid of that line. They said, but that’s removing your ink lines. I said to hell my ink lines — what you can do is what I would do if I had the ability! They did a beautiful glow. I drew a picture of Goldie’s face in the moon looking down at Scrooge, and I said, just have that faintly, so you’re not sure it’s there. It was just what I dreamt. Then, the aurora borealis. Again, they didn’t want to mess with my lines but I said, make it amazing and when I saw it, I just wanted to weep.
I know that you’ve had vision problems in recent years, but I was watching you sketch for fans earlier, and I was just curious about the struggle you’ve had drawing comics.
Those are big, sloppy sketches. When I do comics, it’s precise, it’s measured. All these sketches are ducks looking straight ahead. If I had a panel in the comic book of a duck looking straight ahead, I’d do it like I was taught in engineering school. I’d lay a grid — and this is going to sound insane — but I’d lay a gridwork in pencil out on the page. I’d measure the centerline between his eyes, and I’d measure it to the corner of his beak so everything was perfectly measured and laid out — like an engineer. That’s why it’s so difficult to do that with poor eyesight. It was so precise. But just doing a big sloppy drawing — people are nice and they act impressed, but even what you saw, the cover [of the album], you’re seeing Scrooge from the back. It’s easy to draw trees. You watched me doing the drawings. I’ve been doing this enough, especially in Europe, and it’s amazing — I look like I know what I’m doing! [Laughs] People can’t read my mind when I’m doing quick drawings, and I’m thinking, oops, oops, oops. I’ve done it enough times that I’m not embarrassed by it, but I had to train myself to do quick drawings like that.
You were trained as an engineer and not an artist, but were you always drawing?
Yes, I drew just for fun. I drew comics for my high school, then college newspapers, and then for many fanzines. ButÂ in 1982, I just quit. I packed away all my art equipment and the old drawing table I had since I had a kid, and put it away in the basement. I figured I was done with it. Nobody liked my comic stories, and it was tedious work. Why have a hobby that’s no longer any fun? I never intended to do this for a living. Even after I did the first Scrooge comic for Gladstone in ’87, I intended to just do the one story for fun because I’d dreamt of doing it since I was a little kid. I just wanted to satisfy that desire I always had, and then I was going to go back to running the construction company. Then that story was nominated as Best Story of the Year in the very first Harvey Awards in 1988. So I thought, well, that’s interesting. I should do one more. Then I did another, and then another.
It’s fitting that were nominated for an award named after Harvey Kurtzman.
Yes, who, after Carl Barks, is one of my main influences.
Everyone talks about Barks for obvious reasons, but there are other influences in your art, bigger stylistic influences like Kurtzman and Will Elder for example, that never get discussed.
I’m a combination of many things. Barks, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Will Eisner, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger. Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. I never tried to imitate Carl Barks. I just wanted to do stories of his characters in a way that would honor his creations. I never intended to imitate Carl Barks’ stories — because I couldn’t. I’m not Carl Barks. There’s some big fans who just are really offended that my stories are not exactly like a Carl Barks story. I don’t understand why, if they’re Carl Barks fans, they would want somebody to come along and do a story exactly like Carl Barks. I just do Don Rosa stories of Carl Barks’ characters.
In your stories, you’ve very consciously created this historical framework for the Duck stories.
I’d had that for years. A lot of us Barks fans knew that in certain stories Barks would say that Scrooge had been here in a certain year, or there in a certain year. Jack Chalker, a famous science fiction author, had written a book about all these things. When I got the assignment to do “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,” all I had to do was to get all those facts that I already knew and break them into twelve chapters. I sent copies of that to all the main Barks fans around the world — including Barks — to get opinions. I don’t remember if they suggested any changes, because it was pretty much all set. I was amazed that people even liked the finished series. To me, it was just a fan project. I was trying to assemble everything that Barks had ever said that Scrooge had done in one story. This is all what Barks said, and I’m putting it in one chronology, in one long story, and this is the tribute to Carl Barks. I thought that to someone not a Barks scholar, it would be boring. Apparently it isn’t.
Do you do a lot of research?
Any period of time Barks said Scrooge had done something. I researched that period because I wanted the background to be authentic. People say, these are talking ducks, why do you need to put them in the real world? Because I do not see them as talking ducks. They have never, in my mind, been talking ducks.
When I was born, I had a sister who was eleven years older than I was — she still is — and she had a closet full of comic books. Literally from birth, I was exposed to comic books. She bought almost every Dell comic at that time. They were selling millions of issues each month. When a Dell comic sold under a million copies, they canceled it because it was a failure. Almost every household in America had Carl Barks comics. My sister saved all hers. These characters were as alive to me as my parents were. I was drooling on them before I could read. I saw them as human beings. I didn’t see them as ducks. I didn’t know what a duck was. I thought, this is how cartoonists drew human beings. I mean, the main characters were drawn like this and the secondary characters had black noses. I thought that cartoonists drew human beings with black noses.
Like anybody in those days, Carl Barks knew that there was no money in comics books. The money was in newspaper comic strips. He always wanted to do an adventure strip with humans for the newspaper. In fact, in the late ’40s, his Donald Duck was in a world of actual human beings, in actual cities. At some point, I think Disney or the editors said, you’ve got to put cartoon characters in here. You could tell he didn’t want to. They had black noses and were supposed to be dogs, but they looked like human beings with black noses. Donald Duck is not a funny-animal character like Daffy Duck, who flies south for the winter and get shot at by duck hunters or Bugs Bunny, who lives in a hole in the ground and steals carrots from Elmer Fudd. Scrooge McDuck had tax problems and had to protect his money from the villains, and Donald Duck had trouble holding down a job. These were real people, I thought. I had no trouble putting these characters in the real world, in real history. That’s the way I saw them. Plus, I’m a history buff. I’m a big fan of historical fiction. It was a thrill to be able to do that.
Your original question was about research. [Laughs] This is true, not just of the “The Life of Scrooge,” but any stories I did. I do a lot of research, but I knew I wasn’t getting paid to do stories based on historical fact; it’s just something I like to do. I couldn’t be like a novelist and spend a year doing research and get paid an advance by the publisher. I used to give myself two weeks. It meant going through books, and later the Internet, just writing down interesting facts. I’d have a notebook full of facts, and after two weeks, I’d just hope I’d come across enough interesting facts and I’d use maybe a tenth of them. I might have gotten carried away with it, because towards the middle and the end, I wouldn’t allow myself to make up any fiction. It would get to be an enjoyable challenge to see if I could construct a, hopefully, entertaining story just using actual facts of history and lacing them together. I did some jobs where I don’t know if they’re entertaining stories, but they’re just fascinating. I’m afraid it makes me sound like somebody’s fourth grade teacher, but the actual facts of history are fascinating. At school, we’re taught dates and names, but when you get into the intricacies of history, it’s like a fiction or a fascinating movie. I’ve come across things doing research that I can’t imagine why somebody hasn’t done a movie about it. Like the search for El Dorado. I didn’t have to make a bit of it up. I’m sure people who read it think I made up some or all of it, but it’s all absolutely true.
When you said that you rarely invented story elements, for whatever reason, I thought of the Teddy Roosevelt and Panama Canal story.
All of that is true — except that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t have a black nose! The FrenchÂ started digging the Panama Canal. There was a hill in the way, and they thought there was going to be a fortune in gold in the hill — and when they never found the gold they abandoned the project. All the names, even the names of Teddy Roosevelt’s assistants in the story and the head of the Rough Riders who became the Panama Police, were true. It’s fun to do! [Laughs]
In the El Dorado story, I did so much research that even the flowers in the background were native to Bolivia. In Finland, I was signing a long queue of autographs and someone came up behind me and gave me an envelope with a note to read later. I got back to the hotel room, hours later. This guy was a botanist and he just wanted to let me know that he’d read this story, and he saw in the corner of the panel an orchid that he knew only grows in this area of Bolivia. He just wanted to let me know that he couldn’t believe I’d done that research. I put it in there for myself, but I found out I did it for myself and this Finnish botanist. I had to do things like to make it entertaining for me and hopefully people will appreciate it somehow.
That’s why I really enjoyed writing the texts. Whenever I’d do a story for the European publishers, I’d accompany it with a text about the making of the story. I’d get to tell people, you probably thought I made this up, but it’s all actual facts. That’s one of the things the American public will see in the Fantagraphics books. They’ve seen them for the “Life and Times of Scrooge” in the Gemstone books, but now they’ll see the texts I’ve written for every one of the stories, and every cover I’ve done, explaining the Barks references and where the D.U.C.K. is hidden.
One aspect of your stories, which I didn’t realize initially when I started reading them, is that “the present” in your stories is the 1950s.
Well, I didn’t have any choice. Barks says Scrooge was a riverboat pilot in 1880 and a cowboy in 1882 and a sourdough in 1898, so he couldn’t still be alive in the 1980s, when I started doing the comics. I was always at odds with the publisher about it and I could never mention it, but there were always details I would hide in the background, like a date on a calendar, or Scrooge has got a ledger open and the date’s in the ’50s. When I first started, I thought Gladstone should advertise, “Don Rosa sets Disney Comics back 35 years.” Now, it’s 60 years!
One aspect that distinguishes your stories tonally from Barks’ is that yours are more nostalgic.
Because I’m nostalgic and sentimental about Scrooge. Some people hate that, and some people love it. There’s one thing I’ve learned doing these comics — every story I do is going to be one person’s absolute favorite comic he ever read in his life, and one person’s absolute least favorite and he hates it and is disgusted by it. Everyone else is somewhere in between. I just try to tell a story that I like and hope the chips fall in the right place. That’s all you can ever do.
How many books are Fantagraphics publishing in total?
They were originally planning nine books. They’re publishing the Gottfredson Library and the Barks Library for the general public, because they were originally done for the general public. I always saw myself as working for the Barks fans. I said, my comics are for the fans, and they should do larger dimension books to show my overly-detailed art. They’ll cost more, and you’ll sell less, mostly to the collectors market. Also, my artwork benefits by being printed larger. It’s not better than Barks’, but it’s more detailed. Gary didn’t want to do that, but he decided to make them a little bigger. The books have gotten thinner to keep the costs down, so it’s going to be an even ten volumes.
I have to ask, is there a chance we’ll ever see you draw another story?
No. Absolutely not. I used to have a passion for telling stories, but the Disney system definitely killed that. Towards the end, I just couldn’t stand it. Plus, I just can’t do it. If you read my “Why I Quit” essay, you know. They destroyed my love for telling stories. I never did like drawing. It’s labor. It’s tedious, and I never thought I did it well. Writing is easier. You can do it in your head. [Laughs]
People say, why don’t you write stories and let other people draw? But I’m not going to contribute to that system. I’m done with it. Enthusiasm is what kept me going.
There wasn’t much money in it. Not simply because there were no royalties, but the pay was good if you could draw swiftly like you were supposed to. We were paid by the page. I never learned to draw swiftly. The longer I did it, the slower I got. The more I could see how imperfect it was, and the worse my eyes were getting. I was going slower and slower. I start out doing four or five stories a year, and towards the end, it was less than two stories a year. The pay never went up — sometimes it went down, depending on the fluctuation of the dollar. I’d never know what politician to vote for — the one that’s going to improve the economy or the one that’s going to destroy the economy. [Laughs]
“Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Son of the Sun,” volume 1 of the Don Rosa Library will be debut at Comic-Con International in San Diego. The book is solicited in July’s “Previews” for release in stores this September.