Sunday, August 23, 2015

Read These Comics! - The Don Rosa Library

In my very first installment of "Read These Comics!" I recommended the Carl Barks Library of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge collections by Fantagraphics. In short, Carl Barks was known to fans of Disney Duck comics from the late 1940s to the early 1960s as "The Good Duck Artist". He created many memorable characters, most notably Scrooge McDuck.

There is one other "good duck artist" who stands out though, and that's Don Rosa, who did his work from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Thankfully, for fans like me who are a little late to the party, Fantagraphics is reprinting all of his Disney work as well. The third volume is the most recent release, and even though I'm barely halfway through it, I'm thinking that it's the best of the bunch so far. (I've been reading it out loud with my son, who wants to read nothing but Duck stories before bed lately.)

My introduction to Rosa's works came with a reprint of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (which I believe will be included in the next Fantagraphics volume). I had fond memories of the character both from some comics I had as a kid and from the old Ducktales cartoon. It was the recommended book of the week at my local comic book store, so I figured I'd give it a try. I wound up being pretty impressed with what a detailed and, ironically enough, human story it turned out to be. So, when I heard about these new collections, I knew that I'd be on board.

For those of you with fond memories of Uncle Scrooge from Ducktales, don't get into this expecting the same thing. In fact, Rosa has a sign that he puts up at conventions and other signings letting people know that it's NOT Ducktales that he's doing. (For instance, don't expect to see Launchpad McQuack.) His work is based on the Barks stories, even having created some sequels to some of them. (Although it should be noted that volume 2 does have the one Ducktales short story that Rosa did, so it's not 100% true to say it's not what he's doing.) However, I'd go so far as to reckon that if you like one, you might like the other. (Rosa himself has said that he liked the cartoon.) They're not the same, but they share a common ancestor. If Ducktales is a bobcat, Rosa's work is a jaguar.

If you've been picking up the various Carl Barks reprints (And why wouldn't you? Pretty sure I recommended it!) then you'll be pleasantly surprised to see that Rosa wasn't merely re-hashing the Barks stuff. While it certainly owes a debt to those comics, he successfully ventures off into new and exciting territory. For one, his stories get really deep into history, and the historical events outside of Duckburg overlap with real-world history, so you wind up learning a little something when Scrooge goes looking for a particular historical artifact. There are also some science lessons that are sprinkled throughout the adventures as well. Barks had his share of real-world lessons, but not nearly to the extent that Rosa takes things.

Rosa's artwork also is different from that of Barks, and the more you read, the more you notice it. Barks was an animator, and that comes through in his drawings, as one panel flows into the next, and you can almost feel the motion between them. Rosa has an engineering background, and that comes through in the amount of detail that he adds in every panel from the elaborate buildings to subtle gags going on in the background. People often write about that aspect of his work, but I've also noticed that there's a real cinematic quality to his work as well, as he'll use large panels to convey scenes of wonder, excitement, and even danger. (A particular shot of the ducks hanging from a cliff in the second volume especially stands out in my mind.)

Rosa is officially retired from doing comic books, and he has cited that one of the reasons why is how Disney treats its artists. In a nutshell, Disney doesn't publish its own comics, and various publishers pay the artists for the work that they do. However, it all winds up belonging to Disney, so it can be reprinted by other publishers without any royalties being paid to the artists - even when the artist's name is being used to promote the reprints! (As has happened to Rosa.) I think that it's safe to say that Rosa is making a bit of money off of these volumes though, as he's providing a lot of original text pieces for each one, including an introduction, detailed story notes, and a "Life and Times of Don Rosa" biography that continues from volume to volume. In those text pieces, you'll find the man to be one of the most self-deprecating artists out there, and if that was all you read, you'd think that the art would consist of a bunch of scribbles and stick figures. Maybe he's seeing something that I'm not, but I'm glad to be missing it, as I think that he's not only producing some exciting stories but some really great drawings as well. This is an example of the medium at its finest, and Rosa will take his place among the greats.

I have a feeling that I'm not the only long-time comic book reader who missed Rosa's work the first time around. While I never looked down upon any particular genre of comic books, I was primarily interested in superhero comics while he was doing his thing. (That's probably still true.) I suppose that as an American I have more of an excuse, as the man was more appreciated in Europe. (I hear he's treated like a rock star in Finland, believe it or not.) However, maybe it's not so bad of a thing, as Rosa has also explained in the text pieces that Fantagraphics is printing many of these stories as they should have been printed in the first place, the originals being plagued with bad coloring and other issues from publishers that didn't really understand comics. Also, these volumes are printed in a larger format than your standard comic, which helps with artwork that's as detailed as Rosa's. Perhaps it was worth the wait, and for me, it's even more fun to experience these stories with my son.

You can read about the time I met Rosa at the Big Wow Comicfest in San Jose here.

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