Feb 28, 2013

A Sense of Wonder: Don Rosa and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck

Welcome to the a new installment of A Sense of Wonder, a feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

Over a year ago, Back Issue Ben recommended to me The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, by Don Rosa (not to be confused by Uncle Scrooge: His Life and Times by Carl Barks). So I tried looking for it, and... well, see for yourself. Luckily, I mentioned it to my buddy Peter, and he had a copy, and we met up one day and we lent each other comics, and I dug into The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck about a week later.

So, long story short, I loved it. Regular Cubers know I've become a huge fan of Carl Barks in the last year and a half, and the only exposure I had to Don Rosa prior to this was his "The Dream of a Lifetime" story that went viral a couple of years ago because people kept saying Inception ripped it off. What I didn't know about "The Dream of a Lifetime," though, as much as I enjoyed it, was that it was an epilogue to Rosa's Life and Times.

The basic concept between Life and Times, which came out in the mid-90s, is to show Scrooge McDuck's life before his first appearance in "Christmas on Bear Mountain," and would tell the story of how Scrooge got his riches. Rosa was meticulous about it, as he took pretty much every flashback, reference, and offhand comment Scrooge ever made about his life prior to Bear Mountain and organized them into a coherent timeline, right down to dates (and some of them exact dates). Rosa also tied that all together with heavy research into the history of the era and geography, such as the Gold Rush in the Yukon or the lives of Teddy Roosevelt.

Long-running serialized comics, of course, can't help but be exercises in continuity, which is fair, because a lot of modern creators, having grown up with these characters, are big fans. However, a lot of the time, the desire to address continuity tends to take over the story, and it becomes a case of the tail wagging the dog. It's not uncommon for hardcore fans to create things like lists, timelines, and spreadsheets detailing every little bit of minutiae about a character. That's how wikis and websites get their traction, obviously. And Rosa does much the same thing here, but he never forgets to put the character first. While he does fill in the blanks of Scrooge's life in 12 chapters, he makes it a point to make each chapter a pivotal moment in that life. When did Scrooge decide to stop trusting people? When did money take over his life in such a way that he couldn't appreciate the finer things anymore? These questions and more are addressed in an excitingly adventurous, emotionally charged way that doesn't dilute the comedy and humor you'd come to expect from a Scrooge McDuck story. Certain "answers," such as where Scrooge got the red shirt he always wears, are used as a short gag. In other words, if there's a story in it, Rosa told the story, and if there's a joke in it, he told the joke. Often, he told both.

As you might expect, throwaway comments made in Barks' long run would eventually lead to continuity inconsistencies, and Rosa threw away a few "Barksian facts" and adjusted others (as he did with some historical facts as well), all depending on what made for a better story. But the level of research, both in terms of reading a lot of Barks and in terms of reading history books, was tremendous, and evident in the book. There are even diagrams illustrating gold prospecting. That's how intensive Rosa's research was, and it's all detailed in his notes at the end of each chapter. But he wasn't beholden to it—if certain things needed moving around for the sake of drama (such as where things actually were geographically situated in the Yukon), he'd change what was needed. For Rosa, the story and the characters came first, and the challenge was to make the timeline fit, not the other way around. The timeline was the challenge, and as a result of his meeting that challenge, his love for the characters comes through.

Then there is the way the story is actually told. Rosa doesn't deviate from Barks' usual pattern of two columns and four tiers (I'm sure it has something to do with how the stories can be cut up and reformatted for differently sized reprints), and so you're not dazzled by fancy layouts and "grand achievements of design." Which is not to say that it's not well-thought-out, because it is. It just means that it's able to immerse you in the story pretty much completely just by telling the story, and without any fancy tricks. In fact, the only "fancy trick" Rosa constantly used is the same one Barks did: the masking effect, the idea of rendering more detail into background elements than in the main characters, when necessary. Rosa worked with pens instead of brushes, and as a result was able to be a bit more detailed, a bit more liberal in his rendering than Barks. Used sparingly and to great effect, it emphasizes drama and scale. The first time we walk into Castle McDuck, we're taken in by the immense amount of detail Rosa put in the columns and the stones. And when Scrooge visits his mother's grave for the first time, the moment is powerful.

Rosa also brings in an influence that wasn't quite so evident with Barks: cinema. While Barks' storytelling was clearly informed by his background in animation, Rosa makes no secret in his notes about "stealing" scenes from various movies (including one scene homaging the opening to Citizen Kane). And indeed there are many scenes where, while reading it, I can almost hear some kind of score in the background, adding to the drama of the moment. When Scrooge first meets an adult Donald at the end of the book, it's—and I hate to say this word because it's so overplayed, but there's no other word for it—epic. I had to just stop reading right there and take the page in.

As I read more and get older, occurrences of that kind of reaction from me happen less often, and when they do happen, I have no choice but to hold those moments in high regard.

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is by necessity a bittersweet book because Scrooge McDuck is a miserly hermit when he makes his first appearance, and it's the story of how he got to be that way. But there is so much humor and fancy in it that the contrast to the tragic elements of Scrooge's life are highlighted by the juxtaposition. One minute, Scrooge is catching Flintheart Glomgold (before they first officially met) on the Transvaal, riding herd on a bunch of animals, and the next you realize this is the moment Scrooge stopped trusting people. One minute, he's participating in a Scottish tournament and swimming in a muddy lake to save his (potentially resaleable) golf ball, and a few pages later, he's saying goodbye to his father, for what you realize is the last time.

As he gets older and harder and richer, Scrooge manages to push his family (his sisters Matilda and Hortense, the latter of whom is Donald's mom) away and value money almost exclusively. And yet that is one of the strengths of the Scrooge McDuck character—the front he constantly puts up. It's not about the money, and he knows he's losing his family, but he doesn't know how to fix it, and he constantly convinces himself that he has all he needs in life. When Donald confronts him at the end of the book, saying that his life has garnered him nothing but money, Huey, Dewey, and Louie set him straight, because they realize, as Scrooge realizes, that their reunion is a chance for Scrooge to reclaim that which he pushed away, and more, that the money in Scrooge's Money Bin will never be spent, not because Scrooge is a skinflint (he is), but because that's the money he earned with his own two hands since he left home to support his parents and his sister when he was 13 years old. In other words, the coins' value is not monetary; it's all sentimental—the same kind of mentality that Scrooge constantly denies throughout the book as having.

And yet we can see through him, and love him for it.

When I put down The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, I instantly checked to see if it was still in print, and it wasn't. But what was in print was The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion, which I promptly asked Sandy from Comic Odyssey to get me.  It came in two weeks, and it was as good as the first volume. In the Companion, Rosa fills in the blanks of his own story, telling stories in between his own chapters, for no other reason than, by his own admission, the desire to do so. These stories aren't as tragic as the ones in the first volume, as these are mostly told in flashbacks and so we see Scrooge as he is now with Donald and the boys in the framing sequences, but the stories are no less entertaining and powerful. There's a time travel jaunt that involves Magica de Spell (I'm surprised at how little I've read of Magica, actually. I thought she was always prominent.) trying to steal Scrooge's #1 dime before Scrooge ever earned it, a third adventure with Teddy Roosevelt, and "The Dream of a Lifetime," which I mentioned early on in this article.

"The Dream of a Lifetime" (which you can read in its entirety here) is the best way to end this journey, because Scrooge goes from one dream to another, and each dream is him reliving one of his adventures (while the Beagle Boys try to invade his dreams and steal the combination to his safe, and Donald invades his dreams and tries to stop them). When at his wit's end with only one card left to play, Donald manages to shift Scrooge's dream over to his days at the Yukon, and when the last Beagle Boy tries pushing that Scrooge around, Donald responds:

And it's such a cool moment. There really is no other way to describe it—I got goosebumps reading it, because having read the entirety of Rosa's epic at that point, I really felt what was coming: a royal Scrooge McDuck butt-whuppin'!

Scrooge in the Yukon means Glittering Goldie O'Gilt, the Star of the North, and Scrooge's "the one that got away." Goldie is an interesting character because she showed up once in Barks' stories, but made a clear impression on a young Don Rosa, because he clearly enjoyed telling the story of how Scrooge and Goldie never made it. And that's really, for me, the highlight of the Companion, and maybe even the whole epic in general. Rosa really fleshes out Goldie, making her far more than, as she's been called, Scrooge's version of Irene Adler (Though this may be a weird statement. None of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successors ever wrote the definitive version of Sherlock Holmes after him the way Don Rosa did Scrooge's.). She has her own goals, her own fronts, her own lies to both Scrooge and herself, and her own hopes and dreams that get in the way of those aforementioned goals. She's stubborn, out for herself, and headstrong. Truly, the perfect girl for Scrooge, if only he could get her to earn her money square.

Goldie takes center stage in two stories. The first one, "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek," tells of the fateful month Scrooge took Goldie prisoner and forced her to work on his claim. (Barks had previously shown only the start and end of that month.) It is there that we find out what Scrooge's most prized possession is, and when the scene cuts back to the present day and the nephews debating what it is, Scrooge merely looks at the thing in question, looks back at them, and smiles with a knowing "No." Even though Scrooge didn't end up with Goldie, he at least took something with him: his memories of the one girl he came close enough to trusting and loving.

The second Goldie story, "Hearts of the Yukon," details how the two of them tried to meet each other after Scrooge made Goldie leave White Agony Creek, how it just wasn't to be. It shows their feelings for each other that were only available to the reader and no one else, and of the choices they made, all told in this elegant balance of whimsy, humor, drama, suspense, and, ultimately bittersweetness.

With characters that make you feel, interspersed with intensive research done not only on Barks' original stories but also actual history, featuring characters like Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo, and Teddy Roosevelt, Rosa's story was a clear challenge for the creator, and he meets that challenge head-on, and his love, more than his technical aptitude (which he has plenty of) or anything else, comes through. As I'm writing this, I'm reminded of Don Rosa's essay on why he quit, which went semiviral on the internet a few days ago, and as incredibly heartbreaking as it is because of the many reasons (chief among them his failing eyesight and the Disney corporate comics system), I felt that one part was really moving and reassuring somehow:

I have written in these volumes innumerable times that I am not a professional. I am a comics fan whom someone allowed to create comics. And ultimately I’ve even realized that’s more true than I even thought! Everything I’ve done, every professional move I’ve made, was because I love stuff that I did not create.

Fans who did know what an unfair system we Disney comics people work in have often said to me “you’ve made a name for yourself now! Why not stop this thankless work and produce comics of some character that you create yourself?” And publishers have often told me they would publish anything I decided to create for them. But my reply has always been “Any character I might create next week… I would not have grown up with that character. I wouldn’t care about him. My thrill is in creating stories about characters I’ve loved all my life.” I’m a fan.

When I finished both books, I went online and did research on the Duck family. What happened to Donald's sister Della? Who did she marry/who was the boys' father? Where was Glittering Goldie now? It made me want to learn everything about the characters, and you know what? It's been a long while since I felt like that. And when looking for a word for "that," the only one I could come up with was "fan." Typically these days, when I put a book down, my reactions are about what this writer is doing with this character, how a story might go given the constraints of corporate entertainment, the technical adeptness of this artist. But with The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck? All I can think of is how good it was. And how cool the characters were. And how full of wonder the stories were, themselves.

And I've just spent over 2,000 words trying to explain it, and I still think I don't do it justice. It's that good. It's that cool. It's that wonderful. And if you find these at affordable prices, pick 'em up. You won't regret it.

And now, for your benefit, the Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck family tree:


Willi said...

The family tree is incredible. Is that available poster size anywhere?

Duy Tano said...

I don't believe so, at least not in English. The one in the book also has a "Friends" list on the side which includes Daisy, April, May, June, and Gyro Gearloose.

Anonymous said...

The Later version of Don Rosa's Duck Family Tree was in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck TPB while the earlier version was in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #600.

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