Review Or Die

An Interview With Don Rosa

I conducted an interview with Don Rosa. Even typing those words seems odd, as though I’m writing a lie, even though I have the proof in front of me. He’s my favorite cartoonist, popular all over Europe, been on national talk shows… and he agreed to do an interview with me.

Huh.

For those of you not in the know, Don Rosa is one of the most popular Disney Duck comics authors of all time, most likely second only to the departed Carl Barks. Active as a Duck author from 1987-2007 (and STILL active in reprint editions of his comics!), his best known work is the Eisner award winning The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, a 212-page story covering the life of the world’s most popular comic book character, multikazillionaire Scrooge McDuck. His stories have been reprinted all over the world, signatured by one of the most unique art styles out there and truly inimitable writing which delves deeper in to the characters than any Duck author before him… or since. But Rosa didn’t spring forth from day one as a Duck comics legend, pen in hand.

As far back as his freshman year in 1971 at the University of Kentucky, he was a published cartoonist with The Pertwillaby Papers, an action/comedy strip in the spirit of Barks’ Duck comics, in his college newspaper. The Pertwillaby Papers ran in The Kentucky Kernel until 1973, picking up in a new comic book style format in the fanzine Rockets Blast Comicollector from 1977-1979. That same year he returned to the newspapers with Captain Kentucky. Running for 150 half-page strips in The Louisville Times, the comedic superhero strip took place in real Louisville locations with real people, commenting on current events and lavishly destroying Louisville landmarks.

Both The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky are currently being reprinted under the expert hand of Jano Rohleder under the title “The Don Rosa Classics: Deluxe Edition”. Packed to the brim with special features, this collection is the most complete to date, available at the following link: www.indiegogo.com/donrosa

In support of the reprint collection I held an email interview with Rosa, posted below.

1 – So how did this reprint project come to be?

Jano apparently talked to me about it a year or two ago, and at the time I said it was okay with me if he reprinted the comics, and apparently he even obtained the art-scan CDs from the Norwegian publisher of 12 years ago. Then I completely forgot about it. 2 or 3 weeks ago he mentioned it again, and directed me to that Indiegogo site, and I was amazed both by what classy books he was planning, but also by the whole “Indiegogo campaign” process. I was not at all aware of that phenomenon! I won’t say that reprinting those weird old comics of mine is a “great idea”, but that Indiegogo concept is brilliant (assuming some of those charity campaigns are not phony).

2 – These comics are filled with homages to more things than one could reasonably count, in style and content. It’s very clear you appreciate all sorts of media, television, movies, comics… spot-the-reference is a very fun game to play with your work. But amongst all the homages, what were some of the bigger influences on these comics and your work in general?

I never have written or drawn my comics to consciously imitate the style of any other author or artist. I just loved to tell funny stories and I let the stuff pour out in the only way I knew how without analyzing it. The best part of that is that I never intended to do it for a living, so I never had a reason to force myself to develop a style that anyone liked but ME. So my influences (besides Barks) were not conscious ones.

But when readers tell me what my storytelling and humor remind them of, I know who those influences are, such as Bill Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, John Stanley — my sister had LOTS of MAD comics and magazines and LITTLE LULU comics of the 1950’s along with all her Barks Ducks. And in the early-mid 1960s when *I* started buying my own comics, I discovered Will Eisner, Walt Kelly and the Superman writers and artists who worked under editor Mort Weisinger in the late 50’s – mid 60’s. Those latter comics are what gave me my love of limited-continuity, “untold stories” and “secret origins” — Weisinger introduced those to comic books.

Readers mention all of those as obvious influences, and considering what comics I loved to read proves them right.

3 – What separates your work with The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky from your work in Duck comics? For example, are there elements you deliberately chose to (or not to) use with these comics versus the Ducks?

Hm. I never thought about what I had done stylistically in any previous comics once I started doing stories of Barks’ Ducks. I only thought about what sort of story *I*, as a Barks fan, would like to read. That’s not to say what ANOTHER Barks fan would like to read — I can’t know what that is. All I can do is do my stories my way. Which is what I always did. I was never told what to do by editors — they seemed to know that they had to let me do it my way (with limited guidance). And since I was never paid a royalty on sales… in other words, I never benefited from the popularity of what I did… I never cared if it sold well or not. That was the publishers’ concern. I just did what I wanted. And maybe, since I knew how a Barks Duck comic should be, I did it right enough that the editors let me fly free.

Yes, I reused the plot ideas from past comics, but I did not try to duplicate the style.

4 – After the end of your first Pertwillaby Papers adventure in 1973, no new episodes were made for three years, at which point it switched from the newspaper strip format in The Kentucky Kernel to 10-15 page episodes in The Rocket’s Blast Comicollector. What was the story behind that?

You mean what did I do between 1973 and 1977? That’s when I was writing and illustrating the “RBCC Information Center” where I would answer readers’ questions about the history of comic books, movies and television. In those days, I was the only public source IN THE WORLD for answers to such questions — like “list all the TV appearances of so-and-so actor” or “list all the movies that so-and-so directed” or (my specialty) “write an index of such-and-such a TV series with airdates, episode titles, plot, character names and cast, writer and director. I could do things like the latter since one of my (many!) collections was a complete set of TV GUIDE magazine, and in the “old days” the listings for each TV show included ALL that info. And I had many other limited-edition movie & TV reference books. And for comics, I had my exhaustive comic book collection which included virtually every American comic published since WWII. And as I said, I included many wacky illustrations to go along with my Q&A subjects.

Nowadays you can get such info, and all other info, instantly off the Internet! That’s a LOT better than me being the only such source with my tiny audience!

Anyway, after doing that for 3 or 4 years, I felt like I missed creating funny adventure stories. So I turned over the illustrating of my “Info Center” to others, and recreated “The Pertwillaby Papers” as a comic book style thing.

5 – Your most well known works are in color, but the reprint collection is all in black and white. What sort of differences are there in the way you draw when you know the end result for the reader will be black and white?

Oh, yeah, there’s a BIG difference. When I knew my work would only be in b&w (which I thought was fine) I had to use “Zip-A-Tone” to create “simulated color”. “Zip-A-Tone” is an obsolete method of adding texture to artwork for b&w printing, used in all magazine ads and comic strips up until the computer age. It was VERY tedious! It involved hundreds of different types of texturing printed on a clear plastic adhesive-backed film… all different sizes and % of teeny-tiny dots and stripes, plus an endless variety of weirder patterns, as well as symbols used on architectural and engineering drawings. You would place the transparent sheet over the art, use an X-acto knife to cut out the intricate shape you needed to cover the area you wanted to fill with a texture, peel the cut section off the film, lay it precisely over the area on the art, and rub it down with a wooden burnisher. When you see how MUCH of this I used, and you realize that each textured area was done in this tedious fashion, and how complex my art was then (much more than my later Duck comics), you can imagine how LONG this process took even AFTER I’d drawn those panels filled with millions of ink lines. No amount of money could pay for that sort of labor! That’s why it was lucky it was done as a hobby, always for free!

6 – It’s fairly well known that elements of your Pertwillaby Papers were re-used in Duck comics, which makes sense considering how much you were inspired by Barks’ wonderful work to begin with. While you’ve stated that “Lost in (an Alternative Section of) the Andes” was directly written with the Ducks in mind, is that true of your other Pertwillaby Papers stories?

Um… let’s see. My “Universal Solvent” story used a lot of the plot elements from my “Vortex!” adventure, though I skipped the idea of the solvent being distilled from a Black Hole from outer space. My “Once and Future Duck” story used some of the plot from my old “Knighttime” adventure. (But I don’t think either of those made good Duck plots. Too weird and/or SF-y.) “Incident at McDuck Tower” reused a sequence from my “Sub Zero” adventure. And there was at least one other incident which I’ll save for an answer to your question #18!

7 – I could have phrased that question differently (but there is also a “Sub-Zero” sequence which is similar to one from “Last Sled to Dawson”, with the hot air balloon!). I was actually referring to this quote I have here:

So I started doing the “Son of the Sun’ story; in other words, turning that old Pertwillaby Papers adventure back into the story it originally was in my head, starring $crooge, Donald, the nephews, and Flintheart Glomgold.”

I read Sub-Zero from an old Fantagraphics reprint, and I could ‘feel’ Donald and Scrooge Barks moments, if you catch me (largely in the gags) and the villain seemed like a very Barksian one-shot character. There’s certainly a unique feel to it, and it doesn’t feel like an imitation. But I had to wonder how close the Ducks were to your consciousness at the time of the writing, and whether these Pertwillaby Papers stories were in a way Ducks in disguise.

The PLOTS were Duck stories in my mind, but I was never equating any of my characters or their roles in the plot with the Barks Ducks. I know that Schuyler Roatch was a bit annoying like Gladstone Gander. And Prof. Gerry Atrix was a bit like $crooge in that he was short and old and had done a number of interesting things in the past… but he had none of $crooge’s vitality or wealth or other personality traits. No, I saw no Barks Ducks in my characters.

8 – Is there a reason that the main plot of “Sub-Zero” was never re-used as a Duck comic? It certainly seemed like it could be an interesting Arpin Lusene story.

You’re asking why I never sent the Ducks on a search for the art treasures looted from Europe by the NAZIS during WWII??? The same reason I could never send $crooge on a quest for the Holy Grail, even though many readers requested it! Why would I want to involve Barks Ducks with the terrors of WWII or with religious dogma?!?! Those are not proper elements for a Duck story! (I later included the Holy Grail as an unexplained item in a story in such a way that the reader needed to decide for himself what the thing was and whether he believed in Christian dogma.)

9 – I was thinking Brutopians, actually! Though I have your Duck version of the Captain America cover, I’m pretty sure Scrooge could take on Nazis just fine… but I’m certainly glad that you chose not to deal with such things too much in your Duck comics.

But this does get me to a point I’ve wondered about for awhile, fanboyish as it might be. My memory is hardly perfect, but I seem to recall only two mentions of Brutopia in your work. One from “The Crown of the Crusader Kings” and one from “Attaaaack!” With all the Barks homages in your story, was there a reason it wasn’t used more often?

The Brutopians are the Russians, and they could not have looted European museums in WWII (if you refer to that specific plot in “PP”). Nor would I make even a mention of the Nazi atrocities of WWII in a Duck comic. In fact, in my mind I decided that $crooge had retired around 1942 due to the outbreak of the World War, as he did not want to be involved in war profiteering which would be unavoidable for him otherwise. But, as I say, I only allowed myself to say he retired “5 years before 1947”, but I would never mention WWII in a BarksDuck comic.

(I did mention WWII in “Return to Plain Awful”, but only as a time frame with no reference to the actual war itself.)

>>>>>My memory is hardly perfect, but I seem to recall only two mentions of Brutopia in your work. One from “The Crown of the Crusader Kings” and one from “Attaaaack!”

And once in “Curse of Nostrildamus” and maybe somewhere else.

>>>>>With all the Barks homages in your story, was there a reason it wasn’t used more often?

Simply because I didn’t need to have $crooge’s adventures involve world politics. It’s MUCH better to have individual villains acting for their own personal avarice or malice.

10 – What was the inspiration for the creation of Captain Kentucky? He’s most certainly not a traditional superhero, and the strip itself is not a very traditional comic!

By the late 1970s I was known around Louisville as a local “eccentric” in that I was a comic book collector and cartoonist. In those days, that was ODD. So the editor of the major local newspaper entertainment magazine section invited me to contribute a weekly comic strip. I think he wanted just a 3-4 panel single strip, but I told him that I only did comedy-adventure and it was impossible to do a continuing story in only 3 or 4 panels a week. He agreed to a “Sunday” style strip… but he didn’t increase the pay… but that was okay, I was still a cartoonist strictly as a hobby. He also didn’t tell me to draw in the ugly overly-complex style that I have. The pay was $25 per week, which I think averaged to about $1-$2 per hour. So, what? It was fun.

Oh, but how did I decide on a superhero? I recall that my two ideas for a continuing adventure story was either a detective (titled “Investigations of Noah Vale”) or a silly superhero. But I chose the superhero for the possibility of drawing spectacular stunts which would result in terrible disasters, and so forth.

Oh, and I also decided to use actual locations and local people as the other characters. Yes, THAT idea I thought was unique in the entire nation! And I was half expecting that I would be on the national news in a matter of weeks. But not only did the strip not garner national attention, I couldn’t even tell after 150 episodes that it was having any LOCAL attention. When that happens, rather than thinking “it sucked!”, I decided it must have just been “ahead of its time”. So I quit and that’s when I decided that cartooning would no longer be a hobby since it was too frustrating that no one much liked the kind of stories I wanted to tell. I put the old drawing table in the basement and didn’t draw another line until fate stepped in four years later.

11 – Could you give the readers a little taste of what might have been with Investigations of Noah Vale? Even a brief synopsis of what it would have been would be a treat.

I never got beyond the title before I decided on a superhero instead. I could see the funny-private-detective idea did not have a fraction of the potential humor and action as the funny-superhero idea.

12 – There is something of a physical resemblance between Lancelot Pertwillaby and yourself, to say the least! I’m curious why you chose to do that, and why you kept that up with Captain Kentucky.

Same reason I did it in the previous strip. Just for fun. Readers did not know that was what I looked like. And I thought, with my wimpy face, red hair and glasses, I was certainly an unlikely looking “hero”.

13 – I’ve seen you quoted that you tend to view your stories as movies. What kind of musical scoring would you assign to The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky? And of course I have to ask the same about your Duck comics.

Franz Waxman. Or Bernard Herrmann. Maybe Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Perhaps Max Steiner. I dunno — I’d hafta hear what each one could come up with if I hired them. Which would be difficult since they are deceased.

14 – Both The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky are serialized stories, even marked as episodes in the titles. It’s a big difference from the “one-and-dones” of the Duck comics you are so well known for. How did that serialized nature affect the way you wrote the comics?

I can’t recall specifically, but I really enjoyed doing serials with cliff-hanger endings! And yet, I would never have wanted to do that in my Duck comics since that’s NOT how Barks’ Duck comics were done. Of course, Europeans are forced to get used to seeing Barks stories serialized since that’s how their Disney comic system has been set up for 60 years. And my stories were always serialized in Europe. But I always wrote them as single-part stories that the publisher could cut into parts without too much damage. Comic book stories should NOT be continued. Then all you have is a modern American super-hero comic book story and that’s what happens when writers don’t feel like creating more than one plot every year, but still get paid by the page.

15 – Amen to that. I do still actively buy and read current comics (in addition to the old ones) and with the modern style, it creates some serious pacing problems, all for the sake of trade paperbacks. Part of what I think makes your work so interesting is how much you cram in to your layouts with the way you use panels… I seem to recall you mentioning in between panels of an episode of “Sub-Zero” that you had two pages of plot that you had to squeeze in to one. How often did you experience that page count limitation?

In “PP” it was probably a matter of me limiting myself. I was doing all that in my spare time, and I’m sure I couldn’t manage more than 10 pages every 6 weeks. I imagine the RBCC editor would have given me as many pages as I wanted. (I found out years later that my work was the most popular feature in the magazine, and the editor was profiting rather nicely from all my free labor. But that’s okay.)

As to my Duck stories, I was ALWAYS suffering under the page-count limitations! It was only towards the end, when I was really getting fed up with the Disney comics system (for many reasons) that I stopped worrying about the page counts, and I would let the story run over my allotted page limitations… I guess I was to the point of “They can take it or leave it… I don’t care anymore”.

16 – I found this picture of you actually dressed as Captain Kentucky, and flying at that (or at least rear-projected/green-screened)! Care to give a little background on the subject?

Out of context, this might look a little odd.

Don Rosa as Captain Kentucky

Well, back around 1980 my wife made me a Captain Kentucky outfit so I could make personal appearances on TV or such. I think I only did that once or twice. The main use was when I did the 100th episode of “CK” which I did in all-photographs. The pic you have was very simple to achieve. I simply stood leaning backwards with my arms in the air so my cape would hang straight down, then had a photographer stand on a ladder and photograph me from above and to one side. Then they pasted that onto an aerial view of Louisville. Simple. I also used that photo as my “8 X 10 glossies” to autograph and send to the few fans who would write.

17 – At least three additional non-Pertwillaby Papers/Captain Kentucky stories, Khulan, Tagdenah and Phalanx are also being published in Deluxe Collection. Could you tell me a little about them?

Well, I guess I’ll write complete descriptions of their origins for Jano’s books, but in short: I did “Khulan” in high school in the late 60’s when “sword & sorcery” stories became so popular. A good friend was a Robert E. Howard fan and wrote that story for me… notice that “Khulan” seems to maybe be a combination of the names of Howard’s main heroes Kull and Conan. “Tagdenah” was written by another S&S fan I met around 1977… she had a drug habit and I thought maybe a sense of pride in some creation would help her out (I failed in that… she eventually died of a drug overdose, so I was told). “Phalanx” was something I tried in college around 1972 after discovering “Asterix” in a library (to this day, neither Asterix or Tintin or any other Euro comics are known to the American public — people think Tintin was created last year for that new movie). “Phalanx” was going to be an attempt to duplicate the Asterix style of funny adventures based on actual history, and it was written by a college history professor pal I’d gotten to know after he probably mentioned a Barks story in one of his lectures. Um… I don’t recall why we did it as a daily strip rather than a comic-book style story for a fanzine.

18 – From what I’ve been able to glean through research, “Knighttime” (the last Pertwillaby Papers story) was intended to have at least one more episode. I know this is something of a pipe dream, but what would it take in this fundraiser for the readers to see either a storyboarded or fully drawn conclusion in your collection?

No chance of that. My eyes are too far gone. Retinas falling off onto the floor. But there’s no need! The ending to “Knighttime” WAS used as a Duck adventure! At the end of the story, the Black Knight (Merlin) would die when a rug was pulled out from under his feet and he fell to the center of the earth (a demise I softened for Arpin Lusene in the Duck version), then when the heroes tried to transport back to the present, Lance was to have succeeded in sending everyone back using the power of the machine, but he was a microsecond SLOW in sending HIMSELF back, and he materialized at the edge of outer space, the Earth having moved slightly in its orbit during transfer. But, by gravity, he would then fall to Earth protected (slightly) by the space suit you see him wearing in the story for other reasons. This ending was used as the ending for “The Duck Who Fell to Earth” story with $crooge and Donald.

19 – People sometimes talk about ‘the ideal reader’, the type of person whom above all else an individual author writes for. Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader? The one who can see past my crude and cluttered art, with the “needless and irritating detail” and appreciate EXACTLY what I’m REALLY trying to do. You make me think of something I wrote to another of Jano’s contributors last week on the same subject — I see he posted my comment on his blog so I guess I can share it with you as well:

“It is nice when people like my stories, but there is no happiness greater than when I see that a reader TOTALLY UNDERSTANDS what I am trying to achieve. Looking back on my own work, I realize more than ever that I was NEVER a “professional”. Everything I did was done as a FAN… that’s why everything I did was based strictly on someone else’s work and makes constant allusions to all my favorite movies and TV shows and everything else. I (my ego) never felt an urge to create anything totally new that would be “all my own”. I (the fan) only wanted to pay homage to everything that I love. That never changed.”

There are sometimes Barks-snobs who resent my popularity (which surprises ME more than anyone), and there are a few professionals (only one or two) who resent my popularity when they know they draw better than I do (they don’t know that good art is not the same as “boundless fannish enthusiasm” which is where my popularity lies), and these people often invent all sorts of imaginary malevolent or egotistical intentions to read into my stories. But their pathetic sour grapes are in the minority. Most readers appreciate that I’m just another Barks or comics fan trying to give them a few minutes of entertainment in a low-paying endeavor. (Or, as regards the stories in Jano’s reprint volumes, a NO-paying endeavor!)

20 – My last question is not so much related to the project itself or even your work, but it’s one I’ve been dying to ask. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of a truly good (or great) comic book story?

That’s the kind of question I don’t know the answer to. I have NEVER analyzed or given any thought to what I do. Sometimes fans or critics would say things like “your pacing is perfect! Your timing is wonderful! The plotting is magnificent! Blah blah” … and it would worry me a lot! I knew that I never did anything but let it pour out of me. And I was thinking “They think this is so good… but it’s just dumb luck! Surely I can’t keep accidentally doing this so well!” And I don’t think I *did* — a lot of my stories I think are dreadful mistakes. (But, yeah, I’m sorta proud of a few others.)

But let’s see… as far as I’m concerned, a truly great comic book story is one that is contained in ONE issue, one comic or one album. And I also happen to think that all the truly TRULY great comics are those done by ONE person… written and drawn by a single mind. I am 100% positive of that. Those stories will always have a special quality that no multi-personality creation can ever achieve. That’s not to say that the multi-personality stories may not be entertaining. But they can never have that same magic indefinable spark as those done by a single brain. My stories would never have been noticed if I had not been both the writer AND artist. As a writer-only, I could never insist on the level of detail and sheer unbounded enthusiasm and endless background gags that an artist would waste his time inserting into his art. (Besides, that stuff is not in my own scripts — it just pops out spontaneously when I’m drawing.) And as an artist-only, I would never insult the writer by inserting all of those background gags and hidden plots and homages as if telling the writer that his story wasn’t good enough until I “punched it up”. Also, no writer would want to work with an artist who worked as painfully slowly as I did due to my lack of training and professionalism — he’d want his paychecks faster than that! But as the writer AND artist, I had no one to answer to but myself.

The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky collections are available at www.indiegogo.com/donrosa

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6 thoughts on “An Interview With Don Rosa

  1. Great interview! Thank you so much for posting this.

    • You’re very welcome, I was happy to do it both as a personal pleasure and for fans to hear things in his words. (And thank YOU for being my first commenter!) Mr. Rosa was extremely gracious to give me his time, and I really want to get the word out on these wonderful books. I truly believe if there more comics like his, more people would like comics.

  2. Excellent interview. You asked some great questions that I’ve wanted to know the answers to for years. It was a fascinating and illuminating read.

  3. Pingback: Podcast: Origin Story | Tower of Technobabble

  4. Pingback: Don Rosa – Comic Book Persona of the Month | London Comic Culture

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