Review Or Die

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Don Rosa in Review – The Paper Chase (1988)

[AR-107] The Paper Chase (2 Pages, Gag)

The Story: Scrooge buys a newspaper, and must chase it down when the wind blows it out of his hands.

The Review: WARNING! THE FOLLOWING REVIEW IS INCREDIBLY DIDACTIC!

I grew acquainted with the Ducks from The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. Then I read some of Rosa’s stories, realized how referential they were to Barks, read some of Barks, more of Rosa, more of Barks, back and forth, until I had read all of Rosa’s stories and a good deal of Barks’. That background is how I knew that this story was not written by Rosa, because the Barks/Rosa Scrooge would never, ever pay for a newspaper.

“The Paper Chase” was written by Gary Leach, one of the higher-ups at Gladstone. As far as I can tell this is Leach’s first ever original comic script, having served mostly as a translator and letterer prior to this. Rosa would draw two more Leach scripts, both of them two-pagers. Of the three, this is the bad apple of the bunch, and earns that distinction by… well, you’ll see.

The story is ultimately harmless in that it isn’t some hyperbolically terrible monstrosity or anything, but it’s very easy to break down the problems of this script and why it needed another draft before it went to an artist. And since I like to give you some bang for your buck, I’m going to do just that with a session of Comics 101. Apologies in advance, Mr. Leach, I promise you wrote other gag pieces I really liked.

It only LOOKS like an ominous sequence of Scrooge about to be run over by a truck.

1. It violates common sense regarding how someone like Scrooge would get details about the stock market. If Scrooge needed a paper it could have been for a number of other reasons, but because the stock market has to do with money, it’s why Scrooge needs a paper. It’s lazy and obvious and worse yet, removes the opportunity for an actual joke about why he would need a paper.

2. It goes against the Barksian detail of Scrooge not paying for a newspaper. Some of you are going to think “Well, Disney comics as a whole don’t take place in any established canon, it’s all open to interpretation by the individual artists and writers”, and you’re right. Further, while Rosa’s comics take place in his own canon, this is not a Rosa story, it is a Scrooge story that has Rosa art. We’re going to talk about continuity a lot in this series, but for the purposes of this entry let’s confine ourselves to being true to the character. I think we can all agree that Scrooge wouldn’t pay for something unless there was a pressing need for it and there was no other way around it. At least, not when he’s on-panel. A character can act outside of his regular pattern if there is a convincing reason like a ticking clock or other extenuating circumstances, but that isn’t what’s happening here.

Scrooge has no need to pay for a paper for any logical or gag-based reason. There is no time crunch, so he can simply find one tossed aside in the garbage, on a park bench, or any number of other places, and has actually done so in other comics. This makes his chase seem not humorously over-reactive, just pointless and stupid.

An entire page of setup in a two page story. This is wrong.

3. I didn’t really think a two page story could be poorly paced, but I was wrong. The entire first page establishes that Scrooge has purchased the paper, is walking down the street, and has the paper blown out of his hands. The second page devotes three panels to actually chasing the paper (one being irregularly sized), and the last three to set up and deliver the final joke. This story could have been told in one page with more economical layouts, and I probably would have had less of a problem with it if that was the case. If it was going to be two pages anyway, the actual chase should have started earlier, been more visually varied, and given a better sense of visual continuity from joke to joke.

Bored much, Scrooge?

4. This one is entirely on Rosa, because the artwork for this story doesn’t work. He doesn’t create a sense of motion for the papers in the wind and far, far worse, Scrooge’s expressions during these action panels are oddly flat. Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes said that whenever he couldn’t come up with a good script he went all out on the art, but here Scrooge is incredibly subdued in the places he needs to (and logically would) BE at his most expressive. It doesn’t even match the visual jokes in the final panel, because Scrooge doesn’t appear to be exerting himself with these feats of acrobatic wonder.

This picture compared to the one above is an example of what I like to call a “complete and total disconnect”.

And of course, to top it all off, Scrooge enters his office without the paper he had been chasing the entire story.

The complete failure of the artwork dashes the only chance the story had to redeem itself to me. I say ‘only’ chance because we have yet to come to the most difficult problem with the story…

5. “Paper Chase” isn’t funny. You can’t objectively prove something isn’t funny, that’s not how humor works, but this is my shot at trying. The opportunities for gags are either misfired or not taken at all.

And that’s that. The actual concept has a lot of potential for humor, but a story’s success is always, always in the execution. I’m not saying Leach can’t write (I actually really, really like “Fiscal Fitness” and think “Rocket Reverie” has a lot of good gags in it, but those are other entries), but I think whoever approved the script really failed him here by letting him turn in what should have been an early draft. Rosa’s art didn’t do him any favors either, being just vaguely serviceable rather than an enhancement of the script.

Despite all that I said, I wish Leach had continued working on gag stories like this. I very much enjoyed “Fiscal Fitness” and “Rocket Reverie”. The only non-Rosa story I’ve seen from him was a DuckTales story, “Flights of Fancy”, and I thought that had some great gags too, so it’s not like Rosa ‘carried’ him through those other two stories. But like many early efforts from writers and artists alike, this story just isn’t good.

Continuity: This gets the very first appearance of the non-canon stamp from me, simple as the story is, by virtue of it not being in character for Rosa’s Scrooge.

I will award the non-canon stamp to any story that irreconcilably contradicts established Barks or Rosa canon by virtue of ignoring plot points of past stories, character motivation, or other such factors.

But if it was canon, it would be Rosa’s first appearance of Scrooge’s secretary Miss Quackfaster.

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Don Rosa in Review – Fir-Tree Fracas (1987)

[AR-109] Fir-Tree Fracas (4 Pages, Gag)

The Story: The Universe hates Donald Duck and doesn’t want him to enjoy a Christmas tree he spent months planning to set up for his family. I wonder what Donald did to the Universe to ruin its Christmas spirit.

The Review: Carl Barks tended to work in four distinct formats. The 1-page gags, the 4-7-page gags, the 10-page gags, and the full length adventure stories. The 1-pagers were for the inside and back covers, the 10-pagers for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and the adventure titles were whatever length he needed them to be, topping out at 33 pages. The 4-7 pagers were used either because of mail code restrictions or because the adventure story didn’t fill out the page count needed to fill the full comic. They established the plot, escalated quickly, and led it all to a strong finishing gag. They weren’t so much stories as much as jokes with a big, enjoyable build-up. It really is a testament to Barks’ efficiency as a storyteller and sense of humor that he could do so much in such a short period of time, and you can point to “Somethin’ Fishy Here” as a perfect example of this format.

So now you understand the template this story was based on, and what I am forced to compare it to. “Fir-Tree Fracas” has a nice sense of escalation throughout its first three pages, but it falls apart with its climactic gag. So let’s examine the entirety of page four!

Page 4 of 4

I’m often impressed by the way Rosa uses motion and timing in his comics. Looking at this page, you can see the scene playing out between panels, and the panels he chose serve as shots that wouldn’t be out of place as storyboards in animation. Panels 2-5 are extremely well constructed, conveying Donald’s emotion with a strong opening expression that carries the tone of his voice while he remains off-panel. The sound effects sell the ruination of the tree and give it a sense of believability (though I wonder if FOOMP! is the best he could have chosen for panel five) by drawing you further in to the scene. Panel Six gives you a further sense of buildup from the perspective of the characters, which is a necessary change of pace to draw you back in to the scene. But… when you hit panel seven, the punchline falls totally flat.

You could pretty much go two ways with this punchline: The family is drawn to look outside by what became of Donald’s tree, or the tree itself is ruined in a way which is funny to the reader. Here, we have a mixture of both, with the visual focus being put on the ruined tree. Visually, this is… boring. The reaction shots of the characters aren’t particularly funny, and the minimalist tree isn’t an eye-catching visual. I need one or both to work for the joke to land. But more worryingly, I’m left wondering what the ornaments outside look like because the characters are pointing out that there is something interesting for me to look at off-panel.

For a joke like this, if you have a choice between an interesting, spectacular visual or a bland one… go for the spectacular one! It’s a very bad sign when your reader is thinking of something off-panel when you’ve just delivered the joke you spent four pages building up.

I suppose if there’s something positive to say about this story, you could consider dealing with this compressed space as a necessary experiment in his development as a storyteller. For me, I’m glad it’s an experiment he didn’t delve in to again.

Continuity: This is also Rosa’s only attempt at a Christmas story, which surprised me when I went to check my facts considering how beloved Barks’ own Christmas tales are. I suspect this has something to do with his attempt to maintain a consistent timeline within a Barksian universe. That’s not in any way possible considering the number of Christmas stories Barks wrote, but to any readers out there I present to you this challenge: I will award you, in the fine tradition of Stan Lee’s Marvel comics, the No-Prize for determining which Barks Christmas tale this could fit in to. Just post the story you think it could fit in (and your reasoning) in the comments section, and I’ll post the best responses in a separate post.

Daisy makes her first appearance here and it’s a pretty boring one. Sadly, her later appearances wouldn’t fare much better. Rosa gives his thoughts on Daisy in a video below, and not to spoil it for you, but they’re not flattering.

http://vimeo.com/channels/donrosatour/21717428

Don Rosa in Review – Fit to be Pied (1987)

[AR-108] Fit to be Pied (10 Pages, Gag)

The Story: Donald and Neighbor Jones allow their pride to cause mass chaos and destruction in an effort to win a pumpkin-carving contest worth $50.

The Review: Of all the gag stories Rosa did, this one feels the most like a Barks tale. With the simple goal of Donald trying to get a pumpkin and Jones trying to carve a pumpkin, all to win fifty dollars, the conflict escalates to a hilariously disproportionate scale. The gags are well crafted, Rosa has used his art style in a way that doesn’t make the physical comedy look too real or jarring, and the story stands for what it is: a great piece of comedy.

I can’t believe it’s not Barks! (TM)

One of the big differences between Carl Barks and Don Rosa is the former’s satirical tendencies. He used the Ducks to point out the foibles of humans, altering their characterization (subtly, of course) to fit the little message behind an individual story. It never got in the way of his writing, nor were the characters inconsistent. These variations on the characters between stories actually added a level of depth to them when his body of work is looked at as a whole, which was certainly unusual for the time and holds up today as an example of well-rounded characters. They were people, not props.

If you’ve ever seen people who are heavily involved with say, the Parade of Homes or other vanity contests, this story might seem familiar to you. The elements in it are exaggerated, but that level of competition over such a trivial prize and the smallest element of prestige is what rings true to life, and the exaggeration is what makes it ring true as a Duck comic (and Donald’s character). Pride, pettiness, escalation, rivalry are all things that we can relate to and learn from when we see them brought to comical heights. This satirical approach is a very unusual tact for Rosa, but he shows it is well within his wheelhouse if he had chosen to let his career as a Duck artist follow that path.

The moral of the story is obvious: Be nice to your neighbors or your house will turn in to a jack-o-lantern.

I’m not yet ready to discuss in detail the differences between a Barks story and a Rosa one (that will have to wait until I have a better example of a Rosa comic in front of me), I believe it does both artists a disservice to say Rosa’s stories were nothing more than ones made in the tradition and style of Carl Barks. But as I said, that is a discussion best left for another story.

“Trick or Treat”, Neighbor Jones!

Continuity: The only piece of criticism I could lob at this story is the anachronism of the One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple Pumpkin Eater, a gag reference to the comedy song “One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater”, put out in 1958. This isn’t so an issue within the context of the story, merely within the internal timeline Rosa crafted.

Sure looks strange to me!

Rosa would later establish that Donald and the nephews’ adventures with Scrooge began taking place in 1947 (the year that “Christmas on Bear Mountain”, Scrooge’s first appearance, was published), eleven years before that song came out. You could argue that Donald (within the Duck universe) might have eventually ended up somehow inspiring the song, and that would certainly fit Rosa’s Forrest Gump method of inserting the Ducks in to history. It’s actually the method I use to justify it within the continuity of the Ducks, but you can easily take it is a sign of timeline problems that will show up in later stories.

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye to Neighbor Jones. This story marks his last Rosa appearance, with not even so much as a cameo to come. Bye Jonesy! I will miss you! I see only two possible reasons for this: He moved away to get from that crazy Donald Duck, or he was arrested for the massive property damage he did to Donald’s house.

… or Rosa got bored with him and just wrote other stories that didn’t need to include him in a perfunctory manner. You know, one of the three.

Don Rosa in Review – Cash Flow (1987)

[AR-106] – Cash Flow (26 Pages, Adventure)

The Story: The Beagle Boys, in an effort to raid Scrooge’s Money Bin, get hold of ray-guns that negate inertia and friction. The only natural result of such shenanigans? The Great Duckburg Money Flood!

The Review: Don Rosa has claimed that the finest comic book in existence is “Only a Poor Old Man” and the finest comic book panel to be the dam breaking in that same story. So it’s no surprise that his first crack at a Beagle Boys tale would reference that classic tale, with the flowing of money like water, Scrooge saying the titular phrase, Scrooge beating the Beagle Boys at their own game, and a final verbal callback joke.

Rosa even copied Scrooge’s pose directly from the last panel of “Only A Poor Old Man” in homage!

There are a number of reasons “Only a Poor Old Man” worked so well, but the most critical one is the emotional core of Scrooge and Donald’s characters. For all the grief his money puts him through, Scrooge considers a swim in his money to be worth every bit of hassle he goes through, even after he almost lost it all. Donald’s characterization of a slyly amused assistant gives us a grounded proxy by which we can experience Scrooge’s adventures, and hook the reader in to delivering part of the moral at the end, where we question the reason Scrooge is so invested in his money, and when the famous closing lines are delivered the reader feels they are being answered directly by Scrooge, without breaking the realism of the story.

The way Rosa interprets “Only a Poor Old Man” will be the most important influence throughout his entire body of work, and I will go in to more detail on that in later entries. But it must be pointed out that while there are references and homages to that tale in “Cash Flow”, they are not the same type of same story. Instead, this is Rosa doing one of the things he does best, taking real world scientific principles and applying them to the fantasy land of Duckburg. It gives a great balance of tension, humor, and a little bit of education thrown in there on the sly, but it does not delve in to the characters’ emotions, nor is it meant to. That type of exploration would be saved for other stories which Rosa is so famous for.

All things considered, it’s a great adventure tale and rare for Rosa in that it’s an adventure story that takes place entirely in Duckburg. The anatomy of the characters is excellent, there’s a much better use of composition this time around, and for a story where playing with inertia and friction is so important there is a real sense of motion.

Sound effects are incorporated more frequently, lending some atmosphere to the science fiction elements of the story.

Rayguns and sound effects for all!

The last page is the most important (in this story) in terms of his artistic development, showing a use of cross-hatching to create a sense of foreboding to Scrooge’s dialogue. This technique would be used more often and to greater effect in stories to come.

Continuity: This story gives confirmation that Leavenworst Prison (a take on the real-life Leavenworth, and first mentioned in “Recalled Wreck”) is the official Duckburg prison and not simply a throwaway gag, and another Barksian reference in Two-Gun “Buck” McDuck, a name which will take a far greater importance when we examine The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.

I love this panel.

This story is unusual in that the Barksian reference of the Cabbage Professor from “The Mysterious Stone Ray” kicks off the plot, but “Cash Flow” is not actually a sequel to that tale. When people discuss Rosa, I often hear a lack of distinction between ‘reference’ and ‘sequel’ and it bothers me. Almost all of Rosa’s stories are references to Barks (or his own stories) in at least a cursory fashion, but his sequel tales are a horse of a different color, and one that we won’t see until 1988’s “Last Sled to Dawson”.

Don Rosa in Review – Recalled Wreck (1987)

[AR-105]Recalled Wreck (10 Pages, Gag)

The Story: Donald, in a surprising display of thriftiness, completely dismantles and re-everythings each part of his custom-built car (old 313). While Donald leaves to get a faulty part repaired, Neighbor Jones, seeing the parts on his lawn, sells them at his yard sale under the assumption that they were meant for the garbage. Donald must track down his misappropriated car parts piece by piece from his neighbors.

The Review: Rosa has said that in the early days he actually copied facial expressions and poses from the Barks’ versions of the Ducks (and I know on later occasions, outright traced them for panel recreations). I’m not totally sure when (or if) this practice ceased, but until I read this post on the DCML archive I would never have known it:

When I started writing & drawing Duck stories in 1987, I learned by copying Barks poses, as is or with any changes as suited my needs. – Don Rosa

I also recall an interview where he stated that he has been told that his pencils look very much like Barks, but when inked they become a different animal altogether. So it’s difficult for me, as an observer, to articulate why it feels like this is the first time he really drew Donald correctly. But it’s clear that the anatomy is much more solid, his face is a lot more expressive, and most of all the extremely odd eye shapes that went on in his last few stories were gone, gone, gone.

Son of the Sun: Weird.

Mythological Menagerie: REALLY weird.

Recalled Wreck: There we go.

Part of the difference between Barks’ training and Rosa’s is that Barks had, well, training. He worked under the Disney shorts program, which pioneered most animation principles in the United States. He understood the way you constructed a movement frame by frame, and the panels of his comics correctly chose each frame to present to the reader. There is a real artistry to it. He also understood that realism, for all its great qualities, was immaterial if you could not convey the character’s emotions believably.

Image originally found here: http://www.cbarks.dk/theinquiriesfirst.htm

Take a look at Barks’ model sheets for Western Publishing, in particular how Scrooge’s hat changes depending on his mood. Hats do not move involuntarily the way our face does, but Barks understood that this was a simple, elegant way to help convey the mood without changing the face overmuch. I would argue that Barks’ strengths lie in his composition and writing, while facial expressions were simply an element to consider within an individual drawing. Each frame was a picture that happened to have a character in it, and every single element of that picture was designed to convey that mood.

Rosa, however, is entirely self-taught, and takes a totally different approach. He uses a frame to focus on a character within a location. You’ll notice in stories to come that he uses a real sense of place with his drawings, full of rich detail to help the reader feel like they are part of the action, while the visual emotion of a scene is largely conveyed with facial expressions and body language. The first elements of this emotionally expressive character style really start developing here, not in the emotionally gripping way of the pathos-heavy stories or intensive detail he would be known for, but simply in the way emotion is conveyed on Donald’s face.

Sidenote: I don’t get it.

As for the story itself? This is one of my favorite of his gag pieces. The jokes are extremely solid, with a good mix of verbal and visual, and it seems like an extremely believable slice-of-life story for Donald.

Continuity: When it comes to characters, this is the first of only two Neighbor Jones appearances. But more importantly we’ve got our first Rosa occurrence of a veeblefetzer.

This isn’t too surprising considering how much of a fan Rosa is of MAD Magazine, especially the Kurtzman/Elder team. If you’re familiar with Elder’s art, you can see a lot of his influence in stories to come.

Don Rosa in Review – Mythological Menagerie (1987)

It was my intention to write a single article on Don Rosa’s Duck comics. I would talk about why his work is so popular and acclaimed, what failings I think he is prone to in his stories, the themes, what I thought of him compared to Carl Barks… after all, he is one of the most popular living cartoonists in the world. Over the course of twenty years he wrote some of the most enduring Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories since The Old Master himself, and is all but a rock star in Europe.

But then I actually sat down and read all of his stories straight through, and that plan went right out the window. It’s not really possible to explain exactly what he did without talking more in depth than is readable in a single essay.

So instead of the single article format, I will look at each of Rosa’s Duck stories, one by one, in a series called Don Rosa in Review. I will discuss the faults and strengths of the story, Rosa’s progression as an artist, give production history whenever it is available and of interest… and most importantly, I’m going to discuss the continuity in Rosa’s stories. Not just the continuity of Rosa’s connections to Barks, but of the continuity Rosa created within his own work, which is by far a more complex entity.

Each review will have a synopsis, a review which will be the bulk of the text, and a note regarding continuity to keep in mind for later stories.

[AR-104] – Mythological Menagerie (10 Pages, Gag)

The Story: In an effort to salvage his wounded pride, Donald attempts to ruin the endeavors of three small children by staging a sighting of an animal that isn’t real. But Rosa read up on his mythological animals and so did Huey Dewey and Louie, and Donald’s efforts end in failure.

The Review: Well look at that, we have a rare sighting of a Junior Woodchucks acronym!

I don’t know why these weren’t used more often in Rosa stories and couldn’t begin to speculate. I will say that this is a much stronger effort than “Nobody’s Business”, probably because Donald is usually at his funniest when he’s trying to ruin someone, and the schadenfreude you can get from that is comedy gold. Rosa capitalizes on schadenfreude a lot when writing Donald, and we’ll examine that as we go; but for, we have a simple, harmless story good for a few laughs.

Rosa makes a point of using real, historical facts and legend in many of his stories. That said, I’m not going to point out the historical events very often both because I am not a student of history and because it is not the point of this series. But I do find no small measure of amusement that even in his third story, the animals that Donald fabricates in “Mythological Menagerie” are all based on, well, mythological animals (a break in realism that I suspect Rosa allows because real world mythology in the Duck stories is an established Barksian trait, seen most recognizably in “Trail of the Unicorn”).

Continuity: Grandma Duck and Gus Goose make their first appearances here, serving as much-needed straightmen for Donald’s antics. I want to point out Donald’s membership in the Little Booneheads, a rough-and-tumble counterpart to the Junior Woodchucks that will be mentioned later.

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