Don Rosa in Review – The Complete Captain Kentucky
Here’s the truth: I wrote The Pertwillaby Papers review without ever intending to do a follow-up with Captain Kentucky, Don Rosa’s semi-sequel-but-actually-just-a-dream newspaper strip. I knew I would have serious problems if I tried. But the more I thought about it, the more I could not justify to myself why I wouldn’t say something about the comic. I knew I was going write about the third volume in the set when it came out. So why didn’t I want to write about this one?
It took me a little while, but I realized why I was so resistant to the idea of reviewing it. While I have quite a lot to say about the contents of the book as a whole, the strip itself is a puzzle, and one I could not solve.
So here is one of the strangest things I’ve ever written: four reasons why I’m not reviewing Captain Kentucky (and a review of everything else in the book to make up for it).
Why I’m Not Reviewing Captain Kentucky
1. I’m Not From 1970s Loo-uh-vuhl
The premise of Captain Kentucky is that Lance Pertwillaby is Captain Kentucky, a well-meaning and comically destructive superhero set in the real world Louisville, Kentucky. The real world meaning real Louisville landmarks, celebrities, and current events at the time of the comic’s setting, 1979 to 1981. It’s very tightly bound to real events, real places, and real people. Reading Captain Kentucky, I am in the position where I’m not just disassociated from a very specific setting, but a very specific time period.
In effect, reviewing this comic strip is like asking me to research and report on the veracity of the claims contained in a travel brochure for Pompeii before the volcano erupted.
2. The Format
Captain Kentucky is written in a format that I can’t categorize. It’s not written like the newspaper strips I love, such as Mickey Mouse, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Peanuts, or even The Pertwillaby Papers. A typical Captain Kentucky strip was published weekly in the Sunday papers, half a page per strip, with the occasional full page episode. And it’s difficult to talk about precisely for that reason.
There are stories being told in Captain Kentucky, but the strips fall in to a strange hybrid between standalone and continuity-based storytelling. It’s a strange feeling, where I’ve read some four to eight pages of a storyline, only to start reading the next page and think, “Ah, okay, I guess that was the end of that.” It felt like a sequence of events that we saw a piece of, rather than a continuing story. And it’s just not something I’m prepared to delve in to because I don’t understand how or why it was written that way.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the half-page strips allowed Rosa’s art to shine in a way the original 128 strips of The Pertwillaby Papers did not, and that he is astoundingly capable of maximizing the content of each strip relative to the space he’s given. Just look at the above strip for an example.
Early episodes of the comic were definitely cluttered, but eventually he struck a good balance between the two. The end result is surprisingly clean considering how much he’s doing with the space.
3. The Premise vs. What It’s About
In order to understand why it’s difficult for me to review Captain Kentucky, we have to go to Storytelling 101. Specifically, we need to talk about the difference between the premise of a story and what it is about, and where Captain Kentucky might have gone off the rails. Let’s take a look at another comic strip as an example.
The premise of Calvin and Hobbes is that Calvin, a hyperactive and imaginative six year old, plays with his imaginary/maybe-not-imaginary friend, the stuffed animal Hobbes.
But that’s not what the comic is about, that’s the premise. A premise on its own means nothing, because it is simply the vehicle in which to tell stories. It’s the about that we remember.
Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip about a hyperactive and imaginative six year old and his imaginary/maybe-not-imaginary friend Hobbes the Tiger, and how even though there are sad things about humanity’s nature and the world we live in, there are just as many wonderful things in the world to discover.
The reason I didn’t talk about this concept in The Pertwillaby Papers review is simple: the comic is explicitly focused on comedic adventures, not emotion. It’s smart, fun escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But Captain Kentucky is a completely different kind of comic. While still saturated with the typical wit and art I expect from Rosa, it’s more personal, starting with the premise: it allows him to show his love for his hometown, lampoon and pay homage to various famous figures, and express his opinion and viewpoint to a willing audience.
As I said earlier, the premise of Captain Kentucky is that Lance Pertwillaby is Captain Kentucky, a well-meaning and comically destructive superhero set in the real world. But that’s not what the comic is about. It’s actually very difficult for me to figure out what Captain Kentucky is about, because the comic is doing all sorts of different things. Little things, big things, fun things, good things, bad things. But if I was forced to make my best guess, I’d say the theme was Don Rosa’s frustration with people.
I don’t mean to say that the entire comic is Don Rosa taking his personal issues out on the world, far from it. He is completely honest in his opinions on subjects, and writes in a way where he’s allowed to express them, but Captain Kentucky is, in fact, a comedic adventure strip starring a bumbling superhero. But the way it was executed somehow led to a sort of insularity, and was therefore more difficult for me to connect to as a reader.
What I found striking is when he drops the pretense of humor that I find myself enjoying and connecting with the comic far better than the usual stuff, like this strip here:
That strip is all the more telling when you read the article about why he retired from comics, and shows exactly why he worked at it for so long.
I do admire his efforts to expose himself on a more personal level with Captain Kentucky than any of his other comics. Even the space between the tiers of each strip was used to express his personal viewpoints on whatever he felt like saying, popular or not. To be so open, not to an international audience like the one he deals with now, but to the people of the city you grew up in, is not the act of someone who was willing to compromise or play it safe.
4. I’m Not Sure if I Like it or Not
When it comes to my likes and dislikes, I don’t have too many grey areas, but Captain Kentucky definitely falls in to that place.
For every pro I put on my list, there’s a corresponding con: The art is great, but Rosa never really mastered how to lay out a half-page strip in a way that fully shows it off. I love the premise of the comic, but I’m not sure what to make of the execution. The jokes can be funny, but I can tell I’m only catching one out of every three he’s throwing at me. He’s willing to try new things throughout the strip’s run, but it feels unfocused. The comic has a strong personal voice, but I feel somehow distant from it.
I just don’t know what to make of this comic.
And that’s my list, told in full. Hopefully now you understand why no matter my efforts, I simply can’t review Captain Kentucky. The rest of The Complete Captain Kentucky, however, is more than fair game.
Bonus Features: Unlike The Complete Pertwillaby Papers, I’m not actually in this book… but I can hardly hold that against what they did include! With 64 pages of bonus features (including the two bonus comics of Phalanx and The Home Computer Handbook) consisting of in-depth interviews, profile pieces and rare art, if you’re a Rosa fan the book is worth checking out for these pages alone.
The QR codes, meant to help you look up some of the locations and people in this book, are a great idea. But I think they would have been better served as pages hosted on an individual site, written from Rosa’s own perspective, rather than linking to things like wikipedia.
Phalanx: Rosa, in his introduction to the bonus comics, mentions he tried to submit Phalanx for syndication, and likely would have continued to do so if he hadn’t already had a job waiting for him after college. While the twelve strips of this comedy-adventure printed here show promise and could have likely been reworked to something very interesting (and I have heavily praised his work on The Pertwillaby Papers newspaper strips), I can understand why Phalanx wasn’t run.
Each strip had a much slower pace than an episode of the Pertwillaby Papers, and without the recap panel he used so effectively there, each strip lacks context as a standalone piece. The comics tended to lack strong gags, despite being a comedic adventure strip. While the art is typically excellent Rosa, the layouts of each strip felt wasteful. The story was arguably better suited for a comic book, or a half-page Sunday strip, than running in a daily newspaper. But if nothing else, it’s an interesting look at the road not traveled.
Just because something is flawed, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.
The Home Computer Handbook: If you’ve ever dealt with computers, these one-off comics on tech issues printed for a local computer club still resonate.
I don’t have much more to say about them, just that they really make me laugh, especially having grown up in a tech-savvy household. I really think people don’t give Rosa enough credit as a cartoonist, himself included.
Presentation: As it is part of the same collection as The Pertwillaby Papers, the book is beautiful, with the same hardcover and thick, glossy paper. Horizontally formatted at 8.2 x 11.6 inches, the artwork is reprinted as big as was possible. The full-page strips are spread across multiple pages, but it’s a compromise that’s both understandable and hardly noticeable, considering the way Rosa generally sticks to strict tier-usage in his layouts.
The in-depth interviews, originally printed in magazines, have been shrunk down in a smaller font to fit the book’s format while keeping their original layouts. The amount of material successfully crammed in to this book is a testament to how much care was put in to its construction.
Unfortunately, there is exactly one thing in the book that I really can’t excuse: there is no table of contents. There was one in the Pertwillaby Papers, but this book needs it more due to the sheer amount of bonus material in it.
Final Thoughts: I don’t regret buying the comic, nor the time I spent reading it. And if you’re a Kentucky resident or a Rosa fan, I strongly encourage you to check it out for yourselves. The book itself is great, and would be interesting even without the 150 strips of Captain Kentucky. But it’s gonna take someone a lot smarter than me to review them.
The Complete Captain Kentucky can be purchased at www.danibooks.de with a little help from Google Translate, with digital copies available from Amazon.com.