Conventions are stressful affairs, fraught with peril and, usually, good things. It’s getting there that’s the trick. I typically attend my local comic conventions, SpringCon and FallCon, which are very specifically comics-oriented. There’s a cosplay section and artist’s alley for people who don’t do sequential art, but it’s almost entirely comics. Bliss, for someone with my particular interests.
Naturally, my favorite writer and artist in the entire world, Don Rosa, wasn’t going to either of those: he was going to Minnesota Fan Fusion – a convention with comics, people who recreate cars and props from TV shows, panels about Szechuan Sauce, and meeting people you pay ten dollars plus the cost of popcorn to see play pretend on a big screen, all of whom should really be a lot taller than they are.
Obviously, I was going. I got my career as a writer started with an interview with him, which was published in the English reprint of The Pertwillaby Papers and later used as the basis of the Greek edition of the book’s special features. The Coin is one of the best comic book stories I’ve ever read. I bought an Artist’s Edition of his work, despite the cost, just to read and admire the linework of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck – knowing it would take two more volumes to complete the saga.
The plan was simple. I would look at the guest list, look at my trade paperback collection, find the stuff they’d done, and ask for a signature (and head sketch from artists, but we’ll get to that later). I’d leave the boxes over at my cousin’s booth, easy as pie. Christopher Priest’s run on Deadpool, even at ten issues, is superlative – the Tom Cruise storyline alone is worth the price of the omnibus. Peter David writes so much I’m not sure the man sleeps. And Don Rosa, well, I have every published piece of his work available in English at this time.
Last month was weird. Since my last Showing Off The Shelves, things avalanched. I mean, they avalanched personally, but so did my collection. Three different jobs landed in my lap, all of which can lead to a lot more. My initial acceptance letter to one of them, (before I re-drafted it) was “Wow, I’m happy to do that, but how the fuck did I trick you into saying yes?”
I’m going to start this post off by giving a special thanks to The Nostalgia Zone, the comic book store I frequent most (this is not the mob store I have mentioned in other posts, if you go in there to ask a question the owner won’t say “Who’s asking?”). Thanks to them, I was able to find some remarkable deals. Some of them were things I’d been looking for already, some of them on the edge of my radar, and one big ticket item that I never thought I’d get my hands on.
As it happens, they were having a sale on Groundhog Day. I know I said Don Rosa in Review was in hibernation, but while I won’t be digging into the story in that article, I will discuss what I found: The Don Rosa Artist’s Edition.
So… there were some delays since my last Don Rosa in Review came out! I’m sorry about that. You can thank Dr. GeoX for inspiring me to put out this little birthday present to myself. I had waited for two Don Rosa books to come out to allow me to better discuss the material in relationship to his development as an artist, one being the Fantagraphics release, the other being the third volume of the Don Rosa Classics. I’m not holding my breath on that last one coming out any time soon, more’s the pity, but I do have the Fantagraphics releases. With them, I finally, finally have an opportunity to go through Don Rosa’s Duck stories the way I had intended!
Well. Except for one. Return to Duckburg Place was written in 1970 with Ray Foushee, who also collaborated on ‘a handful of [Pertwillaby Papers] episodes’, and is technically the first Disney Duck comic Rosa ever worked on. I say technically because it was produced as an underground comic, starts with Huey Dewey and Louie smoking pot, and actually gets more messed up from there. While this comic was published in European territories as part of various Don Rosa collections, the more uptight Disney of America wouldn’t allow publication of this story in the Don Rosa Library. I was fortunate enough to find a copy from an acquaintance to work with for this column. Funny what happens when Disney tells him not to publish things he worked on that fans want to read: somehow, it gets out there anyway.
This is one of only three Duck comics he did in black and white, all of which were unofficial productions. This is why you see Zip-A-Tone on most of the characters, later used to remarkable effect on The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky. It is also easily the darkest thing he’s ever done, outdoing even his “Casper the Dead Baby” jokes made during conventions and interviews.
I really, really hope he’s joking. It makes sense the more you think about it, just look at that head… but anyway. I couldn’t think of a better way to return to Don Rosa in Review than this, with Return to Duckburg Place.
Summary: Don Rosa holds nothing back in a dark, satirical, amateur production that slams the Disney Duck world and its characters, and I laugh hysterically at the thought of this same guy being most well known for his heart wrenching, brilliant stories that thrive on extreme pathos. Everyone has a dark side, and this is definitely his.
Story: Donald and Gladstone compete in a contest sponsored by the manufacturers of Oolated Squiggs, because Donald has never read this kind of comic before and doesn’t know how this is going to end. Through the use of SCIENCE, the contest becomes farcical, and the nephews cleverly attempt to cheat fate on their uncle’s behalf. But even when Gladstone loses, he wins.
The Review: I’m not sure how to react to this story. It’s a Donald versus Gladstone story with a… twist? I guess? The perpetually lucky character lucks out in the end, and Donald fails. That’s kind of the opposite of a twist, but it’s played as one. Usually in Barks comics when Donald suffers it’s because he was acting like a twerp, not just because Donald is the universe’s chew toy. It just doesn’t seem quite right.
The whole story feels workmanlike in that it takes no chances, the artwork is serviceable, it has a number of solid jokes in it, and as such it fits the bill for a typical ‘good’ Disney comic. If that sounds like an indictment against Disney comics… well, there’s a reason Rosa stood out, and it’s because he usually didn’t make comics like this.
That said… look at this guy. I want to punch him so hard he flies in to next month’s issue. He is obviously not a very active villain, very much like “Nobody’s Business”, but here you hate his guts so much you really want him to lose. This is solid, (though somewhat ham handed) characterization, because it means you want Donald to win. You care what happens. For good and for ill, that’s really all Gladstone is meant to be and it’s all he can be in a story like this. He’s an antagonist that you hate and want to see not just lose, but beaten. It’s exactly what you need in a story like this.
I’m talking about the art in this series a lot more than I really want to, but a big part of that is because Rosa’s early art is weird. It’s not that he started off bad, but he has some quirks that you can’t really ignore. Like in this story, where Rosa appears to intermittently forget how to draw Gladstone. I mean, on a technical level, he’s obviously capable of doing a very well drawn Gladstone.
… you know, if you only ever draw him at that angle. But looking at these panels…
Well this… this is really not right. His bill is screwed up, and the perspective is all kinds of weird. He’s actually drawn fine in some parts of the story, but out of the 26 panels Gladstone appears in within this story, the profile angle is used in 9 of them. His Gladstone became much better throughout later stories. But even when he drew a Gladstone poster ten years after the publication of this story, he used the profile shot.
Part of the problem is that no other characters are really drawn like Gladstone. With his unusually large bill and curly head of hair, even when he’s drawn ‘correctly’ (meaning to Barksian standards) he still looks out of place amongst the other Ducks. Even Barks didn’t really succeed with fitting him in as often as you would expect, based on my reading. That said, I would bet there is a specific Barks panel that Rosa is drawing from for these profile shots (which he uses in this story and many others), but as always, my Barks knowledge is not up to snuff.
But that unusual bill length brings me to a point I have wanted to express for quite some time. And since I’ve had a series of negative reviews up in a row (that streak’s broken next time, folks), pardon me while I have a strange interlude: Gladstone Gander is drawn weirdly because he is biracial. Oh yes, I’m going there, and you can’t stop me.
For reasons unknown to me, “humans” in Disney comics are drawn with black noses and dog ears. They are colloquially referred to as Dognoses, and are the default ‘race’ within the Disney comics universe.
Compare this to our heroes, who are, well, Ducks. We don’t see anyone with their body type in the crowd. You know who else we don’t see in the crowd?
The more you think about it, the more confusing it gets. Are all Mousemen black? What would a black Mouseman look like if they’re not? Why are the Ducks of Tralla-La all Dognose sized?
I’ve thought about this a lot.
But the point is this… Duckburg is basically a honky town, and Gladstone Gander is the son of a Duck and a Gooselip by way of Daphne Duck and Goostave Gander. His bill looks like neither of theirs. Either he is some sort of mutant freak in a way totally unrelated to his race, or his mixed parentage gave him a totally different physical attribute than his racial background would suggest. Is his pain that of a man searching between two cultures, a minority even amongst other minorities? There are but a few Ducks in Duckburg, and the only Gooselip known to us is a farmhand miles outside of town. Could this be the secret behind his obnoxious, hateful acts?
Oh come on now. Just cause you’re a minority doesn’t mean you lack the capacity to be a jerk on your own merits. The fact is Barks didn’t do a great job designing the character, and he got stuck with a weirdly out of proportioned face that’s just hard to draw. At least to everyone in the comic he’s considered ridiculously attractive, so it all evens out in the end. Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad argument to say the larger bill symbolizes…
… nah… couldn’t be… right?
Continuity: Beyond the obvious oolated item in question, a Barksian reference, and a one-off panel relating to “Race to the South Seas”… that’s it. Sorry folks. The ball really gets rolling next time, with the deservedly classic “Last Sled to Dawson”!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.