New Guy In Duckberg

After Carl Barks, the creator who gave the world Uncle Scrooge, retired in 1973, I would have thought that the chances of another major creator showing up to breathe new life into Donald and his friends were slim and none. Dell had stopped publishing their comics and the Disney people weren't picking up that ball. Time and cartoonist Don Rosa have proved me wrong.

Before Don Rosa started out on his career as a professional duck cartoonist he was a comics collector -- his family home gradually filled with comics (many of them Dells) while he grew up in the 1950s, ultimately resulting in a collection of over 40,000 titles.

So, naturally enough, when Robert Overstreet launched his price guide 29 years ago, it was Rosa who was his in-house specialist on comics of the 1940s and 1950s. Rosa never thought of becoming a comics professional in those days; his family ran a construction business and the comic book field of the late 1950s into the early 1960s was a wasteland of Comics Code gutted pablum. After achieving a B.S. in Civil Engineering, Rosa went into construction while still continuing on with his hobby of collecting comic books.

Another hobby was his Pertwillaby Papers, a daily strip for the University of Kentucky. Rosa had originally been offered the space on the condition that he do a Doonesbury type strip, and the artist agreed, thinking that he'd gradually switch it over to an archaeology adventure strip (similar to the later Raiders of the Lost Ark film), drawing on the inspiration of Carl Barks' journey themes in Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge adventures.

It didn't quite last through Rosa's full stay at college (his editor wanted politics, not humor-adventure), but the strip was the basis for the breakthrough Scrooge story that would later make Rosa's reputation, "The Son of the Sun" (Walt Disney's Uncle $crooge # 219, Gladstone Comics).

Rosa also contributed material to comics fandom's long-running Information Center column in the comics fanzine Rocket's Blast Comicollector, continuing on with the column in Fantagraphic's Amazing Heroes magazine and later in The Comics Buyer's Guide. In 1978, however, Rosa was contacted by the Louisville Times, a Kentucky paper that needed a strip and had somehow learned about Rosa's abilities. Rosa had no interest in coming up with a gag-a-day strip and talked them into giving him a Sunday-style half-page slot for a superhero comedy strip, his Captain Kentucky.

But Captain Kentucky didn't excite much interest, never even stirred a ripple even though Rosa went to lengths to include stories about Louisville citizens, and even the Mayor. Nothing can sap a cartoonist's enthusiasm faster than no feedback and Rosa dropped the strip. By this time he was involved in the family business and had married. Cartooning waned....

Until 1986, which was when Don Rosa walked into a bookstore and saw a Gladstone comic. "Gladstone was a company formed of Disney fans; they were Disney collectors," Rosa says. "They loved the characters, respected the characters, and understood them. That was the difference between Disney and Gladstone. Suddenly, on the newsstands you had the best Disney comics this country had ever seen. Why did they get the rights? They asked for them. Disney didn't care; they knew no one else was interested."

Rosa contacted then-Gladstone editor Byron Erickson. His first story for the small company was "The Son of the Sun," nominated for a Harvey Award and the first of many great Rosa tales like "Last Sled to Dawson" (Scrooge's youth in the Yukon) and "The Money Pit" (which poked fun at the collector's mentality). For a brief eighteen months, Rosa was having the time of his life.

And then Disney pulled the plug, suddenly demanding that Gladstone submit all their stories to the corporation for editorial approval. Worse, Gladstone was no longer allowed to return Rosa's original artwork.

Rosa, a dedicated Disney fan, was forced to give up the work that had made many new Disney fans. His page rate had been comparatively low and he was dependant on resale of his originals -- for fifty percent of his income. The new corporate ruling made continuing on as a duck cartoonist unfeasible. Rosa was unemployed for about a year but found work drawing Donald and Scrooge for Gutenbergus (now Egmont),the massive European publishing house.

By 1990 Gladstone was out of the Duck business; Disney had taken away the Disney fans' license and started up their own comics publishing operation, ably edited by Len (The Incredible Hulk) Wein and Bob (Myron Moose)Foster. Wein and Foster did a laudable job and their comics, like Gladstone's, are worthwhile collectibles, but after only a few years the accountants pulled the plug on the new producers as well, and that was the end of Walt Disney's Donald Duck Adventures and Walt Disney's Uncle $crooge -- in this country.

Not so in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, whose children and adults continue to enjoy the Duck tales, many of them written and illustrated by Don Rosa. He's been with Egmont for ten years now.

His Life and Times of $crooge McDuck series has won several awards, and his stories sell millions of copies each week in Europe and Asia - but not in this country! There have been rumors that Gladstone may have another shot at publishing the Ducks, but no solid word as yet. For now fans must content themselves with backdate collectibles. It's sad that-- as far as comics are concerned-- Donald Duck is now in exile from the country that hatched him.

((2004 postscript: the Ducks and Don Rosa are back stateside again, published by Gemstone.Yippee!))

--Steve Stiles