Monday, July 9, 2012

The Masterful Mashup Cartooning of Don Rosa

Note: Prior to posting, I sent the final draft of this blog post to Don Rosa himself, to make sure I had my facts straight. He graciously responded, only correcting a few dates and exclaimed:
"I read your piece. And I think I'll read it again! It is nice when people like my stories, but there is no happiness greater 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. Anyway, your piece is one of the few that clearly display an understanding of 'Just where I was comin' from.' Thank you."
I'm grateful to Mr. Rosa for his thoughtful response, and I'm darn proud of that reaction. So, let's see what Don liked. Here's the article in full:

Keno Don Hugo Rosa forges funnies of fowl feathered friends for a fan
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

A growing trend in our era of user-created content are "mashups" – a re-purposing of media resulting in transformative content. A YouTube search utilizing the phrase will garner thousands of results of re-combined and/or manipulated audio and video. Here's a good example:

 YouTube "Mashup" of Queen, Joan Jett & Weezer: We Will Rock and Roll Beverly Hills

The notion of combining isolated or incongruous elements is nothing new, but in the right hands, the application and execution can often bear unique and wonderful fruit. Cartoonist Keno Don Rosa has done exactly this throughout his career: pulled inspiration from several logical, yet isolated sources, then carefully grafted them onto a one-of-a-kind vine. Upon harvest, a single taste of such pericarp can provide complex and delicious flavors.

It just takes a long time to mature. Due to its scarcity, it's a rare treat.

For those unaware of his output, Don Rosa's best-known work is his continuity-driven interpretation of Carl Barks' Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic book stories. Rosa's laser-focused research of minutiae within all of Barks' 500+ stories were combined with an equal focus on fact-checked world history, science and pop culture, giving way to a familiar, yet fresh new angle on the denizens of Duckburg.

Color illustration of a famous scene from Don Rosa's first Uncle Scrooge tale, The Son of the Sun (1987)
Artwork by Don Rosa, © The Walt Disney Company
Image courtesy of Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin

Where Barks occasionally contradicted his own stories, Rosa assembled 99% of that world, and placed his new stories squarely in the early-to-mid 1950s to maintain Barks' continuity of the characters and their surroundings. For example, in 1953, 86 year-old Scrooge McDuck maintains a plausible past as a prospector in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s, or recalling adventures with the likes of American legends such as Theodore Roosevelt and Geronimo.*

Young Scrooge McDuck crossed paths with real American Legends such as
Geronimo, "Buffalo" Bill Cody, P.T. Barnum and Annie Oakley
Panels from The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck, Chapter 6B: The Vigilante of Pizen Bluff
Story & Artwork by Don Rosa, © The Walt Disney Company
Image courtesy of Geox's Duck Comics Revue

It's not kid stuff. The same way George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Walt Kelly's Pogo aren't kid stuff. They're the rarest of treasures peeking out of the sand... you need only brush off a few grains to see them shine.

The "mashup" status for Don Rosa applies to the aforementioned strict adherence to an established timeline, clearly maintaining the unmistakable Barksian flavor and character, but breaking away from Barks' fluid cartooning style. The combinations fuse together further, as Rosa's formal art education did not consist of creative drawing or illustration technique: he was trained in technical drawing. His early forays into cartooning were self-taught, and considered a hobby (though his pre-Disney comic art was certainly rich enough in style and substance to have paved roads to a syndicated or national publication). The unusual marriage of the two creative disciplines then combined the tools of one with the technique of the other: his comic art is drawn with technical drafting pens. This technique boasts bolder, straight-forward iconography, rounded out by Rosa's signature "hyper-detail" rendering. Some criticize this micro-attention to detail as too cluttered and busy, others contend this gives the reader more for their money. Note the remarkable extra details and rendering in the panels below:

The McDucks show their mettle, repelling an invasion against Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders
Panels from The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck, Chapter 10: The Invader of Fort Duckburg
Story & Artwork by Don Rosa, © The Walt Disney Company
Image courtesy of Random Access Blogging

It's easy to place Don's line work on the same latitude as underground cartoonist R. Crumb. Many compare his dense cartooning style to that of MAD Magazine cartoonist Will Elder, and there is equal (if not more) connective tissue to Rosa's style in Elder's MAD contemporary, Wally Wood. However, the multiple zingers per-panel style of MAD isn't the driving force with Rosa's comics. The staging and timing of his storytelling are nothing short of genius, often allowing silent panels spin a yarn far better than 10,000 words ever could.

A perfect example of a (basically) dialogue-free comic panel, jam-packed with gags AND exposition!
Splash panel detail from The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck, Chapter 8: The King of the Klondike
Story & Artwork by Don Rosa, © The Walt Disney Company
Image courtesy of Kivitasku

Don Rosa's early, pre-Disney comics were based out of publications with small print runs, and are hard to come by, even in their country of origin. His first series debuted in 1971: The Pertwillaby Papers was a comic strip Rosa started as a college student for the University of Kentucky's newspaper Kentucky Kernal, and later continued in the fanzine The Rocket's Blast Comicollector. The Pertwillaby Papers takes a cue from to the great movie serials of old and the finest Carl Barks long adventure stories; "Indiana Jones" style epics written over a decade before Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered. The lead character of Lancelot Pertwillaby was Rosa's self-caricature.

An opening panel from an early Captain Kentucky comic strip
Note how Rosa's title treatment pops, yet melds with the aesthetic, à la Will Eisner's The Spirit
Artwork © by Don Rosa, image courtesy of The Comics Reporter

In 1979, Don began a Sunday comics sized comic strip to his local newspaper, The Louisville Times. Captain Kentucky was a parody of super hero comics, and became Lance Pertwillaby's super hero alter-ego. The strip was even more outrageous than The Pertwillaby Papers, featuring real people, events and locales around Louisville, KY. Don did 150 episodes of Captain Kentucky before ending the strip in 1982, after a 3 year run. It would be five years before he returned to the drawing board to draw his first official Uncle Scrooge story for U.S. publisher Another Rainbow/Gladstone.

Appetite whet? Then here's a few sample pages of both The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky, click on the links above the images:

 Artwork © by Don Rosa, image courtesy of Erik's Disney Weirdness

 Artwork © by Don Rosa, image courtesy of Erik's Disney Weirdness

As stated earlier, Rosa's early works are not easily available or accessible, but there is currently a successful funding and preorder campaign for a deluxe book set of BOTH The Pertwillaby Papers and Captain Kentucky. The project is being organized by Jano Rohleder, a longtime friend of Don Rosa and the German editor/translator of his Disney Duck work. What's more, Rosa himself is an advisor on the project, and will provide a new introduction for both books. I can tell you that Don's written articles are just as engaging as his comic book stories! 

You can get details and preorder both books at Jano's indiegogo site here:

The Don Rosa Classics: Deluxe Edition

Yet another "mashup" – a special illustration of Lancelot Pertwillably AND his alter-ego, Captain Kentucky!
Artwork © by Don Rosa, Image courtesy of Don Rosa and Jano Rohleder

I've already contributed to the fund, and I hope this post might provide some folks a doorway to do the same. The comic art of Don Rosa can never be read once and cast aside, it begs to be re-read and re-discovered due to his unique style of storytelling. Half the fun of reading his work comes from picking up the little details and inside jokes within the framework of an already entertaining tale. A cartooning "mashup" pairing some unlikely sources, producing flavors you won't find anywhere else.

* Scrooge McDuck was a pure comic book creation of Carl Barks, created strictly as a story vehicle for a Donald Duck Christmas tale. By contrast, Donald Duck was created for animated shorts and his persona developed for several years under many creative hands (Barks being one of them, during his time as a story artist at the Walt Disney Studio). With no specific or solid backstory, Donald is an evergreen character; therefore more accessible to adapt to any generation. Through the prism of both Barks and Rosa, the original animated depiction of the character evolved beyond a squawking mischief-maker harassing cute li'l chipmunks: here, he is the American everyman, tasked with the mundane situations we all must endure. He has lofty goals, but little time, patience or humility to achieve them. Even the triplet ducklings, Huey, Dewey and Louie differ significantly from the bratty hellions of their animated counterparts. On the comics page they are noble, wise, studious and most importantly, a force able to polarize the contrasting personalities of their "Unca" Donald and Great "Unca" Scrooge.

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