Ask Chris #202: Scrooge McDuck Is America
Q: Aside from Superman and Captain America what hero is the most fitting representation of The United States? — @white_dolomite
A: You know, just before I sat down to write this, I was reading some Judge Dredd comics and thinking about how fascinating the idea of Dredd as this distinctly, explicitly American icon, covered in eagles and flags and badges and guns and riding on a motorcycle that is also covered in eagles, flags, badges and guns is when you consider that he’s a view of America created by people who aren’t Americans. There’s a lot that goes along with that, and it’s fun to think about when you’re reading through those stories and figuring out what defines them.
But when you get down to it, that doesn’t mean that he’s the best representation of the good ol’ USA. Assuming you mean “hero” as in “protagonist” and not just as in “masked crimefighter,” then the answer’s easy. The quintessentially American comic book character is Scrooge McDuck.
I’ve touched on Scrooge’s status as the embodiment of the American dream before, way back in the early days of Ask Chris, but it’s interesting to look at Scrooge in the context of Captain America and Superman in this pantheon of American icons, because there’s a single narrative through line that goes through all three characters, and unsurprisingly given our national mythology, it’s about opportunity and transformation.
Cap’s the easy one, because the way that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby set up that origin story makes everything literal — a trend that would continue through both of their careers for the next forty or fifty years. Steve Rogers is a kid who wants so badly to defend his country that the American government decides to shoot him up with Super-Soldier Serum and blast him with AMERICA RAYS (I know, I know, they’re Vita-Rays, but I really just imagine Professor Erskine blasting him with red, white and blue lasers that make the sounds of a bald eagle screaming) to power him up, stick an A on his forehead, and give him a shield so that he can go do exactly that. As much as it’s a simple superhero origin story, it’s also built on a metaphor at the heart of American culture, that if you want something bad enough and you’re willing to work for it, you can get an opportunity to become the person that you want to be.
Superman has a similar idea working at the core of his character, and again, it’s a very simple, very obvious metaphor for immigration — he’s literally sent to Earth for an opportunity at a better life. Which, in his case, is, you know, having any life instead of being exploded into space dust with the rest of his planet. There’s a lot in there, about how he can literally never go back to where he came from, and how he grows up in the literal center of America, leaving his past behind and using it to to help people in his new home. That’s the whole Garth Ennis interpretation that comes through so well when Superman shows up in Hitman #34, pretty bluntly stated by Tommy Monaghan, who himself is the son of an immigrant that, like so many of Ennis’s characters, can never really escape the shadows of what happened back in the old country but does his best to try.
There’s a couple of things that are worth noting about this idea, though, which add a couple of twists to that idea. The first came from Paul Cornell, who once said in an interview that while Americans always think of Superman and Captain America as counterparts from their respective universes, he never made that connection when he was growing up reading about them in England. For him, Superman’s counterpart was always Spider-Man, and that makes a lot of sense. If Spider-Man’s core idea is that — say it with me now — with great power comes great responsibility, then you can see how that ideal is reflected across the street. There’s nobody with greater power than Superman, and there’s nobody who uses it more responsibility, exclusively to help others. It raises the question of how integral that piece of American mythology really is to Superman’s character, and not just in a Red Son “but what if he was a commie!” sort of way. Obviously, there are some pretty universal themes involved in that guy.
At the same time, both Superman and Captain America are products of the time and place in which they were created, and it’s impossible to ever really divorce them from that. Each was created by two Jews in a time when the Nazis were on the rise and both are built on subverting Nazi ideals and turning them into something better. Siegel and Shuster literally take the term “superman” and change its meaning forever, replacing ideas of dominance with the idea of someone who helps those who can’t hep themselves, leveling the playing field and taking on the corrupt and powerful as a champion of the oppressed. Simon and Kirby give the world this strapping Aryan super-soldier, 6’4″, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and then have him punching Hitler in the face a year before America enters the war, dedicating him to freedom and defending those who need it.
Scrooge McDuck, on the other hand — or Uncle $crooge, if you want to get technical about it — has a similar narrative, but it manifests itself in a different way.
Scrooge is created in 1947, and while that’s less than a decade after Superman, he’s born into a completely different environment just by virtue of being a post-war character. At the same time, as he develops under Carl Barks (and later under Don Rosa, who created the essential and indispensible Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck based on Barks’s work), he comes to represent American ideals every bit as much as the other two characters. The difference is, for a talking duck with a net worth of 5.9 multipllujillion dollars, he’s actually a pretty incredible blend of American mythology and American reality.
The first key point is that, like Superman, Scrooge is an immigrant — but a slightly different sort of immigrant. He’s from a formerly well-off Scottish family that has fallen on hard times in recent generations, which means that he grew up poor. As a result, he understands the value of money and, perhaps even more importantly, the transformative power of social mobility that it gives you. He, more than any other members of the McDuck family, understands that he can break away from being locked into the social strata that he was born into, that he can actually reverse the decline — but he has to find an opportunity to do so.
The second, and the thing that makes Scrooge such a great character, is that he’s a self-made man — er, duck. He quite literally starts with nothing, and every dollar in the money bin was earned through his own effort — starting with the famous Number One Dime. One of the touches that I really love about Life and Times, which is full of amazing touches, is that Scrooge’s first dime is given to him as a con, a worthless American coin that he’s paid for his work while he’s still in Scotland to teach him a lesson about the “sharpies” out there looking for a free ride. What’s great about it is that it’s what provides him with an inspiration to seek his fortune in America — to go to the place where this worthless object is worth something, however little that may be. And yet, he never spends it.
That idea, that Scrooge grew up poor and earned his money himself, is key, both to his status as an American icon and just in making him a sympathetic character. I mean, he ain’t that worthless little plutocrat Richie Rich, who was born privileged and has so little understanding of the value of his fortune that he built a lemonade stand out of gold bricks. I hate that kid. He’ll be first against the wall when the Revolution comes. But, uh, that’s for another time.
So that’s the American Dream, right? A better life, a new opportunity, and hard work that’s met with an equal reward. But then there’s the American reality, which is that Scrooge becomes a viciously dedicated capitalist, an industrial titan who exploits his workers and values his money over everything.
That’s actually how his story begins when he first shows up in 1947:
Even as Scrooge evolves under Barks from a one-shot plot point to a main character in his own right, shifting into the spry, kind-but-cheap adventurer that makes him one of the top ten characters in comics history, a lot of those elements and themes stay in place. It’s a running gag in the strips that he only pays Donald Duck a truly abysmal wage (thirty cents an hour, I believe), even as he’s forcing him to keep his three cubic acres of cold hard cash polished and shiny. As much as Scrooge is motivated by as sense of adventure to journey to exotic locations and find new (and valuable) objects, his main concern is losing his wealth. Whether he’s motivated by greed or by the memories attached to his money, he hoards it, and because of that, he spends a large part of his life as a pretty terrible person. Another great trick that Rosa pulls in Life & Times is that each chapter is accompanied by a portrait, and you can see Scrooge’s transformation from the wide-eyed optimistic youngster looking for an opportunity to the bitter, sneering billionaire, and then to the sad, lonely and broken old man that he is at his first appearance.
Of course, there’s a little hope there, pushing things back into the ideal of America, and again, it has to do with opportunity. Scrooge doesn’t stay bitter and greedy, he changes, and in the end, it’s adventure and freedom that win out. That’s what makes him an easy favorite for a character that represents the good ol’ US of A.
In second place, however, is this guy.
I don’t think I need to explain that one.