A Masterpiece Of Duck-Based Adventure: Why Don Rosa Is One Of Comics’ Greatest Living Creators
On the short list of comic book creators responsible for genuine masterpieces of the medium, Don Rosa's name is pretty darn close to the top.
Born this day in 1951, Rosa is best known as the most popular writer and artist of Disney's Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge for thirty years, including the Eisner Award-winning Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, an adventure story that spans seventy years in the life of the Richest Duck in the World, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. In his time on the Ducks, Rosa was responsible for over 80 stories that include some of the best comics of all time, as well as an ongoing fight for creator recognition and control over his own work.
Rosa was, of course, inspired by Scrooge McDuck's creator, Carl Barks, who he has often cited as his favorite cartoonist --- and with good reason. Before he ever received a creator credit, Barks was, after all, known by fans as "the Good Duck Artist" owing to the fantastic craftsmanship of the 600 strips he produced featuring Donald and Scrooge, and Rosa actually got his start contributing to fanzines. But even though Rosa is clearly a fan who is following in his hero's footsteps, and even though Life and Times is a tribute to Barks that attempts to fit all of his flashbacks into a single narrative that chronicles Scrooge's rise as a multiplujillionaire, Rosa is a whole lot more than a tribute act.
Despite having no formal training as an artist other than a degree in civil engineering, Rosa's pages are beautiful and detailed, with his characters possessing a slapstick weight to them that makes every single gag land beautifully, coupled with an incredible knack for building amazing story premises that deliver as the foundation for both comedy and adventure. He also has an impressive knack for character work, especially in stories that are nominally meant to always return their characters to the status quo by the end of each adventure. They're always instantly and engagingly defined, and in the case of Life and Times, seeing Scrooge's fall from the hope and optimism of youth to this adulthood as a bitter, jaded industrialist before ultimately ending up as an isolated, lonely recluse is one of the best character pieces I've ever read.
Don't worry, though: The story ends with Scrooge meeting Donald and the Nephews just in time for his first appearance --- taking him right back to that same status quo that fans already know and love.
In the pages of Comics Buyer's Guide, Heidi MacDonald (now of The Beat) called "Guardians of the Lost Library," in which Scrooge and the Nephews search for the legendary Library of Alexandria, "possibly the greatest comic book story of all time." It's certainly a contender, with a balance of laughs, adventure and even actual educational history that few other creators come close to. For my money, though, the honor of Rosa's best single story has to go to "A Matter of Some Gravity," in which Scrooge and Donald are cursed to fall sideways, and have to climb "up" the entire city of Duckburg.
It's a simple enough idea, but Rosa wrings every possible gag out of in a story that features innovative layouts that underline the mind-boggling sideways falls. If you've never read it, do yourself a favor and track it down --- Fantagraphics reprinted it as a Free Comic Book Day special for 2015.
Off the page, Rosa was known for fighting for creator rights as well. In 2002, after drawing Duck stories for almost 20 years, Rosa used his clout as one of the most popular comic book artists in Europe --- where most of his stories saw their first publication --- to "go on strike," negotiating with his publisher over royalties and the quality of his work. He was able to reach an agreement, but in 2013, he retired from Duck comics, citing increasingly poor eyesight and continuing disagreements with both his publishers and with Disney.
Unlike many comics creators, Rosa has never had much of an interest in creator-owned work, citing his lifelong love of the characters he's become so associated with:
"Publishers have often told me they would publish anything I decided to create for them. But my reply has always been 'Any character I might create next week… I would not have grown up with that character. I wouldn’t care about him. My thrill is in creating stories about characters I’ve loved all my life.' I’m a fan."
Even so, Rosa's career in comics has left behind a legacy of innovation, adventure and more than one bona fide masterpiece.