Tuesday, July 12, 2005

COMICS: The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck

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I'm calling it in July: the best comic work I have read, or will read, this year, is the recently reprinted collection of Don Rosa's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.

I'm about a decade behind the curve on this one (the first of the collection's 12 chapters was published in America in 1994, a few years earlier in Europe), so forgive me if I act like I'm the first person ever to discover Don Rosa's work. But I can't help gushing. This is an amazingly entertaining book, and it kills me that this has been out there all this time -- that people have spoken so very highly of Rosa and his Disney work, and I've paid absolutely no heed until now.

Life and Times is a brilliant piece of storytelling, building on the Scrooge McDuck character and stories created by Carl Barks, who is generally considered to be the greatest Disney comic artist ever. Certainly there would be no Don Rosa without Carl Barks; in the copious notes provided in the collection, Rosa makes it abundantly clear that he's Barks' number one fan, and that his (Rosa's) stories exist primarily due to the inspiration of, and as a tribute to, Carl Barks. I've greatly enjoyed the few Barks stories I've read in various collections and reprints, but I have to say I instantly liked Rosa's work better. In part it's probably the more contemporary feel (though Life and Times is set decades in the past, it was created decades after the Barks originals they expand upon), but I also think they're just plain funnier, and Rosa's artwork is even more gorgeous and detailed and absorbing than Barks' already extremely high standards.

I mean, take a look at this panel (click to enlarge):

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You could spend a good five minutes, easy, admiring that one half-page piece of art. I know I did! The guy in the bathtub being flung out the window, rubber ducky at his knees, with the water popping out of the tub in one solid piece like jello out of a mold. The moose cowering in terror on the roof. The sign with its gold rush-inflated prices: "BACON (DON'T ASK!)" The guy with his finger stuck in the barrel of his gun. The sled dog lying on his back, drunk and grinning, cradling a bottle of hooch. The man sunk in the mud, counting "two" on his fingers like a drowning Daffy Duck in an old Warners Bros. cartoon. The guy sleeping through all the chaos in the upstairs window. The random creep in the foreground sticking his tongue out at the reader. And in the middle of it all, clearly the most dangerous figure in the scene, a swearing and furious Scrooge McDuck. This panel is so chock full of comic goodness, I get delirious with joy. This is the stuff of great comics!

And every panel is like this! This is one of the very most jam-packed examples, but every bit of Rosa's art is exquisitely detailed and packed with hilarious sight gags. And the expressiveness of Scrooge McDuck is incredible -- how can a duck convey so many emotions?

Rosa's writing is equal to his artistic skill. The story is built on every "Barksian fact" about Scrooge McDuck's life; if Barks threw out a line like, "I jounced to the African Rand in a bullock cart," then by gar, there Scrooge is jouncing in that cart in Chapter Six of Rosa's epic. But Rosa isn't just retelling old Barks tales; the basic facts come from Barks, but Rosa enlarges and (where necessary) fixes the details to make a comprehensive and wholly original history. (It kind of reminds me of Tom Stoppard expanding two minor characters from Hamlet into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) We follow Scrooge McDuck from his poverty-stricken beginnings, to the earning of his Number One Dime, to his early failed efforts to strike it rich, to his eventual astronomical success (accumulating "five multiplujillion, nine impossibidillion, seven fantasticatrillion dollars and sixteen cents"), all the while being "tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties!" But Scrooge's adventures, his rough life and his many enemies, sour him into a bitter, greedy, lonely old man. Scrooge's development from a naive, trusting, kindly youth into a cynical, mistrustful, stingy adult is a fascinating narrative, clever, touching, funny, and at times surprisingly dark for a Disney comic.

I imagine there are a number of Americans right now who are thinking, "Disney? Scrooge McDuck? You have got to be kidding." While the rest of the world is thinking, "It's about time you discovered Rosa!" For some reason, Disney comics are huge outside of America, primarily in Europe. I mean, staggeringly huge. Like, a popularity equivalent to Star Wars. Did you click on that Wikipedia link to Scrooge's Number One Dime above? (This was my approximate reaction on finding that entry: "!") Or take a look at the entry for Scrooge himself. Or Don Rosa. You think those insanely detailed entries were written by Americans? Not bloody likely.

Well, they're all right and we're all wrong. They're wrong about Jerry Lewis, and they're wrong about David Hasselhoff, but they're dead right about Rosa and Scrooge McDuck. Find a copy of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, I beg of you. It's the most wonderful comic I've read in years, and it will be for you, too.

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