In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about how the combination of a cartoon character in a realistic setting creates a ‘mask’ for the reader--think European and Japanese comics or any animated Disney movie ever. And speaking of the big ‘D,’ the popularity of Donald Duck—the most published non-superhero comic book character in the world—is thanks to Carl Barks, a maestro of masking. And so it must follow, as a mother duck with her ducklings, Don Rosa, self-disclosed super fan of Barks’s signature work-for-hire creation, Scrooge McDuck, is a mask maker par excellence too.
Barks and Rosa’s use of masking in Duck books provided the reader with agency, engagement and complicity, the act of becoming, of being—the foundation of fiction, of comics. And what better places to be than a haunted castle, a riverboat plying the mighty Mississippi or a tumble-down town on the frontier? Masking means layering, which makes Rosa's The Complete Life and Times of $crooge McDuck a veritable French pastry full of adventures, history, laughs, thrills, sorrows, failures, triumphs and morals. Most of the lessons like fairness, frugality and forgiveness are child’s play. It’s the sad and wiser truths that The Complete Life and Times of $crooge McDuck masks about comics, corporations and the reader’s (consumer’s) conscience that makes this the ultimate work about understanding comics.
It would be dismissive to call Rosa’s McDuck work fan fiction, but it passes the Duck test and then some. As Rosa repeatedly states in both word and deed in his inward-looking introduction, “I am a lifelong McDuck, fan.” He acts both honored and reluctant to have been tasked by Disney in the late 80s/early 1990s to illustrate Scrooge’s rise to power—Life and Times was a prequel before the term became a pop culture phenomenon and punching bag a decade later—if only because of his fanatical devotion to Barks. Rosa signs off his introduction saying, “I hope you enjoy this, my ultimate life tribute to the greatest storyteller of the 20th century, Carl Barks.” If Rosa’s work does nothing else but keep Barks—an inaugural member of the Will Eisner Award Hall of fame along with Eisner and Kirby—in the public conscience, especially in the mind of the American comic buying public, than this self-proclaimed “fanboy” has done his work.
Rosa was the perfect choice as the nominations and awards for his duck work prove. But his efforts go beyond fanatical attentiveness like making sure every plot point in his McDuck bildungsroman canon. What Rosa creates is an act of love. Yes, The Life and Times of $crooge McDuck is an encomium to Barks, but it’s really a masterpiece because of Rosa’s talents as a cartoonist and storyteller. Like Scrooge, Rosa had to bootstrap his way to reach his goals, learning how to draw as a civil engineer, not a cartoonist. He may have wanted to draw like Barks, but lacks Bark’s animator’s eye and skill to draw a character in any pose and on any plane. Rosa draws like Rosa. He brings the precision of an engineer to what is a letter-perfect line. Because engineers aren’t taught to use brushes, Rosa never learned. All his work is rendered using pens, adding an amateurish albeit authentic look to his work.
What makes Rosa Rosa is in the details, in the murkier Crumb-like look of Castle McDuck, for example, or Dismal Downs, a locale where grave-robbing, the supernatural and head-trips to hereafter are de rigueur. When young "Scroogey" goes on his ghost-guided tour of the castle in the first story, Rosa leaves no stone, suit of armor or torn tapestry to the imagination. In a half-page masking masterclass Rosa’s inking takes on a near photographic resonance showing how the light coming through the embrasures of the castle walls dirty up the once proud ancestral manse of clan McDuck casting painstakingly-drawn shadows on every unlit nook and cranny. It’s in this moment, less than a dozen pages into this coming-of-age tale, when Scrooge’s mask descends and the reader is transported from seeing to being—a testament to Rosa’s skill as a cartoonist.
Such critical hand wringing to prove what’s already proven leaves out the plain fact that Scrooge’s journey from the outhouse to the penthouse is pure unadulterated joy. Rosa’s two columned and four-tiered construction of almost every page follows Barks’s footsteps fashioning a timelessness that makes it hard to believe these comics are not even thirty years old. The easy-to-follow story elides jokes and slapstick gags running in the background offering two comics for the price of one, a feature a pinchpenny like Scrooge would approve of. Rosa casts Scrooge’s life before he was introduced to his more well-known nephew and grand-nephews as one non-stop adventure. With ruthless efficiency, he wastes no time keeping the story moving, but it never lacks for complexity of sophistication as Scrooge goes from a plucky shoeshine duck to the richest duck in the world. Scrooge earns his heel turn.
Each of the eleven stories leading up to the concluding Citizen Kane homage—when the elder Pekin emerges as the bearded mad duck in the attic that Barks introduced him as in Christmas on Bear Mountain in 1947—takes Scrooge from Scotland to America, across continents and eventually the entire planet. Because these Scrooge-before-Scrooge stories are set prior to when he meets his nephews, Rosa has license to incorporate historical people and places. With stops along a scaffold-clad Statue of Liberty, the Anaconda Copper Mine and aboard the Titanic, The Complete Life and Times of $crooge McDuck is as much historical fiction as it is action and adventure. Teddy ‘square deal’ Roosevelt shows up to guide one Buck McDuck, Scrooge’s sobriquet at the time, through the Dakota badlands. Later, President Roosevelt returns with the full force of America’s military and charges up Duckburg’s Killmotor hill to, unbeknownst to him, go head-to-head with his old long rider friend. The situation resolves itself in the best possible way, with hot dogs roasted over an open fire and stories. For all the non-stop action, Rosa also knows when to slow down and give the reader time to reflect on what Scrooge becomes and how he got there. Any reader not moved by Scrooge’s return to his native Scotland and his last visit with his ma has no soul and is no Scrooge.
A Marxist critic who hasn’t read Rosa’s take on Scrooge is missing out. Scrooge’s ruthless accumulation of wealth (not to mention how he manages to exploit natives and their resources like any good colonialist) is not what one thinks of when tucking in with a Disney comic. But maybe it should be. In 2013 Don Rosa quit making comics. He cited six reasons for his decision from depression to failing eyesight and from an admittedly poor work-life balance to his own celebrity. But the number one reason Rosa resigned from his life’s work was that he was sick and tired of his labor of love being exploited. Yes, like Barks before him Rosa signed on as work-for-hire as any cartoonist working for Disney® does and took the flat rate per page offered by his publisher to create comics about the adventures of a miserly duck. And yes, like Barks, Rosa did so knowing he would never receive one cent, one thin or lucky dime in royalties for his pains. It took Rosa trademarking his name to at least have some control of how his work was being reprinted and receive remuneration. Scrooge McDuck isn’t real. But Disney is, too real. As is their exploitation of the women and men creating work-for-hire comics to keep Disney IPs like Scrooge making bank, a veritable money bin’s worth. For all its charm, sophistication and goodness, The Complete Life and Times of $crooge McDuck is an exemplar of the exploitation cartoonists and other contractors endure to keep the corporate comics making machine running -- having this kind of awareness is what "understanding comics" should mean to any reader at every age. The real masking effect in any Disney or corporately owned comic hides who makes money in the real world and who ends up a depressed workaholic with one good eye. Ducky, don't you think?