I knew of Don Rosa, the great cartoonist who wrote Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, but I didn’t read a story by him until my daughter was born nine years ago.
Having a child gave me license to dive into the canon of great comics for young readers. I say “gave me” instead of “gave us” because I started reading comics to her when she was three months old, long before she could follow narrative or eat solids.
She was 3 and getting old enough to follow the stories when Fantagraphics published the first volume of The Don Rosa Library in 2014. In the years since, we have worn out that book out from rereading. We also bought and read the other nine volumes, which together make up all of the duck stories by this great artist. She now has reread them on her own, loaned them to friends and otherwise absorbed the work in the ways a kid does when they love something and have had it for as long as they can remember.
Walt Disney Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck Vol. 1: The Son of the Sun (Fantagraphics Books)
Starting today, my daughter and I begin to make our way through this collection, rating which stories we liked the best and explaining why. I also have a daughter who is 6, and has her own thoughts on these matters, and may occasionally chime in.
Don Rosa — full name Keno Don Hugo Rosa — is acclaimed in Europe, where Disney’s duck comics remain big sellers, but largely unknown in the U.S., leading to headlines such as this one: “Meet Don Rosa, the most famous Kentuckian you’ve never heard of.”
At a time when comics for children are going through a renaissance, with Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier and Jeff Smith selling millions of copies, I am certain that many of those readers would adore the stories of Don Rosa. I know this because I have a focus group right in my house.
Rosa’s stories can be enjoyed on their own, without any knowledge of the duck comics that came before. But there is a deeper level of understanding for people to can see the many ways that Rosa is paying tribute to Carl Barks, the cartoonist who drew Disney characters starting in the 1940s and created most of the characters and settings in which Don Rosa is playing. Rosa is a devoted successor to Barks, filling in blanks in Barks’ continuity to tell a richer story. Nearly every Rosa duck story contains a hidden tribute to Barks, in which Rosa writes “D.U.C.K.” somewhere for readers to find. This stands for “Dedicated to Uncle Carl from Keno.”
Vol. 1 of the Don Rosa Library is titled “Son of the Son,” after the epic story that begins the book and was Rosa’s first published Disney story.
Here we go:
The first panel of Don Rosa’s first Disney duck story. All images © Disney.
Son of the Son (26 pages) — Some artists arrive on the scene fully formed to an extent that it seems like they’ve been training in some secluded chalet for decades, preparing for their moment.
Rather than make his debut with a short, simple story, Rosa chose to do a continents-spanning treasure hunt, with a death-defying flight, an exploding Inca temple and pages packed with sight gags and ridiculous levels of detail.
I can only imagine what this story must have seemed like to readers of its first U.S. publication in Uncle Scrooge #219 in April 1987.
This is a great story, in the pantheon of Rosa’s best, but, as you’ll see, my fellow reviewer and I think there is an even better story in Vol. 1.
I gave this one 90 out of 100 points. My daughter gave 95. “I think it’s really good for a first try,” she said. Average score 92.5.
For the other stories, I’ll list it like this: 92.5 (90, 95), with my score first.
Nobody’s Business (10 pages) — This is Rosa’s first story with Gladstone Gander, Donald Duck’s obnoxiously lucky cousin. Neither I nor my fellow reviewer are fans of Gladstone. I’m not giving this one a score because my daughter doesn’t remember it well enough to rate it. At best, this is a middling story.
Mythological Menagerie (10 pages) — Now we’re talking. This quick and hilarious story is one of the best of a subgenre of Rosa comedies in which Donald comes up with a scheme that goes poorly. His nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, are identifying animals they see in the wild to earn merit badges from their Boy Scouts-like organization, the Junior Woodchucks.
Donald plays a practical joke on them by putting paint, household objects and random junk on pets and livestock and having them walk through the woods where the nephews are camped. Rather than be confused, the nephews manage to identify each of these animals as exotic species from the far corners of the world or even mythology. Donald sees this and keeps upping the ante, ending up enraged and injured — which is often the ending of these kinds of duck stories.
My co-reviewer says, “I love, love, love that one.” Score: 86.5 (88, 95)
Let’s quickly do the next three stories, none of which were among our favorites.
Recalled Wreck (10 pages): 70 (65, 75)
Cash Flow (26 pages): 67.5 (70, 65)
Fit to Be Pied (10 pages): 72.5 (72, 73)
Fir-Tree Fracas (10 pages) — Another example of Rosa’s flair for short comedy stories. This one is about holiday decorating gone awry, ending in embarrassment for Donald. My co-reviewer says, “It’s funny how when Donald tries to be extra perfect at something, he does it and it gets extra weird and it ends up being less than good.” Score: 81 (82, 80)
When re-reading this book, we often skip the following to two stories, which are unremarkable and also right before one of the best stories Rosa has ever done.
Oolated Duck (10 pages): 56.5 (58, 55)
The Paper Chase (10 pages): 52.5 (56, 49)
Scrooge, in flashback, during his days in the Yukon, quoting the poet Robert W. Service.
Last Sled to Dawson (28 pages) — With this story, published in 1988, Barks makes his first major contribution to expanding upon Uncle Scrooge stories written by Barks. This is a sequel of sorts to the Barks story “Back to the Klondike,” taking place in the icy wilds of Canada where Scrooge made his first fortune.
Rosa goes far beyond the material that inspired this story to present something new, with rich characters and intriguing plot twists. Here we see a young Scrooge in flashbacks. We see Glittering Goldie, the dance hall girl who in Rosa’s hands becomes Scrooge’s lost love. We see Soapy Slick, a loan shark and all-around villain.
Scrooge decides to go back to the place he made his fortune because he gets news that an old pack of his has finally come loose from the ice where it had been entombed for decades.
He brings Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie for an adventure that forces him to confront the mistakes of his past. This is close to my favorite Rosa story because of the way it succeeds on several levels, with fodder for fans of the Barks story, and an exciting plot and luscious art for readers who know nothing of what came before.
The things that make this story great are what would eventually do the same for Rosa’s 12-part “Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,” an extended origin story that takes up most of the fourth and fifth volumes of the Fantagraphics book series.
“It’s really interesting,” says my co-reviewer. “It’s like something is lost but (Scrooge) suddenly remembers it.” Score: 96 (95, 97)
The book ends with two two-page stories and a 10-pager. “Fiscal Fitness” gets one of the lowest scores of any Rosa story in the 10 volumes, not because it’s bad, but just because it’s blah. The other two show Rosa operating at a high level, but they are several gears short of his highest level.
Rocket Reverie (2 pages): 62.5 (63, 70)
Fiscal Fitness (2 pages): 37.5 (35, 40)
Metaphorically Spanking (10 pages): 66.5 (73, 70)
Vol. 1 of the series of one of the best of the ten, showing how Rosa knew exactly what he wanted to do and did it, without the apparent jitters so many people would have in his position.
My daughter and I have talked about and scored all of the stories from the first five volumes of the series. I was going to call this post Part 1, but I know my posts have been infrequent enough that I don’t want to overpromise. I hope there is a Part 2, and more.
Until then, go get your hands on these books. Give them as gifts. Read them.