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Prequel Problems: The Duck Universe of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, Part 4

By Max Lindh

In the first installment of this subseries of the longer series of Prequel Problems, we touched upon that during the years in which Carl Barks worked for Disney, the company imposed rather strict terms upon its artists. Not just were they only paid a lump sum for each story they produced and received no royalties when said stories were reprinted—a practice that Disney has kept up till modern day, unfortunately—more poignantly, they operated under conditions of strict anonymity: the only name that was allowed to appear when a story came out was that of Walt Disney.

It stands as a testament to Carl Barks’ craftsmanship both as a writer and an artist that a small cult following nevertheless started to grow around his work. In a world without internet, in which fanzines themselves were very much in their infancy and almost entirely relegated to science fiction, collectors and comics buffs were paying attention to the Duck stories that were being published and even though no names were attached to the stories, a good observers could nonetheless tell one artist from another. And in particular, they could tell Carl Barks’ stories from those of his peers. They stood out. With no immediate way of finding out his name, in fan circles, Barks was therefore given a monicker: “The Good Duck Artist”.

While the mystery of his true identity might well have been appealing to some readers, others found this state of affairs unacceptable, and in 1960, after some detective work, the brothers John and Bill Spicer were able to track down Barks’ name and address and sent him his very first fan letter.

Barks did not respond to the letter immediately. “After eyeing your letter with dark suspicion for several weeks,” he finally wrote, “I have decided to answer it on the assumption that it could be a genuine fan letter.” He excused himself with that he had a friend in Oceanside who liked to play practical jokes, but it nonetheless does speak of Carl Barks’ inherent deep humility that his initial reaction upon receiving fan mail would be suspicion as to its legitimacy.

He went on to answer the questions that the Spicers had asked, and told a little about himself, his background and how he started working for Disney, which the brothers much appreciated. From thereon, the floodgates were opened, and soon Barks’ identity was widely known in fan circles. He would eventually start appearing at conventions.

A household name, now that his name was out there, he would upon his official retirement in 1966 even be able to augment his modest pension by working out an almost unprecedented deal with Disney, allowing him to produce and sell oil painting of the Duck characters royalty-free, oil paintings that soon became prized collector’s items.

Duckburg, and the Duck universe that Carl Barks created, became the setting for virtually all future Donald Duck stories, which is why, if you pick up a Donald Duck comic today, you are very unlikely to ever see a story in which the titular character meets with Mickey Mouse. Barks simply never wrote any stories that featured the two of them interacting or going on an adventure together. That’s not to say though that there aren’t some interesting regional variations on the Duck universe.

As earlier mentioned, when Barks handed over a finished comic to Disney and received his payment, he lost all control of it and would receive no further royalties, which was why he was in fact incredibly surprised to learn that Disney had been publishing translated versions of his comics in Europe and South America, making him a household name there too. In particular in Italy and in the Nordic countries did Donald Duck as imagined by Carl Barks achieve significant popularity, and Barks would later in life go on convention tours there as well. The author is particularly indebted for the research behind these articles to two hour long interviews that Barks made with Danish and Finnish state television in the 90s, reflecting just the level of cultural importance that he had attained by virtue that these channels felt such programmes would be of interest.

The Italian palate is of course somewhat different from the American, and while Italian Duck artists worked strictly within the universe that Barks had created, they tended to focus on different characters and storylines from what was popular on the western side of the Atlantic. For instance, whereas Barks and subsequent American authors had Scrooge McDuck’s rival for the title of Richest Duck in the World be the South African billionaire Flintheart Glomgold, a man just as greedy and avaricious as Scrooge, though entirely lacking in ethics and scruples, Italian comic artists designated that role to John D. Rockerduck, a character who had only appeared in a single Barks story, Boat Buster from 1961. Though Rockerduck is just as unscrupulous as Flintheart, he lacks the extreme frugality that are integral to both Scrooge’s and Flintheart’s characters. Rockerduck has a taste for luxury and flamboyance, and is often keen to show off his massive wealth. (A bit ironic, considering that his namesake, John D. Rockefeller, was in fact well known for his frugality.)

Romano Scarpa at an Exposition in Rome in 2000.

There were also some notable additions. In 1960, the Italian Romano Scarpa created the character of Brigitta MacBridge, an accomplished businesswoman in her own right who is madly in love with Scrooge and his self-proclaimed fiancé. Scrooge does not reciprocate these feelings at all, and frequently goes to great lengths to keep her from, well, quite frankly, stalking him. That’s not to say that they don’t end up teaming up every once in a while to take on Scrooge’s enemies, but their relationship might very well be described, as kids now say, as “problematic”. The character nonetheless turned out to be a big hit with not just Italian readers, but readers in Scandinavia and Latin America as well. Though some Barks purists these days regards her as a non-canonical character, it should be pointed out that Barks himself very much liked the character, enjoyed a good relationship with Romano Scarpa, and that in general he encouraged additions to the universe he had created. After all, why wouldn’t he? Barks himself was building off of the work of others.

The extent to which subsequent Duck artists went to show their tribute to the old man is reflected in that some artists even specialized in being able to copy Barks’ style. The Italian Marco Rota and the Dutchman Daan Jippes in particular are well known for their talent in this regard, and Barks was personally specifically attached to the Chilean Víctor José Arriagada Ríos, known by his professional monicker Vicar, who in terms of the number of pages of comics drawn is the most prodigious Duck cartoonist of all time.

Though Duck comics would never quite achieving the widespread popularity of DC or Marvel in the United States, or that they themselves enjoyed in Europe and Latin America, that was not to say that Scrooge McDuck and other characters that had first been introduced through them did not achieve widespread public recognition. In particular, the animated show DuckTales which ran on syndication in the United States between 1987-1990 did a lot to help bring Scrooge McDuck and the other characters from Carl Barks’ comic to the popular consciousness.

The show was not a literalist interpretation of Barks’ works. For instance, Scrooge is seen living in a luxurious mansion and keeping a loyal butler named Ducksworth, a far cry from the ultra-frugal tightwad we see in Barks’ cartoons, and there are many other additional original characters that never appeared in any of Barks’ works. There’s Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s nanny Mrs. Beackley and her granddaughter Webby who serves as a female sidekick to the gang of the three male nephews, and perhaps more controversially, there is Bubba the Cave Duck, a young, err, Cro Magnon duck (?) from the kind of far distant past that is at once the Paleolithic and the Cretaceous Age, who the Ducks came across during one of the time travel episodes and who somehow Scrooge ended up appointing himself the legal guardian of. Still, many old storylines for the Barks comics ended up being adapted for the show, such as The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan, The Status Seekers, Land of Tra La La, and perhaps most notably, both The Curse of Castle McDuck and Back to Klondike, featuring Goldie herself.

(The author would like to add that his favourite aspect of the 1980s original version of DuckTales is that it actually provides an in-universe explanation for why Donald is perpetually seen wearing a sailors uniform, by establishing that Donald serves in the U.S. Navy.)

There were at times attempts at narrative wielding and more intricate world-building, most notably by the aforementioned Marco Rota, who in the story Buon compleanno, Paperino! (From Egg to Duck in the English translation) from 1984 tried to put together a brief biography of Donald Duck. Rota drew on earlier Barks stories establishing that he had spent much of his childhood on Grandma Duck’s farm and other sources, such as the old animated shorts from the 30s about how Huey, Dewey, and Louie came to live with him to try to wield it all together into a concise bio. Amusingly, he even “quasi-canonized” the old anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese propaganda shorts from World War II, by having Donald explain that he spent most of the war in Hollywood, working as an actor making movies to entertain the troops overseas.

Still, Buon compleanno, Paperino! was only a single story, and though it proved very popular with the readers, Rota does not appear to have entertained the idea of making a longer project out of it. For the most part, artists tended to work within the framework established by Barks of creating entertaining, but fundamentally self-contained, stories that could be read in any given order. And while it still was an established part of Duck lore that Scrooge had once been a poor Dickensian street urchin in Victorian Scotland, and that he had made his fortune in the Klondike Goldrush, Duck artists invariable had the stories be set in what to them was the modern day, which, after all, was what Barks himself had done. Still, as the 1960s became the 1970s and the 1970s in turn became the 1980s, one couldn’t help but to start asking questions as to exactly how old Scrooge McDuck was supposed to be if he had first become a millionaire during the 1890s. But, in fairness, such questions could always easily be dismissed with “It’s a cartoon for kids! You’re thinking too much about it, and you’re trying to ruin the fun!”

Well, this was the scene onto which Don Rosa now entered.

Born in 1951, he had the fortune of having an older sister who had been an aficionado of Duck comics in her childhood, and who had kept all the old magazines from the time which contained the masterpieces from Carl Barks’ golden age. As Don Rosa grew up, his sister gifted him those, and he also began to accumulate a collection in his own right. At the age of 18, in 1969, he entered the University of Kentucky to study civil engineering, with a view to one day take over the family business, the Keno Rosa Tile and Terrazzo company, which had been founded in the early 20th century by his grandfather, the Italian immigrant Gioachino “Keno” Rosa.

Though by all accounts a diligent and talented student (he would later on incorporate concepts from physics in his stories), his true passion was in comics, and he took to drawing cartoons for the university student newspaper, including a long-running series entitled The Pertwillaby Papers, inspired by the adventure comics he had read as a kid. Graduating, he did indeed go to work for the family company, but he nonetheless maintained a passion as a cartoonist, developing the setting and characters from The Pertwillaby Papers into Captain Kentucky, which he wrote and drew for the Louisville Times as a hobby.

Still, it was first in 1986 that he would finally make the official jump from mere hobbyist—though a highly competent and ambitious one at that—to thoroughly professional comic book writer and artist. Don Rosa’s dream had always been to write and draw an Uncle Scrooge story, and in 1986, he discovered that there was a company left in America that was still publishing Donald Duck comics. Their name was Gladstone Publishing, and while most of their repertoire consisted of reprints from Barks and the old masters, they would on occasion publish new stories.

Enthusiastic, Don Rosa wasted no time in contacting them. Informing them that to produce an Uncle Scrooge story was the one mission in life for which he had been born, their editor, Byron Erickson, gave him an optimistic response, asking him to show them what he had to offer.

The story that Don Rosa ended up writing bore the title The Son of the Sun, and it was in a manner of speaking a reworking of an old Pertwillaby Papers comic, but with the Ducks as their main characters now instead of Don Rosa’s original creation Lancelot Pertwillaby and his gang. A reworking in a manner of speaking that is, because as Don Rosa would later explain, when he had first conceived of the idea for the story, he had in his mind’s eye envisioned it as a Ducks adventure, with Donald, Uncle Scrooge, Huey, Dewey, and Louie as the main characters, which he had then adapted into a story for the Pertwillaby Papers. All he had done now was merely to “restore” it to the original vision.

The Son of the Sun is not just a masterpiece, it is a Schedule I Controlled Substance narcotic for Duck comic fans. The very opening page is a textbook definition of what TV Tropes refers to as ‘Continuity Porn’. There is Scrooge McDuck standing in the middle of the Duckburg museum, surrounded by trophies from his various adventures. There is the candy-striped ruby from The Status Seeker (1963), there is the gold bullion retrieved from The Flying Dutchman (1959), there is the crown of Genghis Khan, the Golden Fleece of Jason, the sole remaining quarter from 1916 since Scrooge dumped all the rest of them in the middle of the ocean in an adventure from 1954.

The story follows Scrooge and his nephews as go off on a race against Flintheart Glomgold to find the greatest Incan treasure in the Andes, searching for the Lost Temple of Manco Capac and the Incan treasury, hidden away just before the arrival of the conquistadors. It is a ripping yarn and a wonderful tribute to the works of Carl Barks, and the attentive reader can find countless references and throwbacks throughout the tale. It went without saying that the story was a big success with Gladstone’s readers, and so, Byron Erickson couldn’t help but ask Don Rosa if perhaps he wanted to deliver more?

And Don Rosa couldn’t help but feel that though he had only intended to write one Uncle Scrooge story, now that Erickson mentioned it, yes, he did.

In the next instalment we shall take a deeper dive into the Don Rosa oeuvre, and of course, we shall finally discuss his great magnum opus itself, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.



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