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

Redolegna

Champagne Socialist
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Great article, Max. It's always fun listening to you speak about the interesting ways Disney had to look about intellectual property and of your love of Barks and Rosa and Oncle Picsou. Stan who?

Of course the Franco-Belgian way (all three of them and then the indie variants) is the one true way.

Minor remark, it's Bande Dessinée, with an E at the end of bande.
 

Thande

Jabs First Brexit
Published by SLP
Great work Max.

Not having direct experience of this media myself and only hearing about it through report, it felt like the only comparable attempt to tie together disparate stories about one character into a coherent backstory was AC Crispin's Han Solo novels, which I've previously written about. Crispin had to deal with works of multiple authors rather than just one, but OTOH I get the impression Rosa had a lot more material he had to reconcile.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
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Logical, unlike those in German
Great article, Max. It's always fun listening to you speak about the interesting ways Disney had to look about intellectual property and of your love of Barks and Rosa and Oncle Picsou. Stan who?
I'm quite convinced that had I been more exposed to DC and Marvel at an early age and in a proper setting, I would have been a great fan. While I certainly was aware of the main lines of superheroes (Superman, Batman, and Spider Man), I remember that one thing that drove me away from the genre at the time I got into Duck comics was that I felt that they took themselves far too seriously, that it was all this brooding stuff over it that just didn't appeal to me. Plus, I was a terrible prude by the time that I was 8-10, and I remember feeling that there was something very erotic about these comparatively realistic depictions of muscular men in spandex suits that just struck me as deeply inappropriate.

Heh! I suppose you might well say that in retrospect, the reason I was turned off from Batman and Spider Man was because I assumed them both to be characters very similar in nature to Edward Cullen from Twilight.

Of course the Franco-Belgian way (all three of them and then the indie variants) is the one true way.
Well it certainly seems to be the business model that works best for both readers and authors and artists, and I don't see the publishing companies complaining, so, err-... yeah, it is the best way to do things.

Minor remark, it's Bande Dessinée, with an E at the end of bande.
This is ridiculous, I remember checking up on whether the noun was masculine or feminine and so should have an additional e at the end of dessiné, but somehow managed to miss that I also needed to add a further e at the end of band! Oh well, clearly I need to get back to my French soon! :p
 

Redolegna

Champagne Socialist
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Well it certainly seems to be the business model that works best for both readers and authors and artists, and I don't see the publishing companies complaining, so, err-... yeah, it is the best way to do things.
There are a number of issues currently bubbling or erupting, so it's not all roses either.

Still manages to have incredible diversity of genres, themes, tones, styles, etc.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
Pronouns
Logical, unlike those in German
Great work Max.

Not having direct experience of this media myself and only hearing about it through report, it felt like the only comparable attempt to tie together disparate stories about one character into a coherent backstory was AC Crispin's Han Solo novels, which I've previously written about. Crispin had to deal with works of multiple authors rather than just one, but OTOH I get the impression Rosa had a lot more material he had to reconcile.
Well as I will later detail in upcoming installments, while Carl Barks over time established certain fixed points about Scrooge's backstory that he would reference again and again:

(1) Scrooge McDuck is the last member of the Clan McDuck, one of the most ancient and renowned families in Scotland which owns Castle McDuck in the Highlands.
(2) Scrooge started out his life as a Dickensian street urchin in Victorian Glasgow, working as a shoeshiner, where he earned his first dime.
(3) Scrooge took part in the Klondike Gold Rush, arriving as a poverty striken prospector, and leaving rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Most of the other aspects of Scrooge McDuck's life were just throwaway references, like him mentioning as an aside, "Oh, this coin I earned back when I was working in Montana as a cowboy in the early 1880s", and very frequently, whenever the story included something in a foreign language and he needed the Ducks to be able to understand it, he would just have Scrooge reveal that of course, he spoke the language, having picked it up in his youth when he was conducting business in the place where the language was spoken. This became a running gag, and would feature lines along the line of "Why, I learned Arabic in my youth when I sold sand to Bedouin nomads in the Saharah!" or "Why, I learned Mandarin in my youth when I sold Chinese firecrackers on the streets of Shanghai!". What Don Rosa did was to take not just the (3) big fixed points, but also all the throwaway gags, and try to wield them into a coherent narrative.

I suppose this both made his task it easier and harder than A. C. Crispin's. Harder in the sense that many of these gags take place on farflung corners of the planet and so to make a coherent narrative you need to establish both why Scrooge was there in the first place and why he eventually left and why he then left for that particular other place next on the Earth, but easier in the sense that the gags don't really establish particular aspects of Scrooge's character growth, and allows for a lot more liberty in writing a full story. I get the impression that A. C. Crispin really had to work with far more fleshed out scenarios and backstories and there it was far more difficult to make the pieces fit one another.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
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Logical, unlike those in German
Yes and no - the characters sometimes were, but the backstories were often as throwaway as you make most of these background gags sound.
The only really contradictory aspect of most of the backstories was that despite Barks having established that Scrooge made his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush, which took place 1896-99, he would still mention having been in the gold, copper, diamond, silver, oil businesses in so many other places in the 1880s and 1890s (not to mentioned having worked as a riverboat captain in the late 1870s), which would seem to indicate that he was already something of a wealthy man by then.

The clever thing that Don Rosa did in wielding together his narrative was to recontextualize it. Yes, Scrooge McDuck did try all these things throughout the 1880s and 1890s, but always as a poor prospector, and it always ended in failure, with him sometimes getting out with less than he had when he started, so when he finally does become rich, it is after a very long string of failures stretching over twenty years. He also makes his consistent failures much more heart wrenching, for while Scrooge obviously dreams of being rich, much of the reason for why he is seeking money is to support his poverty-stricken family back home in Scotland, and of the little money that he does make, most of it ends up being sent back home.

Well, that, and the question of how Scrooge McDuck can both be a Scottish aristocrat and heir to one of the most illustrious clans in Scottish history, and how he could have started out so incredibly poor, but I'm really getting ahead of myself.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
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Logical, unlike those in German
As a final note, before I give away too much of what is included in future installments, I find it a bit amusing that these three big fixed points I mentioned are so intrinsically linked to Scrooge's character, that even nowadays, when Duck writers write comics set in the modern day, the feel the need to include them, even though this makes Scrooge impossibly old (I take it they either hope that their readers will suspend their disbelief for the sake of the story, hope that their readers have the mathematical skills of one Mrs Joanne Rowling of Morningside Road, Edinburgh, or, as is much more likely, the fact that this doesn't really make sense is a joke in and of itself; Don Rosa sets all his stories in the 1950s to make the chronology work).

The DuckTales reboot of 2017 (which features David Tennant in the voice of Uncle Scrooge) which takes place in modern times and features latops and smartphones and everything still has Scrooge earning his first dime as a Dickensian street urchin shoeshiner:

 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
(The Mail Pilot sounds AMAZING)

A lot of comics doing 'continuity cop' end up lifeless inside unless they have something to say with it, and Life & Times is impressive with how Scrooge strives and strives and strives but doesn't become rich for decades, becoming a worn-down and bitter duck in the process once he makes it. It's exactly what you want from a prequel.

The DuckTales reboot of 2017 (which features David Tennant in the voice of Uncle Scrooge) which takes place in modern times and features latops and smartphones and everything still has Scrooge earning his first dime as a Dickensian street urchin shoeshiner:
I like them dripping "what? How old IS he?" for a bit before just going "yeah Scrooge is just supernaturally old"
 

Makemakean

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Logical, unlike those in German
A lot of comics doing 'continuity cop' end up lifeless inside unless they have something to say with it, and Life & Times is impressive with how Scrooge strives and strives and strives but doesn't become rich for decades, becoming a worn-down and bitter duck in the process once he makes it. It's exactly what you want from a prequel.
The case I wish to make is that I genuinely do not think that Barks really had in mind a grand narrative for Uncle Scrooge's life.

He certainly had ideas and strong notions for who Uncle Scrooge was and what it was that drove and where his fundamental values did lie, and he liked to revisit these frequently, he nonetheless decidedly operated on the basis of "the uninitiated should be able to pick up any Uncle Scrooge story and still be able to have a good time", if for no other reason than because his business model demanded it, and because, well, frankly, Barks was a very humble man, he did not expect people to be rummaging through old comics to find earlier stories he had written, and when a cult following for him started to emerge in the 60s among collectors and so forth, despite the fact that all his comics were published anonymously, he was very much surprised by it, never having expected it.

Nevertheless, he wrote the stories in such a way, and established Uncle Scrooge as a character in such a way, that even had Don Rosa never gotten into the comics business, it certainly would still have been possible for attentive readers to read in between the lines that there was this "hidden epic" if you will, about Scrooge McDuck's life and background, and these interpretations, though certainly not as fleshed out as the story Don Rosa eventually wrote, would still have been fairly close to one another. Not wishing, in any sense, to diminish Don Rosa's great contribution of course, he didn't make things up out of wholecloth. He built on a foundation already laid, always very respectful of said foundation, and at the same time, telling the story that the fans had wanted to see told all along, and which they could always see, to paraphrase Tolkien "as vague figures on the edge of the horizon". And he did not disappoint.

What Don Rosa did with Uncle Scrooge was what Steven Moffat tried to do with Doctor Who, and, in my opinion, failed at doing.

(The Mail Pilot sounds AMAZING)
It is amazing!

They did a reprint of it in Kalle Anka & Company in Sweden back when I was a kid. I loved it.
 

Jared

fatal softener
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Over the rainbow
Heh! I suppose you might well say that in retrospect, the reason I was turned off from Batman and Spider Man was because I assumed them both to be characters very similar in nature to Edward Cullen from Twilight.
Whatever else may be said of Batman and Spider Man, they fortunately don't have much in common with a hundred year old pedophile.
 

Ottens

Member
Thank you for the article! Great read.

Big Don Rosa fan here. I'm working on annotating all the chapters in his The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, investigating the real-world history behind the comics, at Never Was. It's slow going, but I work on it whenever I have the time.

Check it out:
 
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