Who is the most popular comic book character in the world? I’m sure many of you are trying to narrow down which Marvel or DC superhero bears that honor, but in reality the crown belongs to Donald Duck. While you’re scratching your head and wondering how a Disney character could the world’s most popular comic book star, you need to be aware that it’s not Disney’s Donald Duck.
Don Rosa is the writer and artist behind modern day Donald Duck comics, but he stresses that he is simply continuing on the legacy of Carl Barks. Carl Barks was the writer and artist who launched the Donald Duck universe, including such popular characters as Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, and the nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Rosa was a huge fan of Carl Barks growing up and he wrote comics very similar to Barks, although he added his own influences. Rosa stresses that the Donald Duck comics don’t star Disney’s animated character, rather Donald, his friends, and family exist separately from their animated counterparts due to licensing rights.
Rosa stopped writing and illustrating the Donald Duck comics several years ago, but he’s left a well-placed mark on a beloved comic book character and his work will be enjoyed for years to come just like Carl Barks.
Whitney Grace (WG): Please tell me what you do in your own words?
Don Rosa (DR): I mow a lot of grass, raise exotic chili peppers, travel to a lot of conventions, but you’re probably referring to the comic books I wrote up till about seven years ago. I used to write and draw Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics for European publishers from about 1987-2007, but at that point I got tired of the system and I copyrighted my name across Europe and I quit.
Whitney Grace (WG): You wrote comic books related to Donald Duck, the nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Scrooge McDuck, and anyone related to the Duck family, is that correct?
DR: Only characters used by Carl Barks and created by Carl Barks. This is not Disney’s Donald Duck, as I have to explain to a lot of people, this is Carl Barks’ Donald Duck. He was a freelance writer and artist hired by Dell Comics in the early forties, which is an independent publisher. They had a license to publish Donald Duck comics. Disney’s Donald Duck is an actor, who in every animated cartoon was a different character. He wasn’t a continuous character. So you can do silly animated cartoons of this character throwing walnuts at Chip and Dale, slapstick nonsense, but you can’t have a comic book series on that. Carl Barks created the character of Donald Duck, he created the city of Duckberg, Uncle Scrooge, Gladstone Gander, etc. everything the world knows about the character Donald Duck was created by Carl Barks. Like most of the population outside of North America I grew up on Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. My only mission was to do stories not of Disney characters. I just wanted to do stories based on my interpretation of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics.
WG: Why do you think Donald Duck is such a popular character?
DR: In America he’s not, but in Europe, South America, and so forth he’s still the world’s most popular comic book character by a wide margin. Everything you hear about Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman, the sales of comic books are pathetically low. You hear about the TV shows, movies, and the toys, but the sales of the comics are a tiny fraction of what they were sixty years ago. That’s obviously a failed industry, but in Europe comic book sales are dropping off now. A European Donald Duck comic would outsell a Batman comic per capita about a thousand to one what it sells in America.
In a place like Norway or Finland, the weekly Donald Duck comic sells 400,000 copies in a small country that’s the size of about one of our states. Per capita, that would be like an American comic book selling 80 million copies, but they usually sell about 20,000 for one of the really good sellers.
Why that is? I’m still trying to figure that out, but I think it’s because after World War II in Europe, when the continent was literally in shambles the first inexpensive mass entertainment to appear from the publisher that I went to work for were Donald Duck comic books. They became national heroes, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, and all the Carl Barks characters, because people loved them. It’s also that European countries’ populations are very traditional. What the parents read they pass it onto their kids and the kids love to pay attention to the tradition of their family, so that’s the main reason. Lots of time people ask me why it’s so popular in Finland in particular and I still haven’t figured that out. One way I describe it when I travel to Europe, anybody who reads comic books would know who I am, because I do the most popular comic book and everybody reads Donald Duck.
When I got to Finland it seems like every person in the entire country knows who I am, because when I’m there on the first page of the newspaper, the national talk shows, so even if they don’t read comics they turn on the TV and are, “It’s that damn Don Rosa again.”
WG: Are you more popular than Herge?
DR: I may be more widely read, but that’s somebody who’s created his own character. I just imitated a character made popular by Carl Barks. I’d say that Carl Barks is more popular than Herge.
WG: I know that you keep to a lot of continuity for Donald Duck. You’ve kept them in the same era and they’ve aged slowly. When you were writing them why didn’t you want to update them for the modern era?
DR: I grew up on my sister’s comics, she was eleven years older than I was, so I actually grew up on comics that were a little older than I would have bought. I would have been buying comics maybe in the early sixties, but I’ve grown up on comics from the late forties and up.
I can’t conceive of these characters still being alive in the modern society. It’s like Sherlock Holmes stories. People have done some interesting modern day Sherlock Holmes stories, and I enjoy those, still a real Sherlock Holmes has to be set in Victorian London.
Since I was doing the stories for myself, I set them during the period they were originally created and I just enjoy them that way. It’s like sending them back to myself in a time machine. I’m sending them back to myself in the late fifties on the green divan in the living room, reading my sister’s comics, and then I come across a story that I did. I wonder if I would have liked it.
WG: How do you explain Uncle Scrooge swimming in the money bin, what type of cartoon physics apply?
DR: He doesn’t understand it either. I told a story once in my “Life of Scrooge” series that he just discovered that he had this ability, but he could never figure it out. Other people would try it and they would knock themselves unconscious. It’s one of the strange mysteries of Carl Barks’s stories, along with how much information can fit into the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook. I did a story once where somebody asks, “How can so much information fit into that little book?” And the Junior Woodchuck says, “Well that’s explained in appendix 37B.” They don’t explain it, but nobody can read the guidebook unless they’re a Junior Woodchuck.
WG: What is the weirdest character you’ve ever created for the Donald Duck comics, because in many of the original Carl Barks comics there are odd villains and good guys?
DR: I never tried to create characters, because I liked Cark Barks’ work too much. I did, however, create a villain called Black Knight, because I wanted to use a particular plot device that I used in a story in college. I had to create a new villain in order to use that idea. People liked it, so I had to search for a new way to use that character. He had a suit of armor and sword that was coated with universal solvent, so he could cut through any matter. It was pretty weird I guess.
WG: How do you feel as a writer and artist carrying on Carl Barks’ legacy?
DR: That’s for the readers to decide. I just tried to write and draw stories that were accurate, depending on my interpretation of the characters. I never claim that it’s the right interpretation, because these characters are so beloved by millions of people in Europe that I would never go in front of these people and say my version is the right one. It’s my version and I hope other people like it enough of them seem to appreciate that I do it strictly as a fan.
WG: Which of the characters in the Duck family do you enjoy writing for the most?
DR: Uncle Scrooge.
WG: Why Scrooge?
DR: I love historical fiction and I can do stories with Scrooge in any era. He’s an adventurer and he’s wealthy, so I can put him in any situation I want to and it’s perfectly logical from the 1870s to the 1950s.
WG: Will you tell me about your writing process?
DR: I wrote it as a fan writing for other fans. I couldn’t start without a script and I would plan out every single panel and every single pose. Once the script was finished, I would do thumbnail sketches, and so on. What thing that I did was different was plan out the story from the last panel backwards. The most important part of any story is the logical and appropriate ending. If I knew what the last panel was and I knew how exactly the story was going to end, so then I would know what the second to last panel is, and if I know that, then I know what the third to last panel is, and literally I will plan the story backwards panel by panel until I roughly get to the center.
The second most important part of a story is the beginning. You can’t start a story in the middle of a search for treasure, because then the reader doesn’t care. You have to start a story, where they’re just sitting around the house or Scrooge is in his office. Then something happens that triggers the search and Scrooge gets interested, then the reader gets more interested. Then I create the beginning panel by panel.
The middle is action, comedy, and so it’s not that important. You have to have it, though. I fit it together like a jigsaw puzzle and that’s why I had so many panels on a page, because I would have so many ideas planned out that I would pages together like a jigsaw.
Sometimes I would have little thumbnail sketches cut out and I would try to fit them on a page. I hope no one else writes comics like that, because it’s too time consuming.
WG: What tools did you prefer to use for the Donald Duck comics?
DR: I used mechanical pencils, drawing pens that I learned to use in engineering school, and calligraphy pens. Art directors don’t like my comics, because they’re so crammed. I just wanted to write something entertaining.
DR: I grew up with a passion to tell comic stories and all I would do in my spare time is create comics books that nobody would see but myself. All through high school and college, up until ten fifteen years ago, I had a passion for telling comic stories to people. It was my own characters in high school and up until I was thirty-five years old for fan magazines. Then I got a chance to tell comic stories based on Carl Barks’ characters and I approached that with a passion greater than before. The Disney system so totally eroded my desire to work in comics that when I stopped eight years ago I haven’t missed it for a moment. I’m never going to do it again.
WG: I’m disappointed that you won’t be making anything new.
DR: Everything I still wrote is there and you know what, when Carl Barks was getting older some of his later stuff was bad. The same thing would have happened to me.