Friday, July 16, 2010

Review - The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
by Don Rosa
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story

There's a term that comic fans use for a story that exists to to cover old plot points, smooth over the rough edges, and look back at old material: continuity porn. At its worst this can be a page filler that tries to explain plot points that no one cares about any more though more often its just about digging into that well of nostalgia. This is not a formula for a good story. And that is why it's so surprising that The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is so terrific.

The real story (as opposed to the plot) of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck starts fifty years before the comic was published. Carl Barks was writing and drawing Donald Duck comics and in one story he introduced Donald's miserly Uncle Scrooge. It turned out that Uncle Scrooge was popular. Very popular. Popular enough that he got his own comic which outsold any of the other Disney themed comics and was a world wide sensation. Scrooge made his three cubic acres of cash by "being tougher than toughies and smarter than the smarties" and had globe trotting adventures. Barks often dropped references to the tough road that Scrooge had to making his fortune.

Fifty years later and Don Rosa attempted to assemble as many of those references to tell the story of the rise of Scrooge McDuck. Starting from his ancestral home in Scotland, Scrooge makes one American dime for his first day's labor. From that tiny seed a fortune grows as he takes the dime as an omen that he should go to America to find his fortune. Each issue takes the reader through one complete adventure that he had in the late nineteenth century. He captains a riverboat, drives cattle, and hunts for gold all over the world before finally striking it rich. Scrooge's life made him hard, though, and upon making his fortune he drives his family away.

Obviously Rosa has created his story as a massive tribute to Barks. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is peppered with references to old stories, characters that haven't been used in decades, and the flotsom that accumulates when a comic creator is just trying to make good stories about cartoon ducks each month without worrying about how it all fits together. What Rosa does with it is tell other stories using those same elements. Barks told the story about a lender who claimed Scrooge owed him fifty years of interest on a loan at 100% compounded monthly. Rosa takes that story and tells the story of why Scrooge got the loan from him and how it was originally repaid even though the loan shark made it difficult.

Occasionally Rosa does dip into the obscure. Scrooge hiding some stocks in a bottle embedded in a wall is a plot point for an old story but here it's just confusing why we need to see that at all. However in most of these instances it's coupled with a new joke or bit of storytelling that allows it to be enjoyed by anyone. And such direct references outside of the context of Rosa's story tend to be rare.

The story works because at its heart it is a very traditional narrative. This is a rags to riches tale where the protagonist learns a lot of hard lessons before he succeeds through his own hard work. And the changes that he undergoes as a result leave him marked. It gives the story an emotional edge that is surprisingly effective given how anyone familiar with the characters at all know exactly how it will end up.

The best way to describe Rosa's art is animated. The characters have their roots in Disney animation so this is natural and Rosa gets that sense of motion right. He packs the panels with detail that you don't usually find in such a cartoony style and his sight gags are all sharp. This was a good book to look at as well as read.

Rosa has always lived in Barks's shadow. Carl Barks was the man who made these comics an international sensation (they're still huge in Europe) and Rosa is the modern cartoonist who has to live up to that. Doing a year long story as an homage to Barks is part of that. But it is a very good story, one would have fit in nicely with the best that Barks himself did. Now if only someone would reprint The Carl Barks Library so I could have Rosa and Barks side by side on my shelf.