Review by Frank Plowright
Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is the most acclaimed Disney duck story since the work of Carl Barks. It’s been printed in its entirety as both a hardback and paperback collection, but the first English language book printing separated the story over four album sized publications, collecting three chapters per book. The advantage of this format is that the detail and gags with which Rosa packs his artwork is more readily visible, so offering a finer appreciation of his art.
Rosa constructed his biography of Scrooge McDuck by first mining every Carl Barks story for references to Scrooge’s past no matter how obscure, compiling a timeline and weaving stories around what had been already mentioned. In his first outing here he skilfully works his way round the anomaly of Scrooge continually protecting what he considers his lucky first dime, the first money he earned from his own endeavours. Scrooge grew up in Scotland, where pennies were the currency. Rosa would later write a separate story regarding how the dime ended up in Scotland.
We see Scrooge as a child being made aware of his ancestry, setting up a shoeshine stand, and expanding that into a successful peat sales business before leaving for the USA to try his luck in the company of a relative already there. Barks’ references to Scrooge’s past were generally offhand, but the one full tale he set there introduced ancestors of his other characters, inventor Gyro Gearloose and the terrible Beagle Boys. In his second chapter Rosa re-tells Barks’ construction, but weaves all sorts of extra details around and into it, enriching the original and creating a good adventure for those who’ve never read it.
Throughout there are some marvellous jokes and comments tying into Scrooge’s character. A McDuck clan ancestor lost a significant battle because he only paid his entire army 30 copper pieces an hour; he meets a man selling square eggs, referencing a later adventure, and we see the beginnings of Scrooge being aware of how he earned every coin in his money bin.
Rosa is a very visual storyteller. On arriving in the USA Scrooge almost immediately loses his luggage, but this is illustrated, not written, and his gags are very rarely verbally conveyed. Scrooge needs a hammer and chisel to clean an excessively muddy pair of boots, an ancient piggy bank and its opening device are covered with cobwebs in the McDuck premises, and the ludicrous family heirloom of an ancestor’s false teeth serves a later purpose. That’s as Rosa weaves a page around a Barks reference that Scrooge once claimed to have seen off the notorious James Gang.
Many artists have been inadequate when it comes to the admittedly difficult task of characterising a cartoon duck, but that’s no problem here, with Scrooge running the full emotional gamut. Rosa’s also confident when depicting the people Scrooge meets, like future President Teddy Roosevelt despite the Disney applied restriction of having to draw them all with a round black nose.
The entire Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is a combination of great adventure, accomplished art and high comedy, and it’s all in these opening chapters. The next volume is the most compressed of the four, covering the years 1884 to 1887.