Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Walt Disney's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Vol. 1 by Don Rosa

So I am not one of your fanatic Carl Barks fans. I've seen some of his stories, here and there - I think I even came across a few of them as a kid, as one was supposed to - and appreciate his skill and ability without going all nutty about what have always stuck me as decent comics adventure stories for kids. I've never made an effort to dig into his work seriously; it's been reprinted a bunch of times in my reading life but those seem to have been evenly split between cheap and random collections (for kids) and huge hardcover compendia (for people with more fanaticism than budgetary restrictions). I fit into neither of those categories.

But I always figured I'd read more of that stuff when I could: it was one of the great comics achievements of the twentieth century, right? (People I respected said so, at least.) And I'm at least vaguely interested in similar material.

Enter Don Rosa, who is, I gather, the closest modern equivalent to Barks, with the advantage that these days creators are actually allowed to have their names on stories most of the time. Thirty years ago, he did a big series of Scrooge stories to retell that skinflint's life history, based on random background details and minor plot points across all of Barks's work. (It was a very faanish endeavor, which is why, as Rosa explains in his introduction, it was first done in prose by a fan as a fan project...though that fan, amusingly enough, was Jack Chalker.)

Rosa's project stretched across twelve chapters, mostly about fifteen pages long, and those appeared in various Disney comics worldwide (the Disney comics are aggressively global; it's an impressive example of the power of aggregation) from 1991 through 1993. The stories have appeared in various reprints since then: what looks like the most recent edition was from Fantagraphics two years ago, in two volumes.

I got, from my local library, what I thought was the whole thing but was actually the Boom! Kids 2008 edition of Walt Disney's The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Vol.1, collecting the first six stories and leaving Scrooge at the end still barely in his teens and not yet rich. It has extensive notes from Rosa, both the introduction I mentioned above and individual story afterwords detailing where he found many of the details in Barks's work.

This is extensively researched, carefully assembled, deeply considered, and well-presented - and Rosa also went through at least one editor (and probably many) on the Disney side as he was creating these stories. (Sharecropping is never done in isolation.) So this is as definitive as anything can be: this is, until some more important Disney personage sees a way to make more money with a flashy DuckTales prequel movie, the official version of Scrooge's life.

But they're also light adventure stories for children about a cartoon duck in a world of cartoon animals. That's inherently minor and light-weight, particularly since these are all prequels to other stories, and the whole point is that we know Scrooge will get fabulously wealthy and successful. So the years of struggle are already baked in. And a lot of the fun, presumably, is in seeing the callbacks to Barks stories - I caught "square eggs," because I am not an idiot, but only a few others, and I'm sure I missed most.

We begin with Scrooge at the age of ten in 1877 Glasgow, where he earns that famous first dime. The next three chapters send him to America, to be a riverboat pilot, cattlehand, and prospector, after which he returns to Scotland to save the ancestral pile and then set off on his first gold-hunting expedition, in South Africa. Various characters seen in Barks stories, such as the ubiquitous Beagle Boys, turn up, mostly to provide conflict and villainy. All of those stories are zippy and full of age-appropriate adventure: about what you would expect from a Disney product.

So this is nice and fun and pleasant but mostly for people who are not me. Those people are either not me because they care about this deeply, or not me because they're much younger and looking for just Tintin-esque adventure stories their parents won't complain about. If you are in one of those categories, or requisition reading material for someone who is, you are more likely to find this exciting and wonderful.

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