“The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #3.) 

For my third “book” of the year, I selected to read a comic that I have been wanting to look at for some time: Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. For this, I have been the subject of incessant teasing from my wife who keeps asking me why I am reading those “duck comics”. Since this isn’t a novel and comics are faster to read, I read both the original Life and Times stories (written 1992-1994) as well as the official “companion” stories which were written as one-offs between 1988 and 2006. All in all, it’s more than 400 pages of comics and supplementary material, so I think it counts.

So, why am I reading “duck comics”? As a kid, I was a fan of Ducktales (1987-1990) and those stories featured the adventures of Scrooge McDuck with his great-nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as well as a cast of other characters. Unknown to me at the time, Ducktales was based in large part on the “Duck Universe” established in comics, especially those by Carl Barks. (Originally a Disney animator, he worked on Disney comics from the 1940s to the 1970s.) It was during his run on these comics that Mr. Barks created the character of Scrooge McDuck as a one-off in Christmas 1947 (“Night on Bear Mountain”), but the character became a breakout star and eventually was fleshed out with his own universe of eccentric supporting characters.

Don Rosa began to draw Duck comics starting in 1987. A lifelong fan of Carl Bark’s work, he took it on himself to pay homage to the original’s stories whenever possible. In 1992, he started work on what would be an Eisner-winning collection: The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. Taking nearly every reference from Scrooge’s youth that were chronicled in the original Barks comics, Rosa created a twelve-part biography of Scrooge from his youth in Glasgow in 1877 to the arrival of his nephews in 1947. But while this could have been nothing but continuity porn, he crafted an amazing story that charted Scrooge’s life through his optimistic youth, several successive business and treasure-hunting failures, and up to his first real success in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Rosa then turns to describe Scrooge’s descent into the miserly character that would appear in 1947, who had turned away from his friends and family, given up on one true love, and even started to become a villain himself. The narrative ends with Scrooge seeking redemption in a way by reconnecting with his family. My brief description cannot do the story justice as it manages to be a compelling narrative, a fascinating look at Disney alternate history, and still just a funny kids comics. It is far better than it has any right to be and it more than deserved its Eisner.

In 2006, more than a decade after finishing his original collection, Rosa published a “companion” volume of stories which connected with the original collection. A few of these were written prior to the original, but most were one-off episodes published later in the same style. These help to fill in some blanks and let the reader spend more time with a younger Scrooge, Hortense Duck (Donald’s mother), and other characters introduced in the original stories. They are fine, but are ultimately unnecessary and they break the pacing of the original work if you try to read them together.

If I have one complaint, it is that there are too many cases of false foreshadowing, places where he was slyly hinting at a future Barks story but where they is no payoff in the collection itself. Since I have not read (and am unlikely to read) all of the originals, those fell flat. Fortunately, you do not need to have read the original comics to understand the book, but I suspect it would have added depth that I missed. I will pick up some Barks comics down the line to see how they hold up to Rosa’s spin on them. Also, while I liked that the stories happened in “real time” from 1887 to 1947, it does put a slightly strange spin on the whole affair. By keeping so close to a real calendar, you can hardly help but to realize that the nephews are themselves in their 80s now were they not ageless fictional characters.

To pull this all the way back around, while I have wanted to read this comic for years, it was the revived Ducktales (2017) that inspired me to put the volumes on my “must read” list. While Disney largely prevented the original series from using Donald or other “top tier” characters, the new series is based on the Rosa comics and include Donald in the adventures. The art style is changed to more closely mimic the Barks/Rosa style and all the writers were required to read The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck when they were creating the show. In fact, the show has several times made explicit reference to Scrooge’s history as it is told in this volume.

Yes, I read and enjoyed “duck” comics and I’m not embarrassed to tell you about it.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “Captain  Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)
  2. “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)

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