In Don Rosa’s world, Superman is a comic book character. Spiderman or Batman? They’re comic book characters, too. But Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and the rest of the Duck clan? They’re as alive as he is.
“Of course, I know they’re not,” says Rosa, 54, of Louisville, “but in the back of my mind, they are real to me.”
It’s the type of dichotomy that defines Rosa’s career as a self-taught cartoonist of Donald Duck comics. A career that finds him simultaneously, as he puts it, “the least known cartoonist in America” and “the most known in Europe.”
“Neither extreme is very comfortable,” Rosa admits. “Someplace right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is where I’d like to visit.”
Since publishing his first Uncle Scrooge comic, The Son of the Sun, in 1987 to wide popular and critical acclaim, Rosa has found that life on either side of the Big Pond can be a bit surreal at times. He packs entire malls at book signings, does interviews on TV, and has dinner with dignitaries when he travels to places like Finland, Norway, or Italy—where Donald Duck comics are still all the rage (with adults as well as kids). Yet in America no one knows him. In Europe, there are hundreds of online fan sites devoted to his work. But in Louisville, where he’s lived all his life, unless you’re a devout comic book fan, you’re unlikely to find his name anyplace but the phone book.
No matter. For the thousands of fans in Europe and Scandinavia who know and love his work, Rosa is the heir apparent to Carl Barks, the cartoonist and writer whose Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics written for Disney in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s are credited with establishing the personality of the characters as we know them today.
For Rosa, there is no better compliment. Barks was a “brilliant storyteller,” says Rosa. “He was able to create the best comic books ever produced. If a fairy had landed on my shoulders even 20 years ago and told me in five or so years I’d be world-famous as the successor of Carl Barks, I’d never have believed it. It’s still dreamlike.”
Living the Dream
Growing up in St. Matthews, Rosa’s home was filled with his older sister Deanna’s comic books. They were his “constant childhood companion,” he says. By the time he was 5, Rosa was writing and drawing his own comics in blank business ledgers his dad brought home from the family’s Keno Rosa Tile Company.
Even then, it wasn’t the drawing that interested Rosa. It was the storytelling. “I would never just draw pictures,” he says. “That was not the least bit interesting to me. All I knew was I was trying to tell a story somehow, a funny adventure story.”
But Rosa knew his parents tolerated his comic book making only as a hobby. They expected him to take over the family business. So that’s what he did, after earning a civil engineering degree at the University of Kentucky in 1973.
He couldn’t give up his passion for comics entirely though. He had begun collecting comics in earnest in the 1960s, eventually amassing a collection of more than 40,000 issues. While at UK, he created a comic strip called The Pertwillaby Papers for the student newspaper. Later, his strip Captain Kentucky—which included Louisville settings and personalities—ran in the Louisville Times between 1979 and 1982, before he killed off the main character.
“After three years, I thought, there’s only one reason to do something like this: either you’re getting a lot of money or a lot of attention. And I wasn’t getting either one,” he says.
So Rosa packed away his drawing materials, never expecting to use them again. That was, until he ran smack into his destiny.
In 1986, Rosa discovered that a small company in Arizona called Gladstone was planning to publish Disney comics in America for the first time in more than a dozen years. So he called up the editor, telling him he was the “only American who was born to write and draw Uncle Scrooge comics. I said it was my manifest destiny,” Rosa recalls.
Rosa got the nod to do one story as a freelancer for Gladstone, and the result was The Son of the Sun. The issue was so well-received it was nominated for a Harvey Award—then the comic industry’s highest honor.
From there, Rosa’s cartooning career picked up steam. By 1989, he had liquidated his tile business to devote full time to his comics, and since then he has won two Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, currently the industry’s most coveted accolade, for best serialized story in 1995 and best humor writer/artist of 1997.
The 1995 Eisner was the result of Rosa’s 12-part series, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. It’s this epic work—drawn between 1991 and 1993 and reissued in a collection earlier this year in America by Gemstone Publishing—that Rosa is most known for.
“People come in quite often asking for it,” says Doug Adams, manager of Louisville’s Comic Book World on Shepherdsville Road, and a close friend of Rosa’s. “Most avid comic book fans know all about it, but sometimes we do have people who are surprised to find out the author lives right here.”
In Life and Times, Rosa walks readers through each stage of Scrooge McDuck’s personal history—from poor shoeshine boy in Scotland, to gold prospector in the American West, to the billionaire uncle that Donald comes to know. Every chance he can, Rosa puts Scrooge in authentic historic settings and situations. He researches the history of his stories at length, routinely delving into library archives and calling university professors to make sure he’s got all the details just right.
“Don brings that something extra to his stories. His real respect for these characters is evident in his attention to historical fact and setting—and any historical tidbit he introduces, you can be sure it’s well-researched,” says John Clark, editor-in-chief of Disney Comics at Gemstone Publishing.
Fans sometimes ask Rosa why he hasn’t used his popularity to launch his own comic book characters. But he says if he can’t draw Scrooge and Donald, he won’t draw at all.
“Any new character or idea that I create next week, I didn’t grow up with. And I really wouldn’t care about it. It just wouldn’t seem real to me,” he says.
An Amazing Career Choice
While Rosa says that his unlikely career as a cartoonist has been the result of “serendipitous, happy accidents,” it’s not been without its share of bumps in the road.
Completely self-taught, Rosa uses engineering pens and templates—rather than typical cartooning tools—to draw his comics. While his fans don’t seem to mind, he claims it makes his artwork “look really amateurish.” And because he doesn’t know “all the secrets of the trade,” drawing each issue is time-consuming.
“When I draw Scrooge, it’s like I’m drawing a truss diagram. I use templates to make his glasses and top hat perfect. That’s the only way I’ve ever learned to draw. That’s one of the reasons it’s so slow for me,” he says.
But if Rosa’s unduly humble about his artistic talent, he’s “intensely proud” of his storytelling skills and the fact that he’s “just about the only” active cartoonist who both writes and draws his stories, just as Barks did.
Working 9 to 5 each day used to mean Rosa could do three or four comics per year. As his popularity has grown, though, he spends more time answering every piece of fan mail he receives. Corresponding with fans is important to him: “I’m a comic book fan and they are comic book fans,” he says. “The fans are more important to me than the editors.” But all the e-mailing and writing means he’s lucky now to finish one comic per year.
Added to that is the fact that Rosa’s been battling publishers around the globe for more equitable compensation for his work. As a freelancer, he receives no royalties when his comics are reprinted. And while many of his fans abroad assume he’s a millionaire, given his level of fame, in fact he lives modestly on the 25 acres he shares in Jefferson County with his wife, Ann, a retired public school teacher, their three basset hounds, a cockatoo, and a “bunch” of tropical fish.
At times, the ongoing copyright struggles make him wonder whether he should have stayed with his family’s tile business and steered clear of comics altogether. But he answers the question himself, as soon as he poses it: “No,” he says. “It’s been too amazing.”
And when Rosa remembers what it was that made him take the plunge into cartooning full time in the first place, he knows he made the right decision.
“When I worked in the construction company, there’d be nothing left at the end of the year to show for it except money. And that’s not very important. That disappears. But when I do a comic…at the end of the year, it exists, and it’s going to be reprinted, and millions of people have read it. And they’re going to read it again and save it,” he says. “And that’s an amazing thing.
“Very few people can say that they have been able to satisfy their fondest childhood dream,” Rosa says. But each time Rosa completes a new Scrooge comic, he does.
DON ROSA QUICK FACTS
Full Name: Keno Don Hugo Rosa
Birthday: June 29, 1951
Degree: BA, civil engineering, University of Kentucky, 1973
Wife: Ann (Payne) Rosa, retired social studies teacher
Hobbies: Collecting old movies, comics, music (primarily movie soundtracks and popular music of 1935-1965), books (especially historical fiction, adventure, and mysteries), and Donald Duck toys and figurines; birding; backpacking; vegetable gardening; and driving his vintage cars: a 1937 Nash Lafayette Deluxe and 1948 Dodge Custom 6 sedan.
Major Awards: 1995 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best Serialized Story; 1997 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best Humor Writer/Artist.
Best Known For: The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, re-released in 2005 by Gemstone Publishing.
Hidden Inscription: In each of his comics, Rosa hides a “D.U.C.K.” inscription as a tribute to Carl Barks. The acronym stands for “Dedicated to Unca (Uncle) Carl from Keno (Rosa’s first name).
SCROOGE McDUCK: A RAGS TO RICHES STORY
In The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Don Rosa follows Scrooge McDuck from his childhood as a poor shoeshine boy in Scotland, through his travels to seek his fortune in the American West. Throughout the series, Rosa is careful to insist that Scrooge made his money the “old-fashioned” way—with a lot of elbow grease and some smarts.
Interestingly, Rosa bases each of the episodes in his version of Scrooge’s history on comments that Scrooge makes about his past escapades in Barks’ comics of the 1940s-1960s—no small undertaking.
The following is adapted from a timeline of Scrooge’s life that Rosa shares with readers in his notes on The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck:
1867: Born in Scotland.
1880: Leaves for America.
1880-1882: Works on a Mississippi riverboat, eventually becoming its skipper.
1882-1883: Labors as a cowpoke on the Texas-Montana trail.
1883-1885: Seeks fortune as a copper prospector in Montana.
1885: Returns to Scotland to save McDuck castle.
1886-1889: Hunts for gold in the Transvaal Gold Rush in South Africa.
1889-1896: Continues quest for gold in America and Australia.
1896-1897: Hits gold in the Yukon!
1898-1902: Pursues business ventures in Canada, then returns to Scotland.
1902-1930: Builds his business empire, becoming the world’s richest duck.
1947: Meets nephew, Donald, and great-nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: SCROOGE McDUCK’S LOST LOVE
For an inside exclusive about the love affair between Scrooge McDuck and Glittering Goldie, click here: McDuck’s lost love