Thousands of people waited in line at the shopping mall in Helsinki, Finland. They started outside on a chilly street, and then they zig-zagged around the block and through the mall’s glass doors, across a food court, past a dozen shops and into the entrance of a bookstore.
At the front, signing autographs, sat Don Rosa of Kentucky. Later, Rosa gave television interviews and spoke to a conference hall packed full of his followers. This is what he does several times a year when he tours Europe and South America.
“How happy can one be. The great master met in person!” a marketing manager named Eveliina Paljärvi gushed on Twitter after snapping a selfie with him.
You’ve probably never heard of Don Rosa.
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He’s a cartoonist.
For 19 years, the lifelong Louisville resident wrote and drew Donald Duck comic books. His nearly 100 stories featured the hapless Donald, nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, and miserly Uncle Scrooge McDuck on epic journeys around the world. They explored jungle ruins, raised sunken ships and panned for gold in the frozen tundra.
These comics were filled with a creativity hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read them. The New York Journal of Books said they “easily match the greatest adventures that Doc Savage, Batman, Indiana Jones or The National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau have ever had.” It doesn’t hurt that they were beautifully illustrated.
Rosa’s comics sold decently in the United States, about 100,000 copies a month at their height in the late 1980s. But Americans tend to dismiss comic books as kid stuff. When they read comics at all, they favor grim superheroes, not wisecracking ducks searching the Andes for the lost treasures of Manco Cápac.
It’s a different story overseas. A comic produced with intelligence and wry humor will be enjoyed by all ages in foreign countries. That’s why Rosa’s comics — and before long, handsome book collections of his work — began appearing in Danish, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Indonesian. Collectively, they sold in the millions.
Don is probably the most famous Kentuckian who nobody in Kentucky knows about.
Ray Foushee, marketing manager at WDRB-TV in Louisville
The global impact was tremendous. Swedes and Brazilians who grew up on Rosa handed down his Duck tales to their children. Don Rosa fan clubs started in Norway. An Italian biography of Rosa was released in 2011. An Austrian biography is set for publication next June, on his 66th birthday.
“Don is probably the most famous Kentuckian who nobody in Kentucky knows about,” said lifelong friend Ray Foushee, marketing manager at WDRB-TV in Louisville.
“You know those ‘Hometown Heroes’ banners they have hanging on buildings around Louisville?” Foushee asked. “With the pictures of celebrities like Diane Sawyer, Pat Day, Muhammad Ali, that sort of thing? We’ve joked that they should hang one for Don — ‘Don’s Louisville’ — with a big picture of him sitting at his drawing board. And everyone would be saying, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’”
For all the attention he receives abroad, Rosa is a reclusive man at home. Physically, he resembles comedian Larry David — skinny, his round eyeglasses framing a sardonic expression, with wisps of white hair in the back of his otherwise bald head. In fact, one of the few times that anyone in this country asked Rosa for his autograph, it was a woman at a San Diego supermarket who assumed he was Larry David.
He is bemused by the rock-star treatment he gets in foreign lands.
“It’s a strange feeling,” Rosa said during a recent interview at his home in a wooded section of Jefferson County. “I only wanted to entertain someone for 15 minutes, and all these years later, I’m told that I’ve changed lives. I get these letters, these incredibly heartfelt letters from people talking about what my stories have meant to them. Lots of them say they had an unhappy childhood, and my stories were so important to them. I don’t know how to respond.”
The key is to reach people when they’re 12 years old, he said.
“That’s what every parent should know, that whatever happens to a kid when they’re 12 — whatever they’re watching or reading or doing when they’re 12 — that’s going to affect them deeply for the rest of their life.”
‘They’re not funny animals’
Rosa isn’t the world’s foremost Donald Duck cartoonist.
That honor goes to the late Carl Barks, who drew the licensed Duck comics from 1942 to 1966. Barks created Scrooge McDuck, iconic in popular culture for diving through his enormous money bin like a happy porpoise. Barks’ zany tales won him a generation of fans. Comic books didn’t credit their creators by name in those days, but readers figured out who “the good Duck artist” was.
The opening scene in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones races to escape the boulder rolling after him? George Lucas, a Barks devotee, lifted that from the pages of a 1954 Uncle Scrooge story, The Seven Cities of Cibola.
It was Carl Barks who delighted young Rosa as he was growing up with comic books in Louisville. Walt Disney, he could take or leave.
“One thing you have to get straight: This is not Walt Disney’s Donald Duck; this is Carl Barks’ Donald Duck,” Rosa declared.
“Disney didn’t have a damn thing to do with it,” he said. “Barks redesigned Donald Duck when he was hired to produce comic books for Dell about this actor who appeared in Disney’s seven-minute animated cartoons. With Disney, Donald Duck had no background, he had no history, he had no consistent personality. Dell had to assign somebody to create an entire character out of this name. That was Barks.”
I grew up seeing these characters — and I still do — as a parody, as a caricature of a human being. They’re not funny animals. They’re people.
To properly appreciate Barks’ Duck family, you must overlook the beaks and feathers, Rosa said.
“I mean, Bugs Bunny was obviously a funny animal. He lived in a hole in the ground and stole carrots from Elmer Fudd,” he said. “Daffy Duck flew in the air and duck hunters shot at him. But Donald Duck worried about holding down a job and having a date with Daisy. Scrooge McDuck worried about paying his taxes. So I grew up seeing these characters — and I still do — as a parody, as a caricature of a human being. They’re not funny animals. They’re people.”
“And that’s why they’re so popular. They weren’t cute,” he said, making a sour face as he spat out that last word. “They were extremely funny and clever. Carl Barks was doing stories that could be appreciated by adults, too.”
The early Kentucky cartoonist
As a boy, Rosa studied how Barks and other cartoonists drew. He took a shot at the craft himself while he was a civil engineering student at the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s. His Barks-inspired comic strip, called The Pertwillaby Papers, in the campus newspaper introduced a young man named Lancelot “Lance” Pertwillaby, whom Rosa thrust into around-the-world adventures. (He would recycle these globe-trekking stories years later for his Duck comics.)
On the side, he tried to sell a quirky comic strip set in ancient Greece to the Lexington Herald. The rejection letter was curt. “We gear our comics page toward a less intelligent audience,” the Herald’s features editor wrote.
College graduation meant returning to Louisville to help manage his family’s third-generation construction business, the Keno Rosa Tile and Terrazzo Co. It was lucrative but creatively unsatisfying. For a few years in the early 1980s, the Louisville Times paid Rosa $35 a week to draw a superhero strip, The Adventures of Captain Kentucky. Set in that city, it had plenty of inside jokes, with prominent use of local people and landmarks. But hardly anyone seemed to read it.
And that looked like the end of Don Rosa, cartoonist.
“Captain Kentucky was one of Don’s real failures, because he poured his heart and soul into that strip for three years. Jesus, the level of detail he put into his art — the cutting and pasting of Zip tone alone! — would have driven anyone else mad,” said his friend Foushee, who was then a television columnist at the Louisville Times.
“It was like the closing of a chapter after that,” Foushee said. “It didn’t look like there was going to be an art career for him. Not full-time, anyway. I’m sure he always would have done it as a hobby. But I know he wasn’t happy. He didn’t like that situation.”
Chasing a childhood dream
In 1986, Rosa was browsing the comics rack when he noticed that Donald Duck comic books were for sale again. A company called Gladstone Publishing was mixing classic reprints by Barks and other long-retired artists with fresh stories by relative unknowns.
Rosa concluded that the new stuff was mostly lame gags, amateurishly drawn. Surely he could do better. So he called an editor at Gladstone and insisted that he was the one best qualified to honor Barks’ legacy.
Fine, the editor replied. Submit a sample to us.
Rosa immediately began drawing his “sample” — The Son of the Sun, an insanely detailed, 26-page story that set the Ducks and a sneering rival, Flintheart Glomgold, on a race to find the treasure inside an Incan temple built around a large volcano. Naturally, the volcano exploded, blasting the temple into the sky with the cast trapped aboard. The Ducks used a tapestry as a parachute to narrowly escape. The temple landed in a nearby lake with a massive splash that — by happy coincidence — irrigated the drought-stricken fields of local farmers, making the Ducks the heroes of the day.
Gladstone printed the story in Uncle Scrooge no. 219, where it proved enormously popular and won Rosa a comics industry award nomination. Impressed, the editor called him back. Could Rosa give them more? Yes, he certainly could.
He closed his family’s construction company to focus exclusively on his cartooning. Between the modest page rate that Gladstone offered and what he could get from selling his original art to collectors after each issue was published, Rosa figured he would earn just enough to cover his mortgage and utilities. He was trading the financial security of running an 80-year-old business for the thrill of chasing a childhood dream.
“No regrets,” Rosa said. “I had been making good money. But at the end of the year, all I had was money, and that would get spent. I’d have cars, I’d have TV sets. Now, if I could do comic books — even if nobody I knew was reading them — at the end of the year, I’d have a year’s worth of comic books stories that I had produced. That was better than money.”
Big in Europe
After a few years, Rosa switched companies and began drawing for a Danish publisher named Egmont that held the Disney license in Europe.
This proved to be a shrewd move. The international audience for Duck comics numbered in the millions. Disney characters in general, and Donald Duck in particular, have long been beloved in Europe. Swedish families on Christmas Eve gather around the television to watch a special called Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, or Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas. An estimated one in every four Finns reads a weekly Donald Duck magazine called Aku Ankka.
Rosa quickly became famous on the international stage. Anthology books of his comics had his name prominently slapped across the cover. Fans tracked down and reprinted his earliest drawings, including his long-forgotten comic strips from the UK campus paper and the Louisville Times.
If readers in Copenhagen didn’t understand his old inside jokes about the Bluegrass State, they also didn’t care. They just wanted whatever Don Rosa drew.
Rosa’s stories are so much fun to read because he clearly had fun producing them, Disney expert David Gerstein told the Herald-Leader recently. Gerstein is editing a 10-volume set of Rosa’s work being released in the United States by Fantagraphics Books. The sixth volume is set for publication this month.
“While Rosa’s tone is often different from Barks’ tone, one can feel the kindred enthusiasm of a creator doing something he loves — in this case, not just carrying on the adventurous, slightly miserly heroism of Scrooge McDuck, but mixing in his own ideas with past Barks concepts for a rich, exciting stew,” Gerstein said.
“Fans also love Rosa’s stories for their complexity, their bits of real-life history, the angst and wit of their characterization, and the fact that they’re not dumbed down for kids in any way,” he said.
‘A world-class chump’
Two decades into his dream job, Rosa wasn’t having fun anymore.
His comics remained phenomenally successful. But when you draw characters licensed from The Walt Disney Co., you don’t hold the rights to your work. Disney does. If you create new characters, Disney owns them. If your comics sell extra copies, or if they are reissued as a set of hardcover books for hefty prices, you collect none of that money, even if it’s your name selling it. You are paid once for drawing each new comic, and that’s all you get, forever.
He discovered Don Rosa books, Don Rosa posters and Don Rosa calendars proudly displaying his name that were being sold without any advance notice or payment to him. Worse, in his view, these unauthorized reproductions often contained sloppy errors.
Rosa was even forced to fight with his publishers to get his original art returned. Disney insisted that comics companies should keep the very paper and ink that left his drawing board. This threatened his income; he made a lot of his money by selling the artwork to fans.
“I knew that I would never get wealthy off these comics, no matter how popular they were,” he said. “But I still remember on one of these European tours, a reporter took me aside and said, ‘Gee, it must be nice to be able to travel around now that you’re so rich.’ Then I started to realize — everyone thought I was a millionaire! And of course they did, everyone is buying all of these books with my name on them. They didn’t realize that when you work for Disney, you don’t see a penny of the profits from your work.”
I started to feel like a world-class chump for letting Disney and so many publishers around the world make money off me while I wasn’t getting anything from it.
“That really started to bother me. That led me from loving this job to hating it. I started to feel like a world-class chump for letting Disney and so many publishers around the world make money off me while I wasn’t getting anything from it.”
Pleasing his fellow fans
Aggravated by worsening eyesight and a struggle with depression, Rosa concluded that his resentment of Disney made it time to put down his pen. He hasn’t produced new Duck comics since 2008. People often suggest that he bypass Disney by drawing characters of his own invention, which he would own, but that doesn’t interest him.
“Barks’ Ducks meant something to me. Any character I create next week, I didn’t grow up with them. They wouldn’t mean anything to me,” he said.
Now officially retired, Rosa stays busy by taking camping trips with his wife, Ann, a former school teacher, and tending to the 25-acre “nature preserve” where they live near the Jefferson-Bullitt county line. He has become a prodigious farmer of chili peppers, offering a colorful bowl of them to fans at his signings. For as long as his Duck comics stay in print, Rosa says, he will keep traveling the world to meet those fans.
He is less enthusiastic about comics conventions in the United States, where fewer people know of him. A panel discussion with Rosa at the Albuquerque Comic Con in January was attended by only two people: Rosa and the apologetic moderator, both of them staring out into a large room full of empty chairs. The crowd was next door, posing for pictures with two young women dressed as sisters Anna and Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen.
This is why you’re unlikely to find Rosa at the comics shows held every year in Lexington and Louisville.
“I don’t mind going to Albuquerque and being ignored,” Rosa said with a smile. “But I won’t sit here and be humiliated in my home state.”
Even if he never draws anything else, Rosa is satisfied that he got to follow in the steps of his hero, Carl Barks, and make his fellow Duck readers happy.
“They ask me, ‘Do you like your artwork?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s stiff, and I never really learned how to compose a page,’” Rosa said. “They ask me, ‘Do you like your writing?’ And I say, ‘No, it’s a little too complicated.’ Then they ask, ‘Well, aren’t your comics entertaining?’ And I say, ‘You’re damn right they’re entertaining! That’s all I ever tried to do. I’m not trying to please an art director or an editor. I’m just trying to please other fans. That’s why I crammed every page.’”
Fantagraphics Books is publishing a 10-volume collection of Don Rosa’s work, with six volumes released as of November. They are available in many bookstores and comics shops, and at online booksellers.
Volume 1: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Son of the Sun” ($29.99)
Volume 2: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: Return to Plain Awful” ($29.99)
Volume 3: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: Treasure Under Glass” ($29.99)
Volume 4: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Last of the Clan McDuck” ($29.99)
Volume 5: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Richest Duck in the World” ($29.99)
Volume 6: “Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Universal Solvent” ($29.99)