Friday, September 19, 2014

Fantagraphics' Don Rosa Library, Vol. 1

I’m happy to see Don Rosa receive prestige treatment from Fantagraphics.

The Carl Barks library is essential, of course, but the case could be made that Rosa’s works are equally so. Rosa came to the Disney Duck-blind in the mid-80s, when Gladstone Publishing reintroduced Barks (and Gottfredson) to American comic book stores. Rosa, a voluminous contributor to a fanzine forerunner of the Comics Buyer’s Guide, was already on speaking terms with Gladstone’s editor Byron Erickson; Rosa pitched a story, with artwork, and was immediately conscripted into service as writer, artist and resident bearer of Barks’ torch.

Introducing Don Rosa

Rosa’s reverence toward Barks — the characters, the art, the maturity of voice and approach to story — cannot be overstated. Rosa’s fealty to the eight-panel storyline is almost absolute, the ducks’ “human” foibles very much in flux, kicking the stories’ plotlines into motion and inviting emotional investment from the reader. Rosa is also shrewdly devoted to Duckburg as an American locale, historically situated in a fantasy fifties (where cabinet radios, rotary-phones, and a jalopy with the “313” license plate, etc. are the norm).

Rosa’s style emulates Barks’, but is nevertheless uniquely invested with Rosa’s own personality. Rosa says he’s been accused of bringing an “underground” sensibility to Barks’ world, and bristles at comparisons to Crumb (he certainly has Crumb’s fondness for the onomatopoeia, but has a drawing style more akin, I think, to Basil Wolverton’s non-hallucinatory work (where such could be said to exist)). Rosa was self-taught, and brings the same obsessive-compulsive love of detail that served him well as a comic book archivist. Consequently, where Barks might content himself with fluffy clouds rendered with a few swift strokes of a sable brush and a reliance on the colorist’s use of blue, Rosa etches densely textured clouds that are, of course, punctured audibly.

I think it works. It sometimes reads as “edgy,” but how is that a bad thing in relation to Barks’ ducks? Indeed, Rosa’s stories have a kinetic energy that bristle with an underlying anxiety I think Barks could appreciate.

Unfortunately, another element in Rosa’s life that Barks could appreciate is the thorough shafting he received at the hands of The Mouse. As with Barks, the penny dropped quite late in Rosa’s life; Disney’s contracts are iron-clad, and bids for compensation all but futile. Due diligence is left entirely in the hands of the young artist, who more often than not is eager or desperate to sign. While fiscally canny, this corporate strategy strikes me as profoundly short-sighted with regards to legacy. Surely it is in the corporation’s own best interests to cultivate, care for, and duly reward those rare artists who bring something unique that keeps an aging property vibrant and relevant in an increasingly volatile zeitgeist?

Whether or not the Fantagraphics publications address any of that, the presentation is first-class. The Rosa book is slightly larger than the Barks’ volumes, making Rosa’s hyper-articulate artwork more accessible to the reader. The coloration team utilises the gradient shading that current comic book readers have come to expect, which also contributes to accessibility.

Rosa’s European fanbase is substantial, but he remains all but unknown on this continent so fixated with men-in-tights-and-gals-in-less. Here’s hoping these publications bring some correction to that trend.

Further reading: Rosa's wiki; my appreciation of Carl Barks; my appreciation of Floyd Gottfredson; Fantagraphics website.


paul bowman said...

When I tepidly latched on to resurgent Barks appreciation (not that I realized that's what was happening) twenty-odd years ago, I have to admit, I saw the Rosa stories in the backs of the few comics I picked up as a diminishment more than a continuation of the legacy. Kind of a pathetic arrogance for a twenty-something kid with no real knowledge of the Barks catalogue. In my mind, the days of Barkses was over (true enough, in a way), and the publishers who wanted to keep profiting from what guys like him had created were padding their reprint books with inferior filler. At the same time — arrogance plus naivete — for a little while there I imagined myself the sort of natural talent who might wander through the door they'd opened for a Rosa. Enough that I tried my hand at copying a page or two of a Barks story. Still have that somewhere, boxed away, I think. I didn't have staying power with it — wasn't so in love with Barks, really, for one thing, and had enough sense to see that it would take a lot of effort to accomplish something in a publishing market I didn't know anything about, for another. Would've done me a lot of good to have someone show me (if I'd been able to listen, which is questionable) that the door was only open to a Rosa because there was a Rosa, a guy whose by-then many years of devotion to the older material could impel him from early mediocrity, through all the effort I wasn't prepared to undertake, to standing as his generation's own ‘good duck artist.’

Anyway, one of these days I'd like to look through that volume there.

Darrell Reimer said...

When I retrieved the old Rosa books from the basement and contrasted the pulp comics to the Fantagraphics format, I was struck by how much more vivid the latter was. Rosa's art really suffered by the compression of the 8X10 format -- all those fine lines turn dense, and the energy from frame to frame comes close to stalling. It seems to me Gladstone moved to a larger magazine format within a few years to better serve his work.

Having said that, Rosa himself is ambivalent about the early stories, and especially his artwork, which he considers amateur. I'm not at all familiar with his later stuff -- by the time the 90s rolled around I was all but finished with comics -- so I'm terrifically curious about the forthcoming volumes. I consider the pages in this one pretty spanky.

Re: Rosa's saturation in Barks' ducks: I don't know if you read his Why I Quit, but he states he couldn't get excited about other stories, possibly involving some character of his own invention, because the characters would not be ones he grew up with. "I'm a fan," he says -- a simple, rather elegant admission.

paul bowman said...

No, I'd read a little about him and looked at some pre-duck cartoons that come up on Google, but nothing in the way of personal account. That was well worth the read. Thank you.

Re. print quality, yes, aside from online images I've only seen the pulp-quality stuff. My impression of the drawings has to be the worse for that.