I have had the privilege of being a guest of Don Rosa in his Louisville home three times: in 1996, 2000 and most recently 2008. Last January I had a very pleasant weekend with Don and Ann and their menagerie of pets, of whom my favourite is the white cockatoo called Gyro.
It was wonderful to be able to admire Don's creations in glorious full size and to play "find the D.U.C.K." with him looking over my shoulder and complaining when I was too quick ("I spent so much time hiding that one and you find it in a few seconds!"; but there were others I couldn't find without his hint...). I guess at some point I'll have to write something about Don's latest work, his magnificent composite Uncle Scrooge posters, all based on events described in Barks stories, that have recently been published in some European countries, for example on a 2008 calendar in Finland. But, before I get sidetracked, let me get to the topic of today's podcast.
When I visited Don in 1996, I was collecting material for the book about him that I was writing with Leonardo Gori and Alberto Becattini, Don Rosa e il rinascimento disneyano (Comic Art, 1997). For that book, I interviewed Don several times: once in his living room while we were looking at some of his old pre-Disney works, once in his library (Don and I in Louisville and Leonardo in Florence, using a text-based chat program on Don's computer) and then two more times via email after getting back to Cambridge. All four of these interviews appeared in the book. However the book is now out of print, the publisher no longer exists, and the text wasn't even in English to start with; in summary, I don't expect many of you to have much of a chance to read it.
So this time, more than ten years later, we sat in the comfy chairs in Don's studio and started the recorder, having agreed on my plan of publishing the interview on the web as both text and audio. I started with some questions about his lesser known pre-Disney beginnings, of course without worrying if some of this material had already appeared in the book. In fact, I'll take this as a chance to complement and illustrate the interview with some of the material I collected from Don for the book back in 1996 (particularly items that could not be included in the book and that are therefore being published for the first time on this blog).
We chatted for quite a long time; so, for listening and transcribing convenience, I'll have to break the interview up into chunks of about 10 minutes each. (Remember, each episode takes just 10 minutes to listen to, but several days of loving labour to prepare for publication...)
Here we go with the first installment! Download the audio as mp3 or play it directly from the browser using the flash gadget below.
FS: So, what's the date? Sunday the 20th of January 2008. We are here in Don Rosa's studio, where all the famous stories have been created, and we are having a nice chat together. That's the third time I'm here and I'm going to ask you a few things I've asked you many times before. I've interviewed you many times both in person and by e-mail and so on. You don't mind that I ask you some things again?
DR: Not at all!
...because I think it's going to be nice for people who hear this interview to be able to hear it from your voice instead of just seeing it written down.
Okay, if they are ...easily amused, I'll satisfy them!
Why don't we start at the beginning, with your first published duck story, the Son of the Sun?
You came out as a comics author relatively late in life compared to most comics authors because you had been doing... many things!
Well, yeah, because I never intended to do it for a living: it was just a hobby! And I came out very early as being a cartoonist for a hobby; I mean, I was doing that since my earliest memory! And as you have seen I still have the actual comic books that I was doing when I was maybe five or six years old! I came out very early as an amateur cartoonist, probably earlier than anybody else; but, as you say, very late as a professional, since I thought I was only going to be an amateur.
So, these cartoons that you were doing for yourself, the fascinating things that we have here in the book, were [done] when you were at school; but, after that, you also started amateur cartoons that other people could see.
Right, the ones I did as a kid that you referred to just now, had been only for my own amusement: nobody would see them and I wouldn't show them to friends. My parents, you know, they thought it was a waste of time, I was just doing something to entertain myself. But then, by the time I got to... well even in grade school (I went to a Catholic boys private school so there was both the elementary school and high school in the same unit) I was working for the high school newspaper when I was still in grade school, because they didn't have any people in high school who could draw as good as I could, or as funny. So I was getting stuff published back when I was 10 or 11 years old.
What kind of stuff was that?
Illustrations in the school newspaper; have we ever looked at that stuff?
I don't think we did.
Oh, that's another box of stuff we need to dig into, some time. And then, of course, in the high school, I was all the way through or... I think I was the first ever freshman to work on the high school newspaper, because again they never had a freshman cartoonist... again I was tempted to say "about as good as I was", it's not that I was good but nobody else did it; so, what do they say, "in the valley of the blind, the one eyed man is king!" [laughter] And then again, when I went to college, I remember the first day I was on campus I walked over to the...
Sorry, so what was the comic you were drawing when you were a freshman?
There wasn't a comic strip, it was just illustrations, just to illustrate an article. They were doing one panel jokes, not a continuing character or anything, not a comic book.
So: someone would write an article, give it to you and say "illustrate that"?
"Draw something that goes with it."
Do you still have any of these?
Well, like I say, I believe so, it's just that you've never asked me for them!
Shall we dig for them later then?
Okay, right, we'll do that.
And then, at the University of Louisville---whoops, I forgot where I went to college! At the University of Kentucky, civil engineering, the first day I was on campus, before school even started, I went over to the journalism building and went in and asked them if... of course I was just a freshman, but if they needed a political cartoonist. And I remember they were very, very anxious; you know, they don't have any trouble getting sports editors by any means or managing editors etc etc; but getting a cartoonist, they said it was a very rare thing! So the first issue of the first newspaper when I was just a rank freshman in college had a cartoon that I did. And I know I've got all of those: I've got every single one of those! But they were political cartoons and I, in those days, I was not that political. I was more or less still like comic books. And even today, I am not so much political as... the Republicans have forced me to be anti-Republican. I mean, I didn't get into the matters of different political parties when Republicans were just the wrong political party. But in the George Bush administration they became actually evil and I really have lots of animated discussions with friends and I'm not a political cartoonist any more but if I felt as feverish about it then as I do now, I would have been a really devoted political cartoonist, I would have gotten a lot more fun out of it, because I just hate Republicans. I'm not really pro-Democrat, I'm just anti-Republican. I wish I had been that politically minded in those days; but, in those days, I just liked to draw and I liked to have people see what I was drawing, because I was used to drawing, since my earliest memory, doing drawings that nobody ever saw! Now people were anxious to publish what I drew, so they would tell me what their editorial was about and they would suggest to me what the cartoon would be and I hope I had some contribution to the idea of what the cartoon would be, they might have told me what they wanted the idea to get across and I put it into my own way of expression but... certainly I was not drawing cartoons to profess a belief that I did not believe in, you know; I may not have believed in it as strongly as they did, I'll say so. So I was a political cartoonist, I would think a bad political cartoonist if I wasn't that politically minded, and yet I won a national award: sophomore or junior year, the best political cartoonist in the nation in a college paper, got that stashed around here somewhere.
That was at age 18 - 19?
Let's see, I went to... yeah, 19 and my early 20s, 1969 so I'd been, yeah... no, you're right, 18 [laughter]. No, that would be late 1969, so I'd be 19... 18... never mind!
And that was the same newspaper that later had your comic stories?
Yeah, that would be the same newspaper that, after the first couple of years I was used to doing cartoons for them, political cartoons, I wanted to do something that I wanted, you know, comic books! So that's what I did the Pertwillaby papers for, that's the newspaper I did the first "Son of Sun" version for.
You always said that they wanted "something more like Doonesbury".
Right, they hired me to do a Doonesbury-type strip and I think I started out...
They asked for that because you had already done political cartoons as little sketches and they said "if you wanna do comics, then do that"?
Sure! Plus, the editors of a college newspaper, I was there for fun, they were there for their future job! They were trying to impress, they had got to turn out a body of work that is going to impress some editors some day to hire them, so they were not interested in me doing comics for entertainment, I have to do comics that have social meanings to them, like Doonesbury! [That] was the first newspaper comics strip that has social meaning; in fact, in Louisville, they had never put Doonesbury on the comics page, because in this sort of backwards Southern climate (not that we are in the South), but they did not feel that comics should have any meaning: they were simply entertainment. Doonesbury was very popular, they couldn't ignore it, but it had political contents so they couldn't put something with opinion onto the comics page: that had to be on the editorial page. I'm not even sure if they don't still do it! Anyway, so, like you say, the editors at the college newspaper would allow me to do a newspaper comic strip only if it had political content. I started out introducing a cast of characters, strange characters, similar to the strange cast of characters that was already in Doonesbury, this was in the very early years of Doonesbury. But halfway through the first semester I turned it into an adventure story, very similar to an Uncle Scrooge adventure with Gyro Gearloose I guess. In fact, I'm sure I've shown it to you if you remember, there is a building where the plot involves that my main character has to break into it. The building was a vault of college records but I drew the McDuck money bin, without a dollar sign on the front---just, you know, for my own amusement: I was seeing it as a Beagle Boys caper, getting into the money bin.
And how was that received by the readers of this paper?
Uhmmm... the readers... as I recall, all the way through college and even when I did Captain Kentucky and even when I was doing stuff for the fan magazines, the reader reaction was tremendous apathy. I could never tell anybody was reading any of this stuff, I'd never get any feedback. But if you ask how the editors responded to it, they didn't like it, because it was just entertainment. They could see I didn't plan to put any social commentary into it so they were... at least they didn't cancel it, they let me finish that semester. I finished that story and then, when I came back the next semester, all ready to go with the new adventure... I was ready with the Son of the Sun, that's the one that I was leading up to; I was building my cast of characters in the first semester's worth of episodes and then there was the second semester that I was going to go into Uncle Scrooge type stories. And when I showed up with this, they said they didn't want it, because it was just entertaining (theoretically entertaining!) and so I quit. If they didn't want... I mean, I just lost interest: political cartoons didn't appeal to me that much.
So you had thought of this adventure as an Uncle Scrooge adventure in your heart?
Yeah; it's hard to remember exactly how I regarded it but certainly it was an Uncle Scrooge-type adventure. I can see Uncle Scrooge in the cast, in the characters. I certainly didn't think of it in that sense that I knew that some day I was going to turn it into an uncle Scrooge adventure, I knew that was impossible, I wasn't going to do this for a living, it was just something to do with college and I didn't work for a comics company, the very thought was superhuman! Comic book companies were something in New York City or something... Disney comics were already more or less out of business in America: they were all reprints by 1970 or 1971.
The images of "Pluto at the store" and the Pertwillaby Papers were from photocopies given to me by Don in 1996 and are © Don Rosa. The images of Disney characters in the Finnish calendar and on the cover of our book are © Disney.