Don Rosa January 2008, part 3

A few more months have passed and here I am at last with a new chunk of the January 2008 interview with Don Rosa. Meanwhile I am collecting lots more audio material to be published on this podcast: I visited Don once again in June and we devoted several more hours to interviews, to the point that he later said (what honour!) that he considers me his official biographer.

I have been interviewing other Disney authors as well: Abramo Barosso, the recipient, with his brother Giampaolo, of the 2008 Papersera award; and Carlo Chendi, another pillar of the first generation of Italian Disney storytellers. All fascinating stuff that will make its way to future posts. (On a related note, in the intervening period I also interviewed free software guru Richard Stallman; but that has nothing to do with comics so it will appear elsewhere.)

Meanwhile, this third section of the January 2008 interview reveals how much Don has always been “one of us”, that is to say a totally dedicated and obsessively passionate comics enthusiast rather than a “one of them” distant comics author. This is reflected in many aspects of his work, from his care and attention for the most minute detail to his uncompromising drive never to spare any effort to give his fellow comics fans the best they can get, whether he is researching a story plot, drawing a complex scene or contributing to a “hall of fame” volume.

Personally, one of the insights I most resonate with from this transcript, and on which we expanded later on in our conversation, is the realization that we enthusiasts engage in all these meta-activities (indexing, researching, commenting, posting on newsgroups, even interviewing the authors as I'm doing here) ultimately in order to create new opportunities for us to go back and re-read and enjoy the comics we love. So, take this as your clue to go back and re-read your favourite Rosa story, and share that enjoyment with like-minded people by leaving a comment to this blog post!

As usual, you may download the audio of the interview in mp3 format and you may also play it directly from this web page if the Flash gadget below this sentence works in your browser.

FS: So you were saying that you had published the Son of the Sun's second run with another editor...

DR: Oh yeah! New editor. You were asking me if the first editors ever knew that they were... I thought you were going to ask me what they ever went on to do.

No, that was an aside. I just wondered if they were aware of the fact that... [you later became a famous comics author]

I don't know. At least they've never expressed it to me, but... So anyway the next editor was interested in a more generally rounded newspaper so he was willing to let me do both the editorial, meaningful cartoons, and something entertaining. And that's when I did the Son of the Sun. I remember having a lot of fun! The guy who helped me write that first... skip that... I'm giving you more information than you really want! I just heard from him in email. I had lost contact with him and I heard from him just yesterday, while you were still here, so he's retired and he's in Hawaii. [His name is Ron Weinberg.]

Good for him!

Yeah! So that's when I did the Son of the Sun and I would have done another story but that was my last semester in college. I graduated and went to work for the family company.

So how did this Lancelot then turn... revive into the Captain Kentucky?

Well, let's see. I got out of college in about '74 and in a year or so, since I had a little more spare time, I started working for these fan magazines, comic book collector, fanzines. The biggest one of the day was the Rocket's Blast ComiCollector. The first thing I did was contribute indexes. I was always an archivist, indexer, assembling full sets, writing reports... I first started contributing indexes of comic book series. One of them being Uncle Scrooge, it's one of the first ones I did.

So the index would include which issue contains which story, how many pages there are...

Right, and the artist, that of course for Uncle Scrooge would be Carl Barks, but I did lots of other titles; and page counts...

So, a precursor to what the INDUCKS is now doing electronically.

Yeah, but in those days I was the only person doing that sort of thing. I was also, it turned out, well I'll get to that in a moment... and I did that for maybe a year and then the person who was writing this biggest question and answer column in comic fandom, Ray Miller, he was getting tired of it, he wanted to quit, so I said I'd take it over. And this was ideal! Everything that I enjoyed! I took over his information center. It was the Information Center, the RBCC Information Center. And he accepted questions about the history of comic books. Mostly comic books, not comic strips so much, mostly comic books. And I could do that. I've always admitted this: not that I am such an expert, like you Italians, I don't have it all up in my head at all time but I had a huge collection, because I'm such an avid collector. And I had all different genres. I didn't collect just one thing: I collected everything! In those days you didn't have to specialize: everything was cheap. So I was fascinated by all comics, so I collected everything! And I had a good job...

This is a collection in the sense that you'd bought them and read all of them. You knew everything that was in each of them?

No. I started collecting them because I loved the ones that I did read and as I collected the old ones there were many of them I'd read, very fervently, like the ECs and the other Disneys [that had] the old Carl Barks stories that I had never read yet [because they were the ones] that my sister didn't have, and Superman etc etc , many I did read, but also many I didn't read, that I was buying just because I liked the artwork, and historical, you know, social commentary, it was just very interesting. [Especially] the old horror comics...

And to have a complete set of course, like we all do.

And to have a complete set! It was a fun challenge. Like one type I'm thinking of was the horror comics. Lots of them were good, like the Ace Comics and the EC Comics, the DC comics; and lots of them were just utter trash. And I'd never buy one and not even open it: I'd look at the art, I'd look at every page, but I was not going to read it because they were really bad. But I'd appreciate there's some bad comics and nice ones. And that it was fun to try and accumulate a complete collection. They were not valuable! We were talking about this this morning. Nobody wanted them, because they were so bad. But I enjoyed the artwork, and the covers, just to see if I could build a complete collection of something that was not valuable but was difficult to track down and took some diligence and knowledge and perseverance, and meet other collectors, trade information... so I had all these but I didn't know everything there was to know about them. But the beauty of this Information Center column was [...] when people were asking me questions that caused me to go back down and get boxes of comics down and open them and go through them page by page, some of them that I never paid close attention to and I was learning, when people asked me things about their favourite comics, I'd get them down and maybe I'd find something I hadn't noticed, and I did, and it was very enjoyable in that sense. It made me explore even more into my comic book collection. Secondly, it gave me a way to do illustrations. I'd do funny illustrations to illustrate...

To go with your column?

Yeah! They would ask me a question about Superman, and I'd answer the question seriously, I mean I'd joke around, but I'd give them a direct answer, a serious answer, and then I'd do a funny cartoon that had nothing to do with what they were asking me maybe, but it was just funny. And it was fun. But what else I did, I expanded it to include everything I was interested in. I wasn't doing this just for the good of all mankind: I wanted to entertain myself too and maybe help lots of other people in addition. I expanded it to all forms of entertainment: I included movies and television. So I would answer any question about the history of comics, television or movies because I was also, from my earliest memory, a huge movie buff and I was also a big fan of old television. I had a full set of TV guides, that was something else that I collected. So I could answer any question anybody could ask me from my collection. Now this was in the days... and in these days I was the only person on the face of the Earth that could answer a question about old television. I was the only person who would write an index to a TV series about... I'd do the title of each episode, the director, the writer, the cast of characters, with the names of the characters, each actor and every episode of a TV show because not only that I pay attention to that sort of thing but TV GUIDEs, old TV GUIDEs of the Fifties and early Sixties, they had all that information in every entry! Partly because there wasn't a lot of television! We didn't have 500 channels, we had 3 [networks].

You were doing that in the Sixties and Seventies, right?

I was doing that in the early Seventies... I did indexes of dozens of TV shows and it was the only place in the world [where you could get that information], I mean literally, unless you travelled out to Los Angeles and managed to be allowed into the vaults of the production companies where they might have the stuff written down but publicly nobody was doing that sort of thing. Of course nowadays, if we have a question about a movie, or a TV show or a comic, you just type it into Google and you go to a web site! Here, here is another example that just came up, just yesterday. Another thing I did in the early Seventies was I would record TV themes off my television, my little television set with a little tiny cassette recorder. And this was a project that went on year after year. It would take a lot of time.

The theme is the opening song?

The opening tune of all the TV shows. Not just my favourites: of every TV show I could get. I'd have to keep a list of what I needed, I'd have to plan ahead... I didn't have any other life: I lived for comics and movies and television. I'd set the microphone up in front of the TV and right at the right moment I'd press the button and at the right moment I'd turn it off and keep all these things in order and indexed and by the time I was done... and sometimes they'd do reruns of old shows and sometimes I'd trade with friends and other friends in different parts of the country and within a few years I had a collection of sixteen hours of TV themes. Now if you mention each theme is only a minute, and sixteen solid hours of them! And the reason this came up in the last couple of days is I was just talking to Dan Shane, that's a name that's always going to come up a lot in conversations with me, we were talking about how he has transferred all of my LP record collections on CDs. His last job, maybe the most complicated, was he said that he would transfer my old cassette tapes of my TV theme collection onto CDs. So I could listen to them again sometime, and also preserve them: I don't know how much longer those tapes are going to last.

And you were going to index all of them!

Of course, mine were just in random order. They'd be put on the tape in the order that I happened to catch them, which was totally random: new shows, old shows, and certainly not in alphabetical order. And he sends me back an email and says: when I do these, you want them in alphabetical order? And I said: but you're crazy, how can you put those in alphabetical order and when I'm typing that I'm realizing... because... you're going to put them in a computer file, with the title, and then you're going to tell the computer to put them in alphabetical order and then the computer is going to record them in alphabetical order just like that! That's great! And then he said something like... and then I said, you do something like that, and if you go to all that trouble, and you have them in alphabetical order on CDs, why don't you go ahead and see if you can sell them on Ebay for yourself. You know, just keep the money, because you're doing such a wonderful thing for me, you could make an extra copy and see if you can sell them. And I said, again, while I'm typing that, I'm thinking, this is the year 2008 now, this isn't 1971; I said: unless there's people who've already done that! [Laughs!] And he said: let me check. And a few hours later he sent me back, he said, check this web site. And it comes up, TV themes dot com. [Actually televisiontunes.com.] And this guy has got... a guy just like me only who's got nothing else to do, took his collection and put it and it's a bigger collection because

[Ann calls us downstairs for lunch via the interphone]

She's making rice. Well, maybe we'll just stop.

[The pictures scattered throughout the interview are an anachronism: I took them a few months later, during my June visit, while Don and Ann were driving me back to the airport. They show the not-yet-existing-way-back-in-January multi-CD version of Don's collection of TV themes, as lovingly digitized, indexed and packaged by Don's longtime friend Dan Shane.]


Gianfranco Goria said...

Thanks! As usual, you are on www.afnews.info, today. :-)

Anders Christian Sivebæk said...

Thanks for the third part, Frank - this podcast is extremley interesting. Many of us have already read interviews where Don tells about his cduck career and how and why he did many of his stories. But the part of the career you're covering in this interview, is one we haven't read or heard much about before. I second Don in calling you his biographer - I'd very much like to read that 'bio'.

Pertwillaby said...

Thank you for the third part, Frank! It's great as always! ;)

Frank said...

Many thanks for your comments, chaps, and sorry for not responding earlier... but as part compensation I'm giving you another piece of the interview tonight!

@Gianfranco: thanks! And another photo of Don's studio, with duck figurines, is in the new post. I have some more from a previous visit that I should dig out too at some point.

@Anders Christian: Thank you. Yes, I did try to steer the discussion towards things that fans might not already know, and pursue any interesting hints that show the various facets of Don's personality. You could have someone write pompous (and mostly made-up) analyses along the lines of "he writes stories like this because he has that type of personality" but I think it's much more interesting to let him say that himself, with examples from his own life such as that story of archiving all the TV themes. My job as an interviewer is essentially to make him feel at home (which he is, by the way!) and comfortable about talking about his life and work. And I did have some kind of script of questions I wanted to discuss, but I didn't let it get in the way of him talking about what he felt passionate about.

I'll be happy to write a proper biography around this raw material one day. Don is an exceptional person who has inspired many people, and he deserves one.

@Pertwillaby: thanks!