The Life and Times of Don Rosa

Please note that this is a very temporary page. It consists of excerpts from transcribed articles, and served as the premier version of my Rosa-biography. It has been updated a *number* of times since then, and is currently being made into an upcoming book...

Keno Don Hugo Rosa grew up well-off in St. Matthews, and later in a home off U.S. 42. His Italian immigrant grandfather had founded the successful Keno Rosa tile company in 1905; Don's father Hugo took it over later.

Hugo Rosa recalls that his son began drawing "just about the time he got out of his cradle" - so young that he was asking his parents to fill in the word-balloons. And there were always word-balloons: "I wasn't interested in drawing; I was interested in telling stories", he recalls. He never sat and just doodled; there was always some sort of narrative. "I think I saw them as movies", his other passion, he says.

He filled a series of out-of-date accounting ledgers with the adventures of stick figures named Holey and Joe. "The beauty of the art wasn't that important to me - it was telling a story that was important". He says he felt compelled to draw them, as if he were on some sort of mission; it was years before he realized he was entertaining himself.

While there were other people in the family with artistic ability, Rosa's father says he "used to give Don hell for not coming out to play" when he chose to read and draw in his room. "I said I knew he was wasting his time", Hugo Rosa says, adding with a bit of a laugh, "I might have held him back".

Rosa was a cartoonist for all of his school papers from grade school through UK. When Foushee met him, in high school at St. Xavier, Rosa would often spend a class hour drawing a comic-strip satire of whatever was going on in the room. The ones Foushee has kept are dog-eared from being passed from hand-to-hand after class.

Rosa never took art classes - never studied anatomy, never learned the tricks of implying details with a few quick lines. "When drawing a brick wall, I don't know how to draw just some of the bricks - to suggest. So I have to draw all of 'em", he told a trade magazine three years ago. In fact he didn't want to know any shortcuts; the drawing was for his own amusement, so the longer it took, the better.

Although he attended college in the late '60s, Rosa had very little truck with the youth culture of the era, except for an interest in underground comics. His college years were when he began collecting comics in earnest - laying the foundation of a collection that now tops 40.000 volumes (!). (He stopped actively collecting new comics in the mid-'80s.)

Despite all those years of cartooning, and the thousands of comics he'd bought, Rosa never planned a career as a cartoonist. He majored in civil engineering at UK with an eye toward working in the family tile-and-terazzo business.

By the time he got out of college in 1973, the Disney comics, with Barks in retirement, "were as stupid as the rest of them".

American comics were rapidly losing their mass audience and were at what Rosa views as an artistic nadir. They only survived by becoming, in his term, a "cult hoppy" based on getting the maximum amount of money out of each customer. And Rosa had no idea that Barks' retirement had created an enormous market for new Disney stories in the rest of the world, where those comics continued to sell millions of copies.

In his spare time, he wrote question-and-answer columns in a number of fan magazines, and revived his UK comic-strip character Lancelot Pertwillaby (who bears a decided resemblance to his creator) for a new series of Pertwillaby Papers. They were, Rosa says now, "Duck Stories" drawn with humans instead of $crooge, Donald and company.

Then Rosa heard through Foushee - SCENE magazine's television columnist at the time - that editor Greg Johnson was interested in a weekly strip about local personalities and events. Rosa proposed a half-page strip about a misfortune-vexed superhero - Pertwillaby, reinvented as a mild-mannered Louisville Times reporter who became Captain Kentucky every time he drank "Octa-Hexa-Glop" - radioactive waste that a shady businessman had dumped in the city's sewers at the time Lancelot had been doing a news report from down there...

Captain Kentucky tangled with WAKY D.J. Bill Bailey ("the Nuke Duke") and a group of pay-attention-to-us terrorists called the Hurstbournese Liberation Army; was elected mayor; wreaked havoc on three successive Derbys; and wrecked the 32-Alive Skycam innumerable times.

Like many similar endeavors, the strip looks better now than it did at the time. It makes a compelling "Who's who" of Louisville at the start of the 1980s (remember Roger Davis? Presto the Magic Clown and J. Fred Frog? Gary Burbank? Harvey Sloane?) And it had hilariously biting moments: One time Captain Kentucky suited up to find and rescue a missing Mayor Stansbury; then, as the true best interests of a Stansbury-less city became clear, he returned to his civilian guise, reading the paper and watching a rerun of Gilligan's Island.

The Captain's ongoing destruction of property from the Galleria to the McAlpine Dam was a running gag; Rosa portrayed the wreckage in what Johnson calls "a cinematic way". Meanwhile, he used the gutters between panels to vent his own pet peeves (indiscriminate editing of old movies; American funeral customs) and to advertise for old comics.

"The passion he put in those things is undisguised", says Johnson. "I picked up one of the books this past Christmas, and it's really held up well over the years."

But it's not easy on the eye - it's crammed with detail, packed with words. It took much more effort to read than "Garfield" and "Nancy", both of which Rosa parodied in his strip. "It had way too many words in it by modern comic convention - way too many lines" of drawing, says Johnson. "People would look at it and say, 'I don't have 15 minutes to read that.'"

I'd tear my guts out some weeks to do a comic strip that I just jam-packed with as much humor and with the best drawings as my meager abilities would allow me to do, and I might as well have dropped it in the trash, 'cause it would get no reaction whatsoever" (his favourite phrase, by the way), Rosa recalls.

The Courier-Journal's compensation was better than Uncle $crooge's standard wage of 30 cents an hour, but not by much: For the time Rosa put on it, he made less than minimum wage (he'd usually stay up all Thursday night to deliver it Friday morning, then go to work at his construction job, on minimal sleep). He was amassing neither money nor acclaim, so what was his point? He had married schoolteacher Ann Payne in 1980, and had better ways to spend his time. In 1982 Rosa decided to kill off his character.

When he stopped drawing "Captain Kentucky", Rosa assumed that he was done with cartooning for good. He packed away his drawing board and "didn't draw a single line for four or five years". He also stopped collecting comics, which he felt had turned into "a phony collectibles racket".

Then one day in 1986, in a mall bookstore, Rosa saw a Gladstone comic - the first new book featuring Disney characters to appear in America since the 1970s. He could tell that the small Arizona company producing it was run by people who held the Ducks in the same kind of affection and respect he did.

"The moment I saw that, I realized it was what I'd been waiting for, almost subconsciously", Rosa says. He called up Byron Erickson, Gladstone's editor at the time. "I told him I was the only American who was born to write and draw Uncle $crooge comics, and it was my manifest destiny; there was

nothing he could do about it." The next day he was working on his first Duck- story; "The Son of the Sun" - a "translated" Pertwillaby adventure about the ancient Incas, and the temple of Manco Capac.

Although "The Son of the Sun" was wordy - current Gladstone editor John Clark says it was trimmed by a third before it ran - it was a big hit, and was nominated for a Harvey Award (the comics' Oscars) as the year's best story. Gladstone wanted more.

"A Don Rosa story cannot be confused with a story by someone else", says Erickson, now comics editor at Denmark's Egmont Publishing Service. "There may be better artists from a technical point of view, but none bring the sheer life and enthusiasm to their work that Don brings to his."

Then, the 7th of May 1989, at the Central Ohio Multimedia Convention in Columbus, Ohio, Rosa told his fans that he will no longer be writing and drawing Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge stories for Gladstone. Part of his arrangement with Gladstone included the return of his original artwork, and in the end of 1988 the Disney Company had informed Gladstone Publisher Bruce Hamilton that he was "to no longer return any original art done for their comicbooks". Two days before Christmas Rosa had been informed by Hamilton of the notice from Disney's legal department. As he understands it, Gladstone was told "You can't print any artwork that you don't have in a file box in the cabinet."

Rosa said he can't meet his living expenses nor keep up house payments "without being allowed to augment what Gladstone pays with the sale of my original art." Gladstone's page rate is not as high as DC's and the company has no royalties, pay incentives, or bonus program, as other publishers have. In addition Rosa said he's not the fastest artist working in comics. "A book- length adventure story might take two months or longer (!) to research, write, lay out, pencil and ink." "There's nothing in the world I'd rather be doing than this, but I have to be able to make more than, like, $10.000 a year doing it", Rosa said. "It won't do anybody a bit of good, yet I want people to know this."

Until the new directive from Disney, Gladstone routinely returned the artwork of Rosa, William van Horn, Russel Schroeder, and any other freelancers doing new material. "The copyrights are Disney's, and Disney owns the characters we're drawing, but not our original artwork", Rosa complains. He emphasize that he worked for Gladstone Publishing, a Disney licensee, and not Disney itself. Gladstone was caught in the middle, Rosa says. "The company must follow the wishes of Disney or risk losing its license to produce comics. I wouldn't want that to happen." "Gladstone has always treated me quite well", Rosa says. "Gladstone was never under obligation to buy my stories, and the company might actually lose money on all new material the company purchases and publishes."

One book-length adventure story was in the works when Rosa was told of the change in his working arrangement. Feeling an obligation to Gladstone, and knowing the company was expecting the story, he finished it. "His Majesty McDuck", published in Uncle $crooge Adventures #14, is the last Don Rosa Duck story for Gladstone". "That story is work I'll never get back." He spent 10 weeks on it.

In 1987, when Rosa was assured by Gladstone that the company would be interested in publishing any Duck stories he could do for them, Rosa sold his family tile-and-terazzo business to devote his full time to comics. There was nothing he could go back to there. "It's gone.", he said.

Rosa said he will still draw an occasional cover for Gladstone - he can pencil and ink one in two days - but only for certain issues.

"When they have Carl Barks adventure stories that they need a cover for, I'm doing those.", he says.

Rosa was now looking for outlets for the scripts he had been writing for Gladstone, which he would rewrite as necessary. He had been contacted by the Disney Studios in California to do scripts and storyboard work for Disney animated TV series, including DuckTales and the upcoming TaleSpin. Disney flew Rosa to California after Christmas, and he talked with artists and writers there.

Accepting a staff position would mean having to relocate from Kentucky to California, however, and he says that didn't interest him. He was writing premises and story outlines for the studio, but he wasn't paid unless they were actually produced.

Rosa said all he really wants to do - all he's ever wanted to do - is write and draw comic books that feature Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge. "It's been my dream since childhood", he said.

Rosa's stories have buried Donald Duck in a coin-slide inside Uncle $crooge's money bin; had the Beagle Boys invent a ray that minimized the force of friction, liquified Uncle $crooge's fortune and sent it flowing down the street; he sent Uncle $crooge and nephews in search of pirate gold, with a plan to put a sunken galleon under a gigantic glass dome, etc. He's also written sequels to a couple of Barks' stories, such as a return to happy valley of Tralla La, as well as a return to Barks' classic Plain Awful (where everyone and everything is cubic).

Don Rosa is a contributor to the Disney Comics Mailinglist.

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