Don Rosa sat down and discussed Disney's European comics operation that invites diversity amid the plummeting worldwide sales figures. He also talks about Carl Barks' influence in Walt's world.
Throughout the next several weeks, I4U will publish a series of articles about Don Rosa. I interviewed the cartoonist at Dragon Con and he was gracious enough to offer me a lot of insight into the world of illustration and legacy building. Each article will focus on a different aspect of the field.
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This one’s all about how Disney can easily upset the world of artistry through a failure to connect with audiences.
Dragon Con draws a variety of media and professionals willing to attend, talk and communicate with press and fans alike. When you’re press and a fan, there’s a lot of overlapping excitement. And that’s exactly how I ended up feeling during my interview with Don Rosa, a favorite illustrator of my partner, Sven.
Many Gen-Xers and Millennials are probably familiar with the comic artist and writer Rosa, even if you don’t know the name. He wrote and drew the Scrooge McDuck comics as we grew up. I was thrilled to meet the curmudgeonly honest man.
Uncle $crooge Adventures definitely made a mark around the world. And the Uncle $crooge and Donald Duck volumes are international hits, too.
Listening to him, I definitely saw the Scrooge influence—both in body language and opinions. And that’s a good thing. There’s something tangible in the way the focused former civil engineer began as a Carl Barks fan and continued to work as a paid fan. In other words, you don’t have to worry about professional training and networking if you really connect with continuing a legacy. But the publisher better like you, too.
‘not Disney characters’
But why Scrooge’s sagas, and not say, Goofy or Clarabelle?
“They're among the world’s most beloved characters. And they're not Disney characters! I always make sure to mention. They're Carl Barks characters.” As a matter of fact “they're licensed. He was working on a licensed comic. And he created everything. So it belongs to Disney, but they had nothing whatsoever to do with it.”
For over 60 years, Banks’ characters have served to ignite the imaginations of millions and Disney only played a small part in the overall legacy. This isn’t a Mickey Mouse derivative by any means.
Nor is the wildly successful 1980s Duck Tales entirely the doing of The Disney Company alone. After all, would Scrooge be central to the stories without Barks’ vision?
For a company that is all about controlling public image, that must leave a lasting and stinging impression.
“Disney doesn't exert any control over the European publishers because the European Disney publishers create all their work on their own and it's enormously popular and it makes a lot of money.”
And everyone knows Disney’s influence in pop culture means an influx of cash. Hence the latest Muppets show hitting ABC airwaves and the constant churning out of Marvel products.
“So Disney just lets them operate any how. They don't even see the material before it's published. They don't care” unless the printed name is Don Rosa, the amateur cartoonist turned legend.
“I slipped in a crack, and I took hold and they couldn't get rid of me. But everybody else, they sealed all the cracks. Which is stupid. That's why they're going out of business now. The Disney publishers in Europe sell so much more than any other.”
Since the continent lives and breathes nostalgia and kitsch, it’s no surprise that Disney comics sell extremely well. That was the whole basis of Walt’s vision. Why else would Main Street USA exist?
“There's hardly any comics in Europe. Except in France, in Belgium and so on. There's other companies that publish comics and have a pretty steady readership. But nothing like Disney. One out of four people reads it.”So roughly 185 million people read the Disney comics. American leaders DC Comics and Marvel would kill for a fraction of that number.
‘sales are just plummeting’
As the world turns digital and superhero comics reach their mid-range peak of media, Disney’s scrambling efforts to follow the trend may not work out as planned. Marvel’s setting up another major event meant to entice readers, but will the older European audiences care about the grim reboots?
Mentioning how much the fall of American companies like DC and Marvel sketches out a change in consumerism doesn’t mean he dislikes the grim vigilante series of the pulp comic era. Series like The Shadow, The Spider, and The Avenger made a mark on his young mind. But there’s a time and a place.
“You need the diversity, the variety. When it's all grim vigilantes, you can't appreciate a grim vigilante. There's no contrast.” Flood the market and the audience disappears as once-distinctive properties all start to merge together on the shelves.
“And the problem is now that things are changing under [Disney’s] feet so swiftly and their sales are just plummeting. They're so used to being so enormously successful without any effort, I think it's gonna be like an earthquake under their feet. They're just gonna collapse.”
Grumpy though the man may be at times, there’s definitely empathy running through the creator for those colleagues who make their living based on Disney’s failure.
“I only feel sorry for the fact that, you know, the people I know in those companies. They're nice people.” Maybe not the disconnected leaders in charge, but definitely those forced to fall on the House of Mouse’s sword.
Without taking chances and understanding the represented diversity in the McDuck tales, audiences would miss the chance to combine both the happy and dark imagery of life through illustration. Thirty years ago, that vision inspired a generation into nostalgic change.
Thanks to the less polished but more engaging artwork, readers are able to really generate interest in the written story as well. Readers are visual, but they need to be entertained by a smorgasbord of options.
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Something Disney would do well to remember. In short, “It's like having all food taste the same. It's boring no matter how good it tastes.”