Don Rosa in Italy: the great interview of Ventenni Paperoni!

His stand at the Lake Como Comic Art Festival in Cernobbio is the biggest of them all: three tables in a row full of prints, sketches, comic books and original pages. Behind him, dozens of prints cover the wall from one end to the other, next to the large banner with its self-portrait and, in large letters, his name: Don Rosa.

Don Rosa’s stand at the Lake Como Comic Art Festival

Don Rosa is the author of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, the comic book “bildungsroman” that tells a particularly beloved and influential version of the life of the richest duck in the world, from childhood to maturity. The work originates from a painstaking research on the monumental primary source of Carl Barks: over the years he has earned the adoration of crowds of fans and, in 1995, the prestigious Eisner Prize for “Best Serialized Story”. And, of course, it also gives the title to this very community!

When I approach, half an hour before the official opening of the gates, Don is already at work, signing a large stack of prints. He is surrounded by the entourage of his four collaborators, equally divided between Italians and Germans: it is also thanks to them that we have managed to obtain this long exclusive interview.
To remain within the realm of the “ninth art”, it’s like getting close to a cigar-less J. Jonah Jameson:

I don’t want to have anything to do with anyone who smokes.”
I don’t smoke!
And I still won’t have anything to do with you! You must be a Trump supporter or something! I just want to move to Mexico!

[Thanks to Alice and Barbara, I finally identify myself as one of his fans from the community he’s already so familiar with! From here, everything will be downhill]

I was afraid you were going to ask questions like “how is your relationship with Uncle Scrooge, or, how did you get started drawing comics. Because I don’t know when to stop! If you give me questions like that, I can give you the full in-depth answer and I’m not interested in talking about myself.

Let’s start with a very precise visual reference then: when Scrooge’s parents give him the farewell as he leaves Castle McDuck for the last time with his sisters, they say: “I have it on good authority that he’ll turn out all right! Actually, the best authority!”. Who’s this “good authority” supposed to be?

Who do you think it is?

Well… it’s always tricky to have even veiled references to religion or even a God above in Scrooge comics…

Parent’s farewell to Scrooge

I’m a Deist. There is Something going on, but nobody knows what it is. And the only thing I wonder about is why there is something instead of nothing. There has to be an answer to that, but nobody has it. So I don’t know who is she talking about either, she is talking about Somebody. But you know it’s not a benevolent intelligent force, otherwise, you wouldn’t have Donald Trump.

There is this movie, not a major movie, starring George Burns, Oh God, 1977, do you know who George Burns is? He’s a major comedian of the 30s, 40s and 50s, lived to be 100 years old. He played God in a comedy with John Denver, the singer, and he appeared as an old man in a sweater and a baseball, or golfing cap. He describes himself saying that he created everything but after that, you are on your own.

Like a watchmaker that creates a watch and then he doesn’t really care of whoever buys and uses it.

He cares but he just doesn’t interfere.

It seems to me that the general feeling of this convention is different than usual.

All they talk about is buying and selling and they can’t decide what they want to keep for their personal collection. That means what they think it’s going to go up in price the most, that’s their personal collection.
They’re collectors of something they think they can resell, they’re not going to donate it to a museum or a foundation, they’re going to sell it for as much as they can, that’s what’s their collection: it’s their portfolio, their investment.

Keeping the right stuff and sell it for a huge amount of money. They’re talking about the movies and tv stars they are going to sell it to, and I’m not part of that.
It’s not just my people except for a few. I look like I’m demented and not interested in money. I’m interested in money, I need money.
But in principle what I did is doing everything for free for fans and hope they’d buy some prints, but secondly, I’m hoping that I can show my wife that I’m contributing a little bit to the household as I haven’t had a job in 12 years now.
People say, “so are you retired?” and I say “what’s retired, is that when people stop working and still are still getting paid?”, then I say “no, I just quit”.

Scrooge in a Scottish outfit in the making!

I saw that maybe a month ago you had 2 Italian guests at home. They’re part of our community too: they were very enthusiastic about it!

Yeah, I saw they posted on the Don Rosa page. They moved to South Carolina, and that’s someway like 2 states away from Kentucky, so closer than other states, and they said jokingly, maybe we’ll visit Don Rosa someday, oh well I said, then I invite you as representatives of all the friends who’d like to visit me. You can come and take some photos and report on it, that’s nice. So, of course, I had some other requests, “can we come” and I said “special invitation only.” I’m sorry to be nasty, but I can’t have any single person! Somebody told me “what, you’re letting strangers visit you” but they were not total strangers, they were Italians, my people!

Do you still read comics?

I have a comics collection, but I don’t buy new comics, it’s old American newspaper comics, and I intend to read them but there’s never time, there is always something that has to be done, like cutting grass. Same with the pinball machines: I never touch them, I always have something to do. And when I don’t have something to do, I find myself to the point I have to FIND something to do, I can’t relax.

I noticed that your print for the convention portfolio is from the first apparition of the Vision in the Avengers!

And I did that drawing for free for a friend. I don’t draw anything like this anymore, if I was going to charge someone for something like that I would charge thousands of dollars, it took me days!

What’s your relationship with Italy in general, do you have any friends here?

I especially like coming here. I hope I can keep coming back and get to Maniago [a small town near Venice, the birthplace of Don Rosa’s father and grandfather, NDR] but I’ve never been invited to the northeastern corner. Yeah, there are duck fans all over here, but just like I told you, I invited people that moved to South Carolina, I wrote them and said come on up and they visited since they expressed an interest.

Ever since I was a little kid I felt this strong connection with my father’s side of the family. Probably from all the movies and tv shows I watched… that’s a cool place, all those great Roman epics and spaghetti western! It’s natural, I’ve always been super proud of having some Italian heritage: they told me even more things, like that the Rosa family had a very long and detailed family history that was preserved in Venice but was lost in WWI. There was a bombing, in a big naval depot probably attacked by the Americans, and they lost all the history of the Rosa family back in the medieval time, and supposedly, there was proof that I was a direct descendant of Titian, Tiziano, because that was my grandmother’s name, Tizian Celeste. But that’s all lost so… but that was like a 1000 years ago so maybe half the population of Italy is a direct descendant of his by now!

don rosa
Don Rosa portrayed by Alice Rovai
We know that Scrooge McDuck was created by Carl Barks when he was working as a freelancer for Dell Comics, with a thin connection to Disney, according to you. Then you expanded on his universe, and, in some way, created the Don Rosa version. The Life and Times of Scrooge became a canon: some authors follow it and some others don’t. Fans are actually divided on whether Scrooge should have a canon or not at all.

They shouldn’t worry about it. On some websites I see people really arguing about that, they shouldn’t take it so seriously. I take it very seriously, but other people shouldn’t worry about who agrees with me, it’s not important. The puzzling thing is, there are some people who don’t like my work and some that do and are very passionate about it- that causes a lot of distress because people who don’t like it normally would just not pay attention to it. In fact I wonder why, if they don’t like it, they keep reading it, just don’t read it if you don’t like it, nobody forces you… but in a way people feel like they have a personal interest, the characters are so important to them as they are to me so they can’t just ignore it. When they see other people who passionately love it, they have to passionately dislike it, that’s normal. But they should leave other people like what they want, and the others should just ignore their argument. I learned it a long time ago: you can’t make everybody happy so stop worrying about it!

That’s funny considering that, in Italy, Scrooge followed its own parallel course and in some stories, especially from the 50s, 60s and 70s, Scrooge was a straight-up villain.

Yeah! I never read those stories but people say that he’s this nasty greedy person… it might have been something like that in American comics developed later, and actually even in Barks’ last stories of the early 70s, Scrooge was a villain, destroying the environment and things like that. But when I found out that I was going to be actually regularly creating stories with this character, I had to twist him in a way like you would like the guy, so I really didn’t have to twist him, just sort of replace him with the version that Barks rebooted 1952 and make it more sympathetic, less greedy and more adventurous character. But the first issues of “Uncle Scrooge” were really great and there he’s just cheap, he’s no greedy, just cheap.
A happy Scrooge thinks about the number 1 dime; I refuse to do drawings where he’s happy thinking about the dollar sign. When that happens I say, you don’t read my comics, do you: because there he’s never greedy, he’s adventurous, he wants to win but he’s not interested in the money, otherwise he would spend it, but obviously he doesn’t spend it, he swims in it.

I have one of America’s biggest collections of old comics. Complete sets of virtually every comic title published between WWII and the mid-80s. I finally sold off those from 1970-on because that’s when American comics switched from being ALL genres, as they still are in Europe and elsewhere, and due to the limited number of buyers remaining, switched to virtually all violent, dark super-heroes from Marvel & DC. But I still actively am working on finding the few missing issues for my 1945-1970 comic sets. When I began buying old issues from comics dealers in the late 60s, no post-1945 comics cost more than 50 cents each, or 35 cents if I bought a big stack… which I always did. So I started collecting EVERYTHING. Why limit myself? I loved the entire genre, good & bad! No collector today could have a collection like mine because old comics that cost 35 cents in 1968 now might cost $500-$2000 each! Or lots more. But when I started collecting, old comics were virtually worthless. The reason to collect something in those days was just for the challenge of hunting down something that had no particular value, but if it was something that you loved, it was FUN. I didn’t buy comics to resell them. But the only interest for collectors now is reselling their comics for a profit. They don’t try to complete sets… they try to gather “key issues” of particular value.

For me it was just a challenge to collect whole sets, I was a completist… that means I collect some comics I didn’t even like. They published a *lot* of comics in the late 40s – late 60s, and they sold a few thousand times better than modern American superhero comics. Some were wonderful, while others were wretched, but I collected those too, the beautiful and the grotesque, so kitsch, (that’s a German expression), they were awful or gorgeous but I didn’t make any distinction, they were all comics and fun to collect. Besides, I never thought I’d sell them for a profit.

But that’s enough off-topic! What was your original wording? Oh, the canon!
It’s fine that people discuss about my version but please don’t, don’t worry about it. It’s all for fun.

Is there any Barks’ character that you didn’t enjoy using or drawing?

I enjoyed using her, but surely didn’t enjoy drawing her: Magica, because she’s all black. You never think about it, but the most difficult part of a drawing is filling the black area, harder than the background. But Magica, her hair is black, her dress is black and I’ve always been well concerned about that, but she’s one of the best characters.

And then, there is the only character in his comics that Barks didn’t either created or recreated, like he recreated Donald Duck… because the Donald Duck of the cartoons, who was an actor, being someone different in every cartoon and even in different time periods like the 1890s, so he had to create a new Donald Duck, and he created all the other characters. He also claimed to me that he also created Huey Dewey and Louie when he was writing cartoons, but he didn’t create Daisy Duck and he didn’t like using Daisy either. I never liked Daisy, it’s an insulting character. Just an insulting female character.

There are a lot of girl comic fans in Europe, unlike in America where there are no comics for girls, and when I ask a European girl what character should I draw for her it’s usually Magica De Spell or Glittering Goldie… but when a girl sits down, always in America, and says “my favourite character is Daisy Duck”, I think “why would she like Daisy Duck?” Probably she’s not a comic fan, she’s a Disney fan.

So I never use Daisy Duck, or I used her like Barks did, just a background character that fills a certain need, kind of the same way he used Huey Dewey and Louie.
I wish there was only two of them. Because the third serves absolutely no purpose. You need two of them to talk together about their crazy uncles but the third one will just be like “mmmh” with his arms folded. But I still have to draw him and his role is also difficult to plot. Also, the cute characters are hard to draw. I can’t do cute.

This brings us to the following question: what do you imagine Huey Dewey and Louie growing up to?

One of them will take over the McDuck corporation foundation as a charity. When I did the picture of the… I shouldn’t even bring this up!, Scrooge’s grave… and you know the whole story behind that, it was part of a joke and taken out of context and put over the internet which happens all the time. But I remember I had each one of them dressed differently, and i don’t remember exactly now, I had one with a shirt with pens, and he’s the one working in the McDuck corporation. I’m sure one of them was an official in the Junior Woodchucks… but what would the third be? Actually the third would be working to distribute the money in the Templar treasure, the one they found in one of my last stories, the Old Castle’s Other Secret.

don rosa
Whatever happened to Scrooge?
Let’s talk about the fiction that looks like it’s supposed to be aimed to kids, but, even if it’s not, it’s still subject to censorship. Like when they removed the Panchito’s guns from the cover of one of your books.

Oh, that’s Disney in America! In America comics are just a nuisance to Disney, they make no money, and I heard even now that in the last 5 years Disney is getting so hard to work with that that’s another reason I’m so glad I quit when I did.
I hear that Disney is interfering for the first time ever in the creation of comics by Egmont and others, making insipid rules such as Donald’s 313 needs seatbelts showing in EVERY panel, and lots of politically-correct crap like that, indicating their primary interest is in curtailing every possible source of a single crank complaint that could “go viral on the Internet”. Plots and emotions should be toned down. This shows no interest in quality stories, just over-micromanagement.
I wouldn’t want to have that kind of control over what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have let Disney tell me anything, but they never did because Disney was never involved in the comics.
In America they take guns off the covers but that’s ok, in the current Don Rosa Library that doesn’t bother me, because on the inside they are allowed to show the cover the way it was.
I get that there is an Indian they had to remove from the back cover of a book, and that shows how insipid that reason is: they don’t care that the Indians were the heroes of the story, I’m talking about the Barks’ story with the Peeweegah Indians [Land of the Pygmy Indians, NDR]. They were the noblest character there, but Disney doesn’t care about that, just sees that out of 350 million people in North America one person may object and post on the internet and go viral, so no Indians.
But if it’s on the inside, so we’re talking about the Americans that will actually crack open the book and read it, that’s safe, but there are not many Americans left like that.

don rosa
Two versions of a cover by Don Rosa
My editors very seldom told me what to do. If anything, when I did a scene that I thought was too adult, I would say, “don’t you think there’s too much psychodrama here?”, but the editor would say no, it’s not enough, I should make it more.
Actually in Italy in new stories they can’t even go fishing or eat meat.

Then is it true that they can’t drive the 313 without seatbelts? [laughs]

That’s a more recent one but yes, I heard of it too.

I still ride in my car without seat belts! I hear if you have an old car in Europe you have to put seatbelts in it, that wouldn’t have much sense in America.
If I were to put seatbelts in my 1938 Nash it wouldn’t help because the seat isn’t connected to the car. But the whole car is made of solid metal, so if I hit a modern car, I’d crush it like an eggshell, and I’d never notice a need for a seatbelt.

[A kid wearing a Batman t-shirt arrives to have Don’s signature on a print with Donald and Scrooge in  Batman and Robin’s costumes]

They’re so trained to be superhero fans in America!

Any plot point in Barks’ stories that you didn’t get to exploit before quitting?

There’s one I wanted to exploit… I tried to, I love doing sequels, you can’t imagine what a dream it is to work on the stories I loved thanks to my sister’s comics, and one of my favourites was the “The Golden Fleecing“, about the Greek mythology and Jason’s golden fleece and the harpies!
That’s something they called “larkies” in the American comics.
Barks’ originally wrote harpies but it had some negative connotation, there was some rare political correctness even in those days. But as a kid, I didn’t know what a harpy was.
And I wanted to make a sequel to that because I loved that story so much, and I’m starting to sound like a feminist, I’m not trying to come across like that but, I tried to do something with those harpies but I had to do the way Barks did, and they were such awful stereotypes of women, they were just so concerned on how they fixed their dinners or their make-up.
I had to be true to Barks but I couldn’t do it, I tried and I tried, I worked on that for 2 weeks and then I quit. So that were 2 weeks I lost: no pay on those 2 weeks but that was my fault, I should’ve known that I couldn’t do things with harpies.

Barks’ “larkies”

I had a list of topics but I didn’t have any left when I quit. Some people wanted me to have more stories about Goldie but I never had them meet in my stories. I never wanted them to interact in a way that Barks didn’t have them to interact.
They only met in the times Barks showed them meeting and I think a fan suggested: well you could tell the story of the White Agony Creek when he kidnapped her. I said yeah, that’s good, but that was right at the end of my so-called career. When I was done with that [The Prisoner Of White Agony Creek, NRD], there were a lot of things going on.
One reason I quit is that I liked that story so much that I knew I’d never do a story that I liked more.
That was a good time to quit, I think that with that story I had said everything that I intended to say about the characters, but there were other problems too… so that made it much easier to quit.

Barks’ characters are humans which happen to be drawn as ducks: a lot of people picked up from that and humanised them 100%. This fascinates a lot of people and irks someone else.
A hug between the human versions of Glittering Goldie and the young Scrooge, as portrayed by Alice Rovai

Well, I’ve always known they are human beings… that’s obvious compared to Daffy Duck who is naked, flies, duck hunters shoot at him, or Bugs Bunny who lives in a hole in the ground and steals carrots. It was very clear to me that these were human beings: they pay taxes, have a job, wear clothes, have human emotions and are more or less like the characters you saw in the movies in television. It never occurred to me that they were ducks.
In very first years that I did the stories, I would make side gags about duck anatomy that I regretted later because it never occurred to me that people don’t really know they are human beings.
I had to make sure they didn’t get any false messages from me, so in the Don Rosa Library, I changed a few things, like any reference to feathers or webbed feet or beaks that I removed.
I don’t know what the story would it be, but if there were a life or death situation and they needed a feather they’d die because they don’t have feathers!
But that offends people who aren’t Barks fans: that offends people who are Disney fans who want the big cute talking animals.

Yesterday I got invited to a show that’s up to be in America in June. It’s a panel on anthropomorphic characters and normally I’d decline to be there, sorry, that’s not what I do! But I will do this panel, and a couple of my friends are on it, just to make sure people know that just because they look like animals it doesn’t mean they’re animals. And in America people are like “what he’s talking about, Donald Duck is not a duck??”.

To wrap up, do you have anything to say directly to your Italian fans?

Come see me personally next time I’m in Italy!
And, we need to work out a way in Lucca cause I heard it’s a gigantic convention and people would be coming to see me, real Duckfans, Barks fans!
You work on that, how many members are on this website? I read just 2 or 3 weeks ago some messages of the people who visited me, they posted their comments on that website and they got a lot of responses and I said, I’d like to read that, I think I went to the wrong link and there were lots of discussions and was clear that a lot of discussions had nothing to do with me, and some didn’t even like what I did so I don’t know… you could figure out a way so I can have one line people for people from your group!

In the group, we are 18000 but there’s the actual facebook page is followed by 160000.

That may be a few too many!

[I award Don Rosa with the honorary badge of the writer’s team of Ventenni Paperoni! Don looks at the picture on the badge and wears it]

Do you have a convention where everyone is wearing this? Is there a way to recognize the members of your group? Organize the tour, you figure that out and I’ll come!

Don with the VentenniPaperoni badge

Mattia Mariani

Con la collaborazione di:

Marta Leonardi
Antonio Ferraiuolo
Sabrina Ghini
Luca Rago
Luca Leonardo Scorcia

Ringraziamenti speciali:

Alice Rovai
Giuditta Melle
Barbara Taddei

Precedente Giorgio Salati sulle tracce degli scomparsi Successivo ARFestival 2019: l'intervista a Francesco Artibani