Life and Times of $crooge McDuck

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To me personally, this will always be one of the finest graphic novels in existence, putting Don Rosa up there with the likes of Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman. Of course, my opinion is coloured by a multitude of particular factors — by having read this excellent saga doled out in tiny chapters over the course of half my childhood, by before that having already spent my entire living memory immersed in stories set in this universe, by being a person who loves continuity finally being given the backstory of one of my favourite characters in what was (and is) usually considered a continuity-devoid universe …

But in fairness, a lot of these factors can be boiled down to me being the exact target demographic when I first read The Life and Times of $crooge McDuck. In age, and in interests. And one can hardly hold that against it.

Don Rosa provides his usual masterstrokes in this book. He manages to capture the sense of both slapstick and character (and character relationship) based humour that a traditional, solid Disney Duck-story should have, and crams every panel with hilarity and memorable personalities. He provides the sense of grand, impossible and yet tantalizingly immersive adventure that are the hallmarks of the more serious subset of adventuring stories in the genre. But this can be said to be the case in nearly all his longer form Duck-stories. What makes ‘Life and Times’ stand out so much are all the layers added on top of this.

An iconic character is here given not only a backstory, but a full, vivid life. There is not only a sense of tangible adventure to be had, but of tangible history. The historical framework of $crooge’s surroundings and experiences are impeccably researched and presented, with every new chapter having a new historical phenomenon to present (be it river boats on the Mississippi, the immigrant experience, the gold rush or American colonialism). This gives the book a real sense of progression (both in time and in narrative), with each chapter having a distinctive look and feel. But it is more than just the trappings of history — these events and places colour $crooge (and, I think, even the reader) perhaps even more than the checklist of cameos and tidbits from Carl Barks’ original stories that Don Rosa is so fond of weaving his narratives around.

The protagonist here does not just go on an adventure and return the same as he set out, more or less, as in a traiditional Duck-tale. Rather, he grows, he learns, he changes. And we learn with him. What other Duck comic tackles leaving for a new continent on one’s own at age 13, or, for that matter, the loss of one’s parents?

From a behind the scenes perspective, this book is also something quite special. Providing an epic, complex narrative with real, human characters in a world traditionally built on gags or one-off premises, and somehow not feeling incongruous or forced is in and of itself very impressive. However, Don Rosa’s stubborn (albeit, I think, genious) decision to do so built entirely around the tidbits dropped in the silliest lines and tiniest minutia in Barks’ old stories might be the most impressive thing of all. This herculean labour of love is perhaps why it doesn’t feel incongruous — after all, since $crooge mentioned them all at one point or another, the avid reader sort of knew all these things had happened before we even read them. It also provides the book with an emotional arc positively dripping with pathos when he brings $crooge’s story current with the final chapters catching up to Carl Barks’ original introduction of the character as a hateful, misanthropic old man, and seamlessly use the contradiction between this character’s personality and the later incarnations of the modern $crooge as the driving force between not only the resultion of the book, but in hindsight, the entire journey to get there.

I get misty-eyed just typing it, a good twenty years after I first read it. If you skipped everything else in the wall of words this review turned out to be, perhaps it is enough if you caught this:

I still laugh, and I still cry, two decades on. And the whole thing is about a miserly duck with whiskers.

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