Sunday, June 26, 2011

Don Rosa's "The Black Knight" and "The Quest for Kalevala"

Away at a grad school residency. Forgot to bring my Challengers of the Unknown collection…so the “Riddle of the Star-Stone” entry is postponed. But, what’s stopping me from writing about something else?! And I do have other books and comics with me, so…


For various reasons, I was MIA throughout the latter, prestige format-only phase of Gladstone II, and virtually the entire Gemstone era. A couple years ago, when some sense finally came back into my head and I was drawn back to comics, one of the first things I did was track down all of the Don Rosa stories I’d missed. But, I got hung up on waiting to read all of his work in chronological order. So, until a couple of days ago, I’d had a bunch of Rosa-authored adventures -- ones I’d still never read -- filed away for far too long. While packing for my present excursion, I thought, “What’s something, if for some reason I’d really need some grounding, that I’d just love to read?” Hmm, a couple of long-form Rosa Uncle Scrooge tales that would be completely new to me?  Seemed like I couldn’t go wrong there!


By chance, both of the stories that I've brought along with me on this trip, being from the last several years of Rosa's career, are rare exceptions in that neither one is a sequel to a Barks classic, nor a “Life and Times” sub-chapter, but instead utilize original premises and are (mostly) self-contained.

First up is “The Black Knight”, featured in Uncle Scrooge #314 (Gladstone, Oct. 1998):

The titular character of "The Black Knight" (the story not represented in any way on the cover seen above, alas) is a mysterious, elusive criminal who has flabbergasted the world with a series of inexplicable safe-crackings and vault-breachings.  Without any mistake on Rosa's part, it's entirely transparent that the Knight's alter ego is the pompous, self-important Arpin Lusene, a caricature of a snooty French “sophisticate”. The Knight sets his sites on the money bin, for he sees it as posing the ultimate challenge -- one that, if surmounted, would ensure his legacy.  And when he gets his hands on some of Gyro Gearloose’ Omnisolve (a substance that will evaporate anything it touches into complete nothingness; introduced in Rosa’s “The Universal Solvent”), he uses its near-invincibility to strike at his target.  Nonetheless, Scrooge scrambles to obstruct the Knight’s determined one-man assault on the bin.

In many of his stories, Rosa plays up the ducks as archetypes belonging to a divine mythology, with an abundance of self-aware, winking-at-the-reader references to Rosa's encylopedic, meticulously-construced Barks-based continuity. (See my comments below on “Quest for Kalevala”.)  "Black Knight" is a rare occasion where the latter-day Rosa’s ducks seem more “down-to-earth”, closer to Barks’ employment of them; each of Barks' stories were completed insular, and in any one of them, the ducks entered its situation as their “everyday selves”.  There was no undercurrent of some sort of over-arcing, cosmic greater whole. Here, Rosa simply pits the ducks in an all-new, unprecedented conflict, divorced from any earlier story, and discretionately has them react to it more or less as we’d expect them to.

It’s also a prime example of Rosa as, pure and simple, a good cartoonist.  Standouts:  1.  The magnified facial expressions indicating the shifts between anger, irritation, exasperation etc. as Scrooge and Donald bicker.  2.  The sight gags depicting the skulking Black Knight repeatedly continuously dodging the ducks as they're in the very act of seeking him but are oblivious to the fact that he’s right under their noses.  3.  The Black Knight, prompting a succession of double-takes from the scenery, barreling through Duckburg, his wonton wielding of his Omnisolve-coated sword leaving a path of destruction in his wake -- a path that heads straight for the money bin, and plows on going right inside.  Rosa depicts these occurences in several panels that use wide-angle perspectives, drawing to the fore his architectural training.  In particular, see the two oversized, unconventional, vertical panels portraying a puddle of Omnisolve’s rapid descent through multiple levels of the office wing of the bin.

And I delighted in the characterization of an overwrought Scrooge: at first, horrified to near-paralysis when he realizes the Knight’s campaign is already underway; then, as the undeterrable, daunting foe draws near the heart of the bin, Scrooge’s last reserves kick in, and, reinvigorated, a gleam arising in his eyes, he makes a hell of an “I’m-going-out-fighting!” last stand, allowing us to witness Rosa's McDuck in top form.


The other story to be accompanying me in my travels is “The Quest for Kalevala”, printings of which were dispatched throughout the United States via Uncle Scrooge #334 (Gemstone, Oct. 2004):

On the inside back cover is printed an informative, measured article by Jukka Heiskanen on “The Quest for Kalevala”, explaining Rosa’s popularity in Finland, and how his Finnish fan base had sparked this story by urging him to create a Duck story based on the Finnish epic poem Kalevala.

With a title that hits the right cues (I mean, a declarative, direct title that uses the “Quest for [arcane-sounding something]” format sets certain expectation) and a whopping 33 pages, “The Quest for Kalevala” entices one with the prospect of a classic, timeless Duck adventure. And, it certainly proves to be marvelous. I would attribute a varying degree of realism to both Barks’ and Rosa’s work.  And yet, certainly, the former was known to draw from myths, and implement the fantastical into his stories. However -- ironically, given his dogmatic adherence to being realistic in terms of a timeline and continuity -- Rosa takes the larger-than-life, sword-and-sorcery aspects of Kalevala and runs with it, giving the Lucases and Jacksons of the world a run for their money.

Still, in spite of an arguable breach of Barks/Duck comics Puritanism, this story is tightly constructed and remarkably drawn. Rosa displays ample craftsmanship in the way that he opens with something as simple as Scrooge digging up a long-forgotten, still-unpaid I.O.U., which becomes the first in a succession of leads that the ducks pursue.  As they do so, they gradually realize that there’s something “bigger” at play behind the connections they’re starting to make, until they almost unwittingly walk into the thick of a series of a outlandish, literally mythic, cataclysmic transpirings.  In other words, Rosa peels away, one-by-one, a series of layers, until, at the story's core, all is enveloped by mighty, monumental, ferocious sights and occurences.

The unnatural means by which Magica and Gyro are instantly plucked from their respective dwellings and (literally) dropped into the fray, the warring gods and the riled, running-amuck sea monster are indulgences in show-stopping escapism that I can’t imagine Barks -- Rosa’s idol -- would have ever found tasteful…again, he used myth-based subject matter, but not to this extreme. (Rosa has a way of creating Barks-type stories, but cranking the amp up to 11.)

And then there's the way that -- so I deduce -- found that some of  Barks' characters were echoed in some of the characters in Kalevala, and part of the conflict becomes that the ducks' bodies are inhabited and controlled by spirits of their Finnish epic poem counterparts -- this is the whole reason that Gyro and Magica are abruptly shoehorned in when the action is already well-underway.  This is the whole commemorating-Barks'-characters-by-turning-them-into-archetypal-versions-of-themselves thing that I was talking about...

But again, the story is masterfully plotted: there’s a seamlessly measured timing in how the mystery unravels -- eventually, the onset of an unearthly maelstrom is imminent, and at just the right spike on the tension meter, the blockades give way, and the gods and monsters burst forth with a grand theatricality.  Living up to the epic conceits, the panels that carry out the story’s climax actually are, in fact, truly, outright epic.  And it’s a joy to see the ducks on such a spectacular, magnificent adventure -- even if we can’t help but nag at ourselves, “But Barks would’ve never let so much magic and so many supernatural entities run rampant all at once, and especially for so many pages!”

And I’m sure Rosa’s aware of that…just take the final scene: the battle has subsided, and the gods and the monster have vanished into the ether without a trace.  The ducks again cross paths with the eccentric, elderly, mountain-dwelling, harp-playing local that they’d met earlier.  Here, Rosa does a nice job of bringing the ducks “back to reality”, and the scene's tone has an effective “just a moment ago, the storm suddenly desisted…um, did any of that really just happen?!” quality to it. And because of the ambiguities of the peculiar local, the story ends on a sort-of Twilight Zone-like, “Huh?  ....oh!  Hey, waaaiiiiiiittt…!!!” note.

The series of panels, rendered in a woodcut-like style, recounting the story of Väinämöinen are a nice variation of Rosa's usual aesthetic.  (Not that I have ever objected to Rosa's art!  Alwasy been a fan.)   I was really compelled by how at the climax, Väinämöinen was still drawn in the style that the flashback had been, in sharp contrast to the ducks...and pretty much everything else that was in-frame, really. And in the quarter-page splash panels showing Väinämöinen ascending in his ship to the heavens, because of the way that he was shown in profile, giving the impression of a flat “cutout” superimposed over the internal “reality” of Rosa’s Duck universe, I thought of the portrayal of the wizard Shazam in the very first Captain Marvel story...and even more so, the way that Shazam's appearances in that "debut" story was paid homage to in Alan Moore's Tom Strong.  Naturally, I couldn't help but wonder if Rosa had the original in mind.  (I know he's very knowledgeable when it comes to Golden and Silver Age comics, and I'm not talking just ducks!) 

One last observation: Scrooge desperately clutching Kavela until it's finally torn from his grasp, leaving him to plummet through the clouds to the Earth below, definitely had me thinking of his expulsion from Merlock’s citadel at the climax of DuckTales: The Movie!


The other night, I had the fortune of reading both of these stories, each for the very first time, one right after the other. There’s only so many individual Rosa works I’ve yet to peruse…I’d say it’d behoove me to stagger my still-awaited initial communings, so that it's not so soon that I'm left with none to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Ryan,

    I think Arpin Lusene is one of Rosa's most inspired creations -- completely original and with a totally different motivation for attacking Scrooge's fortune than any other villain we've seen in the past. I wonder whether he will appear in the current DUCKTALES arc (as he did in one panel in DT #1) and, if so, how his involvement will be "spun." Personally, I think he makes a much better solo villain, but that's just me.

    "Kalevala" is extremely impressive as a one-off, but I honestly don't think it'll age quite as well as some of Rosa's other post-LIFE AND TIMES efforts. It reads more like a "special one-shot" than an integral part of Duck continuity -- and, though I am not as rigidly devoted to an absolutist version of continuity as the most zealous Barks and Rosa fans, I still take it seriously.