Adventure Comics, Exoticism, and Nostalgia. Part 1: Scrooge McDuck

Up until the age of sixteen (or thereabouts) reading for fun meant reading comics. I grew up on the Belgian classics of Tintin, Asterix, Suske & Wiske, on the weekly Dutch magazine Donald Duck, on Jim Davis’ Garfield. The list goes on, but you get the picture. Many of these comicstrips have lost the allure they once held beyond their nostalgic value, but some I truly love to this day. The stories of Hergé and Don Rosa in particular.  I have frequently revisited them over the years and enjoyed their works from start to finish with the same gleeful excitement as when I was a kid. At the same time, as I have grown alongside these stories, I have come to newly appreciate the more mature layers within them.

But this is also where my love for these comics becomes frustrated. Something at the back of my mind has been nibbling away at my indulgent, unencumbered reading of them. Sure, both Hergé and Don Rosa are masters of their craft that have shaped much of my imaginary world from when I was little, but is that enough excuse to continue to read them so naively? Asking the question might be answering it too: no, clearly not. But if not, then how should they be read? Should I read them at all?

Today, I want to turn to Don Rosa’s landmark series of comics –The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck– in a first attempt to answer these questions.

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is, in Rosa’s own words, his “ultimate life tribute to the greatest storyteller of the 20th century, Carl Barks” (VII)1. Barks was the creative mind behind Scrooge McDuck, along with many other characters that remain central to Donald Duck stories till this day. As a tribute, Rosa’s ten episode narrative aims to connect the disparate references to Scrooge’s youth and form around them a coherent tale of his humble beginnings in Scotland till his eventual economic conquest of North America. Rosa is scrupulous in this quest: Barks has a frame of Scrooge as a shoeshine? This is how Rosa’s Scrooge starts to earn his way aboard a cattle barge to America. On one adventure Barks shows Castle McDuck? Rosa makes it central to Scrooge’s life story and traces its lineage of McDuck’s. Scrooge secures a candy-striped ruby? Rosa ensures that we know of its fate.

This is not to say that Rosa’s work is just a retracing of Barks’, however. No, its enduring qualities lie in Rosa’s gift for telling a rags to riches tale that is exciting and adventurous yet tragic as we witness hope and optimism be whittled down to mistrust and cynicism in a blind pursuit of money. They lie in the humour that Rosa manages to add to his dense and detailed comic style. In these elements of depth and visual comedy he surpasses Barks and, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed by any other artist’s rendition of Scrooge.

Barks’ stories leaned heavily on exotic adventure and who better to instigate exotic adventures for the Duck family to go on than an out-and-proud colonizer and capitalist?
Judy Sund, a self-proclaimed exoticist (which strikes me as a dubious practice to want to implicate yourself in, but alright), aptly remarks: “Rich with interludes of far-fetched fantasy and instances of captivating creativity, exoticism’s history also illuminates contentious issues that drive today’s news cycles. Its practitioners shaped still-powerful notions of race and its hierarchies, vilified Islam in vivid and enduring ways, and routinely celebrated powerful people’s subjugation and exploitation of those deemed lesser by virtue of ethnicity and/or gender.”2 It is this troubling dark side of exoticism that haunts the Western adventure genre at large, regardless of medium. The kind of Donald Duck stories that Barks stands at the foundation of, with Scrooge McDuck at the helm, are prototypical of the exoticizing adventure genre in all its allure and all its failings.

But enough stage-setting, let’s get into The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.

Despite its child-friendly comic style, the tale closely mirrors the real history of European colonization and imperialism, especially in North America. As such, Rosa’s characters lament the parcelling up of land as America is divided up into homesteads and the western frontier comes to a close. Unperturbed and -inspired by a young Teddy Roosevelt- relentlessly optimistic, McDuck makes his own claims to land and will later go in search of other frontiers to gain his wealth. Alaska, Australia, Africa, and beyond all figure as lands awaiting his exploitation and – to an extent – Rosa is aware of this.

In fact, his story “The Empire Builder From Calisota” is centered around it. This is a particularly interesting episode, because it is Rosa at his most critical of what Scrooge ultimately stands for: the ruthless capitalist imperialist. The one that is so often coddled and defanged as a mere eccentric, simultaneously that uncle at the dinner table who has an inexplicable and unhealthy obsession with his coin collection and the cool uncle that takes his nephews on exciting adventures to unknown parts.

Panel from Barks’ Voodoo Hoodoo in which Scrooge casually refers to his colonial exploits.3

Now, there was a necessity for Rosa to address the dark side of Scrooge as Carl Barks’ Scrooge explicitly mentions this episode of exploitation and the consequent curse that was intended to befall him in a comic called “Voodoo Hoodoo” (Yes, the name does not inspire confidence for where this might go). Scrooge explains that he swindled a native tribe out of their land and that the local witch doctor cursed him in return by sending a zombie named Bombie after him.

The tale leans into stereotypical representations of Vodou that were common at the time in the United States. Laurent Dubois, commenting on Haitian Vodou, captures the prevailing sentiment as follows: 

[in the 19th century] Vodou was commonly represented as the ultimate antithesis of “civilization,” as a case of African superstition reborn in the Americas. During the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, images of Haitian Vodou as a terrain of demonic possession, absurd superstition, and zombis proliferated in the United States” (92).4

Much of this image of Vodou remains intact in Barks’ 1949 comic Voodoo Hoodoo. It exoticizes the native African population by associating them with the fantastical come to life (the zombie), set against the secular white Duck family, not to mention the obviously racist visual stereotypes at play as well as the narrative ones such as that of the cowardly native. None of this is helped by Donald Duck’s staunch refusal to admit to his uncle’s wrongdoing when the witch doctor who cursed him, named Foola Zoola (yes, that is his name, I can’t help it either) asks: “Hah! Now are you sorry your rich uncle drove us from our voodoo lands?” Any implicit criticism that Barks makes is undercut by the explicit framing of the witch doctor as villain.

More original prints of Barks’ Voodoo Hoodoo, which were later redrawn to be (slightly) less offensive.

Rosa, against this backdrop, is faced with the challenge of showing this brutal side of Scrooge and dealing with the racist imagery Barks used, whilst maintaining the reader’s connection with Scrooge as a protagonist. To his credit, he does not shy away from the disturbing image of Scrooge the imperialist:

By explicitly framing Scrooge as a villainous character here, Rosa opens up the opportunity to make the scenario into a moral lesson: bad things befall dishonest people, but with honest hard work come rewards. Through this didactic device, Scrooge can be redeemed. However, it completely sidesteps the issue of the colonizing act. The implication here is that Scrooge’s act of acquiring another’s land is not inherently wrong, only the way in which he acquires it.

Rosa rendition of Scrooge cheating the native village (faithful to Barks’ drawing above) out of its land and the morality play that ensues.

Furthermore, faithful to a fault, he preserves the exoticist narrative and imagery of that earlier Barks story, along with its racist undercurrent in the characters of the witch doctor and his zombie. Though Scrooge is framed as villainous, the witch doctor is not painted in a sympathetic light either, as you can see in the panel below.

Scrooge comes upon Bombie the zombie as the witch doctor, seen in the back of the panel, laughs and proclaims his revenge in villainous fashion.

***

As I mentioned before, Scrooge’s unrelenting exploitation of foreign land is never questioned in and of itself, only his means of exploitation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the complete sidestepping of the exploitation of Native Americans. In fact Rosa’s America is almost devoid of a Native American population. On the rare occasion that they are featured it is off hand and in the stereotypical form you might expect. Here the rhetoric of hard, honest work comes to its full fruition. Scrooge works the land diligently in search of a copper vein, fights off those who would cheat him out of it, and thus earns access to the land. Such a narrative can only be told unproblematically as long as Native Americans are kept out of the picture.

Two of the few panels in which Native Americans are featured in Rosa’s tale, quite literally, in passing.

“The Empire Builder From Calisota” ends on a high and a low: as Scrooge officially becomes the richest duck in the world, his sisters lament the unlikeable person he has become in that pursuit.

In the next and final chapter of this life story Rosa tries to marry the imperialist with the eccentric, granting him some redemption through the rich memories he made along the way, his unwavering honesty, and his by-the-bootstraps mentality. It is as unsatisfying as it sounds, but what other endpoint could there be if the intent of the journey was ultimately to pay homage to his predecessor rather than depart from Barks’ more troubling notions of Scrooge?

I wonder what might have happened had he left the character a miserable multi-billionaire that alienated his family and exploited the Other wherever he encountered them in pursuit of making a number go up. Perhaps Scrooge would not have become the sanitised and innocent capitalist he is now all too often portrayed as.

Barring such fantasies, what to make of these stories and my affinity for them? Can recognizing their problematic nature, spelling it out as I have attempted here, be enough? And what does it say about me that despite recognizing the exoticism, racism, and omission at the base of many of these tales I still have a desire to enjoy Rosa’s stories for their better qualities?
I am honestly not sure, but recognition seems a good first step to take.
And with that comes recognition of the biggest fault in Rosa’s grand narrative: his quest for faithful homage to Barks led him to a repetition of his predecessor’s shortcomings. Perhaps the critique that is there is more explicit, but on the problems that Barks left unsaid Rosa also remained silent. The racist images of the witch doctor and the zombie that Barks drew, find faithful recreation in Rosa’s work. This is reverence for the source material taken too far, with the consequence that problematic assumptions about land and Other are yet again reaffirmed. In this, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is not good enough.

Interestingly, in 2017 Bombie the zombie appeared again in DuckTales. Here, the racist connotations are dropped; he is shifted into a less racial, more pop-cultural figure resembling the Batman villain Solomon Grundy more than anything else. However, the show comes up short too, as it looks to avoid conversation with the uncomfortable history of Scrooge McDuck, yet to a lesser extent still leans on its problematic exoticizing figurations. If you recognize Bombie as problematic, it seems to me there are two viable options on how to proceed: 1. Critically engage with Bombie, or 2. Don’t use him at all.

Written by Reinier van der Plas

Footnotes:

  1. Don Rosa. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Fantagraphics Books, 2019.
  2. Judy Sund. Exotic, a Fetish for the Foreign, https://www.gdcinteriors.com/exotic/
  3. Credit for the scans of Barks’ ‘Voodoo Hoodoo’ go to https://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/2814884.html
  4. Dubois, Laurent. “Vodou and History.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 43, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 92–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2696623.

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