In Mid-November, the website Politico reported that the United States’ reputation was in freefall. Every year, the German opinion pollster Anhold-GfK measures national brands using factors such as regime, tourism, exports, culture, people and immigration. In one year, The United States has gone from No. 1 to No. 6 on this index.
A Trump effect perhaps, but one of the biggest stories of our time is the one about the fall of the American empire. Gideon Rachman, one of the leading writers for the prestigious Financial Times, has written two books about how the Western world, and specifically the United States, is losing its role as the world’s conscience. One of last year’s most talked about books was called “The Rise and Fall of Nations,” in which Ruchir Sharma rather boldly listed the reasons why the U.S. is soon to be history. China’s time is coming.
In Europe and Asia, people are used to dynasties collapsing and empires going to their grave. However, American history is a tale of upward curves, increased wealth and about gaining more power and influence.
Speaking of Donald Trump, when was America really “great?” The New York Times tried to investigate and found that at least Americans who vote Republican think of the 1950s and the 1980s as happy times. Wars were distant. The economy was doing well. Life was simpler.
It was back then, in the 1950s, that the Swedish people were first introduced to a character who more than any other came to symbolize U.S. capitalistic success later in the 20th century, Scrooge McDuck. McDuck was created in 1947 as an aging subsidiary character in the world of Donald Duck by cartoonist Carl Barks, but soon became one of the most dynamic and interesting characters in the entertainment giant Disney collection.
The Europeans’ love for the characters Barks either created or refined, Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Gladstone Gander, Beagle Boys, and Gyro Gearloose, is well known, and the importance of these characters in war-torn Europe 70 years ago probably cannot be overestimated. Duckburg is ruled by materialism. Death, politics, and religion are all absent. Money is the driving force for both villains and heroes, and in the hunt for money, anything can happen.
In an essay about the 1950s duck series, Star Wars creator George Lucas offered his reasons for the longevity of the series. They are, of course, really good stories, but, “on a deeper level, the series shows American characteristics that are easily recognizable to the reader: creativity, integrity, decisiveness, a healthy kind of greed, bravery, a desire for adventure and a sense of humor,” Lucas wrote. The character that most clearly symbolized this is Scrooge McDuck, who is neither American nor an aristocrat. He is Scottish and the typical self-made man, starting out with nothing, and through hard work, earned every penny he has. With the help of his nephews, he goes out on treasure hunts and ghost hunts, and pursues time and space travel to make even more money.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Scrooge McDuck’s debut, the 20-year-old biography, “The Life and Times of $crooge McDuck,” will be reissued. It is a collection of 12 stories where the cartoonist Don Rosa, generally known as the second greatest Donald Duck storyteller after Barks, draws the world’s richest duck’s life story from birth in 1867 until he meets Huey, Dewey, and Louie 80 years later.
It is a story about a poor shoeshine boy who leaves poverty-stricken Europe seeking his fortune in the West, first along the Mississippi River, and then in the Wild West, in Africa and Australia, only to finally find gold in 1897 in the Klondike. It is about a young man who through both mind and muscle creates his own wealth. It is also a story about a young country with extreme economic growth where one could become whatever one wanted and whomever one wanted, but were just as likely to be robbed, murdered or eaten.
The fundamental material is from Barks, who often drew stories of Scrooge McDuck’s youth or his time during the Gold Rush. However, Rosa’s task was to harmonize the disjointed McDuck biography Barks left behind on his retirement in 1966. Barks’ work is a canon and Rosa the interpreter, fixing holes and inconsistencies, showing how the facts hang together.
“If Scrooge commented on his youth in the 3rd speech bubble in the 5th square in the second series of a comic from 1957, this will be mentioned somewhere in this book, this is providing that Carl Barks wrote the story,” Rosa writes in his foreword. I didn’t know that when, as a 10-year-old boy, I read Rosa’s series for the first time, published as “Donald Duck and Co.” I had no idea who wrote the stories or how they related to another author’s work, but I was incredibly affected by Scrooge McDuck’s life. It was serious. It was ambitious, it had pretention. On some level, it was literature.
These days I sometimes find it a bit lacking in humor. The grandiose project sometimes borders on being too serious, losing some of Barks’ playfulness and wit. At the same, it is hard not to be impressed by Rosa’s writing style. In the last chapter of “The Life and Times of $crooge McDuck,” called “The Loner in the Duck Palace,” references to Orson Welles’ film, “Citizen Kane,” can be found everywhere. The story is toward the end of the short series where Barks introduces Scrooge McDuck to the world in 1947.
In 1947, Europe was in ruins, just coming out of the trauma of war and seeing the first hints of optimism for the future. The period’s news baron, Henry Luce, said the “American Century” was about to start in earnest. By that time, Scrooge McDuck was already 80 years old, according to Barks’ biographical details. Rosa did not divert from this.
In his world, Scrooge McDuck died in 1967, but the “present time” set in the cartoon series was actually 1952. This was the year when Barks was at the creative peak of his career. Duckburg is forever stuck in the past. It is now also 12 years since Rosa, fed up with intruding editors and the whole Disney circus, retired. These days he travels around on book and cartoon tours in Europe, signing his old cartoons. This week he came to Sweden, but not to present any new adventures.
Meanwhile, at the same time, news from the U.S. based on recent research shows that Democrats and Republicans have completely different views on what forms the basis of American identity. Those on the right say Christian faith and European traditions. Those on the the left say it is multiculturalism and giving support to those who are persecuted. The only thing they agree on is that America’s identity is about to disappear.
Perhaps Scrooge McDuck is still alive after all, perhaps it is still 1952 somewhere. One thing is certain: the American century is over.