Life is Like a Hurricane: Lessons in Creativity from Duckburg

6 min read

Donald Duck and creativity

Creatives who work in advertising are in a tough spot. I say this as one of the damned: someone who makes a living by making stuff up, but always within the specifications of the creative brief (well, maybe not, I dunno).

Creating on demand requires the ability to manufacture inspiration. Which seems like a contradiction in terms—we imagine inspiration as something that floats down from the heavens, or strikes us like a thunderbolt. When you’re working against a deadline, though, you don’t have time to wait for the muse. You’ve got to come up with great ideas, and quickly.

So how do you make that happen? For answers, I turned (as I almost always do in these situations) to Donald Duck.

A Detour on Donald

If you only know Donald Duck from cartoons, you probably know him best as the unintelligible, frequently psychotic foil to the even-keeled Micky Mouse. And in the cartoons, that’s pretty much how the character has stayed. But in the 1940s, Donald underwent a surprising reinvention thanks to comics artist Carl Barks.

Barks wasn’t especially interested in Donald as a Disney character, and divorced him near-completely from the world of Mickey Mouse and Goofy. It was Barks who created Uncle Scrooge and the city of Duckburg, and fully developed the characters of Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. (Some of these elements may be most familiar to modern audiences thanks to the animated series Duck Tales.) Barks’ comics were popular enough to find an international audience, as well as a big following with American cartoonists like Don Rosa.

It was Rosa who later took up the torch from Barks, and whose own stories were heavily influenced by the work of his predecessor. And it’s Rosa’s unique challenges as an artist—working on a franchise character, in the shadow of a legend, and on a monthly deadline—that I think can provide the most useful lessons for any creative trying to figure out how to work deeply despite the ticking clock.

Tralla La: A Quick Case Study

When Don Rosa was hired to write for Donald Duck, his publisher surprised him with an extra challenge: They wanted sequels to some of Carl Barks’ most famous stories. Up first was a sequel that would send the Ducks back to Tralla La, Barks’ riff on the mythical Shangri-La made famous in the film Lost Horizon.

“What could be more thrilling for me than to find myself telling a ‘book two’ of a beloved tale that I grew up reading over and over again?” writes Rosa in his commentary on the story collected by Fantagraphics Books. But as he worked, Rosa discovered writing sequels was far harder than writing something new.

“[Creating] a whole new story from scratch… doesn’t require the endless cross-referencing to the original in art and plot details,” writes Rosa. “[Not] only was I confronted with the problems of plot logic…, I also knew that what I should not do is introduce any totally new ideas into the well-known comic book reality of Barks’ [original story].”

At this point, it’s worth remembering that Rosa is working on a comic book that comes out in monthly installments. Rosa drew at a rate of about one page per day, which meant that a 20- to 30-page comic book would take most of that month to produce. Not a lot of leeway to mess around, in other words.

It would have been a lot easier to cheat. After all, how well would readers remember a sequel written decades after the original story? Why not bend the details of the story a little to give himself more freedom?

Well, because that wasn’t the brief. Rosa was asked to write a sequel, and that meant certain rules had to be followed.

“[Any] conflicts or problems that arose thereafter had to be some logical outgrowth of elements in the original story, not based on any new idiotic ideas that I might toss into the mix,” writes Rosa. He goes on to describe using elements of Barks’ original story (including a giant whirlpool, an underground river, and a bit of ingenuity involving bottlecaps) to solve the problems of plot. In his commitment to do right by the work, Rosa never betrayed the original—leading to a better, more inventive story as a result.

The Lessons of Tralla La 

So what can we learn from the way Rosa wrote his sequel, and how can we apply it to our kind of creativity under deadline? Here are the lessons I found:

  1. When in doubt, go back to the source.

For Rosa, the creative brief—or the document that outlined the boundaries and expectations for his work—was the request of his publisher for a true sequel to the original comics. This meant that each time he hit a creative snag, it was fair game to go back to the comics by Carl Barks, where inspiration was inevitably waiting.

Sometimes we as creatives cause unintended problems by straying too far from the brief. Other times, we forget to review the work that has come before, and how that work might affect what we’re trying to accomplish. But in any case, going back to the source—both the original brief and the client’s own history—can help remind us of our purpose and point us down the right path when we feel the most lost.

  1. Research creates new connections.

In his commentary, Rosa describes reaching a plot impasse in which he needs to weave together elements of two different Carl Barks stories—one involving Tralla La, one involving the treasure of Genghis Khan. In an effort to solve the problem, he reads Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about Kublai Khan’s famous retreat, Xanadu.

“And that’s when the hairs on my neck got all tingly!” writes Rosa. The poem described Xanadu as “a small hidden valley paradise surrounded by a ring of tall mountains, and containing a river that disappeared into caves in a ‘tumult’! The poem was describing Barks’ valley of Tralla La in detail!”

For Rosa, making the connection between Xanadu and Tralla La was a necessary part of finishing his story—but one which would have never happened if he hadn’t done some digging. Similarly, for creatives who find themselves stuck, sometimes the best way forward is by doing independent research. Yes, it takes time, but it also gives the mind more chances to make surprising connections, ultimately leading to better work.

  1. Do the work that scares you.

If you’re creating under deadline, it’s easy to play it safe. But that’s not a very inspiring way to work. For Rosa, the safe bet would have been writing strictly original stories, or writing sequels that weren’t so faithful to the work of Carl Barks.

But instead, Rosa embraced the thrill of it all. “I’ll be the first to agree that doing an add-on to some venerated Carl Barks classic does not necessarily do it honor,” writes Rosa. “[But] even now the idea gives me goosebumps.”

Bite off more than you can chew. Pitch the idea the client will never go for. Do the thing you fear the most—because often that’s where your best, most original work is waiting.

And if none of that inspires you? Well, you can’t go wrong with the funny pages.