Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse by Floyd Gottfredson, Volumes 1 and 2

In the 1930's, Mickey Mouse was a veritable superstar, but Walt Disney was still feeling out his potential as a character and a corporate icon. His films varied in tone, subject, and quality. The merchandising machine was just gearing up. And King Features Syndicate was beating down Walt's door to produce a daily newspaper strip starring the Mouse. Thanks to the efforts of publisher Fantagraphics and editors David Gerstein and Gary Groth, this early slice of Mickey's life has been preserved for us in a series of very handsome volumes.

The first two volumes in the series - Race to Death Valley and Trapped on Treasure Island - set the stage very well for Mickey's rise to fame and the conditions under which artist and writer Floyd Gottfredson inherited the strip's mantle. In 1930, shortly after Disney's merchandising department was created, Walt personally scripted the strip drawn by Ub Iwerks. These very early strips were almost exact adaptations of the early cartoons, particularly Plane Crazy. However, Walt's responsibilities as the head of a growing company and the sudden departure of Iwerks led to a shakeup from which a new hire in the animation department - Gottfredson - was given the "temporary" assignment. That assignment lasted until 1975.

I've long been a fan of vintage Mickey Mouse and his milieu. The turnaround point from seeing him as merely a banal corporate icon to being a genuine fan was the first time I saw the very first episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. The first half of the episode was devoted to setting up Disneyland as a mixed multi-media franchise, showing off the plans for the park as well as the conceptual spaces of "Frontierland" and "Adventureland" to be fleshed out by episodes of the series. The second half was devoted to the story of Mickey Mouse. It is from this segment that we first heard the famous quote "it all started with a mouse." What stuck with me was Walt's treatment of Mickey as a genuine personality: a diminutive actor he first met when he was a shoeless farm mouse, but with whom he found success and made it big in Hollywood. That endeared me to Mickey.

It also helped that I'm a fan in general of silent and early sound films, of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of early animation. To consider the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin but not include Mickey Mouse (who began essentially as an amalgam of the two) is to leave something out. I adore the distinctive style of early cartoons, like Paul Terry's Aesop's Film Fables and Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat, who was animation's first superstar and enshrined as the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's character balloon while Walt was still churning out crude commercials in Kansas City. The brilliance of Ub Iwerks draughtsmanship speaks for itself, and it is equally easy to see how terribly the Disney company's animation suffered immediately after he left in 1930. For a good year or so, Mickey cartoons were just awful and amounted to little more than a bunch of barnyard animals cavorting around in a song and dance number to mediocre animation.

Still, Mickey's star was ascendant. One of the fascinating phenomena of Hollywood's Golden Age are children's clubs. The original Mickey Mouse Club was created in 1929 by Harry Woodlin for the Fox Dome Theatre in Ocean Park, California, as a marketing tool to draw young viewers into the theatre on Saturdays. Draped in their official club uniforms sewed by mom at home, Mickey Mouse Club members filed into their local theatre, pledged to the club code, shared the secret handshake, and settled into an afternoon of local performers, talent show-and-tells, movie serials, and of course, the latest Mickey cartoon, preceded by the club's official theme song (and first original song produced by the Disney studio), Minnie's Yoo-Hoo. Within a year, 150 theatres organized Mickey Mouse Clubs with some 200,000 members. By 1932, the number of members inflated to a million kids spread over 800 theatres. Such fanatical devotion in turn led to the creation of Mickey Mouse merchandising. The first item - a child's writing tablet - was produced in 1929. The first Mickey Mouse doll was produced in 1930 and the first Mickey Mouse watch in 1933. In 1934, Mickey became the first ever character licensed to appear on a cereal box.

Still, the quality of the cartoons posed a problem for Gottfredson. A simple string of gags and songs worked well as the cinema's bread-and-butter, but couldn't sustain itself in a newspaper strip. Instead, he took his queue from the very earliest Mickey cartoons: the hard drinking, hard living, playful smart alec and adventurous hero created by Ub Iwerks. I'm pleased to see this same character return in the new Mickey cartoons produced by Paul Rudish. Into the mix he threw a lot of great puns and quick wit, with Mickey's apparent default mode being biting sarcasm. He wasn't mean or surly and he was patient with his friends, but this Mickey tended not to take much s**t from people, and didn't do it with the strange vacuous grin he would in his later cartoons in the Forties and Fifties. Just a couple samples from the strip will suffice to set Gottfredson's tone.

Enduring Clarabelle Cow in Race to Death Valley.
Horace Horsecollar reminiscing about his days as an actor in The Great Orphanage Robbery.

These are also the days before Donald Duck and Dippy Dawg joined Mickey entourage. Instead we get good old Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow sharing adventures, intrigue, and pointed barbs with our heroes. Mickey also developed his own gang of villains and supporting characters unique to the strip. For the Circus Roustabouts storyline, Mickey's companion was an ex-con named Butch, and his perennial enemies were the dastardly duo of Peg-Leg Pete and the crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster.

Gottfredson's process began with the cinematic cartoons for inspiration, but took off in their own direction in a manner that could support an action-adventure-comedy newspaper strip. Race to Death Valley begins with Minnie inheriting her Uncle Mortimer's mansion, with a series of gags and settings derived from Haunted House. The Blaggard Castle storyline borrows heavily from The Mad Doctor, and The Mail Pilot fleshes out the cartoon of the same title. But as the cartoons tended to rely on these strings of gags for its story, Gottfredson crafted a story which he fleshed out with his borrowings. The settings of deserted islands and spooky mansions serviced the gags in Mickey cartoons, but provided a stage for adventure in the strips. These stories weren't necessarily carefully scripted beginning-to-end (for example, a character early on in Race to Death Valley clearly comes across as a villain, and is only revealed as a hero at the end... Gottfredson was working him out on the fly), but they do provide more substance than the cartoons. They had to, running day after day rather than a few short minutes every other week.

Each volume of the strips include a wealth of background material to put the material into its social context. One of my favourite features are the original faux-interviews released to newspapers to help promote the characters. For example, a reporter visiting Mickey Mouse at the studio, to find that the debonair Hollywood actor melts away in private to reveal the same light-hearted country mouse who enjoys cheap cigars and smelly cheese in his little (literal) hole in the wall. Now reaching up to volumes 5 and 6, Fantagraphics have produced a necessary companion to the great Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White DVDs released by Disney and Leonard Maltin. To get the complete early history of animation's greatest star, you need these books.

Support your local comic shop or bookstore, but in lieu of that, you can purchase them direct from Fantagraphics.

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