Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse by Floyd Gottfredson: Race to Death Valley
Review by KC Carlson
“MY GOSH!! What cheese! If only I had a bottle of beer!!”
–Mickey Mouse (1930)
A few days later, in the midst of the “Mickey Mouse in Death Valley” continuity in the then-freshly minted Mickey Mouse newspaper strip, Mickey’s girl Minnie — held captive by her shyster lawyer and Black Pete — is treated to the sight of a silhouette of a hanged (and obviously dead) Mickey. She screams.
Jeez, this sure isn’t the same Mickey I met at Disney World last year…
The story in question is the lead story in the new Fantagraphics Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse collection subtitled “Race to Death Valley” — the first of a new series also known as “The Floyd Gottfredson Library”. This 260-page hardcover features the first two years of the Mickey Mouse strip from 1930-1931 — including the early strips not by Gottfredson. (Many of those early strips were by some guys named Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. I‘m happy to report they got other work elsewhere.)
The book itself is stunning. Well-designed (by Jacob Covey), excellent paper stock and binding, compact size (10.2 x 8.7 inches) for holding, but large enough for three strips per page, amazing reproduction for material of this age — it helps to have the legendary Disney Vault, as well as a network of strip collectors, backing you up — and an excellent, textured cover that works both individually and as part of a series. Fantagraphics is well-known for their quality book projects and this may be one of their best yet.
About 50-60 pages of the book are devoted to documenting the history of the strip — including its origins, biographies of the key creative people, introductions for each of the 14 (or so) storylines reprinted in this volume, spotlights on the cast of characters, galleries of international reprintings of this material (as graphic novels), plus a host of reprinted material from the era such as press kits, teaser ads, rare promotional art and surviving pencil art for some early strips, and vintage photographs of the creators. Amusingly, there are also actual interviews from the era with both Mickey Mouse (who smokes a cigar while being questioned) and Pluto the dog. Much of the modern material is written by co-editor David Gerstein (an animation historian and Disney comics writer) and popular culture historian Thomas Andre (essays on both Gottfredson and Iwerks). The introduction is by Warren Spector, video game designer for Epic Mickey, and Floyd Norman, the artist who succeeded Gottfredson on the Mickey Mouse strip, and it provides a heartfelt appreciation of the man and the mouse.
This material is almost undefinable in its importance, as for decades creators like Gottfredson (and his Duck-Man counterpart, Carl Barks) toiled away anonymously. Finally, in the late 1960s/early 70s, comic book and animation fans slowly deduced the identities of these men who created their childhood favorites. For years, Barks was only referred to as “the good duck artist”, because no one knew his name. Eventually, fans became aware of these great creators, but recognition in the outside world was a much slower process. For a long time, Gottfredson’s incredible efforts paled in the shadow of Barks’ growing fame. This book also goes some way toward putting that right, giving Gottfredson’s work a proper showcase in a popular format.
How It All Began
Since the entire first two years are presented, we get to see the usual growing pains of any new daily newspaper strip — pacing, structure, timely introductions of the cast of characters, and the efforts to nail down their developing personalities. There were a number of personnel changes in the early strips. Walt Disney himself was writing, Ub Iwerks pencilling, and Win Smith inking the first three weeks (18 strips) of the series. It began as a gag-a-day humor strip. Historians note that much of the strip’s early content and gags were recycled from Mickey Mouse (and Oswald the Rabbit) cartoons. There were some continuing story scenarios, but the strip was a slow seller. Quickly, syndicator King Features requested that the strip become more adventure-oriented, based on the recent success of strips like Sidney Smith’s The Gumps.
While these discussions were taking place, Iwerks left Disney to open his own animation studio, and Win Smith took over the full art duties. For a short time, as it turned out. Disney decided to stop writing the strip as well, asking Smith to take over the writing. Smith declined and abruptly left the strip completely that same day.
Thus, recent animation hire Floyd Gottfredson got the call to take over the artistic chores on the strip. He was talked into it thinking that it was just a temporary job until they got somebody permanent. That two-week “temp” job only ended 45 years later when Gottfredson retired in 1975. Gottfredson’s first strip as artist was published May 5, 1930. Disney stuck around for a few weeks to get Gottfredson settled, but eventually, he got involved in other things, and Gottfredson took over the writing as well, scripting an incredible run of high-action and powerful plotting. Many of these stories were later reprinted in the Dell and Gold Key comic books Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, as well as stand-alone albums internationally.
The Strip Itself
The Mickey Mouse strip itself is a hoot — especially in these early days. Mickey’s a feisty little guy in the strips, more so than in most of his animated appearances. He frequently packs heat (gasp!), knows all kinds of dirty tricks, and isn’t afraid to get into some real fisticuffs. No bare-knuckles stuff, though — he always wears his trademark three-fingered gloves! He’s such a rough-and-tumble kinda mouse that he’s frequently wanted by the law! And often deals with some truly adult emotions — in one early, memorable sequence, thinking that Minnie is enamored with another man, Mickey actually attempts suicide, several times. (He’s ultimately saved by squirrels — something you should file away for future reference in your own life.)
Mickey’s also quite industrious. In one early sequence, he designs and builds his own amazing miniature golf course with the help of his neighborhood animal friends — who promptly go off-the-clock at 5 o’clock every afternoon! Later he becomes a boxing champion, a circus roustabout, and a fireman.
Mickey Mouse is also a treasure trove of forgotten Disney characters — most notably Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. I’m especially intrigued with nare-do-well Butch, first introduced as a grizzled tough in an evil gang that Mickey was trying to defeat. Butch eventually becomes a protector of Mickey, and through the magic of comics, gets progressively younger in appearance as you read through the book, until he’s roughly Mickey’s age. Sadly, Butch seldom appears after 1931. Also notable is The Blot, as a mysterious character. I can say no more. (Other than don’t confuse him with the much later Phantom Blot!)
But my favorite (probably) one-time-only character is the Music Store owner in one strip — a goat named Mr. Butt. Wonder why he only appeared once? He coulda been a punch line to numerous jokes! Whatta great name!
You Should Get This
Even if you don’t care much for Mickey or the whole Disney mouse machine, this book should be on your bookshelf just for the slice of 1930s Depression-era Americana and the amazing joy of Mickey’s flinty “can-do” attitude. It’s kinda the anti-Disney Disney series — no princesses, no domesticity — but Disney folks will love it as well for the little-known Disneyania and the historical presentation. Watch for this wonderful series to do very well in various comics awards next year. This is important stuff.
Volume Two, “Trapped on Treasure Island“, is due in October. If you missed this first volume, Fantagraphics has thoughtfully packaged it with Volume Two in a nicely designed slipcase/gift box. (The publisher provided a copy for review.)