“Steamboat Willie” made Mickey Mouse an overnight sensation in 1928, and less than two years later, the King Features syndicate contacted Walt Disney about adapting the character to a daily comic strip. The Mickey Mouse strip debuted on Jan. 13, 1930, in the New York Daily Mirror. For the first few weeks, it was written by Disney and drawn by his head animator, Ub Iwerks. But Disney and Iwerks were busy working on films and passed the strip to studio artist Floyd Gottfredson, who worked on it for 45 years — right up until his retirement in 1975.
The hardcover “Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley” (Fantagraphics Books: $29.95; 288 pp.), edited by David Gerstein and Gary Groth and published this summer, is the first installment in a complete reprint of the strip.
At the urging of King Features, Gottfredson changed the format from a gag-a-day to a continuing story line with adventures that often lasted three or four months. Sydney Smith’s wildly successful strip “The Gumps” was the obvious and often-cited model, but a number of popular strips were built around ongoing stories, including “Gasoline Alley,” “Barney Google,” “Wash Tubbs” and “Little Orphan Annie.”
Gottfredson’s Mickey strip both invoked and spoofed the adventure format. Mickey became a well-intentioned friend and amateur sleuth who got involved in mysteries to help someone in trouble. In “Race to Death Valley,” Gottfredson’s first story, Mickey keeps Minnie from being cheated out of her Uncle Mortimer’s gold mine by Pegleg Pete and Sylvester Shyster. He rescues Minnie when she’s kidnapped by Gypsies in “The Ransom Plot” (July-November 1931). He also works as a circus roustabout and a fireman. These exciting roles meant the comic strip Mickey maintained a more dynamic personality than the animated one.
Walt Disney described Mickey as “simply a little personality assigned to the purpose of laughter.” Many observers noted there was a good bit of Chaplin’s Little Tramp in the early Mickey: He was usually the irrepressible underdog (undermouse?), who came from behind to win.
Animator Fred Moore, who redesigned Mickey during the ’30s, giving the character his most appealing proportions, wrote: “Mickey seems to be the average young boy of no particular age; living in a small town, clean living, fun loving, bashful around girls, polite and as clever as he must be for the particular story. In some pictures he has a touch of Fred Astaire; in others of Charlie Chaplin, and some of Douglas Fairbanks, but in all of these there should be some of the young boy.”
As the animated Mickey became popular with children, parents began to object to any untoward behavior. These increasing restrictions made the animated Mickey dull, and he was gradually relegated to playing straight man to Pluto, Goofy and Donald Duck. Gottfredson’s Mickey remained closer to the mouse Moore described. He gets the draw on a small town sheriff who’s been misled by Pete, turns a scarecrow into an improvised shelter in a rainstorm and disguises a squirrel as a ghost to scare off a gang of thieves. When the Phantom Blot ties Mickey up, saying, “Sorry I have to do this, but ‘Dead men tell no tales,’” he replies, “Yeh? Well, I’m still plenty alive!”
It would take Gottfredson a few years to hit his stride: Many of his best Mickey stories appeared in the later ’30s and ’40s. But the basic characteristics that would make the print version of Mickey popular after the studio curtailed his animated antics can clearly be seen in these first installments.
“Race to Death Valley” is the latest entry in Fantagraphics’ reprints of classic comic strips, and is sure to delight fans of Mickey Mouse as well as comic strip aficionados. The strips are clearly printed in a readable size, and editors Gerstein and Groth carefully document the origins of the strip. The only real flaw in the package is the inclusion of a few too many introductions and sidebars that inevitably overlap: They seem to bang into one another, like doors hung too closely together. But that’s a very minor down check in a delightful volume of comic strip derring-do.
– Charles Solomon, LATIMES, Aug. 26, 2011