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Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Vol. 1: Race to Death Valley
by Floyd Gottfredson; edited by David Gerstein and Gary Groth
Fantagraphics Books, 288 pages, $29.99
It must seem difficult for younger generations to fully understand just how integral Mickey Mouse once was to the Disney franchise. While at one time his smiling, three-circle face was the iconic symbol for the company, today that image has been shoved aside to make room for Cinderella’s castle. The Disney bread is now officially buttered by a bunch of divas and Buzz Lightyear. These days Mickey is relegated to stalwart supporting cast member, fit for entertaining the preschooler crowd on daytime television, though efforts like the recent Epic Mickey video game show an interest in making him a viable player in their stable once more.
Even for my generation (that’s Gen X for those of you keeping score), understanding Mickey’s appeal was a tough proposition at times given how bland he seemed to appear in various cartoons and other products we or our parents were expect to shell good money out for. Everything about him stank of goody-two-shoes pitchman. No wonder he eventually faded from the limelight.
Of course, twas not always thus. As has been acknowledged time and again whenever various pundits write about Walt and his empire, Mickey Mouse was something of a rapscallion at first, given to casting a lustful glance towards Minnie, socking an oversize enemy or smacking around barnyard animals for humorous (and musical) effect. That avenue quickly dried up as Mickey became more popular and dull, until the only place you could see a remnant of that character was on the comics page. There, cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson and a carousel of artists and assistants created a Mickey that was funnier and decidedly ballsier than anything found in other media.
While it would be unfair to say Gottfredson’s work has been ignored by the comics cognoscenti — anyone who’s read the strips has acknowledged Gottfredson as a master of the medium — it’s not like it’s gotten its just due, either. Most attempts at reprinting the strips have been slipshod at best, with only the occasional anthology or FCBD issue to entice readers.
Now Fantagraphics has risen to the fore with “Race to Death Valley,” the first in a multi-volume plan to release most (if not quite all, since the later work shifted to more gag-friendly material) of Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips. It’s a pretty spiffy package, sharply designed and full of smart, well-written essays that provide a rich portrait of the artist and his times, as well as some great comics.
It’s interesting to note how many stumbling blocks the Disney crew ran into before they found a formula that succeeded on the newspaper pages. Initially, Disney and animator Ub Iwerks simply attempted to adapt some of their cartoons to a gag-a-day formula. That proved unsuccessful, however, (and little wonder, those initial strips are rather awkward to put it mildly) and the syndicate suggested changing the focus to make it more of an adventure strip, similar to The Gumps, which was the big thing back in 1930. This proved better fare, but Disney found the chore of writing a daily strip too much of an extra burden, he passed the job on to Gottfredson, who managed to smooth out a lot of the strips rough edges (most notably perhaps being Disney’s penchant for making awkward similes).
Which is not to say that Gottfredson’s genius appeared full blush upon the very first page. It clearly took some time for the creator to find his bearing. The intial title story suffered through a number of awkward lulls (not to mention a head-scratching denouement), though you can sense Gottfredson growing more confident as the story continues. Future storylines found the artist trying on (and discarding) a couple of supporting characters and inserting Mickey in a variety of different situations — at the circus; in a boxing ring; at a camping site, thwarting nefarious gypsies; and facing up against neighborhood bullies. At one point a heartbroken Mickey even contemplates suicide after a would-be suitor starts muscling in on his turf. By the time we get towards the end of the book, though, Gottfredson has Mickey’s basic traits — full of pluck and determination, industrious — and the strip’s rhythm — fast-paced but not immune to the occasional bit of slapstick — down rather well.
As impressive as Gottfredson’s work is, it’s in the ancillary materials or “special features” that makes this book really shine. Editors Gary Groth and David Gerstein have gone the extra mile here so that we not only get background on the strip and Gottfredson himself, but also biographies of the numerous contributors, international translations and spin-offs, the afore-mentioned early strips, memorabilia and much more. With its shameless abundance of riches, Mickey Mouse Vol. 1 sets a new standard in reprint publication.
In writing Mickey’s adventures, Gottfredson managed to create a near-magical American small town where loopy, daring adventures lurked around nearly every corner, but you still had time to play Cupid to your friends or visit the cranky fireman that lived downtown. That, combined with Mickey’s “never say quit” attitude must have seemed awfully appealing to modern audiences. It’s a tribute Gottfredson’s talents that it still seems rather appealing today.