Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Volume 1: Race To Death Valley

By Floyd Gottfredson

A two week assignment.  That was what cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson was told by his boss, Walt Disney, would be the duration of Gottfredson's run on the new Mickey Mouse comic strip.  The strip, begun just a few months prior, was initially written by Disney himself, with art by Ub Iwerks (Mickey's co-creator and primary animator on the early cartoons) and Win Smith.  Iwerks and Win soon left the strip, however (Iwerks to start his own animation studio, and Win over a falling out with Disney), at which point Disney himself gave up the reigns as writer and brought in Gottfredson as a temporary replacement until a permanent writer/artist could be found.  That temporary fill in assignment would turn into a distinguished 45 year career, in which Gottfredson's work on the Mickey Mouse comic strip (always credited to Walt Disney, of course) would evolve into one of comics' all-time  masterpieces.

In this Golden Age of Comic Strip Reprints, Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse was, I had long assumed, the one that had gotten away.  Long acknowledged as a classic of the genre, the fear was that the gargantuan Disney corporation would have no real interest in preserving or showcasing the work of Floyd Gottfredson over and above that of the Disney brand.  I had about given up hope when Fantagraphics (publishers of the Complete Peanuts and many other fine archival comics projects) announced at the 2010 Comic Con International in San Diego, that they would indeed be reprinting Gottfredson's work in its entirety.  The first volume in this ambitious project has been released, with a second volume due in a couple of months.  It should go without saying that Fantagraphics has done their usual stellar job in regards to editorial presentation (by Disney expert David Gerstein and Fantagraphics founder and publisher Gary Groth) and design (by Jacob Covey).

In addition to over two and a half year's worth of the strip, the book contains an impressive amount of introductory material and contextual essays, covering such topics as the origins of the strip (from which the information in the opening paragraph of this review was cribbed) to spotlights on characters and other cartoonists who contributed to the strip during Gottfredson's run.  While Gottfredson was the primary ghost artist and chief architect of Mickey's comic strip adventures, many other artists were employed from time to time in the strip's production, and the editors go to great lengths to give everyone their due, regardless of how relatively minor their contribution.  There are other neat bonus features, such as cover images from foreign editions collecting storylines from the strip.

As for the comics themselves, they entertain on a couple of levels.  First, it should be of interest to comics fans as one of the Great Comic Strips Of All Time.  While I would not place Gottfredson in the very top tier of strip cartoonists alongside artists like George Herriman, E.C. Segar, and Charles Schulz, he is undoubtedly a highly talented and imaginative cartoonist, whose primary strengths lie in story construction and the sheer manic, exuberant energy with which he brings those stories and characters to life.  I would stop short of calling the artwork beautiful, but it is a lot of fun to look at, with rubber-limbed characters flailing across the pages in inky black and white, huge sweat droplets constantly flying from their brows.  The comic strip should also be of great interest to Disney aficionados, as it represents one of the earliest transitions of the animated characters into another medium, and indeed was initially written by Walt Disney himself.  The Mickey who appears in these pages is markedly different from the cutesy cartoon character modern audiences are familiar with.  He is more of a scrapper, and it may surprise some that Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse takes the form of an adventure strip, a popular genre at the time.  There are some decidedly un-P.C. elements here, as well.  In one story, Mickey carries a gun, and there is even a brief storyline where Mickey is thwarted in his various attempts to commit suicide!  It is admirable that Disney has allowed this version of Mickey Mouse to once again see the light of day, in the interests of preserving Gottfredson's work in its original, unedited form.

Shortly after the Mickey Mouse comic strip announcement was made, Fantagraphics announced that they would also be reprinting another Disney comic, the complete Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks.  If they do half as good a job with those books as they've done with Mickey Mouse, it is going to be a very good year for comics fans and Disney fans alike.


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