Fantagraphics has begun reprinting the classic Mickey Mouse comic strip from the 1930s by legendary artist Floyd Gottfredson produced in full cooperation with the Disney Company. The first volume is out and includes not just the first two years of the daily strip, but an additional 80 pages of supplementary material edited by the often under-appreciated David Gerstein, whose devotion to Disney history has enriched us all over the years.
As excited as I am that this material is finally seeing print in a professional and scholarly series of volumes, this is not the first time somebody thought it was a great idea to reprint these strips that truly reflect the spirit of Walt’s original mouse.
In 1989, the Mailbu Graphics group (Scott Rosenberg, Dave Olbrich, Tom Mason, Chris Ulm) was publishing the Eternity Comics line of independent black-and-white comic books.
Some of these comic books featured original material like Men in Black (which later inspired the popular movie). Other comic books in their line featured reprints of classic comic strips (like the Shadow, Buck Rogers, Polly and Her Pals, etc.). Eternity Comics were able to reprint many of these classic comic strips thanks to the collections in Bill Blackbeard’s San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. Supposedly, Blackbeard's research into the current copyright status of many of these strips revealed that the copyright on some of the earliest Mickey Mouse comic strips had not been maintained.
So Malibu Graphics through its Eternity Comics line decided to reprint the earliest Mickey Mouse comic strips under the title The Uncensored Mouse. However, well aware that, in the late 1980s, the Disney legal department generated three lawsuits a day against suspected copyright violators (which the Disney Company proudly trumpeted in a then current newspaper article), Malibu Graphics decided to put in as many safeguards as possible to avoid legal action.
Each issue would have a totally black cover and nowhere on the cover or the backcover would there be a mention of "Mickey Mouse." There would be references to "a classic collection of Uncensored Floyd Gottfredson Comic Strips From the 1930s." Inside the comic book, there would be the notice that "Mickey Mouse is a registered trademark of Walt Disney Productions" to demonstrate that they were not trying to challenge that fact. In addition, each issue would be bagged and sealed so that a casual buyer or child couldn't flip through the comic book and mistake it for an official Disney comic book.
The Uncensored Mouse was to be published twice a month, beginning with the April 1989 issue, and there were hopes that, eventually, all the Mickey Mouse comic strips, up to the mid-1930s, would be reprinted. The first issue featured the very first Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 13, 1930 (written by Walt Disney himself and drawn by Ub Iwerks), up to the March 5, 1930 installment.
The second issue reprinted the installments from March 6, 1930, to April 26, 1930. The third issue, which was prepared and ready to go to press but never printed, featured the strips from April 28, 1930, to June 18, 1930. Originally, each of two issues of The Uncensored Mouse that were published cost $2.50.
Bill Blackbeard wrote a wonderful introduction for the first issue titled "How Walt Disney Gave A Mickey to America-and Floyd Gottfredson Gave Us A Classic Mouse." The second and never-printed third issue both had introductions by yours truly. For Malibu Graphics, I wrote more than 100 historical introductions to their various collections of reprints of comic strips and old comic books. While I enjoyed researching and writing all of those introductions, I was especially excited to write the introductions for The Uncensored Mouse because, not only was I a big Disney fan, but I had a great affection for Walt's original mouse.
In fact, the third issue would have been a great deal of fun as it recounted the story of Minnie Mouse inheriting Old Mortimer's mansion. Pegleg Pete and the Old Shyster tried to get her to sign away ownership so they could find Mortimer's map to a secret gold mine in Death Valley.
"I'll never forgive Pegleg Pete for chaining me to this weight-I hope he breaks out with hives and scratches himself to death!!!" proclaims Mickey Mouse as he tries to rescue Minnie while locked to a ball and chain. Finally, he stumbles into a room filled with cheese and declares: "My gosh!! What cheese—if I only had a bottle of beer!!!"
Mickey was definitely not the squeaky clean corporate icon familiar to audiences today.
The reason the third issue never saw print was that no sooner did the first two issues appear at comic book shops than Disney filed a lawsuit claiming infringement of their character. At no time did Disney dispute that the original strips might have fallen into public domain, just as other Disney treasures had, such as the Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Mad Doctor, but also at no time did Disney confirm that the strips might have fallen into public domain.
Of course, due to the nature of the lawsuit, the Malibu Graphics group could not comment and Disney just offered a written statement to news organizations. So, Entertainment Tonight had to find an articulate, charming representative to comment on the situation. Failing to find such a person, they were somehow directed to me.
I appeared on ET on April 20, 1989. They didn't even send down my good friend, Leonard Maltin, to interview me and who probably could have commented on the whole situation quite insightfully. (Fans of old movies and Leonard Maltin should check out his website and should subscribe to his newsletter which is always a joy to receive in my mailbox.) Nope, ET sent down their film crew who hauled their equipment up a narrow stairway to my second floor apartment.
My living room was filled with Mickey Mouse items from posters to banks to toothbrushes to PVC figures and more. I even wore my red Mickey Mouse suspenders, which I figured were not enough to invalidate my credibility but enough to give me a sense of fun.
The crew spent close to an hour in my apartment, filming every nook and cranny that had Disney items, and I brilliantly defended the Malibu Graphics group, gave a lengthy history of the Mickey Mouse strip, and an eloquent plea of why this material should be available for collectors. So, naturally, ET only used a sound bite that I just tossed off casually after the official interview was finished.
That night, Mary Hart introduced the piece showing a young man at a comic book shop recoiling after opening a copy of The Uncensored Mouse and intoned: "Some collectors say the Mickey of the 1930s was simply a product of his time."
That was the cue for a quick shot of me with the logo: "Jim Korkis. Comic Historian" as I stated: "Of course, the strips of the 1930s were much more bawdy anyway with ethnic stereotypes and very slapstick violence. And when Walt decided to come up with a comic strip he followed those examples."
As I sat in front of the television set videotaping my moment of glory with my family, my first thought was "What was THAT?" Where was that hour of footage of thoughtful, well-phrased comments? What happened to all those comments that the film crew said were terrific? Why did the guy running the comic book shop get two quick shots and comments and I only got one?
In the long run, it didn't matter what I said or didn't say. Behind closed doors, Malibu Graphics and Disney reached a settlement before the issue went to court. Basically, it was quite clear that the Disney Company had enough money, enough time and enough lawyer-power to drag this suit through the courts forever and eventually drain the emotional and financial resources of Malibu Graphics. It had nothing to do with whether Malibu Graphics had indeed been within their legal rights to publish as they did.
Of course, as part of the settlement, the folks at Malibu Graphics could not talk about the terms of the settlement and, despite my personal friendship with them and my professional connection working on the comics, they have never to this day told me what happened behind closed doors. As part of the settlement, Eternity destroyed their stock of the issues but there were plenty that were distributed to comic book stores and are easily available on eBay today at a fairly reasonable price.
Eternity Comics kept on publishing … everything except The Uncensored Mouse … and was eventually purchased by Marvel Comics, which was recently purchased by the Disney Company. It’s that circle of life thing.
Later, the Disney Company published colorized versions of some of the early Mickey Mouse comic strips in Disney Adventures magazine. Some might remember the court ruling at the time on public domain black and white films. If you colorize a public domain film, you can legally copyright the colorized version.
Since the material in the introductions I wrote are still valid, I thought readers might still enjoy seeing them and it might encourage someone to purchase the new Fantagraphics series.
It has been estimated that, on an average day in the United States alone, more than 5 million items in the shape of Mickey Mouse or with Mickey's smiling face on them are sold to eager Mouseketeers.
However, more than a decade ago, the Mouse had fallen on hard times. His name was used as a term of derision to indicate poorly made merchandise or sappy ideas. Mickey had become an establishment figure who was an all-too easy target for underground cartoonists, who parodied Mickey's bland conformity and used it as a prime example of everything that was wrong with America.
It was thanks to the efforts of writers like John Fawcett and Malcolm Willits in the early 1970s that people were reminded that, once upon a time, there had been a more a vital, more mischievous mouse who earned not only the affection of the world, but accolades from the harshest critics of the time.
Cole Porter was sincere when he wrote a popular song that proudly proclaimed: "You're the Top.… You're Mickey Mouse!" The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was very serious when it presented a special Oscar to Walt Disney in November 1932 to honor him specifically for the creation of Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney was a hardworking country boy with a love for rural humor. The early Mickey, being a reflection of his creator, was just as much a good-natured hayseed as Walt and had the same inclination toward barnyard jokes. More importantly, Mickey also shared the same drive and curiosity that had made Walt so successful. (Later, as Walt tried to fit in with the sophisticated Hollywood crowd, he brought Mickey along with him, eventually transforming the scrappy rodent into a well-dressed 4-foot human with tail neatly hidden in adult trousers.)
The early Mickey Mouse animated cartoons were similar to the other cartoons of the period where characters had rubber hoses for arms and legs, and ethnic humor and physical violence were considered the epitome of amusement. Mickey solved his problems with a mixture of common sense, luck and physical effort.
By the start of 1930, Mickey had already appeared in 15 animated adventures (with nine more scheduled for that year). Inspired by that popularity, January 13, 1930, saw the introduction of the Mickey Mouse comic strip from King Features. Those early strips were written by Walt himself up until May 17, 1930.
Most papers headed the strip as "Mickey Mouse by Iwerks" with Walt Disney's famous signature not appearing until March 11, 1930. Ub Iwerks had quite literally drawn the first few Mickey Mouse animated cartoons by himself and was the natural choice to transfer Mickey's antics to the newspaper page. After the 18th strip, Iwerks left and his inker, Win Smith, continued drawing the gag-a-day format until he was replaced on May 5, 1930, by Floyd Gottfredson, who would end up drawing the strips for several decades and was responsible for a series of continuity stories that have rarely been surpassed.
During those first two months of the strip, Mickey's airplane activity echoed his similar experiences in Plane Crazy (1928). Mickey becoming a castaway fighting off wild animals and cannibals in the strip helped inspire the 1931 animated cartoon, The Castaway. (In 1935, Mickey again faced cannibal problems in Mickey's Man Friday, which would later inspire a comic strip version, Mickey Mouse Robinson Crusoe.)
Just as in the animated cartoons, the strips featured the slapstick violence popular during that time period. Mickey got into actual fistfights as he faced bandits, pirates, crooks, mad scientists and a host of other menaces. Unfortunately, such pluckiness was not in keeping with his official corporate image, which demanded an inoffensiveness of character in order to help sell those 5 million lunch pails, pencils, toys, blankets and other assorted merchandise each day.
Yet, in the February 16, 1931, issue of TIME magazine, the editors were encouraged to state that "Great lover, scholar, soldier, sailor, singer, toreador, tycoon, jockey, prizefighter, automobile racer, aviator, farmer. Mickey Mouse lives in a world in which space, time, and the law of physics are nil. He can reach inside of a bull's mouth, pull out his teeth and use them as castanets. He can lead a band or play violin solos; his ingenuity is limitless; he never fails."
Sadly, that early raucous Mickey could only be found in the yellowing pages of disintegrating old newspapers. Today, thanks to the efforts of Eternity, people can once again sample some of those outrageous, previously censored moments that made a world fall in love with Mickey Mouse, the real Mickey Mouse.
This issue of The Uncensored Mouse features the first artwork and the first writing of Floyd Gottfredson, who was to become one of the most influential artists to ever be associated with Mickey Mouse.
Gottfredson was about 24 when he left his home in Utah and brought his wife and two children to Los Angeles in the hopes that he could become a cartoonist for one of the seven major newspapers then in the Hollywood-Los Angeles area. Gottfredson had been trained in cartooning through a correspondence course from The Federal Schools of Illustrating and Cartooning (now more commonly known as Art Instruction Schools, Inc.)
Arriving in Los Angeles and finding no cartooning work, he overheard that Walt Disney was looking for artists. He took his samples to the studio and was immediately hired as an animation inbetweener and possible backup artist for the Mickey Mouse daily strip. At that time, Disney had already put in about six months of preparatory work on the strip which was to be officially launched about 23 days after Gottfredson had been hired.
The strip began on January 13, 1930 and was a gag-a-day type until April 1, 1930. On that date, it went into story continuities at the request of King Features. The trend at that time was for all strips, comic and illustrative, to do continuities, following the example of Sidney Smith's big hit with The Gumps.
By this time, Ub Iwerks had quit drawing the strip and his inker, Win Smith, was reluctantly both penciling and inking the strip. In an interview in 1978 for an Italian magazine, Gottfredson remembered that time: "Walt had continued to write the strip, including the first seven weeks of the first continuity. He had been trying to get Win Smith to do the writing as well as the drawing but, for some reason, he didn't want to. This was one of the reasons for Smith's leaving the studio. I took over the drawing with the May 5, 1930 episode and I took over the writing with the May 19, 1930 release. I wrote the daily until late 1932. After that time, the continuities were written by five different writers: Webb Smith, Ted Osborne, Merrill de Maris, Dick Shaw and Bill Walsh."
Interestingly, Gottfredson did not want the job. Working as an inbetweener, he had become very interested in animation and wished to stay with it. Disney promised Gottfredson that he would only have to work on the strip for two weeks while Disney found another artist. Gottfredson ended up working on the strip for more than 45 years.
"Walt checked my work the first couple of months after I took over the strip but after that and all through the years, except to pass on an occasional suggestion, he very seldom concerned himself with the strip or the department. He seemed to be relieved not to have to be concerned with them-he had bigger things to worry about," Gottfredson said.
Gottfredson plotted all the Mickey Mouse daily continuities from May 19,1930 to June 1943, and while other writers were involved starting in 1932, Gottfredson edited all the writing until 1946. He would have "lively bull sessions on the up-coming week's work" with the writers. Besides penciling, Gottfredson also inked the Mickey Mouse strip from May 5, 1930 until late 1932. Adding to his workload was the addition of a Mickey Mouse Sunday strip which he also penciled from January 10, 1932 until mid-1938.
Despite his artistic skill and dedication, Gottfredson never held his early work in high esteem. In a 1967 interview, Gottfredson remarked "In the 1930s, Mickey's figure construction-wise was crude, anatomically bad, bumpy, stodgy. There was no flow in composition; the design wasn't there. For me, I shudder to look at the work I did during that period. I just don't like to look back on any of my work done more than six months ago. In fact, I wouldn't ever want to see it reprinted. I think it's aged too much."
Gottfredson was not to get his wish. By the time of his death in 1986, some of his early work had been extensively reprinted in books and magazines and had captured the affection and imagination of a whole new generation of Disney fans unfamiliar with an adventuresome Mickey Mouse.
Yet with all the recent attention that Gottfredson's work has attracted, this issue of Uncensored Mouse will be the first time that the majority of Gottfredson's fans will be able to see those first, few tentative attempts at presenting Mickey Mouse that would serve as a foundation for a legendary achievement in the world of comic art.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.