The Dark Horse Gremlins Revivalby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Many Disney fans consider Walt Disney’s project about the gremlins that bedeviled Royal Air Force fighter pilots and their planes during World War II to be cursed.
R.A.F. Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl, later famous for such children’s books as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, among many others, wrote his first book after he had been wounded in combat. It told the story of how the gremlins harassed the pilots but how they also helped one wounded pilot, who resembled Dahl, get back into the air.
Walt Disney saw the manuscript before it was published and purchased the rights to develop it into an animated feature film. For several reasons, including cost and time (basically the fear that the war would be over before the film could be made and released), the project was then going to be a live-action feature with some animation, like Song of the South.
Competing animation studios had shorts in development about gremlins, and Warner Brothers even released two of them: Russian Rhapsody (originally titled Gremlins from the Kremlin) and Falling Hare (originally titled Bugs Bunny and the Gremlin). So, the Disney Studios decided to do a series of animated shorts instead as both the time to do a feature and interest in gremlins were quickly running out.
Then, Walt became concerned that, unlike leprechauns, gremlins were not believed to be real even by pilots who thought of them as just a joke. He felt that if the pilots themselves didn’t believe in them, then it would be difficult to get an audience to buy-in to the idea.
Eventually, the entire project was dropped, even though merchandise like a jigsaw puzzle and a hand puppet was produced, as well as a book written by Dahl with illustrations by Disney legends Bill Justice and Al Dempster, to establish copyrights and trademarks.
Disney executives tried to revive the characters during the era of the Disney Afternoon syndicated block of programming as a series, but were informed that there would be confusion in the marketplace because of Joe Dante’s feature film Gremlins (1984).
However, the fascination with this “never made” Disney project never died over the decades which resulted in a short lived revival in 2006-2008.
Dark Horse Comics was founded in 1986 by publisher Mike Richardson. While the company has many popular original titles, it also found great success in producing comics with licensed properties including Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien and Predator.
The company expanded in 1992 to include the production of television shows and films like The Mask (1994), Hellboy (2004) and Sin City (2005). In 1998, Dark Horse launched a branch of the company to create toys, apparel, model kits, and other merchandise.
In 2006, Dark Horse saw the opportunity to revive the long-dormant Disney’s gremlins. The game plan was to produce new comic books and merchandise and hopefully jump start a new franchise.
Dark Horse president, founder and publisher Mike Richardson first heard about the Disney gremlins from film historian Leonard Maltin’s commentary on the DVD Walt Disney Treasures set On the Front Lines, dealing with the Disney Studio animation work during World War II.
He was intrigued by the concept of Dahl and Disney working together, that Dahl’s first book had never been reprinted and by the appealing designs of the characters.
After purchasing a copy of the original 1943 storybook, he had Anita Nelson, Dark Horse’s vice president of licensing, contact the Disney Company about licensing the characters.
However, the people they contacted at Disney had no idea at all that they owned the characters or the rights to the original Dahl book.
Dark Horse had to convince Disney to re-check their files again more thoroughly. Everyone finally agreed that Disney did indeed own the property and could license it to Dark Horse. The next hurdle came down to figuring out how the project should be approached.
“We have a great relationship with Disney,” Richardson said. “Generally, this particular project was similar to others in that Disney took great care in the approval process to make sure that the characters and plot were consistent with company guidelines. Specifically, however, they wanted the property moved away from the military element present in Dahl’s original book. The trick was to try to keep the basic story and character continuity alive and at the same time invent a new environment and purpose for the Gremlins.”
David Scroggy, who was the vice president of product development for Dark Horse at the time, stated:
“The Disney gremlins have a timeless quality, and getting a chance to recreate their world is an honor. They have a heritage and a history that you don’t find very often,” he said. “The modern interpretation of gremlins is quite a bit different from the illustrations by Disney animation artist Bill Justice, but the concept of them has been with our culture for over half a century.”
“Dark Horse is great at seeing opportunities in properties, new and old, that have been overlooked. We knew this was another one of those situations. The Gremlins is a great story with a lot of potential,” Scroggy said. “Disney’s George McClements was our primary contact for approval on the Gremlins merchandise project, and Tonya Agurto steered the publishing deal.”
On September 26, 2006, Dark Horse released a reprint of the original 1943 book at the affordable price of $12.95, that is still available for purchase.
Even battered copies of the rare first edition were selling at the time regularly for hundreds of dollars, and sometimes up to $1,000 or more, so this reprint was a much-welcomed edition for Disney fans. One of the reasons for the high price was that only 5,000 copies of the book, including the U.K. and Australian editions, were printed due to paper shortages worldwide.
Unfortunately, like many reprints of classic books, like the Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1984), the original layout material no longer existed, so a copy of the actual book had to be photographed in order to be duplicated and then digitally restored for the reprint edition.
In the case of The Gremlins, this resulted in the bright colors of the original color illustrations being somewhat muted in the reprint. The image of Gremlin Gus on the joystick in the original show the instrument dials as clearly legible which is not the case in the 2006 edition.
However, not many fans had copies of both editions for comparison and the reprint was still beautiful and included a four-page informative foreword by film historian Leonard Maltin providing interesting background material on Disney’s gremlins.
There were two editions of the book produced. One was for the general market and another was a special edition exclusive to the Army Air Force and Exchange Service, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the United States Air Force. The only difference between the two editions is that the latter had a commemorative round seal on the front cover and a book jacket with information about the anniversary.
At the same time, Dark Horse Deluxe created a line of toys to tie in with the book, the first time Disney gremlins toys had been made available in decades.
“The Dark Horse PVC sets, large vinyl figures and limited-edition figurines, are intended to represent the Gremlins doing what they do best: causing havoc,” said Scroggy in 2006. “Although they destroyed planes in the book, we made a point of picking poses that would make as much sense sitting on your desk as they would on the wing of a plane. Many of the poses were directly from the original Bill Justice book illustrations.”
Working side by side with Disney Consumer Products and Gentle Giant Studios, Dark Horse Deluxe released a two-pack of vinyl figures. Standing seven inches tall, "Gremlin Gus" and "Fifinella,” the main male and female characters from the book, were packaged in one set released January 24, 2007 with a retail price of $34.99.
“Gremlins don’t have a specific skin tone; they come in every color of the rainbow," he said. “Fifinellas are always the same—color them beautiful! You can pick any color you want and claim that it is correct, but we wanted to find colors that worked well with each other and gave them an animated feel. With the figures, we wanted to create as much subtlety in the paint as we could. The colors are simple, so we chose to mix matte and gloss paint. Most would overlook details like that, but those are the types of details that we take pride in.”
In addition, Dark Horse Deluxe released nine gremlins PVC figures in three sets on November 29, 2006 for $14.99 each set. Each character was approximately 3 inches tall and was joyously using various implements of destruction to saw, carve, hammer and perform other acts of mischief.
The Jamface Set had one gremlin in a green helmet with a pick axe raised above his head, one in a red helmet with a huge nail that is scratching an imprint, and one in an orange helmet using a hand drill.
The Rufus Set had two gremlins with purple and green helmets using a cross-cut saw. Another gremlin in an orange helmet was jauntily carrying two buckets of water that was sloshing out of the top.
The Gremlin Gus Set had a yellow helmeted gremlin riding on a jackhammer, a red helmeted Gremlin Gus covering both his ears with his hands and an expression of annoyance, and a blue helmeted gremlin with a hammer.
In addition, three special limited-edition Polyresin statuettes were produced retailing at $44.95 each: Gremlin with Pipe (featuring a 3 1/2-inch tall gremlin looking curiously into the bowl of a human’s unlit smoking pipe), Fifinella and Widgits (featuring Fifinella taking care of three Widgits, one of whom has started to float off the ground), and Gremlin with Postage Stamp (featuring a smiling gremlin taking a bite out of a replica of a 1939 Eiffel Tower postage stamp because, according to Dahl, gremlins liked to eat the glue on the back of stamps).
Two 11-to 12-inch-tall plush dolls of Gremlin Gus and Fifinella were also produced.
A three-issue comic book series was released in 2007 written by publisher Mike Richardson that took place in the modern world rather than World War II.
“Once we learned that Disney wanted Gremlins updated, I pulled rank and decided to write the series myself,” said Richardson. “I tried to make the project feel like a classic Disney story, complete with love interest and a well defined, if two-dimensional, villain. The story itself fell into place pretty easily. I looked at the promise Gus made in the original book (for the gremlins to stay in his house near a forest) and went from there.”
“I’m a longtime fan of all things Walt Disney and at the same time well aware of Roald Dahl’s children's books,” he said. “The idea that the two men had actually hung out and even collaborated on this project intrigued me more than I can say. The bottom line is that once the opportunity presented itself, it was mine.”
The plot summary released by Dark Horse Comics when the first issue was published was the following:
“Our story opens on Gus, a man visiting England from the States. His grandfather’s house is part of his inheritance, and he plans to sell it as soon as he can.
“Even though the locals think the house is haunted—something Gus immediately dismisses—a slick man named Mr. Snide promptly appears with his ‘associates’ and makes an offer.
“But when Gus declines to sign over the house right then and there, Snide reveals that his arrangement with the mayor will seal the deal soon enough!
“Left to explore the place, Gus experiences a series of very odd events. How did his folded clothes end up in knots? Who on earth would drill a hole in a coffee cup? Certainly not ghosts, but for a former fighter pilot’s abandoned old home, it sure is clean...
“When the house's tiny residents decide to take extreme measures, Gus will meet the gremlins up close and personal-just like his grandfather, who first discovered them 60 years ago!”
The artist for the series was cartoonist and animator Dean Yeagle, perhaps best known for his playful young woman character, Mandy, who appeared in the pages of Playboy magazine.
However, once again the curse struck and Yeagle was unable to finish the series and so Fabio Laguna, an artist for Dreamworks Consumer Products was brought in to finish the final issue.
Jake Friedman interviewed artist Dean Yeagle in 2007.
Yeagle stated that it was originally Richardson’s idea to revive the Disney gremlins. To tempt Yeagle, they sent him the storyboards that were prepared by Disney for the original never-made film.
“They’re great little designs and very pleasant to draw,” Yeagle said. “The comic book that I’m working on is a sequel to the original. When Dark Horse wanted to put out a new printing of the old book Disney said, ‘OK, but we want to also put out a three-issue comic book showing what happened to them afterward, in today’s age’.
“It was written by Mike Richardson and I’m doing the first two issues out of the three. I was going to do the whole thing, but time and moving and other work got in the way, and I’ve only been able to do the first two, although I did all the covers. There are new human characters, which are all my designs, but the gremlins are all the same ones from the book. They live a long time.
“Well they’re not working on planes anymore. In the original story the air force came in and built aircraft factories in their woods. So they were so angry they started wrecking the airplanes. And the lead flyer came to an agreement with them to stop wrecking the airplanes, and let them live in the big house that he had, which is where they’re living now.
“In our story, they find out that their house might be sold, and they begin to wreak havoc again, on the more villainous characters. So they’re still up to their old tricks, but they don’t do them to planes; they do them to houses, cars and things.
“Disney was pretty hands-off, except I was approved by Disney to do this. I am in their database as an approved Disney artist, which was actually news to me, but Dark Horse found that out. And I have a reasonably free hand with what I can do.”
Return of the Gremlins No. 1 (March 2008)
A 20-page story written by Mike Richardson and drawn by Dean Yeagle. Young Gus, an American tire salesman, shows up to sell his late grandfather’s house that is supposedly haunted. Mr. Snide seems overly eager to purchase the property that also includes forest acreage. Gus discovers that the strange noises and odd activities in the house are the result of gremlins. Also included is a reprint of a six-page comic book retelling of Dahl’s original story from the Dell comic book, War Heroes April-June 1943.
Return of the Gremlins No. 2 (April 2008)
In another 20-page story written by Richardson and drawn by Yeagle, the gremlins mistakenly think that Young Gus has come to save the house and the forest land that was promised to them by his grandfather. Young Gus meets Mister Bolton, a friend of his grandfather, who knows about the gremlins.
Bolton has an attractive redheaded daughter named Molly, a local librarian around the same age as Young Gus who has also helped take care of the gremlins for years along with her father.
The local mayor shows up claiming that the property has unpaid back taxes and fees and that the city has exercised its rights of eminent domain to seize the property. Mr. Snide eagerly mounts a bulldozer to level the property to the ground immediately.
In addition, there are three two-page wordless gremlin stories written and drawn by legendary cartoonist Walt Kelly, reprinted from three different 1944 issues of the Dell comic book Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories (No. 38, No. 40, and No. 41)
Return of the Gremlins No. 3 (May 2008)
In this 20-page story written by Richardson and drawn by new artist Fabio Laguna, Young Gus is arrested and taken to jail as he attempts to stop his grandfather’s house from being bulldozed to the ground. The gremlins follow him and break him out of jail.
Back at the property, the gremlins steal the bulldozer and, pretending to be ghosts, scatter people away.
Young Gus returns to City Hall begging to be locked up to save him from the ghosts that Mr. Snide has stirred up with his bulldozers. The rest of the citizenry, after seeing odd things in town, quickly agree that the property should be left alone.
Mr. Snide, who has claimed all along not to believe in ghosts but desperately wants the property for a development deal, returns to the house where he is confronted by the gremlins in person and is scared away. Young Gus decides to stay and get better acquainted with the gremlins and with Molly.
Additional material includes a two-page comic book tale of the gremlins drawn by Vive Rito and reprinted from Walt Disney Comics and Stories No. 34 (1943) and two more two-page Walt Kelly wordless gremlin stories from WDCS No. 37 and No. 39. There is also a reprint of the cover of WDCS Vol. 3, No. 10 ( No. 34 July 1943) of Walt Kelly’s illustration of Donald Duck in a red airplane and wielding a fly swatter, to battle the mischief of six gremlins.
A book signing of the comics was held at the Disney Soda Fountain on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California on March 19, 2008. Yeagle and Richardson were in attendance along with Leonard Maltin, who wrote the introduction for the reprint hardcover and had just released a new book, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy.
A hardcover collection of the comic books with additional material is scheduled to be published by Dark Horse in March 2015.
“I love all of the items we’ve created including both the books and toys. It’s really been a fun project to bring these characters back. My office at home has Gremlins running around all over the furniture. It’s really been interesting to find out how many people didn't realize where the gremlins came from and the connection between Disney and Dahl. When people see and ask about them, I love telling the whole story,” Richardson said.
Lack of a movie or television tie-in, general awareness, and a paucity of reasonably priced collectibles once again sealed the fate of the tiny creatures despite the renowned reputation for quality from Dark Horse.
To learn more about the original Disney gremlins, I would recommend you pick up a copy of the book Service with Character: The Disney Studios and World War II by David Lesjak that contains an entire chapter devoted to the subject.