Talking Mickey: Floyd Norman - Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, in Part One, Floyd Norman gave some of his impressions about Mickey Mouse and how he started writing the Mickey Mouse comic strip. In today's column we continue talking with him about his work on the comic strip and all things Mickey.

Floyd's book chronicling his career is titled Animated Life: A lifetime of tips, tricks, techniques and stories from an Animation Legend (Focal Press 2012) and he was the subject of the documentary Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. A collection of his cartoons Son of Faster Cheaper (Theme Park Press 2015) that includes his time at Disney is also available.

He also illustrated composer Richard Sherman's book A Kiss Goodnight (Disney Editions 2017)

Floyd Norman worked on several projects for the Disney Studios, including the Mickey film: The Three Musketeers.

Jim Korkis: You worked on the Mickey Mouse comic strip starting in 1983 for about a decade. What method did you use to write the strip?

Floyd Norman: My personal scripting process and the one that I am always most comfortable using creating a story is thumbnails. These are small, rough sketches that detail the continuity. It's a great way to work out ideas and it allows me to quickly build a narrative. As my old pal and colleague Bob Foster would say, "drawing is writing."

I liked working this way because I could move through my story and layouts quickly. Eventually I moved to larger sketches and the drawings became more refined. Seeing the story played out visually was also an asset. Words on paper really don't do it for me. I need to see visuals as well. I suppose it's the influence film has had on me.

JK: You wrote the strip but Roman Arambula drew it.

FN: I knew Roman having already worked with him at Hanna-Barbera on Saturday Morning Cartoons. Our collaboration on the Mickey Mouse comic strip was a perfect marriage and we got along famously. Naturally, I did thumbnails while writing Mickey, and Roman followed my thumbnails. If he had not, I doubt I would have cared. I trusted Roman to complete the strips in a way that would do the job and please our bosses.

JK: I remember you telling me about a famous "lost" Mickey Mouse comic strip continuity that you did.

FN: I guess someone liked my idea of continuities, so I was given the opportunity to write a nine-week continuity that would take Mickey and his friends on an adventure in Europe. I eagerly embraced the new assignment and set about crafting a new Mickey story, much like those I had read as a kid.

However, I still lacked confidence as a storyteller, yet I wanted this story to be special. I remember spending a whole weekend worrying about a compelling storyline. A storyline I hoped would please my bosses. Looking back, I can't help but think how foolish I was.

Usually Mickey would be joined by his old pal, Goofy. This time around I decided to shake things up a bit by adding two additional Disney characters, well-known but seldom-seen. Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar would join the cast in a story that hopefully provides both mystery and intrigue.

The story I labored on for weeks was never published or read by anyone. Disney's Publishing Group was moving through a difficult transition at the time, and my little Mickey Mouse story was the least of their concerns. The story was penciled, inked and lettered but that was the end of it.

Who knows? Perhaps some day it might even be re-discovered and published.

JK: When you were in the Disney Publishing Group, didn't you have a different idea of how to update the strip?

FN: The Disney Publishing Group consisted of Disney Press, Hyperion Books, and Disney Comics. I came up with an idea to reintroduce the Mouse as a retired animated movie actor who returns to Disney and the new Hollywood.

I saw an incredible opportunity to involve Mickey Mouse with the new Hollywood players that would include filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Mickey and Goofy had rented a home in the hills of Hollywood and their experience in present day Tinsel Town was rich with opportunity for humor. Sadly, this Mickey reboot failed to gain traction.

JK: But you were able to bring back the classic Mickey in some books at the time, right?

FN: Somehow we managed to create a new series of Mickey Mouse books that took the Mouse on exciting adventures in the sky, under the sea and even in the Old West as a rootin' tootin' cowboy named the "Cactus Kid." Mickey even returned as a detective as he searched for the infamous Phantom Blot. Lee Nordling and I penned the stories for the Disney Publishing Group and we had a great time. I honestly admit it was great writing Mickey Mouse again. At least this version of Mickey in any case. The exciting Mickey Mouse I had grown up with as a kid.

JK: In a way, isn't Mickey also responsible in a way of you finding your wife?

FN: That's an interesting story. Up to 1993 nothing much had changed in the rather complicated method of publishing books. However, with the introduction of new technology, all these things would begin to change. We had finally been given computers, and these marvelous machines along with the amazing software installed would introduce us to a whole new world.

Since this was the Walt Disney Company it was only appropriate that Mickey Mouse should lead the way. That's correct. The first series of books we created on the computer was a series of Mickey Mouse stories, many of them repurposed and recreated from the vintage artwork of Disney's comic book artists.

This project included books like the two 1994 Golden Look-Look paperbacks for children in the Perils of Mickey series: The Mail Pilot and The Seven Ghosts.

Floyd Norman has a fondness for Mickey, including creating this sketch of Mickey and Santa.

However, this art would be redesigned and reimagined by the Disney artists and designers. It was truly a meeting of the past and the future. Vintage Mickey drawings suddenly fused with the new digital technology. As we began work on our new Mickey series, our editors typed their manuscript on Macintosh computers. Those digital files were handed off to our book designers and illustrators who were also working on Macintosh towers to create the book pages.

For the first time in Disney's publishing history no paper, pen, ink or pencils would touch the page. The entire process from start to finish would be digital. That meant every page would be created in the computer. We had truly entered a brave new world and Disney publishing would never be the same.

I might add that most of us were initially not that computer savvy and made more than our share of dumb mistakes. Luckily, our art director had found a knowledgeable young woman to come in and help us as we struggled through the creation of our first digital book series. Many of the beautiful illustrations in the books are hers, but more importantly, she guided us through a good deal of the process and proved to be such an asset to the department we begged her to stay.

However, it gets better than that as you know. You see, I eventually married her and we still work together today. Adrienne was our computer expert and guided us guys through the process.

JK: You've worked on the comic strip, children's books, some of the short-lived Disney Comics line and even some merchandise…

FN: On occasion, I did work on Mickey merchandise, but those occasions were rare.

JK: Do you regret never working on a Mickey animated cartoon?

FN: I regret not working on a lot of things. However, I understand how things work at present day Disney so I don't think about it too much

However, some years ago, I did some work on a direct-to-video Mickey feature entitled, Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004). I begged Disney film chairman, Dick Cook to release the movie as a theatrical feature film. I felt audiences would love it. However, CEO, Michael Eisner would have none of it. This was an incredible missed opportunity for the Disney Company. I couldn't help feel the Disney CEO had an agenda and didn't want Mickey Mouse to be a success.

Eisner had proposed this interesting question. "Would it be possible to produce an animated feature that would cost less than a hundred million dollars?" At the time the current crop of Disney films in production were going through the roof in terms of cost. The veterans in the group, like myself, said, "Of course it would be possible".

Michael Eisner never got his "budget feature" from animation, but his direct-to-video units began cranking out sequels and prequels to the existing Disney library. Of course they were doing it all on a shoestring when compared to what the big-ticket features were costing.

Some years later, I made my way to the second floor of the building where I was suddenly surprised to find a group of old friends and colleagues working away on a project that was so intriguing I knew I wouldn't be able to stay away. The film in progress was The Three Musketeers project starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. In an era of warmed-over sequels and prequels, this little movie was a breath of fresh air.

Before I go any further, let's zip back to the early 1980s when I made my unexpected return to the Disney studios as a writer in the comic strip department. I remember more than one project that featured the classic Disney characters taking on the roles of historic or literary characters. Usually these special stories were written for the comic book department. A couple of these ideas were moved over to animation where young Disney story tellers were busily adapting the stories for film.

These projects appeared to be the perfect vehicle for Mickey, Donald and Goofy. I can't remember every idea in development at the time but one was called Mickey Columbus where the Mouse would play the famous explorer and another was a retelling of the Dumas story of The Three Musketeers. These clever ideas, along with many others would be put on the back burner, or worse – completely forgotten.

JK: Let's get back to you working on The Three Musketeers video.

FN: Here we were in 2002, and that Mickey project that I never thought would see the light of day was finally in development. Better yet, the studio had assembled a crew worthy of such a project, a unique group of creatives with a full understanding of the Disney characters and how to use them.

They were knowledgeable concerning shorts of the 1940s, and 1950s. These guys in my opinion were the dream team of cartoon story and I had worked with most of them over the years. Chris Otsuki, Kirk Hanson, Bob Taylor, Daan Jippes, Ken Mitchroney, Don Dougherty and Bob McNight were busily crafting this Disney epic the old-fashioned way. They understood how the characters had evolved over time, and how they related to each other. I had little doubt this show would be great.

I continued to work in development on other projects in the Wells Building, but I couldn't stay away from the "Mickey" project. The youthful director, Donavan Cook, eventually got used to seeing me hanging around and soon I began sitting in on story pitches and watching over the shoulder as art direction and styling on the movie progressed.

I was so impressed that I knew this little film was deserving of more than a direct-to-video release. In many ways it reminded me of something that had happened back in 1997 when I began work on a direct-to-video sequel called Toy Story 2. This was another movie that many of us felt was worthy of a theatrical release. In time, both Disney and Pixar saw the same light and Toy Story 2 was slated for the big screen.

JK: So you really felt the film would have done well as a theatrical release?

FN: With The Three Musketeers, Disney finally had the perfect Mickey Mouse vehicle and a movie that was sure to play well in theaters. Adding to that, the upcoming celebration of the Mouse's 75th birthday was on the horizon. For a company that prides itself on synergy, things couldn't have been better. Think of the promotional opportunities a movie starring Disney's most famous characters would generate. There was no way the Disney Company was going to let this opportunity slip pass them – or so I thought.

The film was released on home video. The film did enjoy a wonderful, but brief, big-screen presentation at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Those who attended the screening confirmed my belief that the movie would indeed play well theatrically. The theater, packed to the hilt with rambunctious kids fell silent when the movie began. Clearly, this was a movie both parents and kids could enjoy together. The Three Musketeers was the family film many of us had been begging Disney to make for years.

On video, the movie probably made a truck load of cash for the Walt Disney Company. Having said that, I have to conclude it's a sin and a shame this wonderful little film was unceremoniously dumped onto the direct-to-video rack. I even emailed Disney film boss, Dick Cook (no relation to director, Donovan) to reconsider the decision to release the movie only to direct-to-video.

Dick Cook is a nice guy, but I knew even he had to answer to the big boss upstairs. Finally, in my opinion that's where the rationale for this whole thing becomes clear. Yes, I've heard the arguments why The Three Musketeers failed to gain a theatrical release and those reasons probably make a good deal of sense. Yet, I can't help wonder if projects such as "Doug," "Recess," and "Teacher's Pet" can score a big screen release, how hard would it be to give the big push to the most recognizable mouse in the world? Or, perhaps this is not really about shelf space or box office receipts after all. Could there be another agenda, you say? Or, maybe I'm just being paranoid.

JK: What is your impression of the new Mickey Mouse cartoon series on the Disney Channel?

FN: I celebrate what Paul [Rudish] has done with the new Mickey Mouse series and much of it is witty, clever and fits the edgy vibe of today's animated fare. Although I can understand why some people would find the design sensibility falling somewhat short of the traditional Disney aesthetic.

JK: What is your impression when you see a costumed Mickey at the Disney theme parks?

FN: The costumed character at Disneyland is Mickey Mouse. The drawings, paintings and digital images are all Mickey Mouse. Of course, Mickey Mouse is a character, but he's so much more. Mickey Mouse is an idea, an attitude and an emotion. However, the bottom line is, no matter what form he takes - Mickey Mouse is always real.

JK: How would you describe Mickey Mouse as a character?

FN: I would prefer to let Walt Disney describe Mickey. In a very real way, Mickey Mouse is Walt Disney. The scrappy little guy who maintains a positive attitude no matter how bad things get. Mickey Mouse is intrepid, resourceful and optimistic to a fault. The famous mouse continues to reflect the core values of Walt#39;s mission even though today's successful corporation often disappoints. Mickey Mouse is a continual reminder we can all be better than we are.

JK: Any final words about Mickey?

FN: I truly appreciate my long relationship with Walt Disney's famous mouse. A relationship that began when I was a child just learning to read. I shared many adventures with Mickey Mouse sitting in the backseat of my dad's car with a comic book. Little did I realize one day I would be working at the Walt Disney Studios creating my own adventures for our scrappy little hero. Who could have imagined such a thing? Thanks, Mickey!