The Perils of Mickey Mouse

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In 1993-1994 the Walt Disney Company launched an extensive branding campaign called "The Perils of Mickey" inspired by vintage Floyd Gottfredson comic strip art and stories from the 1930s.

The phrase, of course, was meant to reference "The Perils of Pauline", the iconic cliffhanging silent movie serial where the heroine is constantly menaced by a variety of villains and dangers but escaping at the last minute. Its formula inspired other similar films, television commercials, animated cartoons and much more.

The main iconic image for the series was Mickey Mouse swinging on a rope over a pit of hungry green alligators with their mouths wide open that certainly referenced a sense of impending peril.

In a 1979 interview, cartoonist Gottfredson told me about the comic strip sequence that originally ran in late 1932/early 1933 that inspired that striking image, "There was one sequence where Mickey grabs a pole and vaults over this alligator pit but as he is leaping, the pole breaks. King Features sent us a frantic telegram that they were going to cut out the entire sequence because the alligators would upset women and children reading the newspaper. I took the photostats to Walt and he just laughed. He thought it was a good adventure and was confident that we had a way of making the resolution of the peril humorous. So he contacted the syndicate and they left it in."

A flood of merchandise (most difficult to obtain today and sometimes even generally unknown to many collectors at the time) was unleashed in support of "The Perils of Mickey" marketing campaign in hopes of revitalizing Mickey Mouse as a vibrant heroic figure on his 65th birthday.

For instance, I have in my collection a 5-inch tall talking PVC Mickey Mouse Mail Pilot figure that many of my friends never saw offered for sale. He does the famous Mickey Mouse giggle and says "Gosh, this is swell!" Apparently, there was also a talking Minnie Mouse but I never saw that one although I have since seen it advertised for sale on eBay.

In addition, there was a sleeping bag, beach towels, colorforms, puzzles, coloring books, storybooks, rubber stamps, Viewmaster reels, puffy stickers, Tiger Electronics handheld LCD, limited edition Lionel train Hi-cube box cars, school back pack, lunch box, toys, bendable figures, key chain, water bottle, buttons, posters, clothing (like a varsity jacket) and much more.

Born May 5, 1905, cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2003 for his contributions for over four-and-a-half decades to the Mickey Mouse comic strip.

He started drawing the Mickey Mouse comic strip on May 5, 1930. His last Sunday strip was published on September 19, 1976, and his last daily strip published on November 15, 1976.

In 2011, Fantagraphics Publications began releasing a multi-volume prestige format book series with reprints of Gottfredson's classic Mickey Mouse comic strip from the beginning and including the iconic stories used for the Perils of Mickey campaign.

Edited by Mickey Mouse expert David Gerstein and publisher Gary Groth, the books contain not only the comic strips themselves but important and entertaining supplemental material.

When the first volume was released in 2011, Gerstein said: "Instead of seeing Mickey as a cheerful, but one-dimensional character – like a lot of people do – Gottfredson portrayed him as this stubbornly optimistic, determined, two-fisted young guy trying to prove himself in wild, adventurous situations. Floyd called Mickey 'a mouse against the world'. Mickey's brave, witty, imaginative and incredibly daring in Gottfredson's stories. He's a scrapper, ready to fight for what he believes in; but he's not always right about what he thinks is right, so he can create a mess for himself and have to do some great soul-searching afterwards."

Nabisco produced a 16-page Fun Book for Kids,

Gottfredson's stories broke away from Mickey's early rural antics and placed him in situations comparable to the other newspaper adventure comic strips of the same time period that were popular with readers like Terry and the Pirates, Captain Easy, Scorchy Smith, and so many others. Mickey got into actual fistfights as he faced bandits, pirates, crooks, mad scientists and a host of other menaces.

Gottfredson's work influenced many artists and defined the Disney character as a daring adventurer for a generation or more of fans. He once recalled: "I've always felt that it was our job to try to capture the spirit of animation… I tried to design the characters as if they were moving in animation but because we were doing adventure stories we had to go beyond (the stories in the animated shorts)."

The official press release for "The Perils of Mickey" in summer 1993 enthusiastically described what was hoped to be a major renaissance for the Walt Disney Company's corporate icon by going back to those glory days. It was hoped that the fall back-to-school season would result in large sales of the classic pie-eyed Mickey character that would continue through the holiday sales season at the end of the year. Disney Licensing teamed up with Nabisco to sponsor a live storytelling hour for children at up to 1,000 retail locations.

The press release stated:

"Inspired by classic Disney cartoons and comic adventures, Disney Consumer Products Licensing has launched The Perils of Mickey, a comprehensive marketing and merchandising program that captures the active, adventurous spirit of Mickey Mouse.

"The initial product line was inspired by three Mickey classics: The Mail Pilot, Blaggard Castle and The Phantom Blot. Seven Ghosts was added later.

"The Perils of Mickey is part of a Company-wide effort to revitalize Mickey Mouse as the heroic, brave and feisty character that he portrays in many of his films.

"Disney Licensing is offering a complete line of The Perils of Mickey themed merchandise, including children's and adult apparel, toys, home furnishings, gifts, stationery and sporting goods.

"The Perils of Mickey themed Fun Books for Kids have been designed by Disney Adventures magazine and produced by Disney Licensing and Nabisco. Three million Fun Books will be distributed free at 10,000 mass market locations featuring Perils comics, games, products and value-added offers.

"Buena Vista Home Video in conjunction with the Perils storytelling event special retail video product displays are being tied to the Perils theme.

"The Disney Store has developed a line of The Perils of Mickey merchandise for boys and adults. The Disney Store will also distribute 500,000 free Perils Fun Books to its young guests.

"Disney Publishing. The Perils of Mickey comic series will be featured in Mickey Mouse Magazine, Disney Adventures magazine and in syndicated newspapers nationwide.

"Disney Adventures and Nabisco are sponsoring 'The Perils of Mickey Thrill of Your Life Sweepstakes'. The sweepstakes will be featured in the September issue of Disney Adventures and in the Perils of Mickey Fun Books, offers entrants the chance to win an exciting river rafting trip and a visit to Colorado's historical Rock Creek Cowboy Ranch.

"Publishing has also developed two Perils-themed storybooks with Western Publishing.

"Walt Disney Records has developed two Perils mystery kits. The kits include a full-color hardcover picture book, an audio story cassette and a pocket sized clue decoder. Walt Disney Records has also developed a value added offer of a free Blaggard Castle story audio cassette tape.

"Disney Art Editions is creating seri-cels based on the Mickey adventures. The first offering is Mickey Mouse in The Mail Pilot.

"Targeted to boys and girls, 4 to 8 years old and adults."

The four original Gottfredson newspaper strip storylines that inspired the images were the following:

"Blaggard Castle" was a Gottfredson newspaper comic strip the appeared November 12, 1932 to February 10, 1933. Mickey receives an invitation from a mysterious source that is actually a trio of ape scientists (Professors Ecks, Doublex and Triplex) to visit their laboratory in Blaggard Castle to help perfect an amazing new invention.

Mickey and his friend Horace Horsecollar know the castle has been abandoned for a long time and with their curiosity sparked, decide to investigate. The scientists plan to test their new hypnotic device on the pair and use it to eventually control the world. The castle is filled with deadly traps and Mickey confronts hungry alligators in one of them but eventually turns the device on the mad scientists turning them "good".

Director Chris Bailey wanted to use Professor Ecks as the villain in his Mickey Mouse theatrical short Runaway Brain (1995). However, top executives at the company were lukewarm to that choice not being familiar with the Gottfredson story.

So the primate scientist was transformed into Dr. Frankenollie with the name being a tribute to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the famous Disney animation Nine Old Men who were still active at the time, as well as the infamous Dr. Frankenstein.

"The Mail Pilot" has always been a misleading title with many people believing it is based on the theatrical short with Mickey Mouse from 1933. In it, Mickey is an official mail pilot who must transport a chest of money through rain, snow and the sudden appearance of Pete whose plane has a machine gun and harpoon gun and intends to rob the cargo. Of course, in the seven-minute short, Mickey delivers the cargo and brings Pete to justice.

In "The Perils of Mickey", the images were based on Gottfredson's newspaper comic strip story that ran from February 27 to June 10, 1933 that was inspired by the short. Mickey enrolls in flying school in hopes of becoming a mail pilot. He discovers that many planes carrying the mail have disappeared without a trace after seeing a giant black spider in the sky. It is actually a metal spider in a magnetic web.

At one point Mickey's own plane is captured and hoisted into a giant blimp operated by Pete and Sylvester Shyster. They kick him out of the blimp but Minnie has made Mickey a spare parachute. He is rescued by a friendly mechanic in a plane and captures the crooks and rescues the other kidnapped pilots.

"The Seven Ghosts" is a Gottfredson story that appeared from August 10 through November 28, 1936.

Colonel Bassett's mansion seems to be the source of a series of ghost hauntings. Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck decide to investigate. The ghosts have driven away the Colonel's family and staff so Mickey and his friends take the place of the servants and try to rid the place of the spirits.

Written by Ted Thwaites, the story was inspired by the short Lonesome Ghosts (1937) then in production with Mickey, Goofy and Donald as ghost busters.

The ghosts are actually smugglers who are scaring people away so they can use the hidden passageways in the mansion to seem to disappear and hide their illegal cargo. Mickey traps them, has them arrested and saves Bassett Mansion.

"Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot" is a Gottfredson comic strip story that ran from May 20 to September 9, 1939. It is the first appearance of the crafty villain the Phantom Blot who became a reoccurring character. Police Chief O'Hara hires Mickey to capture the new criminal who is dressed completely in black robe and cowl like a living inkblot.

He steals cameras of a particular type (a foreign camera called "Little Korker") and smashes them open on the spot because one of them contains a paper with a secret chemical formula he hid in it while he was on a ship carrying the merchandise.

Mickey finds the last camera and the formula but the Blot steals it from him. He chases the Blot on motorcycle, car and pontoon plane before he captures the villain and turns him over to Chief O'Hara.

There were a couple of original comic book stories published by DELL based on these comic strip adventures.

Disney has had a long association with Nabisco (National Biscuit Company) going as far back at the 1939 New York World's Fair where Disney produced a special animated commercial for the Nabisco pavilion featuring Mickey Mouse, Minnie and Pluto enjoying Nabisco products.

A Perils of Mickey jigsaw puzzle was created for the promotion.

It was not unusual for the company to get actively involved in the new promotion. Among other things, it produced the sixteen page The Perils of Mickey Fun Book for Kids (5.5" x 7.5") that featured three two-page comic stories, two puzzles and multiple pages advertising other merchandise that was available.

The comic stories included very simplified versions of the complete stories of "Blaggard Castle", "The Phantom Blot" and "The Mail Pilot".

Just a few months after Disney Comics was shut down so a Mickey Mouse comic book was not being published, a two-part Perils of Mickey adventure, "Return to Blaggard Castle/Shadows of the Past", by writer David Cody Weiss and artist Stephen DeStefano, was published in two consecutive issues of Disney Adventures in August and September 1993. Each story was ten pages long.

This story was a direct sequel to the 1932 Floyd Gottfredson story, " Blaggard Castle" and featured a return to the classic Mickey Mouse art style of the 1930s. The story was reprinted in Mickey Mouse: The Floyd Gottfredson Library – Volume 2: Trapped on Treasure Island.

Mickey, Minnie, and Horace Horsecollar are invited to Blaggard Castle. which has been turned into a museum chronicling Mickey's defeat of the three mad ape scientists. However, it is revealed to be a trap set by the Phantom Blot designed to defeat Mickey once and for all.

The mad scientists Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex themselves do not appear, though the Blot spends most of the story disguised as Triplex and cardboard cutouts of Ecks and Doublex appear.

According to the Phantom Blot, the hypno-ray, while hypnotizing the scientists into being good, did not keep them sane, which resulted in them going to jail, where they told the Blot about their encounter with Mickey.

The Blot got the plans for their machine and re-built it but was unable to get it to work. He decided to play mind games with Mickey convincing him to turn on the machine to de-hypnotize Minnie and Horace.

However, the Blot had turned it into a heat ray and when Mickey aimed it at his friends they were only seconds away from death before Mickey realized that the machine should not be getting so hot. He aimed it away from Minnie and Horace, saving their lives at the last minute.

Disguised as Mickey in a yellow raincoat, Minnie tricks the Blot while Mickey and Horace capture the villain.

Amazingly, despite the time, effort and money put into the new branding effort, the general public was uninterested in the Gottfredson Mickey Mouse and it was abandoned. Timing is everything and maybe a decade or more earlier or even a decade later, the approach might have been embraced with its emphasis on nostalgia.

Ironically, the new Disney Channel Mickey Mouse cartoon series focuses on many of the same concepts with the classic pie-eyed, spunky Mickey Mouse of the 1930s thrust into various adventures around the world and has become a great success.

This re-branding campaign like many other attempts are forgotten by most Disney fans but it produced a lot of memorabilia that celebrates the genius of Floyd Gottfredson and his work on Mickey Mouse and are a real treat to display in a Disney collection.