Talking With Floyd Gottfredson

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I wrote a column about The Perils of Mickey marketing campaign that was based on the work of artist Floyd Gottfredson. I was a bit surprised that some Disney fans today were unfamiliar with Gottfredson.

Floyd Gottfredson created the Phantom Spot.

I interviewed Floyd Gottfredson in fall 1979 for an article, "The Mouse Man,", that I wrote in issue #6 of the Disney-oriented fanzine, The Duckburg Times. Gottfredson was sometimes referred to as "The Mouse Man" because of his iconic work for decades on the Mickey Mouse comic strip.

The entire Gottfredson interview was reprinted in my book The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse where I chronicled Mickey Mouse's entire career up to 2013 including an annotated filmography of every film and television appearance.

Remember that this interview took place in pre-internet days and there were only a handful of books about Disney at all so very little information existed that today is common knowledge. In addition, I was pretty young so I really didn't know what questions I should be asking and I was much more interested in animation than Disney comic strips.

I got the opportunity to interview Gottfredson because he lived nearby, and my uncle had a friend who knew Gottfredson socially and was also a Mormon, like Gottfredson. So as a birthday present because I was always so interested in all things Disney, my uncle was able to arrange for me to meet and talk with this very talented and kind artist who lived reasonably nearby.

With my small reel-to-reel tape recorder, I was able to record the conversation and painstakingly transcribed it and edited it.

Jim Korkis: How did you decide to apply at the Disney Studios?

Floyd Gottfedson: Looking for another job, I went to Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, California, where all the film exchanges were and one of them had a one-sheet Mickey Mouse movie poster standing in front of it. As a projectionist in Utah, I had run all of Walt's Oswald the Lucky Rabbit animated cartoons so I was familiar with the Disney name but I had never seen or heard of Mickey Mouse before.

Out of curiosity, I went in and the fellow there and I started talking and he told me he had heard that Walt was going to New York the following week to look for artists. I lost no time in putting together my samples and rushing out to the Disney Studio which was then located on Hyperion Avenue. I figured I would get the jump on the fellows who might be applying in New York since I was already there in Los Angeles.

Korkis: Did you get to meet Walt?

Gottfredson: Walt himself looked over my samples and asked me what sort of work I was interested in doing and I told him I wanted to do comic strips. Well, at that time, Disney wasn't doing any comic strips. Walt was quite a salesman. He told me I didn't want to get involved in doing comic strips because it was a rat race.

He said that the future would be animation and he was so convincing that I said, "Fine. Do you have any openings in animation?" And he said, "Sure, we'll put you in as an in-betweener."

Then he said that he and Ub Iwerks were just beginning to put together a Mickey Mouse comic strip for King Features and that it would be good to have me around as a back-up man in case they needed some help.

Korkis: Did you start working at Disney immediately?

Gottfredson: I went to work the following day, December 19, 1929. I was 24 years old and had been married for five years. I had been earning $65 a week as a projectionist and Walt was offering $18 a week but I took it because he had really convinced me that animation was the future. I did some free-lance cartooning on the side by mail and within eight months I was making more than I made as a projectionist.

Korkis: What did you do as an in-betweener?

Gottfredson: I only worked about four months in animation as an in-betweener. I did in-between work for Johnny Cannon and later Dave Hand and Wilfred Jackson. I even did a few in-betweens for Ub Iwerks.

It was all work for the Silly Symphonies. Norm Ferguson and Dave Hand gave me a little piece of animation to do on Cannibal Capers (1930). It was a lion running out of the jungle and a cannibal beating on a drum. That was really the only animation I ever did but it worked out pretty well and I was just fascinated with animation.

Korkis: How did you finally end up with the Mickey Mouse comic strip?

Gottfredson: The Mickey Mouse comic strip debuted in January 13, 1930, with Walt doing the writing and Ub penciled them and an artist named Win Smith was doing the inking. After the first eighteen strips, Ub left and Win took over the penciling and the inking. The strip was straight gags adapted from the Mickey Mouse movie cartoons.

King Features wanted continuity, that is to say, they wanted the strip to have a story and a plot because other strips like Sidney Smith's The Gumps were very popular being "story strips". Walt tried to convince Win to take over the writing and Win kept stalling but I don't know why. Finally, Walt met with him and told him he was going to take over the writing and Win who had a short fuse wasn't going to be told what to do and so he quit. He came by my desk and said, "I think you've got a new job".

Korkis: So it was as simple as that?

Gottfredson: About a half hour later, Walt called me into his office and asked me whether I would like to take over doing the strip. By now I had become very interested in animation and was reluctant to change. I told Walt that he was right and that I would prefer to stay with animation. Well, Walt was quite a salesman. He told me to just take the strip for two weeks to give him some time to find another artist.

I wanted to help out so I agreed. After all, he had told me that part of my job was to be a possible back-up on the strip. At the end of a month, I wondered if he was really seriously looking for anyone. After two months, I began to worry that he might actually find someone because I was enjoying doing it and wanted to continue with it.

Nothing more was ever said about it and I continued to draw the Mickey daily strip for about forty-five and a half years until my retirement on October 1, 1975.

Korkis: When did your first strip appear?

Gottfredson: My first strip appeared May 5, 1930, and the strip had gone into continuities April 1, 1930. Walt had written a story about Mickey finding a treasure map to a gold mine in Death Valley. To help me get started, Walt continued to write about two weeks' worth of strips for me to draw and then I took over the writing on May 19 in the middle of the story and continued to write the daily until 1932 when five different writers took over writing the continuities.

Korkis: How closely did the comic strip follow the animated cartoons?

Gottfredson: We tried to follow the spirit of the Mickey animated cartoons but because we were doing adventure stories we had to go beyond them. The animated cartoons had just a loose story structure where there could be a lot of gags building to a conclusion.

That isn't how stories are done in newspaper strips. We had to develop the characters more to help sustain the story. I loved doing these little adventures but keeping them as humorous as possible. Straight gags are too thin. Not enough meat to them. I think going back to gag-a-day was a step backwards and I think this was proved by the drop in popularity of the strip.

Korkis: Weren't some of your early strips influenced by Mickey's animated adventures?

Gottfredson: Walt himself set the precedent for borrowing ideas from the cartoons. The strip was influenced by the cartoons but also the fads and movies of the day. The Mad Doctor influenced the strip story "Mickey Mouse in Blaggard Castle", although the mad professors in our story were modeled after a Boris Karloff movie I had just seen.

"Mickey and the Seven Ghosts" was inspired by the animated cartoon Lonesome Ghosts. "Mickey Mouse Runs His Own Newspaper" was inspired by the gangster movies of the time like Scarface and Little Caesar.

Korkis: Did you ever run into the same censorship issues that Walt was facing with the animated cartoons?

Gottfredson: There was one sequence in the "Blaggard Castle" story 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.

We also got censored when we did the "Monarch of Medioka" story because it kind of paralleled what was actually happening in Yugoslavia at that time where the archduke was trying to overthrow the king. Over the years, there was very little censorship because our goal was to try to stay true to the spirit of Disney animation.

Korkis: Did Walt have to approve your work before it was sent to the syndicate?

Gottfredson: Walt checked my work for 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 relieved not to have to be concerned with them. He had bigger things to worry about. We were just supposed to follow the general studio rule that any violence was to be done in a comedic manner. And we labored over the artwork to make it the highest quality we could.

Korkis: So Walt had no direct input into the direction of the strip?

Gottfredson: In the early days of the strip, I was always intrigued by details in the background like houses and picket fences and rain spouts. So one of the hardest things I had to learn was to simplify, to streamline. In the first couple of months that I worked on the strip, I would take the strips personally to Walt in his office for his approval.

Later, as I said, he became too busy to take the time to do that or maybe he just felt I was doing okay. I do know he would still look at the proof sheets closely because sometimes I would get memos but that was usually about any changes that was going to happen in animation that we needed to do in strips.

The only direct input I would get from Walt was that I was putting in too much "junk" in the strip. "Why do you put so much junk in there? Simplify." I don't know if that was to help the storytelling or because of his experience in animation where you didn't want the background too complicated.

One time when he was in Florida, he sent me a copy of the strip that had appeared in the local paper and he wrote in the margin "Too damn much junk. Clean it up." Still, that is pretty good if that is the only complaint I would get from him. Looking back on those old strips, I think the old stories were too wordy and overloaded with dialogue.

Korkis: I notice your Mickey Mouse continues to change his look over the decades. Some people even thought a different artist was doing the strip at times.

Gottfredson: Mostly, I tried to keep up with the changes the Studio made to Mickey. I tried hard to match the Mickey I was drawing for the newspaper strip with the Mickey of the films.

In January 1933, I dropped the thin white line above Mickey's eyes for simplicity's sake but other than that I just followed the new model sheets of Mickey that would filter down to me.

Periodically, Mickey would lose and then regain his tail. He lost his short pants in the Forties and of course got pupils in his eyes with Fantasia (1940). When I first saw the pupils in Mickey's eyes on the model sheets I liked them immediately.

Korkis: I am sure you watched the animated cartoons closely. Do you have a favorite?

Gottfredson: Fred Moore was the fellow who really streamlined the mouse and some of the other characters. To me, the finest Mickey short cartoon that was ever made was The Nifty Nineties (1941) with Fred Moore's design of Mickey. I've said this many times before but I think the best Mickeys ever done were by Fred Moore. I tried to imitate Fred but I don't think anyone could ever copy his style.

Korkis: Since you worked at the Studio, did any of the animators like Moore drop by to comment on your work?

Gottfredson: The animation department didn't even know we existed. We were so small and shoved in a back corner that it was out of sight, out of mind I guess.

In the Comic Strip department we were paid straight salaries and if we wanted a vacation, we had to get ahead a few weeks on the schedule. Our salaries were never as high as the animators. When the union got into it later, it finally was decided that scale for a Class I Comic Strip Artist was about the same as a minimum wage for an animator, I think.

Korkis: It was sort of what you had been telling me earlier about your feelings about the comic book artists.

Gottfredson: We just didn't consider [comic book artists] professional artists. There was a definite snobbishness by those of us who did newspaper strips towards comic book artists. I had nothing to do with the redrawing or reprinting of my comics strip stories in the Disney comic books. They had to change the panels for the format of the comic book so it resulted in some very bad drawings where panels had to be extended on the bottom or the sides or even sides being cut off in odd places to make them fit.

So they had to draw hands or feet or added in trees to fill spaces or cut characters off or changed balloons. I forget all the things that were done. It just ruined the design of the panel. I tried never to read the redrawn or reprinted strips. We considered them second-generation material and why spend time on them?

Korkis: The story continuities in the Mickey Mouse strip seem to stop in the mid-1950s.

Gottfredson: We began to phase out of continuities and go back to a gag-a-day format at that time because it was a decision of King Features to help counteract the effects of television on newspapers. They felt that with a few exceptions that comic strip stories couldn't compete with television.

At first, I missed the continuities but gradually daily gags became a relief. Continuities were very demanding. We had to do them so fast. I don't think we had the time to really develop them because we were producing them daily. In animation, they always seemed to have plenty of time.

Korkis: Were you bothered that readers never knew your name and thought that Walt was doing the strip?

Gottfredson: People ask me all the time if I was annoyed that I wasn't allowed to sign my name on the strip. Not at all. That was just the tradition of the comic strip where ghosts did the work and the artist who created the strip still signed his name.

It wasn't Walt's fault. I know he asked King Features to let me sign my name and they told him it would dilute the thing and confuse people and make it more difficult to sell. And they were right. People wanted Walt Disney. They thought he did everything. I have no complaints or regrets.

Korkis: What was your impression of Walt Disney?

Gottfredson: Walt and Roy were great people to work for. Under them, the creative freedom was unbelievable. Roy was a little warmer to us than Walt. Walt was a tough taskmaster. I don't think he even realized when he was being harsh. He was always just so focused on whatever project he was doing and was passionate that it be done right. That was all that mattered.

The rest of us were just the tools he used. If, as you said earlier, I kept the "real" Mickey alive, I was just doing the best I could as an extension of Walt and his dream. There was only one Walt Disney. There will never be another.

Korkis: Thank you, Floyd.