The Biggest Disney Comic Book in the World

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

The Biggest Disney Comic Book in the World

While looking through some of my countless storage boxes for something else, I ran across a Disney-related Christmas present I had forgotten about that I got when I was a kid. Over the years, I have received several Disney-related Christmas presents from friends and families. Two of them significantly influenced my life.

One was an animation kit from the Disneyland Art Corner that was so expensive it was my only gift from my parents one year because we were not a well-off family financially. I remember carrying it home in the backseat of the car on the long drive home and realizing I wouldn't be able to open it and enjoy it until Christmas Day.

I still have the two "how to draw" books and flip book that came with it, as well as the battered and dog-eared blue membership card that declared I was a Disney artist. I flashed that card to my elementary school peers for weeks after I got it to prove that I was going to be a Disney animator. They were suitably unimpressed.

The second gift when I was older was a copy of the book Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. It was a gift not just from my parents, but from my uncle and aunt who happened to have a friend who worked as a secretary at the Disney Studios and got the book autographed to me by Thomas and Johnston. I spent my entire Christmas vacation paging through it.

However, the Disney gift I found at the bottom of one of my larger boxes was an oddity that I don't see mentioned by either comic book fans or Disney fans. Growing up in Glendale, California, I would walk down Brand Boulevard and there were stores like Newberrys, Kress and Woolworths. For the younger readers of this column, let me point out that these stores were the Wal-Marts and Targets of today. They were what was known as "five-and-dime" stores and featured a broad range of merchandise from clothes to plastic flowers to stationery at an inexpensive price.

Kress had three or four aisles of toys at the very back of the store. One day, I walked back to look at the new toys that neither I nor my family could afford. By this time, I had a small comic book collection that fit in a box under my bed. In those days, comic books were still a dime although within a year they would feature a big box on the front cover announcing "Still 10 Cents" that I didn't realize meant that they would soon cost me 12 cents or, in the case of Dell comics, 15 cents.

Anyway, in the toy aisles, in the shelves devoted to coloring books and storybooks were the four largest comic books I had ever seen in my entire life printed by Western Printing. Each book cost 50 cents, five times what I was used to spending on a 32-page comic book. I got one of those comic books as one of my Christmas gifts that year, because I could not bring myself to spend my lunch money on the book when I could buy five other comics for that same price at the drug stores and supermarkets near my house.

Western Printing and Lithography was a printing company that created editorial content for Dell comic books. Western had the rights to the Warner Brothers characters, Walter Lantz characters, Disney characters and many, many others including adaptations of television shows and movies. It was Western who hired writers and artists from Tom McKimson to Carl Barks to Al Hubbard to Chase Craig to countless others to produce comic book stories and then sold the completed work to Dell.

Producing comic book material was just a very small part of Western's overall business. Although, they produced other comic books separate from Dell, like the popular "March of Comics" giveaways and educational comics like the series of "Teaching Kite Safety" comics, Western made its real money from other publications.

Other departments of Western would be using the same licenses of these popular characters and shows to do projects in which Dell had no involvement including producing coloring books, paper doll books, Little Golden Books, jigsaw puzzles, etc.

In 1962, after a dispute about money, Dell started a comic book division to continue publishing comics. Western kept the same comics (Disney, Warner, etc.) that they had been producing for Dell but named their comic book line "Gold Key Comics."

During this transition period, Western explored other venues for comic books and one of the experiments was the creation of four tabloid (or "treasury size") comics that would be sold in department stores and shelved with the coloring books and Little Golden Books.

"Tabloid" comics were comics printed at around the size of 10 by 13 inches, about the same size as an issue of Life magazine. In the early 197os, DC and Marvel Comics started producing comic books in this awkward size on a fairly regular schedule.

While the comics seem to have been fairly successful for a while, they were awkward to read and to store and the same pulp paper used for regular sized comic books made these tabloid editions easy to damage, making it difficult for news dealers when distribution deals changed to a nonreturnable status at the time.

To learn more about these oversized comic books, following this link.

Comic book fans may remember the disastrous experiment in the early 1970s when Western decided to package their comic books in plastic bags of three issues that were only sold in toy and department stores. The comics in these bags had the "Whitman" logo on the cover, Disney comics fans struggled to maintain their Disney comics collections.

More of a success was the Walt Disney Comics Digest published for 57 issues from 1968 to 1976. The contents were generally reprints of older Disney comic book material. The digest initially was 192 pages but gradually shrunk until the last issues were only 128 pages. The digest size allowed it to be displayed at the checkout stand at supermarkets right next to TV Guide.

Back to my story of the Disney related Christmas gift, those huge comic books I saw in the Kress department store. In fact, they were only at that Kress department store. They weren't at Newberrys, Woolworths or any other store I got to visit as a kid.

In 1961, Western produced four issues of "Golden Picture Story Book" that were all released at the same time. Each issue had 52 pages.

Golden Picture Story Book No. 1 was titled "Huckleberry Hound: Chuckleberry Time." Besides stories with Huckleberry Hound, there were stories of other Hanna-Barbera favorites like Pixie and Dixie, Mr. Jinks, Augie Doggie, Doggy Daddy, Snooper and Blabber and Quick Draw McGraw.

Golden Picture Story Book No. 2 was titled "Yogi Bear: Yummy Tummy Stories."

Besides stories of Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, there were stories of Quick Draw McGraw, Augie Doggie, Snooper and Blabber, Snagglepuss, and Yakky Doodle.

Golden Picture Story Book No. 3 was an adaptation of the Disney live action film Babes in Toyland. Written by Carl Fallberg and drawn by John Ushler, the adaptation runs 48 pages in length and is different from the regular 32-page edition published by Western that appeared on comic book racks.

I would have liked all those books in my collection since I also enjoyed the Hanna-Barbera television cartoons but there was one book that was Disney related that captured my attention.

It was Golden Picture Story Book No. 4, titled "Wonderful World of Ducks Featuring Ludwig Von Drake." There were new stories of Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie, the Beagle Boys, Uncle Scrooge and Disney's newest character, who had just been introduced on the television show "Wonderful World of Color," Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

In fact, Von Drake proudly stood on the painted color cover with finger upraised and his image took up almost half the huge cover. Smaller boxes on the cover featured pictures of Daisy Duck, Donald and the Nephews, Grandma Duck and Scrooge McDuck who was raking up a pile of money as if they were leaves (you can see a copy of the cover here).

The stories in this book have never been reprinted either in the United States or Europe. Disney comics expert David Gerstein has speculated that "Maybe (and I'm only speculating here), due to the unusual large format, Western never made photostats available to other publishers, Or else if there were stats, they were in some format that precluded easy reuse."

Those "lost" stories in the book were:

  • "Missing Mine Mystery" (12 pages) – Trouble at Scrooge's Diamond Mine in the Ultraflora Jungle thanks to Black Pete. But the cleverness of the nephews uses the environment to trap the villain and save the diamonds. Of course, Scrooge has one final trick up his sleeve for Donald and the boys.

  • "Barn Dance Doctor" (6 pages) – Grandma asks for Ludwig Von Drake's help in pepping up her barn dance where the participants keep falling asleep. Everyone wakes up when Ludwig mixes up his formula for rocket fuel with his recipe for Schnickle-Fritz Punch.

  • "Genius for Hire" (4 pages) – Ludwig is called in by a zookeeper to find out why a laughing hyena won't laugh.

  • "Using the Old Bean" (14 pages) – Scrooge decides to do some trading on the Island of Pokipal. He puts Donald and the boys in charge of a trading post but tricks them into only having defective bottle caps to trade. The Beagle Boys arrive in a submarine and mistake the bottle caps for gold coins. There are several other twists and turns before the happy ending. This story stuck in my mind for years and I mistakenly thought it was done by Carl Barks.

  • "Business as Usual" (6 pages) – Donald becomes Gyro Gearloose's new business partner and their biggest job is trying to get Scrooge back into his money bin, since Scrooge has locked the only key inside the bin itself.

  • "The Dream Date" (6 pages) – Daisy wins a date with TV star Clark Cluck while her nieces babysit a sleepy Donald on the couch. Complications arise and the nieces disguise themselves as Daisy and end up at the same dance club where Daisy is with Clark Cluck.

All of these stories were illustrated by Tony Strobl.

Anthony Joseph Strobl was one of those talented "work horses" at Western who turned out solid work for decades on a variety of characters. The genius of writer-artists like Carl Barks and Walt Kelly who worked at Western has overshadowed the craftsmanship of dozens of writers and artists who turned out entertaining stories for generations of comic book readers.

Like many of the writers and artists at Western, Strobl had an animation background. In December 1938, he began his first assignment at the Disney Studios working as an inbetweener on the cupids for the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Fantasia. He also worked on Dumbo among other films before he was drafted during World War II.

When the war ended, he found employment in 1947 at Western Publishing in California. His first work at Western was a "Bucky Bug" story published January 1949 in issue No. 100 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories.

At the time, Barks was the artist supplying the 10-page Donald Duck feature for Walt Disney Comics and Stories as well as stories and art for the new Uncle Scrooge comic book.

Other duck stories were done by Jack Bradbury, Paul Murry, Dick Moores and of course, Strobl, who beginning in 1954 was responsible for many of the stories featuring Donald Duck and his friends. In addition to working for Western, Strobl in the mid-1960s began working directly for Disney producing comic book stories for overseas markets.

For a while, he even did the daily and Sunday Donald Duck comic strip for newspapers. His last comic book work was scripting stories for "Duck Tales" in the late 1980s. Strobl died in 1991.

Although he generally worked from scripts supplied by other writers, including Carl Fallberg, Bob Gregory and Vic Lockman, Strobl did write some stories himself and there does seem to be a definite "style" to Strobl stories no matter who wrote them.

While Strobl became perhaps the major artist on the Duck Universe, besides Carl Barks, he also drew stories with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and other characters.

Anyway, thanks to hunting for something else, I recently rediscovered some classic Strobl duck stories that have been "lost" since 1961. My copy has a cover that is battered and pulling away from the staples but it was a delight to reread these tales and remember what it was like being a kid with the biggest Disney comic in the world.

Western published another Disney tabloid edition in 1967: "The Jungle Book." This 68-page adaptation of the Disney animated feature was written by Carl Fallberg with art by Al Hubbard.