The Return of the Gremlins

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

A few months ago, Dark Horse published (link) an impressively accurate reprint of the decades out of print book, The Gremlins. This was the first book written by author Roald (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) Dahl and the Disney Studios purchased it in the early 1940s to turn into a feature-length film that would have combined animation with live action.

It cost me close to a $100 a decade or so ago to buy a battered copy of the book for my collection. Now, for less than $20, Disney fans can add the book to their collection. The reprint includes an informative introduction by animation scholar Leonard Maltin about the history of the never-produced Disney project.

You can find out the entire sad story of why this clever story was never produced by the Disney Studios by picking up a copy of Hogan’s Alley No. 15 (link) with the lengthy article “Gremlin Trouble” by Disney historian Jim Korkis that features decades of exhaustive research and this article is acknowledged in Maltin’s introduction.

Basically, The Gremlins may be the first written story about the mischievous little creatures that bedeviled the British Royal Air Force during World War II. The story concerns one pilot named Gus who is tormented and eventually befriended by the gremlins and Gus’ attempt to get the creatures to fight against the Axis forces. The book features artwork by Bill Justice and Al Dempster.

Dark Horse also produced a line of toys to tie in with the book as well as a new comic book seriesjust released during the last week of March. The first issue of a three-issue 32-page comic book series titled The Return of the Gremlins, written by Mike Richardson with art by Dean Yeagle, tries to capture the spirit of the original story in an updated setting.

According to the description of the comic on the Dark Horse Web site: “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!”

Of course, being a fan of Dean Yeagle’s artwork of cute girls, I wish the story had been about Gus’ granddaughter discovering the gremlins, so that Yeagle could utilize some of his comic poses and expressions that he uses with his own creation, Mandy.

This is not the first time that a comic book of the Disney version of Dahl’s gremlins has appeared in print. In order to establish a copyright and trademark on the Disney version of gremlins when other articles and pictures started to appear about the mythological creatures of the air, the Disney Studios produced some items, including an advertisement for LifeSavers candy featuring the Disney versions.

The Disney Studio tried to emphasize the head gremlin, Gremlin Gus, in particular, especially in a series of comic book stories for Dell/Western drawn and perhaps written by former Disney animator Walt Kelly.

Kelly did a series of two-page Gremlin strips for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories starting in 1943 with issue No. 34 and ending in 1944 with issue No. 41. These self contained strips were known as “pantomime strips” in the business since they featured no dialog.

In a military setting, Gremlin Gus (occasionally assisted by two widgets who are “baby gremlins”) made every effort to cause mischief for airmen with everything from a saw to a gas can to a mousetrap to a pipe. Issue No. 34 also included a cut out paper doll of Gremlin Gus and issue No. 35 had a cut out paper doll of a Fifinella who is a “female gremlin.”

Gladstone reprinted a few of these installments when they had the rights to publishing Disney comic books and it would be great if Dark Horse could include these “lost” gremlin strips in their new comic book. The first issue of the new Dark Horse comic reprints an uncredited (except for being done by “Disney artists”) promotional strip for the Disney film that I had never seen before that was a real treat.

In an earlier column, I talked about Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The leprechaun stories of H.T. Kavanaugh had captured Walt’s fancy even as early as the mid-1940s, but it wasn’t until Walt himself was convinced that the Irish truly believed in the wee folk that he started to actively work on the film.

The reason for that hesitation was that when Walt started work on The Gremlins, he thought they were true modern mythological creatures that people wanted to believe in like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster despite any scientific evidence to the contrary. However, when Walt started to talk to some Royal Air Force pilots who thought the whole concept was a big joke, Walt’s enthusiasm waned.

For your enjoyment, here is a Walt article from when the project was first beginning and Walt was very excited and was still gathering information.

The Air Ministry requested Walt write an article on Gremlins for their R.A.F. Journal. It appeared in November 1942 and may have been ghostwritten or at least tweaked by Disney storyman Ted Sears who was doing research on the gremlins for Walt at this time. I doubt whether readers would ever have access to seeing a copy and it certainly reflects Walt’s feelings at the time. So in the spirit of sharing things that were supposedly written by Walt, here is that short article:

“As soon as the Air Ministry heard that I was about to do a gremlin film, they asked me to write a short article expressing my views of gremlins in general. Now I don’t think this is a fair request. Truthfully, I have no more idea of gremlins than I have of fighter tactics or high level bombing. I can only go by what I hear. I consider it one of the great misfortunes of my life that not being an air gunner, a pilot, or a navigator, I shall never be able to boast of having seen a gremlin in person.

“I shall never be able to discuss, as you men do, the deeper and more subtle points of gremlin-lore, and suggest new methods of training them to behave. Unfortunately, I am not a Gremlinologist. With every other film I’ve made, I’ve been able, in times of discussion, to stand up and shout ‘You’re wrong!’ and then proceed to back up my argument with detailed specifications regarding the size and color of the noses of the Seven Dwarves, the shape of Pinocchio’s hat, or the length of Bambi’s legs.

“But in dealing with your gremlins, I’ll admit I’m at a loss. I can’t even pretend that I’ve seen one, and I must get all of my information and instruction from the R.A.F. fliers themselves. Numbers of them have passed through here and have come to see me and tried to help me. And from their careful descriptions I have tried to draw the gremlin as he is actually seen by you in his various phases, on your machines in the air, and as you see him around the airdrome and in the mess.

“No one realizes more than I the importance of these little men and the task I am undertaking. So far I haven’t a clue.

“That’s why I’m depending upon you men for all the gen (sic) I can possibly get about gremlins. As you can see, I’ve even begun to pick up some of your language. Naturally, I can’t place the entire responsibility upon your shoulders, but I do wish you’d keep me informed of any new tactics and habits the Gremlins develop from time to time.

“Do you suppose it would be possible to find one of the little fellows who could be spared and have him crated and shipped to California? I can assure you that he’ll be treated with the utmost care and consideration at this end. We have a plentiful supply of used postage stamps of all vintages, which I understand is his staple diet, and he would be allowed the freedom of the Studio. Although I wouldn’t be able to see him, I’m sure he’d serve as an excellent technical adviser.

“Perhaps this is asking for the impossible, but I do intend to see that when the gremlins reach the screen, they will be the same gremlins that you men have flown with and lived with. And if I should put any blacks in this film due to lack of pukka gen, I do hope you won’t tear me off a terrific strip.”