A Belated Christmas Gift: The Disney Newspaper Strip

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

There is a real anticipation before Christmas that adds to the excitement. Unfortunately, there is also that little bit of a let down as you sit surrounded the following day by the piles of torn wrapping paper and leftover turkey that has gone cold.

While I am thankful for the gifts the Disney Company supplied this year from the last series of Disney Treasures DVDs to some really good Disney-related books, I have a little tinge of ungratefulness in me when I think of some of the gifts I wish the Disney Company had thought of supplying as well.

One of these Christmas seasons, I would love to curl up on the couch with a book reprinting some wonderful Disney Christmas-related stories that included Cruella’s Very Furry Christmas, A Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Christmas, Snow White’s Sinister Christmas Gift, Dumbo and the Christmas Mystery, and Santa and the Pirates.

These were not stories done for comic books nor story books, even those two areas had many outstanding Disney Christmas stories. The stories I am talking about were done by folks such as Tom McKimson, Manuel Gonzalez, Willy Ito, Tony Strobl, Floyd Norman, Carl Fallberg, and John Ushler. Floyd Gottfredson, best known for his work on the Mickey Mouse comic strip illustrated The Three Little Pigs’ Christmas Story, Cinderella’s Christmas Party, and Bambi’s Christmas Adventure.

These stories were read with delight by hundreds of thousands of readers, and one of the early stories where Peter Pan rescues Santa Claus from the wicked Captain Hook certainly captured my imagination as a child when I read it in my local newspaper, the Glendale News Press. In fact, even today, I still have those newspaper strips that I clipped diligently from the newspaper each day in a yellowing envelope with my Peter Pan collection.

Actually, as I researched this article, I discovered that Santa Claus had several different Christmas run-ins with Captain Hook over the years when Disney produced a comic strip each year specifically for the few weeks leading up to Christmas Day.

When most people think of Disney comic strips, I suspect that the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comic strip immediately come to mind. The more knowledgeable Disney fans might even recall the Silly Symphony strip that featured Bucky Bug or the Scamp comic strip that spotlighted Tramp’s son from Lady and the Tramp.

Those same fans might even remember Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales that started July 13, 1952 to help promote Disney films in current release in theaters. Many of those tales have never been fully reprinted from Floyd Gottfredson’s version of Lambert the Sheepish Lion to Ken Hultgren’s Gus and Jaq from Cinderella to Jack Kirby’s The Black Hole (which was more exiting and coherent than the movie) to Russ Heath’s interpretation of Condorman. Those classic Disney film tales ended nearly three decades later on February 15, 1987. (And, yes, I’d love to see some of these stories reprinted in book form, as well.)

I’ve already discussed in a previous column about the Disney “Uncle Remus” Sunday strip that ran for more than 25 years ("Disney's B'rer Rabbit Hops Into the Funny Pages," January 17, 2008) but I have about as much chance asking for those to be reprinted as I do asking for a legitimate Disney Blu-Ray release of the classic film with multiple extras.

Merry Menagerie, a one-panel cartoon featuring animals (but no Disney characters) by Bob Karp (who only received half pay for writing the strip because the Disney Studios felt he was receiving full pay for writing the Donald Duck comic strip) and artist Bob Grant is being reprinted in the Disney Newsreel, the bi-weekly magazine printed for cast members who work for the Disney Company in Southern California. That strip lasted for nearly 15 years and is entertaining if not especially memorable.

True-Life Adventures, written by Dick Huemer and illustrated by George Wheeler, lasted almost 20 years in the newspapers. Some fans might recall the more modern strips like Winnie the Pooh that only lasted 10 years from 1978 to 1988 or The Gummi Bears (based on the Disney television series) that lasted only three years in the late 1980s.

Did you know there were TWO Mickey Mouse comic strips that ran concurrently? Besides the well-known Floyd Gottfredson version there was a gag-a-day strip titled Mickey Mouse and His Friends that ran from September 1, 1958 to March 17, 1962 written by Disney storyman Milt Banta and drawn by Disney animator Ken Hultgren. Near the end of its run, big Mouseketeer Roy Williams did some writing and Disney animator Julius Svendsen did the artwork. It was the same Mickey Mouse appearing in his regular comic strip and involved in the same gag situations. The only difference between the two strips? This strip had no dialog and no captions perhaps so that it would be easier to sell to a foreign market.

Yes, I’d love to see that strip reprinted, as well, and I’d love to see copies of the DeMolay Mickey Mouse comic strip from the 1930s illustrated by Fred Spencer. I know I am starting to sound greedy but I wanted to share all the wonderful possibilities that exist that might not be well-known.

There are a lot of terrific newspaper strip reprint volumes out there currently and many of them grace my bookshelves, but it would be nice to see some of the Disney strips reprinted, as well, and have those books sitting on the shelves.

However, since encouraging the reprinting of these strips needs to start somewhere reasonable with perhaps a limited selection rather than 50 decades or more of daily strips, I am advocating reprinting some of the Disney Christmas strips.

Newspaper Enterprise Association/United Media started producing a Christmas strip for newspapers in 1936 to run daily for about three weeks before Christmas. Originally, the strip was offered free, but today, they charge a fee and fewer newspapers take advantage of the offer.

Over the years, episodes were done by cartoonists Greg Evans, Bill Schorr, Kevin Fagan, Walt Scott and even Joe Kubert (although it was probably his school under his direction that produced adaptations of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker in the early 1980s).

Personally, I would love to see reprints of Bucky’s Christmas Caper (1967), a children’s sci-fi Christmas adventure written and drawn by Wally Wood and Why Christmas Almost Wasn’t (1968) written and illustrated by Jack Kent who is perhaps best known for the newspaper strip King Aroo, but did a lot of great children’s books as well.

Perhaps inspired by NEA’s project, in 1960, Frank Reilly, who had been in charge of the Disney newspaper strips since January 1946, started a new Disney comic strip that would appear daily in newspapers for the three and half weeks or so before Christmas. The strip would conclude on Christmas Eve Day just in time for the last panel to show Santa in his sleigh ready for his annual visit that night.

That first story was Peter Pan’s Christmas Story written by Reilly (who would write the Christmas strips until his retirement in 1975) with artwork by Manuel Gonzales. It began November 26 and ended December 24, 1960. Another 27 stories would follow from 1961 to 1987. The final Christmas comic strip in the series was Snow White’s Sinister Christmas Gift written by Carl Fallberg and drawn by Keith Moseley and appeared in December 1987.

The Christmas adventures to help Santa included episodes with classic Disney characters including many unusual combinations of characters were the following: Pinocchio (1961); Sleeping Beauty (1962);  Three Little Pigs (1963);  Cinderella (1964);  Bambi (1965);  Snow White (1966);  Dumbo (1967);  Peter Pan, Captain Hook and all the Neverland folks (1968);  the Seven Dwarfs along with the Sleeping Beauty fairies and Merlin (1969);  Maleficient (1970);  Gus/Jaq and the Beagle Boys (1971);  Merlin and Mad Madam Mim (1972);  Bambi (1973);  the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, Merlin, Timothy Mouse and many more (1974);  The Seven Dwarfs (1975);  Captain Hook, Honest John, the Seven Dwarfs, Three Little Pigs, and more (1976);  Gepetto and Peter Pan (1977); Dumbo, Prince John, Sheriff of Nottingham and more (1978); Merlin and Mad Madam Mim (1979); The Sleeping Beauty fairies and the Big Bad Wolf (1980); Cinderella and the Stepsisters (1981); The Dwarfs and Merlin (1982); Captain Hook (1983); Mr. Toad, Honest John, and Foulfellow (1984); Cruella De Vil (1985); Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox (1986); and Snow White (1987).

There were stories where Ludwig Von Drake saved Sleeping Beauty from Maleficient’s evil spell because the Von Drake character had just been introduced on television. Peter Pan helped Santa one time after a meteor crashed on the North Pole.

For fans of Song of the South, the 1986 installment, A Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah-Christmas was written by African American writer, animator and friend Floyd Norman and illustrated by Keith Moseley and Larry Mayer. Jenny and Johnny are worried about how they can enjoy Christmas without snow. Uncle Remus tells them a story of how Brer Rabbit was concerned about the exact same thing but his quest for a White Christmas gets him into trouble with Brer Bear and Brer Fox. Floyd was careful to remove the dialect from Uncle Remus and only kept it for the critters but newspaper editors were still horrified because of the misunderstanding about Song of the South when this harmless but highly entertaining strip was submitted for the year. Santa and Mrs. Claus also made their traditional appearance in the strip.

The Christmas comic strip was briefly revived in newspapers in the 1990s with these specials themed to Christmas: Beauty and the Beast (1992), Aladdin (1993), “The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), Quasimodo (1996) and Ariel (1997).

Would you like to get even more detail on these strips? Then go to the Inducks Disney database (link). Why can you see some printed examples of these strips here? Because like many Disney treasures denied American Disney fans, they were reprinted for foreign publications, often with color added.

If you’d like to know about comic strips in general, I highly recommend "Stripper's Guide," Alan Holtz’s blog (link) where he has even reprinted some examples of the Buck O’Rue strip by Dick Huemer and Paul Murry that may be reprinted this year in book form. I say “may” because the publisher is still looking for some missing dailies of the short-lived strip by these two Disney greats as well as some better quality copies of dailies that they already have.

That’s one of the reasons I realize that asking for these strips to be reprinted is not as easy as someone from the Disney Company going into the files and pulling out pristine stats. Unfortunately, in some cases pristine negatives of the Disney comic strips do not exist even at Disney. Thank heavens for folks like Disney historian David Gerstein who is working for Gemstone.

When Gemstone wanted to reprint the first Mickey Mouse comic strip story continuity Mickey Mouse in Death Valley, Gerstein had to track down several sources from the negatives at the Disney Company to tear sheets from the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art to foreign publication sources to friends to early storybooks to his own collection to photoshop together a clean looking and authentic version of this classic story since the dialog balloons had often been redone for foreign publication, panels had been resized or cut for use in storybooks, some examples horribly colored and some of the originals were completely unusable.

Probably the best authority on Disney comics strips is Alberto Beccatini. For decades he has done research on writers and artists of Disney comic books and strips. I am happy to have in my collection Volumes One and Two of the Disney Index that he privately printed in 1990 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. It features credits and examples for writers and artists of the Disney comic books from 1940-1962 (when Gold Key took over publishing Disney comics from DELL). There were rumors at the time that Beccatini was going to do volumes devoted to the Gold Key issues and also to the syndicated comic strips but I don’t know if those were ever published.

However, the information in those Disney Index volumes with additions and corrections can be found at "Alberto's Page," his Web page (link). I would like to publicly thank Beccatini for his scholarship and for sharing it with all of us. In addition, Lambiek.net's Comiclopedia of Disney comic artists (link) also has information on Disney comic book artists.

I know of some rumored plans to reprint the Mickey Mouse comic strips of Floyd Gottfredson and another to reprint the early Donald Duck comic strip work of Al Taliaferro so I better start saving my nickels and dimes. However, there are many other Disney comic strips worthy of being reprinted and as we leave the holiday season, I would like to put in my request that somebody at Disney consider a special book with some of those classic Christmas newspaper strips many of us looked forward to each day before Christmas Day as a holiday present for next year.