Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: The Race to Death Valley (Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Classic Collection volume 1)


By Floyd Gottfredson & various; Edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-441-2

Created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse was first seen – if not heard – in the silent cartoon Plane Crazy. The animated short fared poorly in a May 1928 test screening and was promptly shelved.

That’s why most people who care cite Steamboat Willie – the fourth Mickey feature to be completed – as the debut of the mascot mouse and his co-star and paramour Minnie Mouse since it was the first to be nationally distributed, as well as the first animated feature with synchronised sound.

The film’s astounding success led to the subsequent rapid release of its fully completed predecessors Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and The Barn Dance once they too had been given new-fangled soundtracks.

From those timid beginnings grew an immense fantasy empire, but film was not the only way Disney conquered hearts and minds. With Mickey a certified solid gold sensation, the mighty mouse was considered a hot property and soon invaded America’s most powerful and pervasive entertainment medium: comic strips…

Floyd Gottfredson was a cartooning pathfinder who started out as just another warm body in the Disney Studio animation factory who slipped sideways into graphic narrative and evolved into a pictorial narrative ground-breaker as influential as George Herriman, Winsor McCay or Elzie Segar. Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse entertained millions of eagerly enthralled readers and shaped the very way comics worked.

He took a wild and anarchic animated rodent from slap-stick beginnings, via some of the earliest adventure continuities in comics history: transforming a feisty everyman underdog – or rather mouse – into a crimebuster, detective, explorer, lover, aviator or cowboy, the quintessential two-fisted hero whenever necessity demanded.

In later years, as tastes – and syndicate policy – changed, Gottfredson steered that self-same wandering warrior into a more sedate, gently suburbanised lifestyle via crafty sitcom gags suited to a newly middle-class America: a fifty-year career generating some of the most engrossing continuities the comics industry has ever enjoyed.

Arthur Floyd Gottfredson was born in 1905 in Kaysville, Utah, one of eight siblings born to a Mormon family of Danish extraction. Injured in a youthful hunting accident, Floyd whiled away a long recuperation drawing and studying cartoon correspondence courses, and by the 1920s had turned professional, selling cartoons and commercial art to local trade magazines and Big City newspaper the Salt Lake City Telegram.

In 1928 he and his wife moved to California and, after a shaky start, found work in April 1929 as an in-betweener at the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios.

Just as the Great Depression hit, he was personally asked by Disney to take over the newborn but ailing Mickey Mouse newspaper strip. Gottfredson would plot, draw and frequently script the strip for the next five decades: an incredible accomplishment by of one of comics’ most gifted exponents.

Veteran animator Ub Iwerks had initiated the print feature with Disney himself contributing, before artist Win Smith was brought in. The nascent strip was plagued with problems and young Gottfredson was only supposed to pitch in until a regular creator could be found.

His first effort saw print on May 5th 1930 (his 25th birthday) and Floyd just kept going; an uninterrupted run over the next half century.

On January 17th 1932, Gottfredson created the first colour Sunday page, which he also handled until his retirement. In the beginning he did everything, but in 1934 Gottfredson relinquished the scripting role, preferring plotting and illustrating the adventures to playing about with dialogue. His eventual collaborating wordsmiths included Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris, Dick Shaw, Bill Walsh, Roy Williams and Del Connell. At the start and in the manner of a filmic studio system Floyd briefly used inkers such as Ted Thwaites, Earl Duvall and Al Taliaferro, but by 1943 had taken on full art chores.

This superb archival hardback compendium – part of a magnificently ambitious series collecting the creator’s entire canon – collects those initial daily romps, packed with thrills, spills and chills, whacky races, fantastic fights and a glorious superabundance of rapid-fire sight-gags and verbal by-play. The manner in which Mickey became a syndicated star is covered in various articles at the front and back of this sturdy tome devised and edited by truly dedicated, clearly devoted fan David Gerstein.

Under the guise of ‘Setting the Stage’ the unbridled fun and revelations begin with gaming guru Warren Spector’s appreciative Introduction ‘The Master of Mickey Epics’ and a fulsome biographical account and appraisal of Floyd Gottfredson and the Mickey Mouse continuities in ‘Of Mouse and Man – 1930-1931: The Early Years’ by historian and educator Thomas Andrae.

The preliminary scene-setting concludes with ‘Floyd Gottfredson, The Mickey Mouse Strip and Me – an Appreciation by Floyd Norman’. Incorporating some preliminary insights from Gerstein in ‘An Indebted Valley’ the strip sequences then begin in ‘The Adventures: Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse Stories with Editor’s Notes’

At the start the strip was treated like an animated feature, with diverse hands working under a “director” and each day seen as a full gag with set-up, delivery and a punchline, usually all in service to an umbrella story or theme. Such was the format Gottfredson inherited from Walt Disney for his first full yarn ‘Mickey Mouse in Death Valley’ which ran from April 1st – September 20th, 1930. The saga was further complicated by an urgent “request” from controlling syndicate King Features that the strip be immediately made more adventure-oriented to compete with the latest trend in comics: action-packed continuities…

Also roped in to provide additional art and inking to the raucous, rambunctious rambling saga were Win Smith, Jack King, Roy Nelson & Hardie Gramatky. The story involved a picaresque and frequently deadly journey way out west to save Minnie’s inheritance – a lost mine – from conniving lawyer Sylvester Shyster and his vile and violent crony Peg-Leg Pete, whom Mickey and his aggrieved companion chased across America by every conveyance imaginable, aided by masked mystery man The Fox facing every possible peril immortalised by silent movie westerns, melodramas and comedies…

Next up – after brief preamble ‘Sheiks and Lovers’ – is another lengthy epic, featuring most of the early big screen repertory cast. ‘Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers’ (inked by Gottfredson, Gramatky & Earl Duvall and running from September 22nd – December 29th) starts with Mickey building his own decidedly downbeat backyard golf course before being repeatedly and disconcertingly distracted when sleazy sporty type Mr. Slicker starts paying unwelcome attention to Minnie. Well, it’s unwelcome as far as Mickey is concerned…

With cameos from Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, goat-horned Mr. Butt and a prototype Goofy who used to answer – if he felt like it – to the moniker Dippy Dog, the rambunctious shenanigans continue for weeks until the gag-abundant tale resolves into a classic powerplay and landgrab as the nefarious ne’er-do-well is exposed as the fiend attempting to bankrupt Minnie’s family by swiping all the eggs produced on their farm. The swine even tries to frame Mickey for his misdeed before our hero turns the tables on him…

A flurry of shorter escapades follow: rapid-fire doses of wonder and whimsy including ‘Mickey Mouse Music’ (December 30th 1930 – January 3rd 1931 with art by Duvall), ‘The Picnic’ (January 12th – 17th, Gottfredson inked by Duvall) and ‘Traffic Troubles’ (January 5th – 10th with pencils by Duvall & Gottfredson inks) before Gerstein introduces the next extended storyline with some fondly eloquent ‘Katnippery’

With story & art by Gottfredson & Duvall ‘Mickey Mouse Vs. Kat Nipp’ proceeded from January 19th to February 25th 1931, detailing how a brutal feline thug began bullying our hero a sad state of affairs that involved tail-abusing in various inspired forms, after which ‘Gallery Feature – “He’s Funny That Way”’ reveals a later appearance Sunday strip of Kat Nipp in a story by Merrill De Maris with Gottfredson pencils and Ted Thwaites inks. The excerpt comes from June 1938.

Gerstein’s introductory thoughts on the next epic – ‘High Society: Reality Show Edition’ – precede the serialised saga of ‘Mickey Mouse, Boxing Champion’. Running from February 26th – April 29th by Gottfredson, Duvall & Al Taliaferro the hilariously episodic tale relates how ever-jealous Mickey floors a big thug leering at Minnie and becomes infamous as the guy who knocked out the current heavy lightweight boxing champ.

Ruffhouse Rat’s subsequent attempts at revenge all go hideously awry and before long Mickey is acting as the big lug’s trainer. It’s a disaster and before long he champion is in an inexorable physical and mental decline. Sadly, that’s when hulking brute Creamo Catnera hits town for a challenge bout. With Ruffhouse refusing to fight it falls to Mickey to take on the savage contender…

Having accomplished one impossible task, Mickey then sets his sights on reintroducing repentant convict Butch into ‘High Society’ (April 30th – May 30th with story & pencils by Gottfredson and inks from Taliaferro). The story was designed to tie-in to a Disney promotional stunt – a giveaway “photograph” of Mickey – and the history and details of the project are covered in ‘Gallery Feature – “Gobs of Good Wishes”’

‘Mick of All Trades’ introduces the next two extended serial tales, discussing Mickey’s everymouse nature and willingness to tackle any job such as the Taliaferro-inked ‘Circus Roustabout’ which originally ran from June 1st – July 17th.

Here a string of animal-based gags is held together by the Mouse’s hunt for a cunning thief after which ‘Pluto the Pup’ takes centre-stage for a ten-day parade of slapstick antics before Gerstein’s ‘Middle-Euro Mouse’ supplies context to the less-savoury and non-PC historical aspects of a long tale featuring wandering gypsies.

‘Mickey Mouse and the Ransom Plot’ ran from July 20th through November 7th and follows the star and his pals Minnie, Horace and Clarabelle on a travelling vacation to the mountains. Here they fall under the influence of a suspicious band of Romani who exhibit all the worst aspects of thieving and spooky fortune-telling. When Minnie is abducted and payment demanded, Mickey knows just how to deal with the villains…

Essay ‘A Mouse (and a Horse and a Cow) Against the World’ leads into fresh employment horizons for our hero as Gottfredson & Taliaferro test the humorous action potential of ‘Fireman Mickey’ (November 9th – December 5th) in another scintillating cascade of japes, jests and merry melodrama whilst the glimmerings of real continuity sub-plotting and supporting character development shades a budding romance under the eaves of ‘Clarabelle’s Boarding House’ taking us from December 7th, 1931 to January 9th 1932 in fine style… Although the chronological cartooning officially concludes here there’s still a wealth of glorious treats and fascinating revelations in store in The Gottfredson Archives: Essays and Archival Features section which follows.

In the Beginning: Ub Iwerks and the Birth of Mickey Mouse’ by Thomas Andrae offers beguiling background and priceless early drawings from the star’s earliest moments, as does David Gerstein’s ‘Starting the Strip’ which comes packed with priceless ephemera.

As already stated, Gottfredson took over a strip already in progress and next – accompanied by covers from European editions of the period – come the strips preceding his accession. Frantic gag-panels (just like scenes from an animation storyboard) comprise ‘Lost on a Desert Island’ (January 13th to March 31st 1930, as crafted by storyteller Walt Disney and artists Ub Iwerks & Win Smith) and are augmented by Gerstein’s ‘The Cartoon Connection’ and additional Italian strips by Giorgio Scudellari in ‘Gallery Feature – “Lost on a Desert Island”’

Even more text and recovered-art features explore ‘The Cast: Mickey and Minnie’ and Sharing the Spotlight: Walt Disney and Win Smith’ (both by Gerstein) before more international examples illuminate ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse in Death Valley’ whereafter ‘Unlocking the Fox’ traces the filmic antecedents of the hooded stranger. With priceless original art samples in ‘Behind the Scenes: Pencil Mania’.

More contemporary European examples taken from early collections tantalise in ‘Gallery Feature – Gottfredson’s World: Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers’ before Alberto Beccatini and Gerstein’s ‘Sharing the Spotlight: Roy Nelson, Jack King and Hardie Gramatky’ supplies information on these lost craftsmen.

‘The One-Off Gottfredson Spin-Off’ by Gerstein highlights a forgotten transatlantic comic strip collaboration with German artist Frank Behmak whilst ‘Gallery Feature – The Comics Department at Work: Mickey Mouse in Color (…And Black and White)’ presents lost merchandise and production art before ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse Vs. Kat Nipp’ and ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse, Boxing Champion’ offer yet more overseas Mouse memorabilia.

‘Sharing the Spotlight: Earl Duvall’ is another fine Gerstein tribute to a forgotten artisan supplemented by ‘The Cast: Butch’ and ‘Al Taliaferro’ after which ‘The Gottfredson Gang: In “Their Own” Words’ by David Gerstein with texts by Mortimer Franklin and R. M. Finch reprints contemporary interviews with the 2D stars, garnished with publicity tear-sheets and clippings rounded off with more foreign covers in ‘Gallery Feature – Gottfredson’s World: Strange Tales of Late 1931’, ‘The Cast: Pluto’ and a stunning Christmas message from the Mouse as per “I have it on good authority” giving Gottfredson himself the last word.

Superb work of scholarship and a damn fine read too…

Gottfredson’s influence on not just the Disney canon but sequential graphic narrative itself is inestimable: he was among the first to produce long continuities and “straight” adventures; he pioneered team-ups and invented some of the first “super-villains” in the business.

When Disney killed the continuities in 1955, dictating that henceforth strips would only contain one-off gag strips, he adapted seamlessly, working on until retirement in 1975. His last daily appeared on November 15th and the final Sunday strip on September 19th 1976.

Like all Disney creators Gottfredson worked in utter anonymity, but in the 1960s his identity was revealed and the voluble appreciation of his previously unsuspected horde of devotees led to interviews, overviews and public appearances, with effect that subsequent reprinting in books, comics and albums carried a credit for the quiet, reserved master. Floyd Gottfredson died in July 1986.

Thankfully we now have these Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Archives collection to enjoy and inspire us and hopefully a whole new generation of inveterate tale-tellers…
© 2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc Text of “In the Beginning: Ub Iwerks and the Birth of Mickey Mouse” by Thomas Andrae is © 2011 Thomas Andrae. All contents © 2011 Disney Enterprises unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.