Monday, June 13, 2011

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley

By Floyd Gottfredson (with Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and countless others). Originally serialized in various newspapers from January 13, 1930 - January 9, 1932. Edited by David Gerstein and Gary Groth. Released by Fantagraphics.

This has been another one of those long-awaited collections of comic strips. Perhaps not as long as Pogo (still tapping my fingers there, Fantagraphics), but nevertheless many folks have been clamoring for years to see Gottfredson's work in sequence, especially those who feel he was unfairly forgotten in comparison to Carl Barks, the most famous Disney comic book artist. (The two aren't all that similar, but we'll get to that when Fantagraphics puts out the Barks books later this year.) And now we have it, and one could not have asked for a better presentation, with the reproduction about as good as it gets for 80-year-old comic strips, and a veritable plethora of extras.

I'm a big fan of early cartoons. Not just the classic Disney and Warners cartoons we all grew up on television with, but the ones that were rarely shown, the black and white 'let's all sing and dance and bounce around for 7 minutes' type of cartoon. Leaving aside my love of music, I feel there's a wonderful simplicity to these types of cartoons, where you don't have to worry too hard about realism or motivations, you can just sit back and watch the fun. And that's sort of the cartoons Disney was making about 1930 - Mickey was only 2 years old, and though Disney's shorts were miles ahead of everyone else, he was still singing songs, getting into scrapes, that sort of thing. Goofy was a good 2 years away, Donald 4. It was just Mickey and Minnie (and sometimes Pluto later on), having fun, getting into misunderstandings, and sometimes battling evil villains like Pegleg Pete.

It's rather startling, therefore, to see the amount of depth we get in these comic strips presented here. Oh, it's not huge - no need to worry about Mickey on paper being like Apartment 3-G - but you actually do see the characters worry about things like the economy, or trying to figure out their futures. Mickey's fire chief is overworked (as he's also the chief of police, justice of the peace, postmaster, etc.) and trying to get folks married, so it can get him some extra cash (justices of the peace are paid more!). Mickey tries to hook up Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, and amongst his reasoning is the idea of combining their income. These Mickey Mouse comics never forget what year they're set in.

Speaking of Horace and Clarabelle, the lack of Goofy and Donald means that they're still major characters at this point, even more so than in the cartoons, and they're an absolute stitch, albeit a cliched one. The comic strips rely very much on stereotypes and vaudevillian-type gags for their humor, and so Clarabelle is a prissy gossip who is easily flattered (and duped), while Horace is as stubborn as a mule, and tends to regard women in the classic "Dames. Go figure." mode. And yes, they're all the human-size talking animal types, excepting Pluto. Generally this isn't noticeable, except in one bit where Mickey has to imitate a cat, and gets a bunch of cats surrounding him when he does - the sight of his large form with these small cats is very odd indeed.

I also found the language in these strips extraordinary. Leaving aside the fact that people eighty years ago spoke differently than we do today, the sheer metaphor used by Mickey, especially in the beginning strips, boggles the mind. "Wow. She must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle." "Every time he takes off his hat, the woodpeckers chase him!" I think it reflect a sort of odd fusion of Walt's midwestern slang and Floyd Gottfredson's own Utah-style - as well as the current slang of Los Angeles, no doubt. Given that in these comic strips, these characters tend to be far more talkative than their on-screen counterparts (no doubt because they didn't have to be animated and dubbed), there is a sheer volubility in the strips that almost overwhelms you. I felt the urge several times to read the dialogue aloud.

There's a huge PILE of extras presented here. In addition to the expected biographical detail on Gottfredson, which is fantastic, we get pictures of comic book covers used in European reprints of the cartoons, brief bios of the other inkers and writers involved in the strip, examinations of Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto, and even a 1932 interview with Mickey Mouse that was written up as publicity, along with one in 1931 for Pluto! David Gerstein is already well known for his painstaking detail, but he really goes above and beyond here.

One of the extras presented is the first 2 months of Mickey strips, which were done by Walt and Ub Iwerks. Presented separately here partly as the book is much better off for starting with the high-paced and exciting Race to Death Valley, and partly as it has Mickey battling a bunch of stock cannibals. As the book notes, 1930 is not 2011, and stereotypical racist humor was just something everyone did then, one of the bags of stock gags that writers reached into. So, along with Clarabelle getting the standard 'female' gags, and Horace the 'male' ones, we also see "uggle biggle boogle" South Seas Island natives. In the main strips, we also get some gypsies, along with Clarabelle and Horace discussing the dichotomy between "They're just evil and want your money" vs. "Oh, the romantic life they all lead!" that was present in the United States at the time. Naturally, since Mickey needs to battle stock villains, they turn out to be the former in this book. The volume takes pains to note when the strip is getting "politically incorrect", but does not censor, for which I am grateful, as I would rather experience the prejudices of a different time then simply cover them over.

To sum up, anyone who likes Disney, cartoons, or comic strips will find tons of things to love about this. The comics are exciting adventure strips for the most part, though there's a lot of standard "gag" stuff as well. Heck, at one point Minnie almost gets ground into paste by a giant pestle thing, something I found far more terrifying than the standard 'tied to a log headed for a saw" fate of most plucky heroines. A terrific book, highly recommended.

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