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The Godfather

By: Michael Taube
April 10, 2019

"I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse." (Walt Disney)

ickey Mouse, Walt Disney Studios’s most famous creation, publicly debuted in the animated short Steamboat Willie (1928). One of the early “talkies,” it remains one of the greatest cartoons ever made. It’s impossible not to smile when you hear Mickey whistle enchantingly while captaining the steamboat, or watch his girlfriend Minnie wind the tail of a goat to make it play the old folk song “Turkey in the Straw.”

The Mouse’s might grew with each well-received animated short, so much so that King Features Syndicate approached Walt Disney in 1930 about starting a comic strip. Ub Iwerks handled the art and Win Smith the inking. When Iwerks left after the 18th strip to start his own animation studio, Smith served in a dual role that, quite frankly, didn’t strike his fancy.

Disney had to find a replacement. A new studio hire, Floyd Gottfredson, was asked to fill the role temporarily. What was originally supposed to be a few weeks at best turned into a 45-year run of wonderful stories and artwork.

Mickey Mouse: The Greatest Adventures is an exceptional compilation made especially for Mickey’s 90th birthday. It’s part of a long-running series by Fantagraphics Books, the well-respected U.S. comics publisher, to reproduce Gottfredson’s entire stewardship with the mouse’s funny page version. Comics historian David Gerstein wrote in the book’s front essay that these strips were “vitally influential on how fans perceived Disney characters. Moviegoers only got to see a dozen new Mickey Mouse cartoons every year, but they could read Mickey’s comics every day.” Gottfredson was likely aware of the role he had to play and the key to his success was related to the development of a “tone, a technique, and a characterization of Mickey that kept readers coming back.”

Gottfredson’s Mickey was rather different than Walt’s version. “That earlier version of Mickey, like his successor, was often propelled into fights against crime—but with a personality as rich as Sherlock’s own,” wrote Gerstein. “That Mickey’s character and charisma made for much more memorable mysteries. That Mickey boasted an endearing attitude at once positive and cynical. That Mickey was inquisitive, adventurous, trailblazing, selfless—and funny.”

Indeed, that Mickey is what readers will discover with every turn of the page.

As an added incentive, the original black-and-white strips have been fully colorized for the first time; this choice might cause traditionalists consternation, but their fears are unnecessary. The painstaking task of adding a splashy color scheme has, in fact, helped produce a superb volume of work. To see Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and other Disney characters the way we remember them on the silver screen and in comic books is a glorious sight to behold.

Many classic Mickey Mouse comic strip adventures have been included in this book.

“Mickey Mouse in Death Valley,” which ran from April 1 until September 20, 1930, was the first story arc to which Gottfredson contributed. He was the third illustrator on this project (following Smith and Jack King), and would permanently replace Walt Disney when he put away his pen-and-ink set for the last time. Once he was in complete control of the strip, Mickey’s determination, confidence level, and sleuthing skills dramatically changed.

Gerstein noted in the book’s concluding essay that Gottfredson “had grown up with Horatio Alger’s boys’ novels—stories of overwhelmed lads pushing back at Dickensian hardship.” Hence, a braver Mickey emerges in this memorable story in which he and Minnie meet the lawyer Sylvester Shyster, who tells Minnie that she’s the sole heir to her uncle Mortimer’s estate. The two have to fend off Shyster, who wants the property for himself, as well as Peg-Leg Pete and his gang of ruffians. It turns out that the evildoers are in fact seeking Mortimer’s gold mine, and Mickey and Minnie—aided by a mysterious individual called “the Fox”—must find a way to keep it in the family.   

“While Gottfredson always took care to remind us that Mickey was still young and fun loving,” Gerstein noted, “Mickey was also increasingly aware of his potential for adult accomplishment—and his struggle to achieve was often placed front and center.” This sense of identity and self-worth would remain with the comic strip version throughout the animator’s tenure.

“Island in the Sky” is an equally enjoyable story arc that ran from November 30, 1936 until April 3, 1937. In it, Mickey and Goofy purchase an airplane with some recently-earned reward money, and are surprised to see a man driving a car in the air. They eventually discovered the driver’s private island in the sky, and he reveals himself to be a brilliant scientist named Doctor Einmug. He’s invented a formula that creates atomic force, and many people would like nothing more than to get their hands on it—including Mickey’s archenemy, Peg-Leg Pete.

Gerstein observed that Mickey’s personality and heroism had been modified in this story. His maturity level has increased, and he’s “more cautious, more aware of the potential gains and threats” that Einmug’s atomic power holds. At the same time, he “acts the idealistic naif, in an effort to pacify Einmug, with actual idealism but very little naïveté.” He also serves an important comedic role, “because a more mature Mickey is also a funnier straight man for comedic crises.” To put it another way, “Gottfredson evolves from laughing at Mickey to laughing with Mickey—or, just as often, groaning with him—at everything else.”

Other stories in Mickey Mouse: The Greatest Adventures include long story arcs (“The Gleam”) and shorter tales (“The Picnic”). In each instance, new layers are added to Mickey’s character to make him more complex and intriguing. His adventures were pure fantasy from start to finish, but Gottfredson’s wise decision to give him human-like traits may have helped endear Mickey to a much wider audience.

Mickey Mouse has changed several times since his long-time cartoonist stepped down from his duties in 1975, and passed away in 1986. That being said, the modern mouse has shifted back to a distinctly Gottfredson persona. Today’s Mickey “explores challenges that seem too big,” wrote Gerstein, “take on threats that are clearly too dangerous, and race through a world that looms too large for a little guy.”

In the Disneyfied world of all things Mickey Mouse, a confident, comedic, and heroic version is the best one we could hope to get.