Here's Mickey!

The Mouse in Comics

Mickey Mouse, that genial star who launched the Walt Disney empire, has enjoyed a varied career since his earliest appearances in the animated features Gallopin' Gaucho and Steamboat Willie 71 years ago. Over time he's acted in over 130 movies, appeared on television on countless occasions, and has featured on numerous videos and records. Because of the sheer breath of his public life, it's impossible to cover all the aspects of Mickey Mouse in a single article. Today's feature covers just one aspect of his career, the comic strip.

It's not exactly certain how Mickey was born. We know of course, that he got his start in Walt Disney's imagination, but there are a number of differing origin stories. One version recounts the time when, in 1928, Walt, accompanied by his wife Lillian, was returning by train from New York to Hollywood, after a meeting with his distributor. The journey back may have been somewhat depressing because Disney had just lost the rights to one of his leading characters, Oswald the Rabbit (who wound up at the Walter Lantz studio). As the train headed west, Disney, faced with a diminishing bank account and with nothing to animate, began a series of idea sketches, finally coming up with... "Mortimer Mouse!".

According to an interview in McCall's magazine years later, Lillian recalled that she had thought that Mortimer was a terrible name, and prevailed upon Walt to try something else. The second attempt was a far more acceptable alternative: Mickey Mouse.

Mickey's first cartoon, Plane Crazy, premiered on May 15, 1928, but the third cartoon, Steamboat Willie, an early "talkie" of 1929, really launched the Mouse on his relentless march to fame, not to mention laying the foundations of the Disney empire of animation that was to follow.

After Mickey's successful film debut, a King Features syndicate executive became interested in Mickey as a newspaper comic strip. Felix the Cat, another animated cartoon character (created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan studio) had made the transition from film frame to comics panel, and King Features decided that there was room for a mouse as well.

On January 13, 1930 Mickey Mouse made his first comic strip appearance in The New York Mirror, as a daily. In the first few weeks all the Mickey strips were scripted by Disney himself. Animator Ub Iwerks handled the art for the first month, with Win Smith as inker. Iwerks, however, dropped the job to found his own company, followed by Smith. Disney was faced with the necessity of finding a replacement

The new artist was Floyd Gottfredson, and the artist (who had been hired only a few short months earlier) turned out to be the ideal choice. Gottfredson, previously working in Southern California as a movie projectionist, was born in Utah in 1907. He had first gotten interested in cartooning after a childhood hunting accident that resulted in limiting him to home for a few months. Bored by the forced confinement, he turned to drawing as a form of self-entertainment.

Although his parents didn't encourage him, Gottfredson was allowed to enroll in various art correspondence courses and, after more formal training, had learned enough to begin selling cartoons to trade journals and newspapers. After winning a cartoon contest in 1928, the young artist felt confident enough of his abilities to head west for employment in Los Angeles --to no avail. "There were seven major newspapers there,but I couldn't get a job at any of them."  Forced to work as projectionist for the next year, Gottfredson heard that the Disney studio was looking for new talent. "I rushed home to get my portfolio, went to the studio, and got a job that afternoon."

At first Gottfredson worked as an animation "inbetweener," but when Disney heard he was interested in handling the strip duties, the youngster was given his chance. It was a fortunate decision. Gottfredson fully expected that the assignment would only last a few months, never dreaming that it was the start of a job that would last for over forty five years. He started on Mickey Mouse on May 5, 1930, continuing on with the Mouse's adventures until his retirement in 1975.

Gottfredson wasted no time in launching Mickey into a tradition of adventurous exploits, as well as introducing a large cast of regular characters that had originated in the animated features. Every hero needs a heroine to rescue and that, of course, was Minnie Mouse (no relation). And then there was Goofy, Mickey's dimwitted but big-hearted sidekick who had first appeared in the cartoon Mickey's Revue (1932) as Dippy Dog. Other characters were Pluto (the only animal in the strip who walked on all fours and didn't speak), Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, and Mickey's frequent nemesis, the arch-villain Peg Leg Pete --a cat, naturally! (Pete eventually regrew his missing limb, becoming Black Pete, since Gottfredson had trouble remembering whether the peg leg was left or right.)

In the first few weeks of Mickey Mouse, the strip had largely consisted of a series of disconnected gags. With Gottfredson at the helm, Mickey soon plunged into a world of adventure, starting with Mickey Mouse in Death Valley. Mickey became a rootin'-tootin' go-getter, plunging into a series of adventures down through the years that involved mad scientists, air pirates, ghosts, and wild west owlhoots, to name just a few. As comics historian Bill Blackbeard noted, "It was a death-defying, tough, steel-gutted Mickey Mouse."

In 1932, the first all-color, full-page Sunday Mickey Mouse appeared, three years before Mickey's first technicolor film. Gottfredson worked on Mickey’s adventures there as well, until he eventually dropped doing the page six years later, replaced by Manuel Gonzales, who capably handled the strip until 1981.

In 1932 other scripters were brought in to assist Gottfredson, who continued to handle the plots. One of his art assistants was Dick Moores, who would go on to become a top Mouse cartoonist in his own right, eventually doing an award winning job on Gasoline Alley, a strip he inherited from retiring Frank King.

Gottfredson's Mickey continued on fighting such awesome adversaries like shyster Eli Squinch, The Phantom Blot, and Captain Vulture, with settings ranging from floating islands to haunted castles --until the early 1950s when King Features issued a brilliant edict eliminating the use of action-adventure in humorous strips. It was an act akin to killing the Golden Goose, for Gottfredson had little aptitude for spot-gags. The popularity of the strip nose-dived. Let's hear it for executive decisions!

While this was happening in the comic strip, Mickey got a new lease on the adventurous life in a comic book, Walt Disney's Comics And Stories, with tales drawn by Paul Murray that continued with the Gottfredson flair for action. The comic folded in 1984, but was revived by Bruce Hamilton's Gemstone Publishing in 1986. Mickey's adventures continued in the nineties under the Disney comic line edited by Len Wein and Bob (Myron Moose) Foster.

After Gottfredson's retirement in 1975, the daily strip was written by Del Connell and drawn by Roman Arambula. Mickey's strips still continue to be reprinted both in the United States and Europe Looking back, Floyd Gottfredson will probably be long remembered for his contribution to Mickey's legend. "Mickey was my very exciting and satisfying companion for nearly forty-six years," he once said, "And he is still very much alive and well."

--Steve Stiles