Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE CLASSICS: MOUSE TAILS (Boom! Kids, 2010)

CHRISTMAS CLASSICS may have beaten it into print by a couple of months, but this unquestionably ranks as Boom!'s first true Disney comics "classic." Its production values are far superior to those of the Christmas volume; it features a fine cross-section of MICKEY MOUSE comics stories from (almost) the beginning to the present day, including Carl Barks' only MICKEY story; and, I'm happy to say, it displays a sense of history that provides a sound counterpoint to the superheroics, spy capers, and wizardry of Boom! Kids' "New Direction" newsstand releases. Though none of Mickey's most truly memorable heroic moments are reproduced here -- indeed, the cliched scenario of "Mickey saving the day," which is trumpeted in the back-cover blurb, is conspicuous by its relative absence -- MOUSE TAILS succeeds admirably in its stated intent to help readers "acquaint [themselves] with the mouse of yesterday to better understand the Mickey of today."

As he should, Floyd Gottfredson gets pride of front-of-the-book place with the reprinting of a continuity from early 1931, Mickey Mouse vs. Kat Nipp. Neither Gladstone, Gemstone, nor Disney Comics ever got around to giving us this opus, and its only previous reprinting in the U.S., in a 1934 David McKay volume, omitted a number of strips. Gottfredson was just getting his feet under him as a writer, and it must have seemed natural to pit feisty Mickey against the preening bully Kat Nipp, who'd appeared in several Mickey cartoons a couple of years earlier. In a sense, Mickey deserves the somewhat painful treatment meted out to him, as he insisted on finding out the identity of the hidden Nipp -- the self-proclaimed "toufest (sic) guy in the county" -- even after being victimized by a number of booby traps. The gags are very much of the animated-cartoon variety, but Floyd milks a surprising amount of mileage out of the simple scenario, especially after "nepeta cataria" is shown to be Nipp's great weakness. It's funny stuff, if not particularly profound, and David Gerstein's brief afterword is much appreciated.

One of my favorite stories in the short-lived Gladstone Comics digest line was Ken Hultgren's 1943 adventure, Mickey Mouse and the Seven-Colored Terror. The muddy coloring and poor reproduction couldn't hide the quality of Hultgren's artwork (and it was real quality; Hultgren drew several beautiful BAMBI comics at about this same time and handled "funny animals" every bit as well). MOUSE TAILS gives Hultgren's tale the quality reprinting it's long deserved. Since Hultgren also wrote the story, Terror (and its backup stories in FOUR COLOR #27, The Great Swami Moo-Lah and Villain of the Victory Garden, which I also hope to see reprinted someday) is an artifact of a great "might-have-been" in American Disney comics history. Had Hultgren stayed with Western, rather than going off to script and draw now-forgotten animal characters for most of the rest of the 1940s, might he have developed into the Mouse version of Carl Barks? He certainly doesn't write a "formulaic" Mickey, depicting the Mouse's quest to solve the mystery of the headlined "monster" of idyllic Lake Tranquil as a product of Mickey's headstrong (albeit always well-intentioned) nature. Hultgren has a nice way with words -- "I've got to use my brains, or a reasonable facsimile," grumbles Mickey at one point -- and even characterizes the minor players well. Topping it all off is an unexpected wartime tie-in, as the "Terror" winds up being connected to a search for a rubber substitute. There's only one false note: when Mickey has a climactic fistfight with the putative villain of the piece, the "sounds of the battle" apparently can be heard for an amazingly long distance! Kermit Washington didn't hit Rudy Tomjanovich nearly as hard.

Asked to draw Mickey due to wartime manpower shortages, Carl Barks drew and scripted The Riddle of the Red Hat (FOUR COLOR #79, 1945), then immediately forgot it. "My old pay vouchers prove I did do the work," he commented 25 years later, "so I'll puff out my chest and brag that I did a pretty fair Mickey and Goofy." They're actually better than fair, though some have claimed to have found swipes from Gottfredson in several character poses. Barks' dialogue is decent, as well. Where this story (which was reprinted not that long ago as a Gemstone contribution to "Free Comic Book Day") falls short is in the plotting, which appears to have been the work of Western managing editor Eleanor Packer. Mickey and Minnie's involvement in a jewel-thieving caper turns entirely upon the improbable coincidence of Minnie and her crazy new hat looking the same (from the back) as a female jewel courier. Chester Gould would be proud, but Barks probably wouldn't have thought up so clumsy a device himself, even at this early stage of his career. At least we get to see Mickey and Minnie packing heat when they corner the crooks (among whose number is Pete, though he's just a hired goon in this case).

The inclusion of Romano Scarpa's Lost in the Microcosmos (1957) in a volume supposedly devoted to examples of Mickey's "just generally saving the day" is a bit curious, as it's Eega Beeva who does most of the heavy lifting (or traveling, in his microscopic sort-of-spacecraft), especially early in the story. Mickey, Eega, and Chief O'Hara have to cooperate to foil a counterfeiting scheme masterminded by an "old fiend" disguised as a fruit salesman with a surprisingly stereotypical Italian accent (not to mention a mustache that disappears and reappears at least once). Dialogue mavens David Gerstein and Jonathan Gray are hereby sentenced to 100 lashes with a wet piece of linguine for their un-progressive transgression. They do, however, deserve credit for giving a semi-scientific basis to a weird "microcosmic" scene in which multiple microscopic copies of the villain go on a rampage. In Carl Fallberg and Paul Murry's The Last-Minute Mutiny (1959), Mickey likewise is drawn into the story as opposed to making it happen, with Goofy inviting him to participate in a ship-sailing contest to celebrate the founding of Mouseton "by thuh early Spanish explorers five hundred years ago!". Mickey more than gets his (sword) licks in before the end, though, as he and Goofy foil (heh) an attempt by the inevitable Pete to pilfer the prize. Fallberg and Murry did better stories than this, but it's wholly representative of their output.

The volume's last offering (apart from a handful of newspaper and strip gags), Byron Erickson and Cesar Ferioli's Trading Faces (2008), is by far its strangest. Erickson and Ferioli have teamed up Mickey and Donald Duck before, and in that adventure story they played with the theme of Donald resenting the two pals' diametrically opposed experiences of good fortune. Here, the entire story turns on the latter notion. Thanks to Gyro Gearloose's "holographic body switchers," Don and Mick spend virtually the entire story in one another's bodies (so to speak). Convinced that "Fate doesn't like my face!", Don wants to prove his theory by watching Mickey absorb punishment while clad in Duck feathers. The real charm of this tale is watching Ferioli (who also provides MOUSE TAILS' cover) tackle the task of portraying Mickey displaying Donald-like emotions while Donald "underplays" scenes as Mickey would under the circs. If any modern artist could pull that off, Ferioli could, and he does. It's not an adventure or anything close to it, but it's a nice way of tying Mickey into the other main segment of the Disney comics "universe."

If MOUSE TAILS is any indication of what is to come from Boom!'s hardback "classics" line, then that segment of the Boom! Disney line, at least, is in sure hands. My review of the next (in chronological order of reception, that is) release, VALENTINE CLASSICS, will appear in this space soon.

2 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

Very glad to hear that the Mickey volume turned out so well!

I have good reason to believe that the upcoming Donald volume will be just as pleasing! Hint! Hint!

I’ve just ordered both from Amazon!

Their price is 16.49 per book -- and well worth ordering, especially if you qualify for Super Saver Free Shipping for orders over 25.00.

Everyone, just do it!

Joe.

ramapith said...

Re: stereotypical Italian accent—Jon and I were in fact being authentic to Scarpa, who gave Pete an intentionally overblown, fake-sounding accent in the original Italian, too.

(Interesting point: in Italian, that accent was Spanish—but the costume suggested the Italian bit players spotted in Gottfredson stories of the 1930s and 1940s.
Alberto Becattini, ace Italian Disney scholar, cleared up the dichotomy by explaining to me that those bit-players had been translated as Spaniards in Italy—so to be properly faithful to tradition while going in the opposite direction, Scarpa's half-baked "Spaniard" should become a half-baked "Italian" in English.)