Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE: "RACE TO DEATH VALLEY" by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Press, 2011)

High-quality newspaper comic-strip reprint projects have become so commonplace in recent years that there may be an unconscious tendency among some readers to simply lump Fantagraphics' new FLOYD GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY in with the crowd. This temptation should be avoided with extreme prejudice. Of all the comics libraries I've seen, this one has by far the most complete and diverse collection of ancillary material. The intrigue of reading the earliest (1930-1931) MICKEY MOUSE strips (including a number written by Walt Disney himself) in restored and remastered form would have been reason enough to pick this book up, but the essays, commentaries, character sketches, and archival features all add immeasurably to one's appreciation of Gottfredson, the creator who invented the funny-animal adventure genre. Only some of the LIBRARY OF AMERICAN COMICS collections come close to this in terms of being a "total package." I'm glad to see Fantagraphics, which has dropped the ball badly on ancillaries in its COMPLETE PEANUTS series and has relied a bit too heavily on previously existing material in its POPEYE collection, taking the hint from IDW and rising to the challenge in the increasingly heated "reprint wars." Hopefully, the company will continue the trend in the upcoming Carl Barks collections.

The volume includes the pre-Gottfredson continuity-of-sorts "Mickey Mouse on a Desert Island" by Disney, Ub Iwerks, and Win Smith, but fittingly stows it away in the archival section. Instead, the first Gottfredson-influenced continuity, "Mickey Mouse in Death Valley," receives pride of place. Once Floyd takes over the writing duties from a too-busy Disney, the classic strip slowly begins to emerge, though, at this early stage, Gottfredson is just as interested in learning how his characters operate as in putting them through adventurous paces. "Death Valley" and the gypsy-infested "The Ransom Plot" are the only continuities here that can even tangentially be described as "exotic." Most of the rest of the action is set in and around the city that would become Mouseton and is rooted in quasi-domestic situations that could easily have arisen in contemporary cartoons: Mickey becomes a circus roustabout, tutors a laid-back boxing champion, helps Clarabelle Cow run a boarding house, etc. When he is responsible for dialogue as well as plotting, Gottfredson at first has a distinct tendency to overwrite, but he seems to be getting this tic under control by the volume's close.

The Mickey we see here is a slightly tamer version of the scrappy rapscallion of the early shorts, with one glaring exception. "Mickey Mouse vs. Kat Nipp" finds Mickey determined to best a pugnacious newcomer to the neighborhood by fair means or foul; a most disreputable battle of wits results. The scenario is a bit like Barks' Neighbor Jones stories in that Mickey more or less welcomes the antagonism and thus can be held at least partially responsible for a number of the things that subsequently befall him. Any number of cartoon stars have been made to look bad in this manner, of course, but seeing Mickey lean so precipitously over the "jackhasm" takes some getting used to!

Butch, a reformed moak who serves as Mickey's uncouth-yet-lovable pal in several 1931 stories, will no doubt be unfamiliar to a number of casual readers, but it's worth considering how the strip -- heck, how the history of Disney -- would have evolved had this character had more staying power. As it was, Butch sneaked his way into a publicity picture that was advertised in the strip and subsequently given away in the thousands, indicating that his fate was at a "tipping point" of sorts. He also appeared at the start of the "Circus Roustabout" continuity but then abruptly vanished, not to be seen again for many decades. What would have happened had Butch really caught on? Would the retention of Butch have meant that Goofy would never have been created? How would Butch's "dem, dese, and dose" patois have worn with audiences, compared with Goofy's hick accent? Would the fact that Butch was an ex-villain have ultimately been suppressed and Butch turned into a generic "lovable lug," only to have some "alternate-universe fanboy" later rip the scab off "the awful truth"? So might we speculate on how the history of America might have been altered had the Pilgrims landed on Manhattan Island, as they were supposed to.

Regarding the extras: The essays are a nice balance of single-story intros (by David Gerstein), reflective pieces (by Thomas Andrae), personal appreciations (by Warren Spector and Floyd Norman), and "out-there" esoterica ("interviews" with the cartoon stars). Among the particularly precious paraphernalia are some original penciled roughs by Gottfredson, the model sheet on which Ub Iwerks sketched the first images of Mickey and Minnie, and a cavalcade of covers from foreign reprint books, mostly Italian (I now begin to understand why Mussolini was so unwilling to ban the strip in Italy). There are thumbnail biographies of all the creators associated with the strip during this period, but, if you want to know exactly who was responsible for penciling and/or inking a specific strip, you'll only find that information in the table of contents. Likewise, it would have been interesting to have learned more about specific non-Disney creators who influenced Gottfredson's approach and humor style. For example, Gottfredson once cited the appearance of the black children "The Blots" in the strip JERRY ON THE JOB as having given him the germ of the idea that led to The Phantom Blot. It appears to me, however, as if that strip may have also influenced Gottfredson's frequent use of "nutty" background gags and signs -- perhaps even MICKEY's early style of lettering. Perhaps this connection should be explored in the future.

The GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY is off to a grand start and I dole out "gobs of good wishes" to everyone involved in the project.

1 comment:

ramapith said...

How would Butch's "dem, dese, and dose" patois have worn with audiences, compared with Goofy's hick accent?

It would have been interesting to hear it rendered by a voice artist. I kinda imagine Butch sounding like comedian Billy Murray (especially in this character part).