Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE, VOLUME 2: TRAPPED ON TREASURE ISLAND by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Press, 2011)

Volume 2 of Fantagraphics' GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY, which takes us up through the beginning of 1934, maintains the high production standards and copious ancillaries of the first volume. Its most signature achievement, however, is the delicacy with which it defuses the explosive racial stereotypes that litter "The Great Orphanage Robbery" and "Treasure Island," the two lengthy stories that take up much of 1932. "Presentist" hand-wringing and moral preening is kept to a minimum, and the black caricatures -- the "Uncle Tom" costumes that our heroes don to raise funds in "Orphanage Robbery," the incongruously Southern-accented cannibals of "Treasure Island" -- are "explained" and placed in historical context in a straightforward fashion.

As GeoX's exhaustive analysis of "Orphanage Robbery" makes clear, that story's cachet has mostly to do with the "notorious" blackface bits; the story itself is "bitty" and constructed in a rather ramshackle fashion, with a bizarrely cruel edge to boot. (It'll be harder for me to rip on the ineptitude of the police forces of Duckburg and St. Canard in the future after seeing what passed for "justice" in 1932 Mouseton.) "Treasure Island" isn't much better, but, as that story draws to an end, the classic MICKEY strip of the 30s literally begins to take shape with the arrival of Ted Thwaites as Gottfredson's inker. For some reason, Thwaites has not yet been included among those creators who rate mini-bios in the back of the book. I certainly hope that this oversight is remedied in the next volume, for the "slicker" look of the post-1932 MICKEY owes quite a bit to Thwaites.

"Blaggard Castle," with its ante-upping themes of mind control, madness, murder, and would-be world domination, is rightly flagged as a turning point in terms of the strip's being able to handle more "serious" themes. A few seams, like those in the Frankenstein monster's neck, still show; what good would it do for mad Professors Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex to sanction widespread homicide after receiving their "food, and jewels, and gold"? Have the crack-brained schemes of Big-O and Claw taught us nothing? As effective and chilling as this Gothic tale is, the classy "The Mail Pilot" has echoed more insistently down through the years, featuring as it does (1) the debut of Mickey's aerial ally Captain Doberman, (2) the birth of the surefire theme of Mickey getting into a great adventure while trying to master a risky trade, and (3) the first use of the "sky pirate" theme in a Disney context (cf. TaleSpin and Treasure Planet). I'd put this tale up against any of the stories in the "daring aviator" strips of the time insofar as quality and excitement are concerned. "Mickey's Horse Tanglefoot" and "The Crazy Crime Wave," the last two stories in this volume, are similarly polished and professional, with the latter introducing Dippy Dawg (Goofy) as the "Perfect Fool Foil" who will tag-team with Mickey throughout most of the rest of The Mouse's comics career. To be sure, Dippy isn't as endearing in "Crime Wave" as he would become -- an indignant Mickey literally boots him out of doors at one point -- but the classic cast is now rounding nicely into shape. Even the mini-continuity "Pluto and the Dogcatcher," which bridges the gap between "Blaggard Castle" and "The Mail Pilot," contains more than its share of interesting features: to wit, a Pluto who "thinks out loud" (was Gottfredson the first creator to show a dog doing this?) and a dogcatcher who resembles a lower-class version of Pete (as if such a thing were possible).

Tom Andrae's opening essay emphasizes, with good reason, how Gottfredson "spun off" many of his early narratives from the plots of animated cartoons. IMHO, however, the MICKEY strip truly became "great" once Gottfredson gained the confidence to craft his own plots. In that respect, "The Crazy Crime Wave" may be the single most important story in this volume. Unlike some of the earlier, choppier "original" stories, "Crime Wave" doggedly follows a single throughline to an amusingly clever payoff, and the gags sprinkled throughout are character-based (Mickey vs. the arrogant big-city detectives Barke and Howell; Mickey in "wars of wits" with his unarmed ally Dippy), as opposed to being inspired by animated slapstick. Having established to his own satisfaction that he had found a winning formula that would work on the printed page just as well as Mickey's rowdy early cartoons worked on the screen, Gottfredson leaves "Crime Wave" well positioned to move confidently into his -- and the strip's -- golden years.

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

As I said in response to GeoX, “The Law” sure turned on Mickey quite regularly in those early days! “Death Valley”, “Mr. Slicker”, and now this.

We know it was a popular film trend to be on the “wrong side” (by design or circumstance): “Little Caesar”, “The Public Enemy”, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, etc. But Mickey was ahead of the curve, even on some of those! He was almost Robinson, Cagney, and Muni all rolled into one! And, back then, the poor guy couldn’t even use Chief O’Hara as a character witness!

Great observation on Gottfredson as possibly the first comics creator to have a dog “think out loud”!

I sometimes say, when discussing older movies and citing their influences on future products of entertainment, “Everything had to come from somewhere!”, and maybe Schulz’s Snoopy owes a heretofore unacknowledged debt to Gottfredson’s Pluto!