Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE, VOLUME 4: HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAUNTS by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics, 2012)

It's high-gear, open-throttle Gottfredson all the way in this latest volume, which covers a fertile period that sees the pupil-less Gottfredson Mouse scale his highest heights.  With the exception of the ethnically dodgy and relatively uninteresting "In Search of Jungle Treasure," every continuity herein can be considered a classic.  I admit that it requires something a stretch to admit "Oscar the Ostrich" into this pantheon of deathless works, but that story can certainly be considered a classic of its kind (the "Mickey unwillingly adopts a destructive animal" gambit or the "Mickey inadvertently gets in trouble with the law" trope -- your choice), and the "battle royal on the track" that wraps up the brief tale fills in the deficit of meaningful incident with all-out slapstick fun.  Gottfredson gives us some of his best-realized one-shot characters -- the reclusive atom-aligner Dr. Einmug of "Island in the Sky", the corpulent Southern gentlehound Colonel Bassett of "The Seven Ghosts," the round-eared reprobate replica King Michael XIV, aka "The Monarch of Medioka" -- in these stories, even as he is making some significant moves on the chessboard in terms of realigning Mickey's stable of supporting players.  In short, if you only get ONE volume in this collection covering the button-eyed period, then this is the one.  (However, if you PLAN to get only one volume in this collection, then perhaps you should reconsider!)

Many folks would probably argue that "Island in the Sky," aka "The Sky Adventure," is the best continuity in this volume.  It's certainly had the hardiest afterlife, as Joe Torcivia describes in great detail here.  The memorable characterization of Dr. Einmug -- which Gottfredson, remarkably, never saw fit to use again, though he's popped up a couple of times in more recent Mouse stories -- certainly distinguishes the tale and gives it a genuine note of tragedy, with the good Doctor ultimately realizing that his discovery of unlimited power holds only unlimited potential for evil in a fallen world.  From a technical standpoint, "Island" may also be considered a key story in that it is here that fully-realized Goofy takes over the role of Mickey's major sidekick.  Previously, Goofy (born Dippy Dawg) had been but one of a number of cast members, and not a particularly likable one at that.  The "classic" comics Goofy, he of the humorously twisted logic and slow-but-not-quite-that-slow brain, finally begins to snap into focus during "The Seven Ghosts," an enjoyable shout-out to the great Mickey-Donald-Goofy team-up cartoons of the era (not to mention an historical touchstone for future exploiters of the "phony ghost" trope).  Goofy's development came just in time; with Donald moving off to his own comic strip, such old standbys as Horace Horsecollar quietly being phased out, and Minnie becoming steadily more "domesticated," a new male partner was sorely needed to accompany Mickey in high adventure.  "Island in the Sky" points the way to a number of Mickey-Goofy team-ups to come, and it just may be the best of the lot.  In my opinion, however, it's not the best story in this collection.  That particular palm has to go to "Monarch of Medioka."

"Medioka" would have earned cachet even if it had been an average story, thanks to its having sparked an international incident in which Yugoslavian censors found that the story of an irresponsible king and a would-be usurper cut a little too close to the bone and pulled the MICKEY strip out of local papers.  Thankfully, it's much more than a curio, with Gottfredson kidding political doubletalk, irritating protocol, and other such "official" nonsense at considerable length.  "Medioka" might be considered an earlier, and somewhat milder version, of the savage satire of human cupidity that Gottfredson would later dish up in "The Miracle Master."  In that latter case, the audience didn't have the luxury of laughing off the gags as the product of some comic-opera European kingdom; the sins uncovered by the genie's largesse were much more universal in nature.  "Medioka" has more of the flavor of one of Roy Crane's mock-serious continuities in WASH TUBBS or CAPTAIN EASY.  It's still quite biting, though.  In one of her last really significant roles in a newspaper-strip adventure story, Minnie comes storming into the picture at the end (for perfectly selfish reasons; she learns of the roistering Michael XIV's partying in European capitals and thinks that it's Mickey throwing away the fortune he'd made during "Jungle Treasure") and contributes heavily to the achievement of a happy ending.

This volume's featured "heir of Gottfredson" is Cesar Ferioli, who rates a nice, though rather brief, tribute essay from David Gerstein.  Included as a sample of Ferioli's fine work is a reprint of "The Mystery at Freefer Hall," a sort-of-homage to "The Seven Ghosts" written by Donald Markstein and published by Gemstone in 2006.  Ferioli had a delicate balancing act to perform here -- he has to mimic the artistic look of the original story and supporting characters while making Mickey, Donald, and Goofy look at least somewhat more modern -- but manages to pull it off.  The other ancillary materials are all up to the earlier volumes' high standards.  In truth, the only disappointment about this volume is that we will probably have to wait for quite some time before the next daily-strip collection appears; the next release, slated for June of next year, will double back and begin reprinting the color Sunday strips.  I can certainly understand the rationale behind this decision, but it's still something of a bummer that we'll be a bit delayed in getting to the pupiled-Mickey era.

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