Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE COLOR SUNDAYS, VOLUME 2 by Floyd Gottfredson "and friends" (Fantagraphics, 2013)

It's the "... and friends" portion of the header that kind of gets me, in the sense of slightly coloring my opinion of this handsomely-produced volume.  In addition to reprinting the balance of Gottfredson's MICKEY MOUSE Sunday work from January 1936 to December 1938, the book also serves up all subsequent MICKEY Sundays on which Gottfredson filled in for other artists, as well as the Mouse master's contributions to the Disney Studio's TREASURY OF CLASSIC TALES Sunday page.  TREASURY was basically a printed vehicle for propagandizing then-current Disney films, though established characters would occasionally appear in completely "new" stories, such as the Gottfredson-scripted, Julius Svendsen-drawn "The Seven Dwarfs and the Witch-Queen" (1958).  TREASURY definitely deserves a comprehensive reprinting project of its own; the problem is that this volume explicitly advertises Mickey Mouse as the star attraction.  Personally, I would have preferred to have seen one or two prime examples of Gottfredson's non-Mouse work -- Gottfredson's handful of DONALD DUCK strips and "Lambert the Sheepish Lion" (1956), which was drawn by Floyd and written by Disney Comic Strip Department manager Frank Reilly, would have been my choices -- and then devoted the rest of the volume to a more extensive feature on ALL of Gottfredson's "Sunday successors," such as Manuel Gonzales, who does get a brief bio here but who deserved to have a bit more of his fine Sunday work reprinted.  I would venture to guess that more newspapers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s were running the Sunday MICKEY page than the daily strip; my hometown paper in Wilmington, DE, which used to run the Gottfredson daily back in the latter's heyday, was doing so by the time I came along.  A fuller-fledged tribute to the Sunday page would therefore not have seemed out of place.

I have no complaints concerning the MICKEY matter herein.  During the latter part of his tenure on the Sundays, Gottfredson seems to have made a conscious decision to use the page as a sort of "training ground" for characterizations and plot ideas that would get more serious workouts in the daily strip.  Thus, as the Sunday Goofy developed from a clumsy clod into a more complicated character who baffled his pals and delighted readers with his sideways logic and skewed "inventiveness," so too did Goofy take many of those traits with him into the daily adventures that he shared with Mickey.  Thus, for example, the Goofy who stumbled into the role of a supposed "desperado" in the 1937 Sunday tale "Sheriff of Nugget Gulch" would reappear, in a manner of speaking, as a self-deluded, would-be cowpoke in the 1940 daily story "The Bar-None Ranch."  The Sunday continuities "The Robin Hood Adventure" (with its storybook human supporting players) and "The Brave Little Tailor" (with "movie actor" Mickey starring in a story within a story), glued together, produced the later daily continuity "Mickey Mouse Meets Robinson Crusoe."  In both cases, the relatively straightforward Sunday developments were amplified, and their implications were explored in more depth, when they were applied in the daily format.

In the waning days of Gottfredson's "Sunday best," Merrill de Maris took over the dialogue chores, as he did on the daily strip, and the characters' patter becomes at once snappier and more imaginative, reflecting, in a sense, the impending cultural shift from the patched-pants, "gas house" 1930s to the brassier and quicker-tempoed 1940s.  It was during this era -- the strip's zenith, I would argue -- that Minnie started to mutate from Mickey's finicky but nonetheless loyal mate to a much more flighty character who is obsessed with style, fashion, party-going, and the maintenance of image to a degree that at times makes Rarity seem grounded.  Not coincidentally, this Minnie is more quickly "exasperated" by Mickey and his actions, both real and perceived, setting the stage for the classic continuity "Love Trouble" (1941).  You can see the start of these developments in the last several Gottfredson-de Maris Sundays.  So, too, do these late pages reflect a somewhat edgier approach, particularly in a psychological sense.  In his "Mickey's Sunday Best" essay at the front of the book, J. B. Kaufman notes one particularly problematic 1937 Sunday strip in which Mickey "gets even with" Morty and Ferdie for stealing some bread and jam and trying to frame Pluto for the offense by threatening to wallop Pluto with a baseball bat.  It was all a ruse to make the kids confess, of course, but Pluto had no idea of Mickey's intentions.  Nor did we see Mickey witness the crime as it happened, which would have made his benign motive clearer from the outset.  This is a very disturbing strip, indeed, but it does presage the daily strip's turn to less overtly sentimental characterizations and situations in the late 30s and early 40s.  The very next MICKEY volume will lead us into that era and its considerable glories.

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