Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE, VOLUME 5: OUTWITS THE PHANTOM BLOT by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics Press, 2014)

By the time we run out of space in this latest Gottfredson collection, we're bumping up against what I consider to be THE ABSOLUTE prime period of the strip -- roughly, from 1940 to 1942.  Every single story during this period is a winner in every way, and, as fate would have it, we're going to get just about the whole schlemozzle in Volume 6.  Before that, however, we're obliged to crawl over a fair amount of the panelological equivalent of "broken glass."  Despite the presence of the single most famous MICKEY story of them all, "Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot," the 1938-1940 dailies reproduced here vary dramatically in quality and force the reader to choke down a carload of racial stereotypes, mostly of the black persuasion.  (Even the appearance of the Blot himself was partially inspired by the looks of two Negro children called "The Blots" in the old comic strip JERRY ON THE JOB.)  Some of the early reviews of Volume 5 have made quite a bit of this unfortunate coincidence.  It doesn't really spoil a context-conscious reader's enjoyment of this collection, of course, but those who are made overly squeamish by "unacceptable" pop-culture conventions past are advised to proceed with some caution.

One of the problems here is that some of the worst examples of stereotyping are married to stories that are unusually weak by Gottfredson's standards.  "Mickey Mouse Meets Robinson Crusoe" marks a significant turning point in Mickey's history, as the strip of December 22, 1938 suddenly finds The Mouse sporting pupiled eyes for the first time.  The context, confusingly, is the start of filming of a new MICKEY cartoon, an adaptation of the Daniel Defoe classic.  Not that Gottfredson hadn't tried framing gambits like this before -- see this volume for two such efforts -- but, given that the daily strip, unlike the Sunday page, had long since been dedicated to lengthy, real-world adventure narratives, using it here seems awkward.  Gottfredson's use of the "make-believe" cordon sanitaire becomes more understandable once we bite into the heart of the story: a messy slumgullion featuring an irritatingly nebbishy, "pink-tea" version of Crusoe and "island natives" who talk like Stepin Fetchit.  It's every bit as embarrassing as it sounds.  Remarkably enough, Gottfredson did a sequel of sorts to "Crusoe" in "An Education for Thursday," wherein friendly (and lazy, and hungry) native Friday sends his "almost twin brother" Thursday to Mickey to acquire some "edumcation."  IMHO, "Thursday" wears a bit better than "Crusoe" only because Thursday is a primitive savage, as opposed to a deep-Southern knockoff, and it's not hard to mentally replace Thursday with DuckTales' Bubba Duck and interpret Gottfredson's three months' worth of "fish out of water" gags as a sort of "early director's cut" version of "Bubba Trubba."

"The Miracle Master" and "The Plumber's Helper", while far more satisfying than "Crusoe" and "Thursday," suffer from another problem that seems to have been bothering Gottfredson during this period: an inability to wrap up his stories in a reasonable amount of time.  "Master" takes a reasonably short time to make its basic cynical point about the futility of well-meaning reforms (even magical ones) in a fallen world, but taking the show to "Genieland" to make exactly the same point seems like overkill.  The inadvisability of the double-dip becomes apparent when Mickey's visit to "Genieland" quickly devolves into a series of gags.  Granted, many of the gags are pretty amusing, but you're ready for the story to be over long before it actually is, a rare experience for a Gottfredson reader.  "Helper" is a cleverly written mystery featuring one of Gottfredson's more intriguing visiting characters, but, given that it lasts almost 40 strips longer than "Phantom Blot" and has almost no action, it's not hard to imagine that Gottfredson could have sped up the story a little and sharpened its impact.

Aside from "Phantom Blot," the quality of which goes without saying, the best story in the book is "Mickey Mouse, Mighty Whale Hunter," the last great "true adventure" of the "pie-eyed Mickey" era.  It's got all the classic whaling tropes -- including, of course, a couple of ethnic stereotypes among the crew -- but Gottfredson doesn't fall into the trap of concluding the tale with the capture or destruction of the legendary whale "Ol' Barney."  His solution to the problem is far more subtle and gives Mickey one of his more memorable "compassionate moments."

Ancillaries include reproduced pages from the "softened" 1955 reprinting of "Phantom Blot" in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, in which the Blot's notorious deathtraps are redrawn by Paul Murry as considerably less perilous perils; a first-rate essay by Joe Torcivia on the history of the Blot; and a fascinating "Heirs of Gottfredson" piece detailing just how heavily the early works of Osamu Tezuka were influenced by "Phantom Blot."  It ain't subtle, gaijin.


Pan MiluĊ› said...

Glad to see a new post on your blog. You didn't wrote in a long time and I started to get worry.

Since you did a lot of stuff on "My Little Pony", did you ever consider reviewing or writing an article on Disney's "Sofia the first"? I recently watched some episode and I was shock how much I did enjoyed that show, depsite the main target being 6 year old girls...

Deb said...

I will give Fantagraphics and Disney credit for not omitting the weaker and more offensive material from this volume. It is a privilege to be able to read these strips at all, considering how Disney has kept them in the vaults for so long. These books go right with my Mickey Mouse in Black and White/in Living Color DVD sets for preserving the history of one of the most famous cartoon characters ever.

Joe Torcivia said...


Very glad to see you “…Keep on Bloggin’!”

Thanks for the kind words on the Phantom Blot History feature.

As you know, I’ve been a big Blot booster since the release of THIS COMIC (Gulp! Fifty Years ago!), and so it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor for me to have made such a contribution to this great series – and on the “sort-of-anniversary” of my discovering the Blot!