Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE, VOLUME 6: LOST IN LANDS OF LONG AGO by Floyd Gottfredson (Fantagraphics, 2014)

We've finally hit the mother lode of the early-modern (read: "post-pie-eyed" and "pre-all-gags-all-the-time") MICKEY MOUSE strip.  If I had to choose a single era of Floyd Gottfredson's prime creative years in which I felt the strip was at its very best, it would be 1940-42, the years covered in this volume.  No single story jumps up and presents itself as a "smack-you-across-the-face" classic on the order of "Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot," but all of them are, at the very least, good.  Merrill de Maris' imaginative verbal interpretations of Gottfredson's plotting is at its best, while Bill Wright's inking is slick and confident.  The locations of the stories spreadeagle the map; to take the most head-spinning example, Mickey jumps from a bloody, near-deadly encounter with the primitive inhabitants of the "Lost World" of Cave-Man Island ("Land of Long Ago") right into the catty "drawing-room comedy of manners" (so saith yours truly, in an introductory essay) that is "Mickey Mouse in Love Trouble."

A fan's appetite for revisiting (or, in such rarely-reprinted cases as "Mystery at Hidden River" and "Mickey Mouse, Super Salesman," making initial acquaintance with) these tales is made all the keener by the knowledge that major changes in the strip were just over the horizon.  De Maris departed the scene in 1942, Dick Moores assumed the inking chores soon after, and we would have to negotiate several long stretches of gag strips before Bill Walsh took firm control of the plottery... and promptly steered the stories into very different, though still highly entertaining, channels.  Thad Komorowski has a good point when he fingers "Hidden River" as the last adventure that could be said to fit the "prewar Gottfredson adventure model." (This is quite literally true: Pearl Harbor was attacked just as Mickey was riding down a log flume, heading for the end of the North Woods encounter with a newly pegless Peg-Leg Pete.)  The happiest thought that one can take away from these tales is that the "prewar model" rolled out of the shops in first-class condition, rather than gasping to the finish line.


The best story herein?  Well, I'm kinda prejudiced in favor of "Love Trouble," but even I would admit that an actual adventure needs to take pride of place, and I'm perfectly fine with Byron Erickson's praise of "The Bar-None Ranch" as an ideal story to show a "Gottfredson newbie" so as to pique his or her interest in seeking out more of the strip.  The story has very few plotting problems and a good mix of humor, action, and "forward thinking" (Peg-Leg Pete's use of a scientist's "dinguses" to create the illusion that he is an unstoppable master crook).  In addition to being a bit more sedate -- not to mention a bit dated in its portrayal of feminine "wiles" and overall bitchery -- "Love Trouble" also contains an annoying flaw, one that I did not mention in my essay but have always found irritating, nonetheless.  In order to get back at Minnie's stepping out with the caddish, superficially debonair Montmorency "Rodawn," Mickey calls on his cousin Madeline to play the role of visiting debutante Millicent Van Gilt-Mouse, who becomes smitten with him.  At one point, though, when we see Madeline call Mickey on a house phone, Mickey answers and refers to her as "Millicent."  What, does he think Minnie has the phone tapped?  They're conversing in private, so why just call Madeline by her real name?  And it would have been so easy to have fixed the problem, too, by having the two meet at a cafe or something.  OK, it's not as obvious a flaw as the sudden change of the mysterious ghosts in "Bellhop Detective" from three-dimensional spooks to 2-D projections on a wall... it's just that this story came SO close to stone perfection.  I can't help but be just a LITTLE resentful.

Insert "beach/bitch" gag here.

We begin to get inklings (and even a few overt mentions) of the war era in "Hidden River" and "The Gleam."  One possible essay feature that I would like to see in the next volume -- which will take us deep into the war years -- is how depictions of the conflict in the MICKEY strip changed over time.  I've only had extensive exposure to the Walsh-scripted continuities from 1944 and 1945, and some of those stories could certainly be considered more or less escapist.  I seem to recall that there was far more actual war-related material (including war-themed gags) in the strip during the first few full years of the conflict.  At least we won't have long to wait to test my theory.

Feature material in this volume includes a cartoon tribute by Stephen DeStefano (of Disney Comics peak-years fame), reprintings of several panels' worth of examples of the Gottfredson "redraws" that appeared in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES in the late 40s and 50s, and an "Heirs of Gottfredson" piece on Carl Barks that includes a color reprinting of Carl's one MICKEY adventure, 1945's "The Riddle of the Red Hat" (FOUR COLOR #79).  For something that Barks claimed to not be his "cup of tea," this story is surprisingly good.  Barks certainly didn't mail it in; he does a particularly good job of writing Goofy. 

One comment of Gottfredson's concerning this era that probably should have been mentioned somewhere in here was his claim that the revenue from the MICKEY strip and the other ongoing Disney strips was literally keeping the straitened Walt Disney Studios above water in the early 40s.  (Recall that Pinocchio [1940] had been a box-office disappointment, the first release of Fantasia [1940] was an out-and-out bomb, and the war had cost Disney the overseas market.)  How about a statistical report at some point on how successful the MICKEY strip actually was?  Do those data even exist any more?  It's worth a dig through the appropriate archives, if you ask me.

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