I love vintage newspaper comic strips, their rich visual language, and what they say about the period they were printed in. When it comes to re-introducing vintage comics to a new audience, Fantagraphics is one of the best – repackaging often overlooked strips in handsome bound volumes with expert commentary and historic tidbits. In 2011, they teamed up with the Disney company to take on the task of republishing their Mickey Mouse daily comic strip from its classic 1930s era onward. It’s a fabulous project, still ongoing (the ninth volume, Rise of the Rhyming Man, publishes this month). I’d even go as far as to pronounce first volume, Race to Death Valley, as the best book of this type I’ve ever seen. Although I’ve been reading and collecting Fantagraphic’s Complete Peanuts books since they first came out in 2005, the quality of the the first two Mickey volumes has prompted me to switch (besides, Charles M. Schulz, bless his soul, got kind of safe and bland by the mid-’70s).
Probably the most significant thing these Mickey Mouse books does is to put the name of its artist and writer, Floyd Gottfredson, front and center. Although Walt Disney himself drew the first Mickey strips from the late ’20s, he eventually came to rely on a team of men to write and draw the strip –despite Disney’s unique signature printed on every installment. Initially hired as an in-betweener in Disney’s animation department, Gottfredson quickly appealed to the boss to take over duties on the daily strip. Disney waved his magic wand and granted Gottfredson his wish in 1930. Smart move on Disney’s part – the then 25 year-old Gottfredson ended up guiding the Mickey Mouse strip for a full 45 years! That’s nearly as long a tenure as what Charles M. Schulz had with Peanuts.
Gottfredson truly put a lot of vivacity and spunk into the Mickey comic, complementing the rodent’s screen image as the scrappy underdog with a heart of gold. The cartoonist transformed what had been a standard gag-a-day format into a thrilling adventure, with broad, character-filled stories which would unfold for months at a time. His first important story was Mickey Mouse in Death Valley, which had Mickey and Minnie Mouse on a frantic search for a desert gold mine belonging to Minnie’s wealthy uncle. In typical Depression-era fashion, they’re pursued by colorful heavies, including crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster and his dumb henchman Pegleg Pete, along with a mysterious figure known as The Fox. It’s a rollicking tale, with each panel brimming with wonderful details (did Gottfredson slip in a white-haired cousin of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?). In other stories, Mickey takes on a fearsome cat boxer named Creamo Catnera (a play on real-life champ Primo Carnera), becomes a roustabout at a circus, and tussles with a band of greedy gypsies. In the latter story, Mickey and Minnie’s friends Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow take on a prominent role. I love how Horace and Clarabelle are the pragmatic older couple pals of impetuous Mickey and Minnie – sadly, their prominence in the Disney cartoons and comics would diminish as the ’30s went on.
Each Fantagraphics Mickey Mouse volume highlights Gottfredson’s best stories from a certain period, in chronological order. While Race to Death Valley covers the years 1930-31 (overlapping into the first week of 1932), the next volume, Trapped on Treasure Island, picks up where the previous one left off, reprinting strips from January 1932 up through the first week in 1934. I purchased both of these volumes at a great discount at Daedalus books. They’re also available via Fantagraphics’s website and (of couse) at Amazon.com.