While our own Chase Magnett was discovering the glory of Carl Barks’s take on one famous Disney icon, I was having fun spending time once again with another Disney icon, the most Disney icon of them all and the happy symbol of corporate life: Mickey Mouse. And just as Chase found joy and thrills reading the comics created by “The Good Duck Artist,” I found a heady mix of adventure, silliness and some late 1930s cynicism in the comics of Floyd Gottfredson.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the level of craftsmanship, professionalism and playfulness that Gottfredson brought to these stories since I was prepared for them by my earlier encounters with his work. But I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by Gottfredson’s work at so many different points in this volume. For instance, though his work is often beautiful, I wasn’t expecting this stunning depiction of morning dawning over a whaling boat.
That comes early in the book, as part of a storyline in which Mickey and Goofy go to sea to work for a whaling operation. You might expect a storyline like this to be the worst kind of dated story, with old style attitudes that grate against modern sensibilities. But part of what makes Gottfredson so great is that he works against expectations, becoming an eco-friendly – and kid-friendly – tale of love between two whales.
Okay, yeah, those whales are awfully cute in a way that grates a bit – but notice the beautiful use of Craftint to show moods and the way that the plot builds on itself in a way that feels both perfectly natural and perfectly unexpected.
Gottfredson returning again and again to that idea in these stories: things are seldom what they seem – unless they’re exactly what they seem. The second story in this volume, “The Plumber’s Helper”, is a tangled tale of a plumber who ends up being a criminal, as all of us expect (including Mickey) but whose story has a few twists and turns that we never could expect.
This story actually starts with Mickey unemployed and looking desperately for work – a story element that the readers in 1938 could understand even better than we understand it in 2014.
But the story twists and turns as it goes on, with Mickey finding work as an apprentice to the worst plumber in town. The plot winds, ebbs and flows but it doesn’t meander as, say, an E.C. Segar Popeye strip might meander. Gottfredson is telling a narrative with a high, movie-cartoon type focus, and though he throws in his fair share of gags because readers expect gags in a strip like Mickey Mouse, he also throws in endless complications that keep the reader guessing even though we are pretty sure what’s happening.
In that way we get both the familiar and the surprising, the sort of stuff that makes us sit back in our seat and smile smugly and the sort of stuff that puts us at the edge of our seat, all at the same time. One of the stories in this collection, however, steps over that line and feels legitimately dangerous for our hero.
“Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot” may be the most famous of the Gottfredson Mickey stories; it’s clearly the favorite of the editors. “Phantom Blot” steps very close to the line between thrilling adventure and legitimate scariness. There’s a black-shrouded person (gender nonspecific) wandering through Mouseville stealing cheap cameras for unexplained reasons. As we first meet the figure of the Phantom Blot, he/she is a strange juxtaposition of mystery in a world that often is cute and whimsical. Perhaps appropriately, the Blot first appears on a rainy evening when it seems like the shadows hold dark, dreadful secrets.
In this world in which whales are cute and even thieving plumbers have surprises, Gottfredson twists his own tropes by having the Blot trap Mickey and snare out hero in deathtraps that cross modern horror movie tropes crossed with Rube Goldberg contraptions.
Including one gag that involves hanging that is really, legitimately, scary as hell.
The “Phantom Blot” story has great headlong momentum and ends in a thrilling high-speed adventure. The bright mood of the second half of the story, with its speedboat chase and stunt work on a seaplane, doesn’t quite fit the moody intensity of this strips set up. But those scenes still keep you flipping the pages frantically.
It’s appropriate that we’re reviewing a collection of Gottfredson Mouse strips here on Comics Bulletin on the same day that we review a collection of Barks Duck comics because Barks and Gottfredson explored similar themes. Their lead characters were tough, resourceful and headstrong; always moving, always exploring and always portrayed with a liveliness that readers would expect from characters that are marketed to kids.
Donald famously traveled to strange, remote locations. In this collection, Mickey becomes shipwrecked on a desert island with Robinson Crusoe, joins a boat chasing whales and even travels to the Middle East with a genie to try to help the genie’s native country. It’s easy to imagine Donald traveling to some of the same location and engaging in similar adventures.
There are some scenes that are hard to imagine reading in a Barks strip. For instance, when the genie transforms the town dump into nice housing for the homeless, people have a cynical attitude towards his “Mousepark Villa” and wonder why our hero would build such a thing – never mind that he simply wanted to do so for altruistic reasons. Those sorts of moments give Mickey’s adventures here a kind of late Depression / pre-WWII vibe that reflects the worry of the times as opposed to Barks’s tales that reflect a genial, post-WWII optimism.
Another similarity to Barks is that the production values are exquisite on all levels. The reproduction here, as always with Fantagraphics, is absolutely scrupulous. As well, just as with the Barks reprints, the scholarly material included in this volume is outstanding. Historian Thomas Andrae provides a fascinating introduction to this volume that adds real depth and insight into our reading experience. Andrae is skillful at providing context for important moments in these memorable tales while offering insight into the larger societal context in which they exist. I love it when the person writing an introduction can give me a deeper understanding of the stories I’m reading. This is one of the best introductions I’ve read – well, since the last Duck volume.
The book also contains dozens of pages of related backmatter – an introduction by animator Craig McCracken, pages and covers from international retellings and re-presentations of these stories, and even an appreciation of the work of Osamu, Tezuka, the “God of Manga” who was deeply influenced by Disney and by Gottfredson.
This is a gorgeous, surprising, wonderful package of stories full of thrills, surprises and a heady level of quality cartooning. The twists and turns that the masterful Floyd Gottfredson delivers are wonders to behold. If you think that Mickey is just a boring corporate icon, you need to read his battles with the Phantom Blot.