So I was sitting out on the deck reading comics, as I'm wont to do in the summertime, and my wife wanders over to me. "What are you reading?" she says, curious what kind of comical fun I've dug into this time. I lifted the cover to show her that I was deep in the middle of a beautiful reprint of Mickey Mouse Sunday comic strips, which provoked an odd little snort from Liisa, the kind that means "Are you serious?" As she snorted she mumbled, "Mickey Mouse? I know you were reading Donald Duck recently, now Mickey? How old are you?"
I replied, as I often do when my wife questions my comic reading habits, "Oh, dear, you have no idea what you're missing." And as I said that, beads of sweat flew off my forehead like a character in a Gottfredson comic. I blame the heat for the perspiration, but when you're reading Gottfredson, the sweat comes along with the book.
Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse comics are kind of mindblowing for all of us who grew up with Mickey as the corporate symbol of theme park happiness and bland middle-class conformity. Kids in my generation probably never saw a 1930s Mickey cartoon on TV and though I have vague memories of watching one of his cartoons during one of my family's many trips to Disneyland over the years, the cartoon wasn't nearly as memorable as almost standing up at Space Mountain or laughing at the Pirates of the Caribbean.
The thing is, though, the Mickey Mouse that's portrayed in this wonderful collection of comic strips is nothing like the bland Mickey we know today. Yes, of course he has his iconic smile (he wouldn't be Mickey without it, right?)
But this Mickey also plays rough. He sometimes carries a gun (and yes, that is Donald Duck in this strip – crazy, huh?)
He sometimes likes to fight
He's a rogue and a troublemaker at times, who always seems to get his comeuppance:
And overall he comes across as a kind of everyman (everymouse?)
In short, this is a Mickey Mouse before his image was set in stone and before Walt Disney Productions moved from being a scrappy little film studio to a corporate behemoth. The whole experience is a little like talking to your boring, quiet grandpa and suddenly hearing granddad reveal that he was once the contender for the welterweight boxing championship or that he once worked as a spy for the CIA. It's one of those weird experiences where you feel the Earth shift under your feet just a bit and you're just not sure what you should do next.
I was ready intellectually for these Mickey strips to be different from my image of the Mouse, but I never expected the glorious gags around cigars:
Or Mickey just being mischevious:
Mickey in this book isn't a boring wimpy field mouse; no, here's the 1930s version of a man's man.
As you can see from these strips, there's a tremendous amount of energy in these strips. Even when characters are standing still, they radiate excitement as artist Floyd Gottfredson's trademark beads of sweat emphasize every moment:
Which he sometimes undercut in various silly ways:
A lot of the fun of these strips comes from how they present a cast that wasn't fully locked into their corporate identities. You've already seen the original style for Donald Duck, with his long beak. For several weeks, Mickey and Minnie have pink faces rather than white:
It took Disney a while to decide what color Pluto would be:
To a kind of mangy white…
To white with an orange face…
To a darker orange…
Before finally arriving at the color we're all used to.
But while the historical elements of this book are wonderful and surprising, the real joy of reading Mickey Mouse Color Sundays comes from the sheer exuberant joy of Floyd Gottfredson's storytelling and art. We all know Mickey Mouse from his peaceful, happy middle age. But Mickey was a hellraiser when he was young.