Continuing its line of high-quality reprint collections of classic comic strips including “Peanuts,” “Prince Valiant” and “Dennis the Menace,” in May Fantagraphics launches the first volume of Floyd Gottfredson’s complete run on one of the world’s most famous and beloved characters in “Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, vol. 1: The Race to Death Valley.” Gottfredson, who took over the strip from Disney himself in 1930 on a seemingly temporary basis, continued to draw Mickey for the next 45 years. CBR News spoke with Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth about the collections, how Mickey has changed since Gottfredson’s day and handling potential controversies arising from the early Mickey strips as well as the recently-announced collections of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics.
Most of Gottfredson’s “Mickey Mouse” strips have not been reprinted, and the few collections that do exist are out of print. Asked how these early strips came to be neglected, Groth said, “The easy and honest answer is, I don’t know. Why did it take ’til 2004 before ‘Peanuts’ was properly reprinted? Mickey Mouse strips have been reprinted or excerpted desultorily in other, larger books over the eras, but never systematically. Sometimes the determining factor to these things is a weird confluence of circumstances, and with Mickey, now is the time.”
Gottfredson worked on the “Mickey Mouse” strip for four and a half decades, ample time for the cartoonist to leave his indelible mark on the world-famous character. “The strip began as a series of adaptations of the cartoons, but, at the urging of the syndicate, became an adventure strip with longish serials,” Groth said. “Mickey was an underdog character, an unorthodox ‘hero’ who got himself into as many jams as those he was trying to rescue did in the first place. He could be boyish, even reckless, full of spunk and grit.”
The character as described by Groth may be somewhat different from the Mickey Mouse most people are familiar with today. “My impression is that most parents and children have very little understanding of the Mouse as anything but a one dimensional icon. I think readers may be surprised at how feisty a character he was,” Groth said. “The stories themselves are classic adventure stories, full of mystery and intrigue. My favorites — and I have by no means read them all — have the great, classic villains, The Phantom Blot, for example, and take place in a world of gothic menace.”
Groth described a few of the adventures Mickey gets up to in those early strips. “We’re leading off with ‘Mickey Mouse in Death Valley.’ The plot, which I tend to think of as not that important, has to do with Pegleg Pete trying to bamboozle Minnie, but all the fun is in the chase to the gold mine in Death Valley where Mickey is plagued by Pegleg Pete and his henchman, gets into and out of scrapes, is threatened by hanging, drowning and shooting and is helped by the mysterious ‘Fox,’ a shrouded character who pops up in several knicks of time — and watching Gottfredson gain his assurance as a newspaper strip cartoonist,” Groth said. “The next strip is what we’ve titled ‘Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers,’ in which the main conflict is Mr. Slicker and his partner Butch, the grizzled ringleader, stealing eggs from the henhouse — and Mr. Slicker vying with Mickey for Minnie’s affections. The next story, ‘Mickey Mouse Vs. Kat Nipp,’ is a kind of Hatfield and McCoy story where neighbors Mickey (a mouse) and Kat Nipp (a cat) battle it out and chalk up their respective victories on their fence; elements of the story also serve as a subtle metaphor for prohibition in effect at the time. ‘The Boxing Champion’ takes Mickey back home and is the first strip Gottfredson used to flesh out the particularities of Mickey’s home town, turning it into a recognizable social landscape.”
The format for the Gottfredson “Mickey Mouse” collections will be similar to Fantagraphics’ other comic strip reprint books including “Peanuts” and “Dennis the Menace.” “The books will be slightly larger than our ‘Peanuts’ books, landscape format, approximately two years of strips per book,” Groth told CBR. “They need to be a little bigger than the ‘Peanuts’ books because Gottferdson’s art is more dense than Charles Schulz’s, and, interestingly, each panel usually represents a complete picture rather than an abbreviation of one. They need space to breathe.”
In collecting the entirety of Gottfredson’s 45-year run means Fantagraphics will be reprinting controversial strips, some of which have only been reprinted in a sanitized format in the time since their original publication. As highlighted in the case of recent editions of “Tintin in the Congo,” some character depictions may be considered racist by today’s standard, and a storyline in which Mickey repeatedly tries to kill himself is likely to raise some eyebrows. Groth confirmed, however, that “the Mickey strips are being published unabridged.” “The book has about 60 pages of essays, some of which address the more controversial elements of the Mickey strips,” he explained. “We do place them in context.” In addition to the introduction by Warren Spector, creator of the recent “Epic Mickey” video game who will also be writing BOOM! Studios’ upcoming “DuckTales” series, David Gerstein will be providing a number of essays for the first volume, as will historian Tom Andrae and Floyd Norman.
Though Fantagraphics only recently announced that it would also publish the complete Donald Duck strips by Carl Barks, Groth said that in fact the publisher signed Mickey and Donald together, but the Barks collections won’t launch until November. “The main reason we’re starting the Barks books later is because we have to recolor every single page, which we did not have to do with Mickey Mouse,” Groth explained. “And of course, recoloring 200 pages takes time.”
The Donald Duck collections, too, face similar issues to the Mickey books, with some strips rendered controversial by shifting cultural mores. “These were all done in the 1940s, when there was an entirely different standard about what was racially appropriate. All of the Donald Duck stuff has been reprinted in various forms in the past,” Groth said. “I can’t guarantee this, as Disney has not yet approved all of the Donald Duck material as they have for the Mickey Mouse material, but I’m hoping to run everything unexpurgated. And there will be a number of essays in the Donald Duck book, also, giving historical as well as aesthetic context.” Those essays will include a biography of Barks by Don Ault and essays on each individual story by Ault, Art Fiori, Rich Kreiner, Jerry Gardner, Frank Stajanno, Leonardo Gori and Stefano Priaroni. “We’re getting an international mix of people, well-known Barks scholars and American critics and writers who have not previously written about Barks,” Groth said. “And we’re publishing an essay about Barks by Donald Phelps in the first volume, as well. I consider that to be pretty important. It’s going to be about Barks in general and touching on stories in the first volume.”
“Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, vol. 1: The Race to Death Valley” is on sale in May.