Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death ValleyA comic review article by: Rafael Gaitan
If you love Mickey Mouse, you love Floyd Gottfredson. The fact that that name is esoteric, only known by the most meticulous of fans, is a shame that is thankfully being remedied. Gottfredson got his start as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, and in 1930 was tasked with writing and penciling the daily Mickey Mouse strip that would be syndicated in newspapers nationwide. Gottfredson scripted until 1934, but he would continue to plot and draw the series until 1975 -- a milestone of cartooning and continuing creativity. Gottfredson is as influential and important to the formation of Mickey Mouse's personality as the God Cartoonist himself, Carl Barks, is to Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.
I first learned about Gottfredson in a college class, with the notorious "Mickey Mouse commits suicide" panels extracted out of context. Long assuming they were a joke or an Internet meme, I was floored to learn that not only were they real, but they were even darker and more comedic than that. When I discovered that Fantagraphics was reprinting the first year of Gottfredson's strips, I could not have been more elated, because as much as I love tough-guy sentimentality and profanity, I love Gottfredson's Mickey just a little more than that. And although the title and the character indicate "Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse," make no mistake -- this is Gottfredson's doing and Gottfredson's doing alone. Uncle Walt signed his name every weekday, but Gottfredson is the one that created the crucial Mickey, one was all too different from the silver screen iteration.
The Mickey of Gottfredson's world is an adventurer, a daring explorer who fears neither death or harm when the task at hand means helping his beloved. The opening story, the titular "Race to Death Valley," is one of the most wonderfully sprawling epics ever put to paper, and easily one of the best serialized comics of this or any decade. Spanning from Mickey's home to Minnie's to the vast and punishing deserts of America, we find Mickey and Minnie venturing for a hidden treasure that would rescue Minnie's uncle from poverty. Along the way Mickey also encounters a seemingly sinister bandit known as The Fox, who lurks in shadows but turns out to be benevolent, including guiding Mickey through some traps in haunted house. That's right, that happens... in Act One of the story. Gottfredson's Mickey strip is a vivid and expansive melding of concepts that shifts with unsurpassed ease -- he goes from a haunted house to a boomtown to a convoy as if it was the next logical progression -- the flexibility of the scenario makes for some brave and imaginative jokes and ideas.
Throughout the adventure we discover that Mickey doesn't live in a homogenized PC universe -- this is a world where lynchings still happen, people claim bounties by merely announcing them and Mickey himself isn't afraid to handle a strap or two, including my favorite scene in the history of comics, where Mickey steals two sheriff's deputies' pistols and proclaims, "You'll never hang an innocent man!"
The most remarkable thing about Gottfredson's strips is just how different a personality Mickey carries -- he's kind of a fucking asshole. Throughout the stories he pulls chrome multiple times, including when training a heavyweight boxer for a fight, motivating him to complete his run by letting off hot ones at his feet. (My second favorite moment in comics.) Although his methods are psychotic, Mickey's heart is in the right place. In the infamous "Mickey Mouse and the Egg Robbers" story, he also tries to commit suicide when he believes he saw Minnie kissing the newest businessman in town, leading to the famous sequence of him bungling death that would never fly in this day and age.
Gottfredson's art is superlative. His ability for detailing kineticism and movement is unparalleled -- the desert looks harsh and merciless, when Mickey is taken by surprise he jumps out of his skin and off the page almost and his depiction of nature (rivers, swaying trees, fires) is remarkably fluid and ecstatic. The morbidity of the humor is one of the most refreshing bits, which is surprising to say about a 70-year-old comic, but apart from the aforementioned (literal) gallows humor, the strips are thick and littered with sight gags and wonderful wordplay -- in one, "An Hour Passes" indicates both the passage of time and is illustrated as a headstone marked "R.I.P. 1 Hr." Not exactly the kind of joke you'd see on House of Mouse, but who the fuck cares about House of Mouse ?
If the reprinting of these classic strips wasn't sufficient, this beautiful rectangular hardcover was meticulously edited by David Gerstein, including several introductory essays to each story arc with a wealth of rich contextual information as well as personal anecdotes. Gerstein does an excellent job explaining the appeal and success of the book and the appendage of modern editing into it, such as giving the stories titles after they were published and using that system for easier tracking and reference. There's a grand amount of essays from other contributors as well about the appeal and importance of this strip on their work, and fascinating anecdotes about Gottfredson himself and the strip's crossover success -- the most notable being the campaign to get children to join Mickey's fan club and receive an autographed picture (which is reprinted and was actually sent out!).
This isn't your father's Mickey Mouse (it's more likely your great-grandfather's), and it's a shame we don't see him this way as much anymore. Floyd Gottfredson is one of the most talented artist/gag writers in comics history and it is wonderful to see his talent recognized in a medium and a manner so deserving of preservation. This giant-sized book is only mildly unwieldy, but it is the perfect size to replicate and do justice to every single panel of such a singularly perfect work. I'm not as huge a fan of the Disney stable as I was when I was younger, but I will always love Mickey, and that's all credit due to Gottfredson and his spectacularly effervescent mind. Mickey Mouse is one of the most important and revered characters in pop culture, and no other creator has written him so human, so interestingly, so uniquely fun and vibrant as Floyd Gottfredson has. The cover price is too little to ask, as the stories in this book are a treasury of the highs sequential art can hit.
Rafael Gaitan was born in 1985, but he belongs to the '70s. He is a big fan of onomatopoeia, being profane and spelling words right on the first try. Rafael has a hilariously infrequent blog and writes love letters to inanimate objects as well as tweets of whiskey and the mysteries of the heart at @bearsurprise. He ain't got time to bleed.