“Today’s America knows Mickey Mouse as a gentle do-gooder. But in the 1930 heyday, Mickey rose to fame as an epic hero: a bold adventurous scrapper battling mobsters, kidnappers and spies! And Mickey’s greatest feats of derring-do took place in his daily comic strip, crafted by one of history’s greatest cartoonists — Floyd Gottfredson.” [Quoted from the back cover copy.]
If you know Mickey Mouse only from the animated short cartoons and animated features, the comic strips in this volume may surprise you. Comics historian Bill Blackbeard describes the comic strip Mickey as “a death-defying, tough, steel-gutted mouse… who kept the kids of 1933 rapt with his adventures on pirate dirigibles, cannibal islands, and bullet-tattered fighter planes.” In volume one alone (which covers April 1, 1930 through January 9, 1932), Mickey races Pegleg Pete to find a gold mine in Death Valley, is framed for bank robbery and has a fight with a huge heavyweight champ.
These comic strips are from a different world. They are rife with topical references to politics, recent history and popular songs. About a month into the first story, Mickey finds himself locked in a room filled with a variety of cheeses and says, “MY GOSH! What cheese — if only I had a bottle of beer!!!” A bit later, a forlorn Mickey (rejected by Minnie) spends about a week trying (unsuccessfully) to commit suicide. In the end he decides life is worth living, but still, that just not something you’d ever see today! Perhaps surprisingly, that sequence was suggested to Gottfredson (who didn’t think humor could be mined from such a serious topic) by Walt Disney himself.
I’ve discovered that Mickey Mouse has a lot in common with Popeye the Sailor. By the early 1930s, both characters were cartoon as well as comic strip staples, but whereas Popeye started in the comics and made the transition to animated shorts, Mickey started on screen and transitioned to the printed page. Furthermore, both characters were radically different on the printed page than they were on the big screen. “Whereas the screen Mickey was famed for his romantic idylls with Minnie,” says Thomas Andrae in his foreword, “the comic strip mouse had little time for romance: he was involved in life-and-death struggles which could not be won through tricks of animation magic.”
Mickey Mouse in the newspaper was an adventure strip, plain and simple, not so much like Terry and the Pirates, but more like Li’l Abner in the early days or Little Orphan Annie or Popeye (as I’ve already mentioned). Mickey even shares certain similarities with contemporary Dick Tracy or Gasoline Alley. Don’t let what I said about beer drinking and attempted suicide put you off, though; this is vintage Mickey Mouse, a mirror of the era.
I think I might break out some of the old black and white cartoons.