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‘Mickey Mouse’ Editor David Gerstein On Bringing Floyd Gottfredson’s Classic Strips To A Modern Audience

One of my favorite comics of the past year hasn’t really been from the past year at all. The new hardcovers from Fantagraphics of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips from the 1930s — which took this year’s Eisner Award for Best Archival Collection — have been an incredible read. Gottfredson is unquestionably a master, and the adventures he crafted for Mickey often put his contemporaries to shame with their thrills, wit and tight plotting.

But bringing those strips for a modern audience isn’t without its challenges, whether it’s presenting Mickey himself as an adventure hero rather than just a comedic funny animal, or in dealing with some of the insensitive racial caricatures that were part and parcel of comics of the time. To find out more, I spoke to editor David Gerstein about his approach to the classic Mickey Mouse strips, as an editor and as a fan.ComicsAlliance: I’m a big fan of Carl Barks and Uncle Scrooge, but I’d never really read any Mickey Mouse comics until the new hardcovers came out. How did you become a fan of the comic strips?

David Gerstein: The best way – I grew up with them. I was a nursery school pupil in 1978, when Mickey’s fiftieth birthday came along. My parents used that opportunity to introduce me to Disney, taking me to a museum show of the early black and white cartoons and buying me a birthday book that included some “nostalgic” 1930s comics reprints.

“The Captive Castaways,” also reprinted in the latest Gottfredson volume, was the longest of these reprints; and with it, Mickey actually introduced my young mind to the concept of adventure for the first time. Pirates, risks, criminal conspiracies… Pegleg Pete, always up to no good… and Mickey was this determined, flawed, charismatic scrapper of a hero. You might say I got to know him exactly the way kids in the 1930s did.

It was a pretty interesting window of opportunity. A lot of Gottfredson stuff got reprinted throughout the 1980s in a variety of formats. Even if there was never a comprehensive or unedited collection, there was enough for me to reach adolescence appreciating Mickey as this very rich character.

CA: I was only really familiar with Mickey from seeing Disney cartoons when I was a kid, like Mickey and the Beanstalk or the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from Fantasia. To me, that Mickey seems like a completely different character than the one we see in Gottfredson’s work. How did Gottfredson’s Mickey, the one of the comic strips, develop?

DG: The Mickey of the comics evolved from the Mickey of the much earlier cartoons – the black and white cartoons, like I saw in that museum show. Mickey didn’t need to share as much screen time with his supporting cast in his early days; he got adventure shorts largely to himself, and got to be this urgent, driven little squirt in a wild, swashbuckling world.

When the comics launched, in 1930, Walt himself was the writer for the first several months, and he simply brought this swashbuckling world straight over into print, where it rapidly expanded and became more complex.

As Donald, Goofy, and Pluto gained popularity in the mid-1930s, though, the Mickey cartoons shifted to give them large segments of the screen time. The stories became more comedic than adventurous, even in quasi-adventure scenarios (i. e. Mickey and the Beanstalk). And so there got to be this dissonance that continues today, where an uninitiated reader will pick up a comic and see Mickey in these rip-roaring crook chases in the big city and think “Wait, what?”

But this is Mickey the way he’s always stayed in comics. And, honestly, I think this rambunctious, clever, but still heroic persona has a lot to do with why he originally became such a popular little guy.

Our colleagues at Disney are more aware of that than ever, by the way; that’s a major reason why you’re seeing Mickey as an adventurer and fighter in the Epic Mickey series of video games, and why Disney is as excited as we are about getting the Gottfredson strips back into print.

CA: One of the things that blew my mind was how those strips feel so much more modern than your average Golden Age super-hero comic, even though they started eight years before Action Comics #1. What were the influences there, and did any later creators cite Gottfredson as an influence on their work?

When you call the stories “modern,” I’m not sure if you’re referring to the professional level of the art, or the issue of how timeless the scripting/storytelling feels.

If you’re talking about the art, there’s a good reason Gottfredson’s work looks so slick in its prime, and it has much to do with why his Disney comics peer, Carl Barks, was slick too. Both refined their funny animal cartooning style at a studio, Disney, that was actively raising that style to an art form. Animators were learning to design characters more appealingly and express their actions in more effective (and realistic) ways. These principles, discussed in meetings and passed around via model sheets, directly influenced Gottfredson’s drawing.

If it’s the comics’ scripting that you’re calling modern, I’ll posit that you’ll find this relative “modernity” in other great humorous adventure strips of the time, like Segar’s Thimble Theatre (Popeye) and Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, both of which Gottfredson often cited as influences. I think there’s a unifying factor here: these strips’ worlds are just abstracted enough from reality that we stop focusing on the details of how they depict everyday life, allowing us to focus on the rich personalities — and ignore the fact that the story takes place in 1935, or whenever.

By contrast, early superhero comics are by their very nature very stagy and fantastic, while simultaneously trying to portray realistic settings. It’s a style that causes us to think less about personalities and more about the comics’ other trappings, reminding us of their age regardless of their quality.

But yeah. You read a Mickey story from 1935, and you’ll find yourself drawn into Mickey’s determination and angst and “modernity.” More than you might if the story were more realistic. Funny how that works out…

As for more recent creators inspired by Gottfredson – he’s been influential on quite a number of the Disney and other humor comics talents who have followed him. Carl Barks spoke often of Floyd’s influence on his work; so have Romano Scarpa, Andrea Castellan, Cèsar Ferioli, Byron Erickson… and indeed, we’ve got a running feature in the back pages of our books titled “The Heirs of Gottfredson,” where we’re showcasing some of these talents.

Then, of course, there’s Umberto Eco, who pays tribute to Gottfredson’s Mickey in his The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. So it’s safe to say that artists far beyond the comics page have felt Floyd’s influence.

CA: Getting back to the idea of Gottfredson’s Mickey as a distinct character from the one readers may be used to, there’s a lot in those strips that seems like it wouldn’t fly today. The violence is notable — Mickey packs a pistol a lot — and there’s a sequence in that first volume where he spends a week contemplating suicide that’s both shocking and pretty darkly hilarious.

DG: Well, of course humor standards change over time; that’s no big surprise. Failed suicide attempts were actually a frequent comedy trope up until around World War II: as we’ve noted in the Gottfredson Library‘s text features, the Mickey examples draw from an earlier Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, and from live-action shorts by the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

It’s a classic laugh-getter for an emotional hero to try to do something dramatic and drastic, only to be sideswiped by a low-level embarrassment. Suicide was often portrayed within that context until it became a major social issue. When authors began to worry about trivializing a serious matter, of course, norms shifted.

Same goes for gunplay. The popular American understanding of an “all-ages hero” has changed quite a lot. As late as the 1960s, wholesome cowboy stars could still have pistols a-blazing; think about where the term “square-shooter” came from. Over time, though, as the realistic aspects of gun violence became a concern, it became less common in material aimed at kids and preteens.

We can see the beginnings of that concern in the 1930s, actually. While Mickey shoots rather indiscriminately at the bad guys in 1932, by 1934 with “The Bat Bandit,” he’s stopping mid-battle to tell the villain that he has a moral code: “Ya don’t catch me usin’ a weapon on a guy who hasn’t got one!… See if ya can fight with your hands, coward!”

These days just the villains tend to use heavy artillery. Essentially, Mickey only packed heat when many kids’ heroes did; and even then, he was hardly a firearm advocate. Our colleagues at Disney know this, and allow us to reprint the stories with the understanding that we’re making this clear. We’re glad that they have confidence in us.

CA: The story that opens Volume 3 is a pretty amazing adventure. I love how “Mickey needs to fly a mail plane!” ends up turning into “Mickey needs to fight some pirates!” Any thoughts on why Gottfredson took “The Captive Castaways” into those weird twists?

DG: Ah, yes – the ups and downs of keeping the comic “in sync” with what Mickey was doing on screen. From 1932 to 1934, the cartoons were full of set-piece adventures for Mickey, Minnie, and Pegleg Pete – like Two-Gun Mickey (1934), with everyone in the Wild West, and Mickey in Arabia (1932), with everyone in the East. And Shanghaied (1934), with Mickey and Minnie as mutineers on Pete’s pirate ship.

Floyd Gottfredson wanted to create some synergy by telling stories in these same settings, but there was a hitch – Gottfredson’s strip was a continuity. So if Mickey was going to go to some far-off places, readers would have to know how he got there from where he’d been before. Mickey couldn’t just appear aboard a pirate ship on Monday when he’d been home in Mouseton on Friday. But here was Shanghaied, the cartoon, where we open with Mickey and Minnie not only on the ship, but already captured and tied up!

We don’t have a record of how “The Captive Castaways” was planned, but one can see Floyd’s logic: “I want to do a story like Shanghaied, where they’re lone prisoners on this ship, but why are they there alone? And if Pete has the ship, what’s he using it to do?” The cartoon, great as it is, answers none of these questions; in seven minutes, it can’t. As Gottfredson said to Jim Korkis: “We tried to follow the spirit of [the] cartoons, but because we were doing [lengthier] stories we had to go beyond them.”

So we can imagine, ourselves, how he fleshed out the pirate concept: “Hmm, maybe Pete became a pirate because he’s taken up a big smuggling deal as his latest caper. Opium smuggling’s in the news. But opium comes from overseas… if Pete’s ship is going to foreign waters, why is Mickey there? He can’t have been sent on a police mission to capture the pirates, or he and Minnie wouldn’t be lone prisoners – they’d have backup.”

You think and you think, and then it comes: “Hey, we’ve already set up in an earlier story that Mickey’s a mail pilot, flew a heroic mission and Captain Doberman had him on tap for further emergency flying assignments. Let’s say he gets one, and it has nothing to do with Pete at first, but then he flies out over the ocean where Pete’s ship catches him…”

So while the jump from airmail flight to pirate ship seems unusual at first, it’s what worked with existing continuity as a way to get Mickey out there semi-believably. Other classic strip cartoonists had even weirder ways of segueing from one continuity to another. Don’t ask me about Segar and Eugene the Jeep.

CA: Another unfortunate element of those stories, and many of the time, is Gottfredson’s use of racial caricatures. That’s one of the things that makes the new volume so interesting to me, in that it’s bookended by these perfect adventure stories, but almost every one in the middle is marred by a racial stereotype that can be pretty offensive.

DG: Without wishing to dodge the problem — almost every one in the middle? That would be seven stories; I count caricatures in four, and in two of those, they’re restricted to just a couple of strips apiece.

It matters because I don’t care for the idea that Gottfredson’s work is typically mean-spirited; it wouldn’t have won him two Eisners if it were. On the other hand, it’s easy for negative urban legends to circulate about any pop cultural artifact that’s been out of the public eye for a while. “We can’t see the old Terrytoons today,” some people say, “because Heckle and Jeckle, you know, talk like minstrel show Black characters.” Actually, one bird speaks Brooklynese, the other British English, and they’re really only out of circulation because the corporate owner thinks Terrytoons don’t sell… but the meme takes hold and soon it’s something you have to constantly disprove.

It’s our duty to Gottfredson, and other classic creators, not to let their relative weaknesses and worst moments come to characterize the majority of their output. Of course, Floyd’s work does have its problems the way most 1930s pop culture does; that much is obvious.

CA: We’ve seen those sorts of ethnic caricatures in other comics of the time, like Eisner’s The Spirit and Hergé’s Tintin, and there have been different approaches to dealing with it. As an editor who’s presenting this work to a modern audience, how do you deal with that? You have notes in the introductions for each chapter, but was there ever a temptation to leave those strips out, like the more recent Tintin hardcovers, or do any other editing?

DG: The Tintin hardcovers published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers are inexpensive books aimed at unsupervised kids, with a format that precludes editorial notes about content. It’s understandable that they should leave “Tintin in the Congo” out under those circumstances.

When I was Archival Editor on the Gemstone Disney comic books (2004-2009), similar editing occurred. When choosing Gottfredson stories for reprint, we avoided a few with heavier uses of caricatures, and slightly “tweaked” others (i. e. removing oversized lips from an ethnic bit player in one story). As with the Tintin books, that approach was fine for a “best-of” product, where the price point and packaging spoke to kids first.

In Fantagraphics’ Floyd Gottfredson Library, by contrast, we feel comfortable with reprinting the full, unedited Mickey oeuvre. Not just because we’ve added the lengthy introductory notes you mention, which ground certain stories’ missteps in the context of their era. But also because the price ensures young children can’t buy the books alone, and because a back-cover disclaimer on each volume informs families of the strips’ unedited nature, enabling them to proceed as they best see fit.

Our Disney colleagues appreciate that we’re sharing the content responsibly; just as Disney themselves did when releasing similarly dated cartoons in their Walt Disney Treasures DVD line. They put out the full run of Mickey, Goofy, Donald, but inserted special introductions before the more problematic shorts. When preserving history for posterity, it’s better to understand the faults of the past than to hide them.

Both Disney and we have received a lot of positive feedback on this method, so I feel we’ve really done right by the material.

CA: You mentioned the contrast to the Tintin books in terms of what audience they’re going for, so who do you think the target is for the Mickey hardcovers?

DG: I’d say: cartoon/comics fans, pop culture mavens, and casual readers too – with the understanding that we prepare parents/families for dated elements now and then. Again, like the Disney Treasures DVDs; or Warner’s new Tom and Jerry Golden Collection DVDs, for that matter.

Look at our book covers – the strip repros in the background have that aged-paper color just so it’s obvious the stuff’s old as Methuselah. (Well, okay… maybe we weren’t really planning that far.)

CA: Beyond just your editorial stance, what’s your reaction to those elements as a fan?

DG: I’m disappointed that my favorite cartoonist fell into using the offensive cliches of his time – absolutely. On the other hand, almost every cartoonist did in the 1930s, and Gottfredson was hardly the most severe.

In many cases, one finds Floyd deliberately trying to avoid using a stereotype straight. His susceptibility to the era’s norms allowed him to show African island natives as humanized monkeys who talk like Southern hicks; but in “Mickey Mouse Sails for Treasure Island” (1932), he nevertheless has these characters fighting on Mickey’s side against white bad guys, and ultimately saving Mickey’s life.

One step forward, one step back…

CA: One of the more interesting segments of Volume 3 for me was the story set in the Middle East, “The Sacred Jewel.” I was bracing myself for the racism that I thought would come along with it, but Gottfredson went in an entirely different direction with that segment.

CA: The Arabs in that story are still markedly “different” from Mickey and his pals, but in a way that just feels divorced from any stereotypes. I mean, they speak with the same faux-Victorian patter that Stan Lee gave to Thor 20 years later, and while it’s still a little off, it comes off as less offensive and more kind of charming and strange. Was that just a function of the other stereotypes being an established part of pop culture at the time and the audience’s presumed unfamiliarity with the Middle East?

DG: It may have had something to do with Gottfredson’s own unfamiliarity with the Middle East. But continuing with my earlier point, it might also have had something to do with the fact that while he fell prey to some of the hurtful imagery of his day, he didn’t always do it – nor did he willfully enter into things with the intent to be mean-spirited. The vast majority of the content here is pretty darn timeless.

I mean, think about it: we’ve got one little guy, Mickey, living in a surprisingly cynical world, being an optimist in spite of everything, repeatedly taking on whole platoons of pirates and mobsters and corrupt politicians. Sometimes he balls up his fists and tries to look tough: “Now I’m gonna break ya with my naked hands!” And then he fights for what’s right even when he’s overwhelmed.

It might be easier if he were a superhero, but it’s classic because he’s a mouse.

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