‘Mickey Outwits The Phantom Blot’ Has The Best And Worst Of Mickey Mouse In A Single Hardcover [Review]
Ever since Fantagraphics started up their collection of Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse strips, I've been looking forward to finally getting to read "Mickey Outwits The Phantom Blot." This was the story that I'd heard of even when I wasn't paying attention to Disney comics from the '30s, the influential saga that provided Mickey with his most intriguing villain, and one that returned again and again over the years and inspired creators like Osamu Tezuka. It came with a pretty solid reputation, and when I finally got to it in the latest hardcover, I've got to admit that it lived up to it. It's every bit as exciting as I'd hoped it would be.
Unfortunately, it's collected in a book alongside some of the most grotesquely offensive stories that I've ever read. That's the sort of thing that spoils the experience even when you're making "allowances" for the time in which it was created.
I've mentioned this problem before when I've talked about Gottfredson's work, and the experience of reading through his Mickey comics from their beginnings in 1933. Structurally and artistically, the stories are great; beautifully drawn and full of clever gags that hold up 75 years later, with thrilling adventure, engaging character and a use of the medium that, in a lot of ways, puts its contemporary superhero comics to shame.
But then, inevitably, Mickey will run across a Mexican ranch hand or a Chinese cook, and the exaggerated accents and stereotypical characteristics show up and make everything skin-crawlingly uncomfortable for as long as they're a part of the story. The only upside is that they tend to be sparse and, while uncomfortable, might be easy for some readers to brush off as being a product of their time, done out of ignorance rather than hate.
Mickey Outwits The Phantom Blot leads off with a story like that, a fun and adventurous tale about Mickey venturing out to sea called "Mighty Whale Hunter" that's marred by the presence of Hi See, the aforementioned cook, whose dialogue -- particularly about how good Mickey is at "dishee washee" when he's assigned to kitchen duty -- is like nails on a chalkboard. In a lot of ways, it's the archetypical Gottfredson Mickey story, this incredible but overlooked adventure that suffers because of some truly unfortunate imagery that was common at the time, while also being thrilling, clever, and absolutely beautiful to look at.
In other words, it's exactly the kind of story that I was expecting. As cringe-worthy as it is, I've more or less resigned myself to encountering stuff like that in the comics of the past -- and it's worth noting that Gottfredson was far from alone. There are plenty of comics that I've read from the Golden and Silver Age that rely on that same offensive imagery, even from masters of the form like Hergé and Tezuka, and while that doesn't minimize what they've done in the field, it does make it pretty hard to get through sometimes.
Sadly, the new volume doesn't stop there. Instead, it takes a pretty sharp downward turn with "Mickey Mouse Meets Robinson Crusoe," where the book suddenly goes next level racist for about fifty pages.
Again, structurally, it might actually be one of the most interesting stories that's been collected. Virtually every other story treats Mickey as, well, a character, a small-town mouse who finds himself swept up in one strange adventure after another, whether it's investigating a haunted house or taking a mail plane up to defeat a mysterious super-Zeppelin.
"Crusoe," on the other hand, is about Mickey the actor -- he returns home from an adventure and gets a phone call from Walt Disney telling him that they're shooting a new picture and he needs to get down to the studio. Plus, it's the first appearance of the "modern" design for Mickey Mouse. When he leaves Mouseton on his way to film his movie about Crusoe, he's the classic design of the '30s with the solid black eyes, but when he arrives on set, it's as the wide-eyed Mickey that we have today, a jarring change that results from his transition into this other reality.
It is, to say the least, weird. I don't think there had been a reference to Mickey as a character who was also starring in Disney cartoons up to that point, and it makes the entire series weird. If you're reading it all at once, 75 years later, anyway.
What makes it even stranger is that the final story in the book, "An Education For Thursday," is a sequel to the (fictional) events of "Crusoe," but one that happens to Mickey the Character rather than Mickey the Actor. It's fascinating to see how Gottfredson builds the stories, what gets discarded, and how he reacts to adapting plots from the cartoons, especially since this is the same kind of continuity building that would be shifting into high gear when the brand new superhero genre really got going.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for how the stories work is dampened because of what they're about. "Crusoe," -- which, to be fair, also features Crusoe himself as an inept, grandstanding dope -- is built around a conflict with "savage cannibals" archetypes who have the features and speech patterns of a minstrel show. In the sequel, Thursday has given up the Southern accent in favor of communicating with grunts -- something that the introduction to the story characterizes as Gottfredson wanting to make up for the earlier story by making him more "naive" and less stereotypical -- but that's hardly better, especially since Thursday is continually referred to as Mickey's property, and at one point is even sold to a circus.
It's rough, and looking back at it with modern sensibilities, it's really hard to get through -- particularly if you're looking at it for entertainment rather than for its value as a historically important comic. And what makes it especially frustrating is that the stories that aren't weighed down by all this racist imagery are genuinely great.
"The Plumber's Helper," where a destitute Mickey has to take a job as a Plumber's apprentice and ends up getting caught up in a conspiracy behind a series of increasingly improbable robberies, is fantastic. It's got great sight gags, a clever plot and memorable characters. It's got everything you want out of a Mickey story.
"The Phantom Blot" lives up to its reputation, too. Again, there's a clever plot that only feels slightly cliché because it's been copied so many times, and the Blot himself, a solid black silhouette with eyes, which stalks Mickey through the streets of Mouseton on an inexplicable crime wave, is an amazing bit of imagery. It's simple but phenomenally effective, and actually manages to be haunting. Plus, there are multiple deathtraps in this story, and if there's one thing I like to see in my adventure comics, it's ridiculously complicated attempts to murder someone that are foiled at the last minute.
I really can't write enough good things about "The Phantom Blot," and that's taking into account that it's probably the most praised story about the most famous fictional character in the world. It's phenomenal and well worth reading, and the same goes for "The Plumber's Helper." These two stories alone are worth the price on the cover, and they're a testament to what made Gottfredson so great -- and what should make him as much of a household name as Hergé or Tezuka.
But it's also in a book that presents it as it originally ran, surrounded by stories that draw on the truly unfortunate racism of the time, stories where these shameful stereotypes aren't just cameos by minor characters, but instead the focus of the narrative. These are stories that I can't possibly recommend to anyone who's not doing research on the history of racist imagery, and to be honest, it's the kind of book that, if I saw someone reaching for it on my shelf, I'd jump in front of it like I was taking a bullet rather than have to explain why I had a book full of caricatures of "African Savages" trying to eat Mickey Mouse.
Like virtually everything Fantagraphics puts out, Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot is a beautifully designed hardcover. The whole line is -- but for this one, they've added a "blot" of ink to the cover, over a mosaic of strips from the "Phantom Blot" storyline. And really, that's the perfect bit of imagery for this book: Fantastic, historically important comics that have been made far more difficult to read by a black mark on Gottfredson's record.