Thursday, January 12, 2012
For example, the "graphic novel" -- if we quickly define that as a book-length work of comics created for original book publication, and brush aside the million objections -- is going through a strong period right now, but comics -- the art form of pictures and words in sequence, telling long stories or short gags or combinations of those things -- has had multiple, overlapping peaks in various areas for the hundred years that it's been a serious, moderately mature art. In particular, the newspaper strip, which was for six or seven decades the commercial pinnacle of that world, started throwing out masterpieces as early as the 1910s or '20s (depending on who you listen to), and had a great decade through the depths of the Great Depression. (I'm a particular fan of E.C. Segar's Popeye strip, which I've been babbling about here for the last year or so, but there are a dozen other examples of the same era.)
And that's a long way around to Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse strip -- though I suppose I could have come around the other long way, starting with Carl Barks and damning Gottfredson with the faint praise of "second-best Disney cartoonist" -- but that strip, at least as seen in this book, is an odd artifact of its time, not quite sure of itself and bouncing around among premises, tones, and styles.
That book is called Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, Vol. 1: "Race to Death Valley", and the cover credits it purely to Gottfredson, though the table of contents has much more intricate credits, detailing the story input of Disney himself, and the art contributions of Win Smith, Jack King, Roy Nelson, Hardie Gramatky, Earl Duvall, Ted Thwaites, Al Taliaferro, and even Ub Iwerks. It reprints the first two years of the strip, from January of 1930 through the first days of 1932, sliced up into continuities (not always in chronological order) and separated by what eventually felt like too many text features.
Once you wade through those bits of text -- some about Gottfredson, some about his collaborators, some about the characters, and all of them just a bit too Disney-chipper in tone for a book from Fantagraphics-- you get to the stories themselves. The first story Gottfredson had a hand in is the title piece, "Mickey Mouse in Death Valley," which zigs and zags the most, veering from farce to melodrama and following the over-cranked pace of a cliffhanger movie serial. Once that finally ends, Gottfredson & Co. are on more solid ground, keeping Mickey (and Minnie) mostly in the context of their community (mostly unnamed here, though a scholarly footnote indicates it became "Silo Center" in '32) and friends, with stories about boxing and fire-fighting, circuses and the new character Pluto, Mickey's taxicab business, a picnic, and others. There are two other long melodrama continuities here -- one about a sneaky suitor for Minnie's heiress hand, and another about a sneaky Gypsy tribe also out to get Minnie's money -- but they maintain their pace and tone much better than "Death Valley" (with its many hands) did.
The art is evocative and detailed, still in a very Ub Iwerks-ian rubber-hose style -- and the first continuity of the strip, reprinted in an appendix, is pencilled by Iwerks himself, with the most energy and verve in the book -- giving it the feel of an early Mickey cartoon extended and expanded. (Though that does highlight the lack of music!) The character of Mickey -- and the simple fact that he has a character, and isn't just the waving silent mascot of the last couple of decades of Disney -- will be surprising to most readers, but this mouse was a tough little guy, ready for both adventures and fun at any minute, and he's deeply enjoyable to read about.
 Other ages had the opposite reaction, assuming the past was always better in all things. If you're a Rick Santorum supporter, you may be living in one of those other ages right now.