DID YOU KNOW THAT MICKEY MOUSE ONCE TRIED TO COMMIT SUICIDE?
Several times in one week, in fact! The two panels you see here are not some trick of editing (a la 3-Panel Peanuts) but are the actual “punchline” to the October 18, 1930, Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip. Failing to kill himself with a shotgun, Mickey will go on to make four more attempts through various means before deciding that life is worth living.
This is just one of the many very strange things that happen in the excellent new Fantagraphics collection Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Vol. 1: Race To Death Valley, featuring the comic strips by the great Floyd Gottfredson. This book starts at the beginning of his 25-year run, in 1930, and so far the strips at the very beginning are, to be quite blunt, not that good. The storyline is ridiculous and makes almost zero sense.
Parts of it are fascinating precisely because they are so awful. A crisis is introduced for two panels and then somehow resolved (not shown) before the next day’s strip begins. And then there is the “of its time” material that is horribly offensive today but is completely casual and tossed off like it’s no big deal, because hey, it’s 1930!
Chris Ware wasn’t the first to point out that the design of Mickey Mouse is clearly based on blackface minstrel imagery (“What is he doing with white gloves?”) but anyone who doubts it only needs to go about five pages in, when a panel of MIckey’s face with the lights out reveals an image that makes it pretty unmistakable. And that’s the least of it— this book is filled with stuff that ranges from racist to just plain what-were-they-thinking weird. And I’m still near the very beginning!
I have to say, though— kudos to Disney for allowing an unhomogenized, uncensored edition of this work to be published by Fantagraphics. The books aren’t marketed towards kids, and there is tons of supplementary material putting the strips in proper historical context. It bugs me when stuff like this is cleaned up for modern readers, a la the recent Huckleberry Finn that tried to make the book “less racist.” I think denying awful things from the past is deeply unhealthy. It’s also boring and stupid and accomplishes nothing.
Flipping ahead in the current volume, it looks like Gottfredson improves at a pretty good clip, and these early strips are him figuring out how to do this well. These are “adventure” strips, by the way, and there is a fair amount of violence and dangerous situations. Mickey is kind of an asshole sometimes, too. He whips horses, steals food from a mail clerk, and says stuff like “I hope Old Shyster falls out of the car and BREAKS HIS NECK!”
ALSO: right off the bat, Minnie Mouse’s best friend is a cow but there are also non-talking cows who are milked, and Mickey and Minnie drink cow’s milk. They live in a strange universe.
This is not a general book recommendation. I’m not sure what percentage of the people I know would even like this book. I bought a copy for myself and picked up one for Kevin Hines because I knew he was also looking forward to it, and I need for there to be one other person I know that I can talk to about it. But if a book full of weird and sometimes offensive but energetic and gradually getting-much-better Mickey Mouse adventure strips from the 1930s sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is. And if it doesn’t, then it almost certainly isn’t.