Interview: David Gerstein on Fantagraphics’ Disney’s Mickey Mouse

David Gerstein. Photo by Tarkan Rosenberg.

David Gerstein. Photo by Tarkan Rosenberg.

David Gerstein is a historian, writer and editor who has worked on the Disney Treasures DVDs, Mickey and the Gang: Classic Stories in Verse (Gemstone), Mickey Mouse Classics: Mouse Tails (BOOM!), and The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons. He, along with Gary Groth, is editing Fantagraphics’ Disney’s Mickey Mouse series which collects classic cartoonist Floyd Gottfredson’s work on the Mickey Mouse comic strip. Westfield’s Roger Ash contacted Gerstein to learn more about the project.

Disney's Mickey Mouse Vol. 1

Disney's Mickey Mouse Vol. 1

Westfield: I know a number of Disney fans were surprised when this project was announced as Disney had not allowed many of these strips to be published before. How did this project come about?

David Gerstein: It’s an urban legend that these strips are suppressed. True, Disney has previously avoided reprinting a handful of stories that included some historically dated content, but dozens of others have reappeared since the late 1970s – first in Abbeville Press’ classic (though abridged) Best Comics books, then in more complete comic book reprints from Gladstone, Disney Comics, Gemstone, and Boom.

But those back issues are hard to find and collect. What we’ve been missing is a truly comprehensive book series – like this one! – presenting the strips in chronology and putting them in context; running them in their original newspaper format (and in black and white); and adding in all the awesome, behind-the-scenes material that exists for Gottfredson’s work, most of which the general public has never seen before.

Our colleagues at Disney are right behind us in wanting to see this stuff given the treatment and tribute it deserves.

A look at the strips in Disney's Mickey Mouse

A look at the strips in Disney's Mickey Mouse

Westfield: These strips feature the work of Floyd Gottfredson. For those who may not know his work, what can you say about him?

Gerstein: Well, let’s put it like this. Most comics fans have heard of Carl Barks, who’s often called the “Duck Man.” He took the screen character of Donald Duck and brought him to new heights in the comics; making Donald’s frustration more sympathetic, giving him the fleshed-out world of Duckburg, introducing great new characters like Uncle Scrooge, and doing it all with some of the best storytelling the medium’s ever seen.

Floyd Gottfredson was called the Mouse Man for the same reasons. Floyd’s not as well-known as Carl because Floyd worked on comic strips, not comic books; and his work was rarely reprinted in American comic books in the 1950s and 1960s, when fandom discovered Barks. But in so many ways it’s the same story.

Floyd moved from animation into comics, like Barks but twelve years earlier. Floyd created classic co-stars for Mickey – like the Phantom Blot, a supervillain with wonderfully out-there deathtraps. Floyd turned cartoon bit-players like Horace Horsecollar into hilarious, deep, dynamic foils. And then Mickey; instead of seeing Mickey as a cheerful, but one-dimensional character – like a lot of people do – Gottfredson portrayed him as this stubbornly optimistic, determined, two-fisted young guy trying to prove himself in wild, adventurous situations. Floyd called Mickey “a mouse against the world.” Or to paraphrase Warren Spector, who wrote the introduction to our first volume – Mickey’s an epic hero.

More strips from Disney's Mickey Mouse

More strips from Disney's Mickey Mouse

Westfield: The Mickey Mouse from this era is quite different from the Mickey of today. What can you tell people about the Mouse they will encounter in this volume?

Gerstein: Well, like I said – epic hero. Mickey’s brave, witty, imaginative and incredibly daring in Gottfredson’s stories. He’s a scrapper, ready to fight for what he believes in; but he’s not always right about what he thinks is right, so he can create a mess for himself and have to do some great soul-searching afterwards – serious and funny at once (which is hard to pull off as well as Gottfredson did it!).

Readers of our first book will even get to see Mickey’s life on the lam; not once but several times, because he runs into these adventures that pit him against crooks, and crooks love framing Mickey for their crimes. You’ll see Mickey stuck in a rigged boxing match, up against the champion Creamo Catnera – whose name comes from Primo Carnera, a famous boxer of that time. Gottfredson loved pop culture spoofs, and Mickey gets in quite a few.

Another look at strips from Disney's Mickey Mouse

Another look at strips from Disney's Mickey Mouse

Westfield: What can you tell us about the strips and stories that are collected in the first volume?

Gerstein: Well, I’ve just been through a little of it with Mickey above. But we’re starting out the book with “Mickey Mouse in Death Valley,” the very first Gottfredson story, which is getting its first reprint in English since 1978. It’s a rip-roaring Wild West story with Pegleg Pete and Sylvester Shyster, the crooked lawyer… well, he’d have to be a crooked lawyer with that name. And Mickey is shadowed by a black-masked figure called the Fox – who seems to always be there to save him when things get really bad. Who is he, and if he’s a good guy, why isn’t he just stopping the bad guys himself? There’s a great secret, but I won’t reveal it.

Following “Death Valley” is “Mr. Slicker,” the story of Mickey’s first rival for Minnie’s love, who gets his revenge on the whole town when he can’t have her. And then there’s “Mickey Mouse Boxing Champion,” the boxing story I mentioned above. Mickey first starts out training Minnie’s boxer cousin Ruff House Rat, who’s maybe the worst athlete you’ll ever see.

Later in the book come some of Mickey’s great adventures with Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. No room to list them all, but “Mickey Mouse and the Ransom Plot” has the whole gang up against a kidnapping ring in the deep woods. When you’re fighting a whole mob, you don’t really want to lean on two total know-it-alls for help, but Mickey doesn’t have the police, way out in the boonies… and he does have Horace and Clarabelle. I guess you go to war with the army you’ve got.

A look at the Extras in Disney's Mickey Mouse

A look at the Extras in Disney's Mickey Mouse

Westfield: In addition to the comic strips, what special features can people look forward to in the book?

Gerstein: Thanks to a whole community of Mickey and Floyd Gottfredson scholars, we’ve got a wonderful bunch of special features in our Vol. 1 – more than fifty pages of what we call “The Gottfredson Archives.” You’ll be seeing bios of Floyd’s collaborators on the strip, with examples of the other Disney art they did. You’ll get to see Floyd’s pre-Disney 1920s editorial cartoons and ad drawings. We’ve got an introductory study of Gottfredson by Thomas Andrae, one of the greatest scholars of his work.

Then there are the covers – we have “Gottfredson’s World,” a series of galleries showing the 1930s cover art that was drawn to illustrate Gottfredson’s stories when they were collected in Big Little Books and overseas Disney comic books. Most of these covers have never been anthologized before.

Of course, the Mickey serials didn’t start with Gottfredson at the very beginning. Ub Iwerks, Mickey’s famous co-creator alongside Walt, drew the comic strip for a little while first, so we’ve had Thomas Andrae provide us with an in-depth feature on Iwerks, offering some new historical revelations and very rare artwork.

My hat would be off in admiration to the many researchers who’ve helped us acquire all this… if it weren’t already off to Jacob Covey, our graphic designer, who has made these editorial pages immensely appealing above and beyond the content itself.

Westfield: How many volumes is this series planned for and what can people look forward to in upcoming volumes?

Gerstein: There are enough Gottfredson daily strips to make thirteen volumes; of course, sales will determine how long they go on. We’re hoping for a bunch of excited new readers and longtime fans to keep us going; if the success of the recent video game Disney Epic Mickey has told us anything, it’s that there’s a serious teen and young adult audience ready to eat up dynamic, smart Mickey adventures. He’s not just for kids!

Volume two will contain “Mickey Mouse Sails for Treasure Island,” a classic pirate adventure, and the famous “Blaggard Castle,” introducing Mickey and Horace to mad scientists Ecks, Doublex, and Triplex. This was Floyd’s way of tying into the famous Mad Doctor (1933) cartoon, which has been adapted to no less than two different Mickey video games over the years. Except Gottfredson didn’t stop with one mad scientist; it was so much better with three.

Further books will include more of Gottfredson’s 1930s classics, including the famous Western “The Bat Bandit of Inferno Gulch,” and the great gangland exposé “Editor-In-Grief,” with Mickey as a newseditor trying to expose Mouseton’s graft. Floyd actually includes one of Mickey’s biting newspaper editorials in the strip itself; this is edge-of-your-seat stuff, and the fact that I can even say this about cartoon character comics should give readers an idea of how impressive Gottfredson’s achievements were.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Gerstein: Er… see you real soon? Why – because we like you?


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