January 13, 1930 – The Mickey Mouse Comic Strip is Distributed by King Features Syndicate.
On January 13, 1930, two newspapers in the United States, the New York Mirror and the Oakland Post-Enquirer, debuted a new comic strip featuring the popular movie character, Mickey Mouse. It was slow to gain popularity, as the strip was an ongoing story, rather than the usual practice of a gag per strip, but it became an enduring classic lasting for decades.
The first eighteen strips were drawn by famed Disney animator Ub Iwerks. Iwerks recalled that Disney’s original ambition was to become a cartoonist, which is likely the reason the early Mickey Mouse cartoons included the byline, A Walt Disney Comic. Disney decided to write the first four months of comics, although Iwerks had been contacted first about creating a comic strip about Mickey. As Joseph Connelly, the President of King Features Syndicate, wrote in a letter that reads almost like fanmail:
“I think your mouse animation is one of the funniest features I have
ever seen in the movies. Please consider producing one in comic strip
form for newspapers. If you can find time to do one, I shall be very
interested in seeing some specimens.”
Iwerks was already spread thin with other projects for the studio, and handed the letter to Walt, claiming it “wasn’t [his] business. Walt made the deal, and I did the drawings for a few strips.” Walt, on the other hand, had this to say when asked about the comic:
“[In 1929 we were looking for] ways to exploit characters like the
Mouse. The most obvious was a comic strip. So I started work on a
comic strip hoping I could sell it to one of the syndicates. As I was
producing the first one, a letter came to me from King Features
wanting to know if I would be interested in doing a comic strip
featuring Mickey Mouse. Naturally, I accepted their offer.”
As with the story of how Mickey Mouse came to be, there were discrepancies between the recollections of Disney and Iwerks. Although it may not be clear through their statements of who was accurate, it seems that Walt was always interested in doing a comic strip, but work had not started before Iwerks received the letter from Connelly.
But Iwerks did animate the strips, and then the project was given to Win Smith for three months. Smith butted heads with Walt over seniority and age; when Walt asked Smith to write the comic as well as animate it, Smith refused, telling Walt that “No goddamn young whipper-snapper’s going to tell me what to do.” Smith quit that day, and the strip was taken over by Floyd Gottfredson.
Gottfredson was asked to take over the strip for a few weeks until a replacement was found, but ended up working on the comic for forty-five years, until he retired in 1975. While the early comics were based on the cartoons in theaters, Gottfredson put his own personal spin on the strip, using contemporary events like the Great Depression and World War II as backdrops for heroic adventures in which Mickey battled corrupt politicians and assorted villains to save his friends and country.
The first comic strip, entitled “Lost on a Desert Island,” is very reflective of the attitudes of the period, with exaggerated interpretations of anyone who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon. These clichés were commonplace, used when one didn’t have the time or patience to create a fully-formed character.
The comic itself is a dry run of the adventure comics that lay ahead in the strip’s future, but it is charming for what it is. It begins with Mickey in the barnyard, trying to fly a homemade plane, which is similar to the plot of the 1928 short film, Plane Crazy. Mickey gets the plane to fly (losing Minnie Mouse in the process, who lands to safety using her bloomers as a parachute), but ends up in the middle of a typhoon and crashes on a desert island. Although this is a continuous story, there are gags to end each strip, and it has a real charm about it. If one is able to look past the attitudes of the past that are heavily featured in the strip, it’s a good read overall.