Written by Floyd Gottfredson, with Webb Smith and Ted Osborne
Penciled by Floyd Gottfredson
Inked by Al Taliaferro and Ted Thwaites
280 pages, black and white
Published by Fantagraphics
When people talk about classic Disney comics, they’re usually referring to the various Duck comics (Donald, Uncle Scrooge, Huey & Dewey & Louie, and so on) by Carl Barks, or perhaps Don Rosa. It wasn’t until Fantagraphics announced their Mickey Mouse comic strip collection project that I’d even heard of Floyd Gottfredson and his long tenure on the property. We’re two volumes into the series now, and at this point I’m finding the collections fascinating. With this new book, I feel like Gottfredson’s take on the characters is blossoming into something strong enough that I wish I’d encountered it much earlier in life.
Gottfredson’s stories from the 1930s follow a format that is largely dying in comic strips today; the adventure serial, seen only in a handful of properties running in newspapers. Focusing on a core cast of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, and Clarabelle Cow, Mickey and company come up with an idea and follow it through a convoluted and at times lengthy series of twists and turns. An orphanage needing money will transform into a staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a duo of evil robbers snatching the proceeds; poor Widow Churchmouse’s plea for help will have Mickey tangling with pirates, gorillas, and cannibals; looking for an investment will plunge Mickey into the world of horse racing with an impossible steed. The genesis of each story is never even close to where it’s going to wind up, and half of the fun is watching the twists and turns.
With the stories in Mickey Mouse: Trapped on Treasure Island, I feel like Gottfredson has fully learned how to hold onto the reader’s attention. The titular story is a bizarre rambling tale, but the story beats keep everything lively and moving at a fast pace. More importantly, looking back at the story when it hits its conclusion, it never feels like Gottfredson was making things up as he went along. Early ideas that seem forgotten click back into the greater puzzle, and it’s a pleasure to see it come together. The centerpiece of the book for me was "The Mail Pilot," which ran for three and a half months and is the strongest Gottfredson we’ve gotten to date. At first it feels like a slapstick, silly tale where Mickey has randomly decided to learn how to fly an airplane. It’s a lot of jokes about his feeble attempts in aviation school, and while it’s particularly amusing (it’s Gottfredson’s best slapstick yet), it feels lightweight. Then we learn why they need new pilots—a group of pirates has been kidnapping the mail pilots while out on their routes—and suddenly everything gets a lot more interesting. When Mickey goes up against the pirates, there’s still an undercurrent of humor present, but Gottfredson gives the story a lot of danger and energy. Mickey’s no longer the bumbling goofball, he’s a genuine hero ready to take down the pirates.
There are still some rough edges here and there throughout the book, though. The performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the opening story is bound to offend some modern readers with its racial stereotypes and faux dialects, and even if that wasn’t present it’s a sequence that has not aged well. Most readers won’t be familiar with the plot of the source material, and this re-enactment is less than riveting material, to put it mildly. Horace and Clarabelle, despite being half of the core cast of the comic strip, are also increasingly irrelevant as the strip progresses. Early on they served as a way to get Mickey and Minnie into the adventures as well as to bounce dialogue off of, but they’re clearly being phased out of the strip by the conclusion of this volume. They’re not terribly interesting characters, so their slow erasure from the book is actually a welcome change.
The art in Mickey Mouse: Trapped on Treasure Island is solid. In a standard newspaper comic strip there’s not much more for innovation, but I did like that Gottfredson was able to make such a small landscape for art still feel expressive and fun. It’s some of the supporting characters where I think the art is at its best; the Churchmice characters look great, Widow with her half-moon glasses and hair, and the Captain with his neatly trimmed beard. It makes them look like more than just generic mice, and visually memorable. I also found myself having far more affection for the horse Tanglefoot than the script would have warranted, and I realized after a little bit that it’s thanks to how Gottfredson drew him. Tanglefoot is so gawky and clumsy as he stumbles across the panel, you can’t help but like him.
The Mickey Mouse books from Fantagraphics are full of tons of bonus material; advertising art, essays, sketches, even examples of how the stories got re-purposed down the line. These feel like the Criterion Collection DVDs translated into comic strip compilations, a prime example of how to give the readers more than their money’s worth. Reading the first Mickey Mouse collection, I enjoyed it but I hadn’t felt a burning desire to read on. With Mickey Mouse: Trapped on Treasure Island, I’m already eager to see what Gottfredson did next. I’m in for the long haul.