Gottfredson’s Mickey: The Art and Science of Action

Before becoming the anodyne logo of Disney’s saccharine-soaked family image during the post-WWII era, Disney’s Mickey Mouse had some heroic chops. Make no mistake, Mickey was never even remotely “edgy” let alone hard-boiled in the style of some other 30s pulp protagonists. But he was imagined by Disney in the original animated shorts and then by Floyd Gottfredson in the daily comic strips, as a spunky, resourceful adventurer. In the 1930s, Mickey was thrust into a number of roles and across all of the pop culture genres: sky jockey, detective, western outlaw hunter, ghost-hunter, even sci-fi adventurer. As tame as Mickey’s 30s adventures may seem, the Disney corporation in its most controlling moments in the past has tried to disappear come of the earliest imagery of their corporate logo packing a gun or interacting with some cringe-worth but commonplace racial stereotyping of the era.

With the superb Fantagraphics reprints of the Mickey Mouse strips’ adventure era – from the early 1930s into the mid-1950s – we finally have a full look at Mickey’s evolution. I can’t recommend these books enough, both for the quality of the strips themselves and for the dense background material and historical contextualization by editor David Gerstein.

Very early in the strip’s life, Mickey Mouse was handed over to Disney animation in-betweener Floyd Gottfredson, who at first resisted the assignment. While the strip bore Walt Disney’s signature, the writing and art through much of the 1930s was Gottfredson. At times, the strip echoed to varying degree recent Mickey Mouse animation shorts, but over time the connection between theatrical cartoons and strip became more attenuated. The deeper adventuring, and daily cadence of the strip allowed Gottfredson to develop his mouse into a more multi-dimensional adventurer. Quite apart from the hyper-masculinized, preening, idolized and proto-super heroes of pulp fiction and many other adventure strips, this Mickey felt more like an everyman, even democratic, American hero. He was an ordinary man-mouse who discovered his resilience, cunning and inner strength when tested by circumstance. Mickey was in the Charles Lindbergh mold of fresh-faced, Mid-western innocent with can-do spirit and ingenuity.

So much can and should be said about Gottfredson’s extraordinary work on the Mickey Mouse strip. But it is the strip’s sheer kinetic artistry that grabbed me from the first. I can’t think of another comic strip of this or any other era that was so, well, energetic and animated, in virtually every panel. That Gottfredson had been trained and worked within an animation studio has much to do with this. Gottfredson himself started as an in-betweener, the artist who literally provides the motion frames between images of “extreme” points in the action provided by the animator. And, famously, the Disney Studio was a school of story, character, art and motion. Various artists gave lectures on these topics to the staff. Compared to the rest of the comics page, the Mickey Mouse strips had an exceptional polish and professionalism to them, surely the impact of coming from an artist steeped in the deep experience and influence of the Disney studio system.

None of which is to say that the Mickey Mouse strips were bland corporate product. Indeed they were intended for a younger audience (12-year-olds were the prescribed target), and so devoutly inoffensive. We don’t find any of the fetishism of Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Prince Valiant or Mandrake. Instead, we get raw energy. The animators’s influence on Gottfredson’s aesthetic are clear in two panels of Mickey and perennial nemesis Peg Leg Pete from the 1937 Island in the Sky adventure. Gottfredson essentially recreates the mechanics of animation in his detailed use of motion tracking lines as Pete tosses Mickey off of the floating island. The motion lines stand in for in-between frames, helping us imagine an action indicated by and frame. And the energy is communicated so well on both ends of the action. You can almost see Mickey move in air because of the pose and position Gottredson chose to embody the movement. Likewise, Pete’s looming bulk (he fills half the frame) and full body follow-through give us a sense of the power behind it. In the next frame later in the fight, Mickey’s payoff blow lands on Pete with an almost palpable “feel”WHAM!” Just look at all of the action lines here that not only indicate the in-between action but make all of the objects in the scene – Pete, Mickey and even the pipe, which seems to be reacting to having just struck home. As I said. its about the sheer energy Gottfredson build into every panel.

And in the extended choreography of the action where the aesthetics of animation deeply informed this strip. The two panels above are taken from a fight that literally extended across two weeks of dailies. Only a piece of it is posted below. The ways in whic h Gottfredson breaks down the action across the days is notable. Notice how on some days like 2/27 to 3-1, he ends one day at one frozen piece of action, and picks it up the next day a micro-second later, what would be the next frame of animation. In the break the following day he replicates the same frame of action across the two days.

This sequence clearly was thought through in the way one would expect from a Disney-sourced strip. There is an appreciation for the timing and cadence of an action scene. You can see the artist thinking about where to put the beats and twists to keep us involved; how to frame it so the viewer is tracking and living the action rather than experiencing it as pure chaos. And it is also a sequence that communicates character. Pete’s sheer visual bulk is used throughout the sequence in different ways. At times it conveys his daunting power, while at others it feels like a runaway train of momentum Pete himself can’t control. Mickey, by contrast, dances around this bulk with physical qualities that express his character, imaginative and resourceful, adroit and flexible, fleet and controlled.

Gottfredson also brought his sense of energy and motion to express personality even in static scenes. His heavy use of reactive posing, emotion lines around characters and gesture all underscore sentiment and make even the most prosaic panel vibrate with a sense of action. Consider Mickey in the first two strips below. He is always in motion, even in a minor way. and when he is standing still, Gottfredson has him emoting physically. In this sense, Gottfredson was taking his cues less from animation than perhaps screwball comic masters like Milt Gross, who filled every panel with both antic physicality and visually expressed emotion. In the case of Mickey Mouse strips, that frenetic, vibrating quality of screwballers like Gross or Bill (Smokey Stover) is channeled and dialed down into narrative arts of building character and emotion but with cartoon broadness.

It is worth mentioning that most of the strips here come from the Island in the Sky episode, which some consider the best of Mickey’s adventures. Sky jockey Mickey happens upon the undiscovered flying island where the atomic scientist Doctor Einmug (get it? Ein-mug?) conducts his research into a new atomic energy discovery. This is one of the rare cases where a Mickey Mouse strip was topical, let alone prophetic. Atomic power had been theorized for some time, leading to the wartime Manhattan Project that both proved its dire potential. But as early as 1937, in a comic strip no less, we see rehearsed the post-WWII debates about the up and down sides of a nuclear age.

And the storyline ends on a decidedly humanistic note. Doctor Einmug recognizes that his atomic formula could fall into the wrong hands and be as destructive to humanity as productive. In a move very unlike the decisions science would make during and after WWII, the good doctor decides to exile himself and his formula on another planet and out of reach of Earthlings.

Satire and social commentary were not Disney’s business, so it is notable that this storyline took even a bland glance at current affairs. But aesthetics were their business. And even a cursory look at Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strip shows just how thoughtful and considered a production it was relative to other, even masterful strips around it on comics page. It benefitted from its roots in one of the principals of the golden age of film animation. This was an era when animators – Disney, Fleischers, Warner Bros. – were thinking hard about how to caricature motion, emotion, force, gesture, expression in ways that were both familiar but liberating. And they pondered shorter story arcs, the rules for timing, beats, building tension, framing. You can see a lot of that deliberateness in Gottfredson’s work. Nothing seems accidental here.

One thought on “Gottfredson’s Mickey: The Art and Science of Action

  1. Hi Steve, You may not remember me, we corresponded briefly when I released my American Weekly Dulac illustrations Ebook a few years ago. Anyway, I “spun off” two of the series into small stand alone novels with the complete text by John Erskine. The first one “Seven Tales from King Arthur’s Court” has just been published by Markosia. Here is the link to their website- It is available as both a print and Ebook. The Ebook is a little disappointing because there are no page breaks, so the images don’t appear where I wanted them as in the print edition. In addition to the Dulac’s, I managed to include images from N.C. Wyeth, Beardsley, H.J. Ford, Pyle, and a nice Burne-Jones.

    I really enjoy your newsletter and I think you are a very talented writer, unlike myself. Do you have any publishing projects coming up? I remember the review you wrote for Trina Robbins “Queens”, certainly the best review of her now out of print best seller. BTW, the Dulac’s are from the same collection as the Brinkleys, Bill Blackbeards from SF. I hope you enjoy the book and are able to review it favorably.

    All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s