Like an aged prizefighter greeting tourists in a casino lobby, poor ol' Mickey Mouse -- still the world's most universally recognized fictional character -- has got little to do these days but wear a tux and tails and welcome people to places imagineered to cost them serious money.
But once upon a time he was more mouse than logo. As you can see on every page of Fantagraphics' gorgeous new collection Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley, the young Mickey was a brash, spirited, resourceful, and endlessly charming character, a pluckish everymouse adventuring through life one scrape -- and one daily comic strip -- at a time. Poring over this book is like swimming in the very headwaters of popular American culture.
Mostly drawn and written by the great Floyd Gottfredson, the daily-newspaper adventures collected in Race to Death Valley pick up in 1930, just two years after Mickey's debut in Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks' Steamboat Willie short. (This volume is the first in a series planned to collect all of Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse work.)
This Mickey is a mystery-solving, prize-fighting, suicide-contemplating, mischief-making, wolf-spanking mouse of the people.
We mean that about suicide.
According to the helpful notes throughout the book, the story in which Mickey considers killing himself was the idea of Walt Disney himself. The payoff strip -- which involves the life-affirming hilariousness of frolicking squirrels -- is alone worth the price of the book.
Also, like all real Americans, this Mickey is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.
Gottfredson's early work is all galloping invention and intricate horseplay. It's chases, escapes, cliffhangers, sight gags, Groucho Marx wisecracks, and Horatio Alger fortune-making. But then it's small-town comedy, with Mickey opening a miniature golf course or playing matchmaker for cows or giving a grizzled con a Pygmalion once-over.
This Mickey is pugnacious.
He consorts with moonshiners.