Thursday, September 08, 2005

Still Fond of the Rodent

In the early 80s, shortly after Michael Eisner took over Disney, a team of lawyers flew up to Winnipeg and spent a couple of weeks touring the city's daycare centres. At the end of two weeks, these lawyers issued over 20 notices to different centres, indicating they had 30 days to either apply for licensed use of character, or take a paint-roller to their beloved (and unauthorized) cartoon menageries. There was some muttering in the city's newspapers, but the daycare centres in question somehow found room in their budgets to buy a few gallons of white paint, and that was the end of that.

A year or two later, I went and got a tattoo of the corporate rodent, just over my left shoulderblade. Nothing unusual or particularly scandalous in its rendering. Classic foot-out pose, with some fine shadowing on the boots and buttons, and eyes that (my wife says) look a little mischievous. I thought about those daycare centres while the ink was being drilled into me.

The biker with the pencil could care. When he finished he said, "Just don't tell people I do Mickey Mouse tattoos."

"Right," I said. "The copyright thing."

He gave me a pained look. "Mickey Mouse tattoos," he said. "Don't you get it?"

Oh. Yeah, now I do!

This was about five years before every boy and girl was getting covered in ink or riddled with holes, or both at once. The rodent was a good conversation starter on the beach, or in the park. For a crucial moment in my young adulthood, his tattoo represented a combination of sweet-natured humor, with just a whiff of "danger". A few years later, with the advent of Grunge and Goth, he and I slipped back into squaresville. Conversation over.

Ah, but I still like the rodent. I like him even though his keepers have squandered the reputation he forged in the lean years of the Depression and the crucible of WWII. I like him even though he hasn't been in an entertaining film since before WWII.

I like him because, even though I'm no slouch with a pencil and pad, the rodent is incredibly difficult to draw. Try it sometime. Scratch three circles - use a compass, if you like - and see if you get anything more than a passing resemblance to the rodent (click on any of these images, if you need to take a closer look).

Then there's his character: I like the rodent because even though he starts every adventure in a childlike state of naive enthusiasm, a wily combative streak always comes to the surface once he realizes he's being pushed around.

In other words, I like the mouse because of Floyd Gottfredson.

Again, take your time and click on the images: the broken picket fence, the little guy standing on tip-toes to reach his gun, just below framed pictures (one in skewed disarray, as if ready to fall, just above the firearm). This bit, Mickey Attempts Suicide, is from the newspaper strip published in October, 1930. Note the date - not exactly the corporation cutout kiddie-fodder he is today. These days it's almost impossible to conceive of a "talking animal" strip appealing to adults, but Gottfredson's work was visceral, unsettling and direct. FG was asked about this particular episode, how it ever made it past the tight control exercised by both Walt and Roy Disney. By his account, at that moment the brothers were so focussed on delivering animated wows to the country's cinemas, they basically gave FG free rein to do as he pleased. Although this episode came to be considered somewhat scandalous during the Reagan years, in its day it was appreciated for its simple message of hope and perseverance.

If there's even a hint of truth to the rumors, Gottfredson's work surely helped save Disney's rep when Mickey Took on the Nazis:

Looking at these strips, it's interesting to consider just how topical the rodent was at the time - even to the point of controversy. Twenty-five years later, when the 60s took over, the mouse wasn't just irredeemably square, he was a mascot, hoodwinking the masses on behalf of The Corporation. Underground artists The Air Pirates parodied the rodent in a work titled Mickey Mouse Meets The Air Pirates. It's a fairly typical hippie effort at subversion, using the expected broad strokes. The rodent is presented as a lecherous dopehead, slacking off on his responsibilities to his "nephews". The conceit seems too obvious (and bourgeois) to be of critical concern to the corporation or anyone else, but when I consider the care that went into rendering such an articulate Depression-era portrait of the rodent, I have to wonder if Dan O'Neil and crew weren't in fact loving admirers of who Mickey Mouse used to be. Perhaps Air Pirates isn't so much scathing (ham-fisted) satire, as it is a lament for the rodent's sudden bankruptcy in the critical currency of the day.

Or perhaps I'm just making too much of a slender subject. All I know is, these days if the mouse isn't strapping on a pair of skates to appear in your local arena, he's being artistically rendered into tourist-ware. A sad fate for the rodent, because today's T-shirt will look gauche tomorrow, and there was a time when The Mouse had staying power.

This is an excellent Floyd Gottfredson tribute, as is this. Drawn! covers Air Pirates material, here. You can read the entirety of Mickey Mouse Meets The Air Pirates here. And thanks to this guy, I'm not too worried about receiving a "daycare" notice - provided, of course, I say:

The creator of "Whisky Prajer" is not affiliated with, maintained by, or in any way officially connected with the Walt Disney Company or any of its business units. This page has been created for my enjoyment and yours. Disney, Disneyland, Disney World are all trademarks of The Walt Disney Company. My views and opinions are not endorsed by, nor are they associated with The Walt Disney Company in any way. All Disney character images and some photographs are Copyright © The Walt Disney Company.


DarkoV said...

Mr. WP, by your own published admission, namely this blog entry, you have been wearing an unauthorized facsimile of Mr. Big Rodent since around 1982. That's 23 years worth of copyright royalties due to Walt D and Company.
...And if that Mickey tatoo had anything to do with catching your wife's attention, when she was in pre-wife condition, additional monies may be due as said skin etching could directly be the reason for the attainment of your marital bliss.
Not to mention, the joy that the wiggling tail of the aforementioned tatoo brought to your kiddies. (You do make Mickey move, don't you)
I hope you've been putting money in the cookie jar for the imminent arrival of The Attornies. And not those Loonies, either.

Whisky Prajer said...

You're making me nervous. Could it be the total-coverage that saves "Disney Tattoo Guy" from a date at the copyright court? I might just have to become "Disney Tattoo Guy - The Sequel"! (Grounds for divorce, in this household...)