Les Adventures de Mickey, by Walt Disney

Walt Disney's name is synonymous with animation. He professionalized a mere branch of the film industry into a dignified artform. His studios managed to reach a dazzling level which is still the standard all cartoons are judged by until this day. Yet Disney produced more than cartoons alone: he ventured into live-action films, nature documentaries, TV shows, theme parks, truckloads of merchandising and... comics! Today his company is the biggest entertainment enterprise on Earth. Disney takes up a special yet strangely contradictive place in the history of comics. He only created one comic strip personally, 'Mr. George's Wife' (1920), which was never published. After 1926 he never even made another drawing again. He wrote a few early episodes of the very first comic strip based on his signature character 'Mickey Mouse', but had nothing to do with any other Disney comics. And yet Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy are nowadays the most recognizable fictional characters in the world. Even more perplexing: Disney is the only cartoonist to be just as famous as his characters! A global network of writers and artists made countless comics based on his films and TV series, sometimes creating new characters exclusive to the comics themselves (see our separate listing). In terms of employment more artists have worked for Disney than any other cartoon studio, either directly or through licensees. It also explains why he is effectively the most widely read and influential provider of comics in the world and of all time! Disney is widely admired for creating charming quality family entertainment. Nearly a century of generations share fond childhood memories about his work. He is respected as a serious film maker who has brought many innovations to the medium. Simultaneously all his products, including his comics, are marked by tight quality control. And yet he and his company haven't been spared of criticism either. Accusations of commercialisation, Americanisation, kitsch, bowdlerizing literary classics and fighting unfair copyright battles remain rampant. But, for better or worse, Disney remains the most omnipresent cultural force on our planet...


Artwork inspired by Carey Orr for the McKinley High School newspaper, The Voice (© Disney)

Early years and influences
Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago as the son of a farmer. At age four his family moved to Marceline, Missouri. The boy always had fond memories of rural America, barnyard animals and the railway track next to his house, imagery he would evoke time and time again in his work. As a child he absorbed many novels illustrated by artists like John Bauer, Wilhelm Busch, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, J.J. Grandville, Theodor Kittelsen, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Rackham, Gustaf Tenggren and John Tenniel, to name a few. Later in his career Disney let his artists take inspiration from classic European painters, particularly the Romantic movement. In the field of comics, Disney admired Bud Fisher, George Herriman,Winsor McCay, George McManus, Clifton Meek, Carey Orr, Richard F. OutcaultCarl Emil Schultze, T.S. Sullivant and Ryan Walker. In 1942 he even let one of his artists, Floyd Gottfredson, create a special birthday drawing for publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers featured some of the finest comics of their day. In terms of film Disney closely observed Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fritz Lang, Benjamin Christensen and F.W. Murnau, alongside animation pioneers like Winsor McCay, Max and Dave Fleischer's 'Koko the Clown' and Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's 'Felix the Cat'. 

Mr George's Wife by Walt Disney
'Mr. George's Wife', comic strip by Walt Disney, around 1920 (© Disney)

When Disney was 10 years old his parents moved to Kansas City, where his father started a newspaper delivery route. Walt and his brother Roy had to wake up early to deliver morning papers, all just before they went to school. They kept this exhausting ordeal up for six years. In between Walt drew cartoons for his school paper at McKinley High School, Chicago, while later studying drawing at the Kansas City Art Institute and Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1917 the United States got involved with the First World War. An underage Disney forged his birth certificate and worked as a Red Cross ambulance driver while stationed in France, but saw no military action. Instead he submitted cartoons to the army magazine Stars and Stripes. Presumably his first published artwork appeared in a scrapbook handed out by the Chicago Public Library to families of First World War servicemen. The book, titled, 'A Scrap book made for our soldiers and sailors by Citizens of Chicago and The Chicago Public Library' (1918), not only included soldiers and the German Kaiser, but also the first two rodents in Disney's oeuvre! After returning to his home country, the young Disney sent drawings to Life and Judge. Yet these, and his try-out comic strip 'Mr. George's Wife', failed to interest any publisher. They indeed didn't stand out from anything else created back in the day. But the young dreamer already found a new passion: animation...


The original Alice was portrayed by Virginia Davis, a child actor from Kansas. Later Alice films starred Margie Gay as the title character (© Disney)

Animation
In the 1920s animation was still crude filler material for movie theaters. Most viewers saw it as a mere novelty. Yet Disney saw potential in the medium. Between 1919 and 1920 he worked as an advertising artist at Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he met the talented Ub Iwerks. They decided to create their own studio, specializing in advertising cartoons. Unfortunately they went bankrupt within a month. In 1921 the gentlemen improved their skills at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, and then once again set up their own studio. The Laugh-O-Gram Studio, as it was called, hired such animators as Fred Harman, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Friz Freleng, and initially focused on a series of modernized fairy tales which were screened in the local Kansas City cinemas owned by Frank L. Newman. Again these weren't enough to make ends meet. Luckily Walt's brother Roy had a keen business sense and came to their aid. He would remain Disney's business manager for the rest of their careers. Thanks to the 'Alice Comedies' (1923-1927), a series which combined live-action with animation, the company finally managed to remain stable. The films also marked the debut of the first recurring Disney character, Peg-Leg Pete, who'd later become Mickey Mouse's nemesis. Disney gave up drawing and became a full-time creative advisor and movie producer.


Title card for a Laugh-O-Gram cartoon (1922) (© Disney)

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Striking a deal with Universal Pictures, Iwerks created a new character: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927). Oswald became popular with viewers and finally money started rolling in. But to Disney's horror he didn't own the rights! His producer Charles Mintz bought out Disney's entire studio, except for Iwerks who remained loyal to Walt. Up until 1943 new 'Oswald' cartoons would be created, the majority by Walter Lantz, but they were never quite as popular again. As a comics character Oswald lasted longer. In 1935 National Periodicals (DC) launched a comic book feature, drawn by Al Stahl for the New Fun comic books. In 1942 Dell Comics relaunched 'Oswald' comics, with the help of writer John Stanley and artists like Dan Gormley, Dan Noonan, Lloyd White and Jack Bradbury. Production kept going long after the character had vanished from screens. In 2006 the Walt Disney Company bought the rights to Oswald back, making the rabbit again part of the Disney universe.

postcard by Walter E. Disney, 1931postcard by Walter E. Disney, c. 1931
Mickey Mouse postcards, around 1931 (© Disney)

Mickey Mouse
Back in 1927 Iwerks and Disney were devastated about losing everything they'd build up for the third time. They decided to steal their star back by redesigning him into a mouse. The cute design was inspired by Clifton Meek's 'Johnny Mouse'. Disney's new star was named Mickey and received a girlfriend named Minnie. But they weren't a hit right away. Their first two cartoons interested neither test audiences nor distributors, but the third one, 'Steamboat Willie' (1928), featured a synchronized soundtrack, which was still a novelty at the time. Only the Fleischers ('My Old Kentucky Home', 1926) and Paul Terry ('Dinner Time', 1928) had created sound cartoons before, but 'Steamboat Willie' was far more professional. Composer Carl Stalling had invented a click track to blend sound effects and music better to the visuals, a technique still used in animation today and nicknamed "mickeymousing". The cartoon became an over-nite sensation. New 'Mickey' cartoons were created, while Iwerks came up with new side characters like Horace Horsecollar, Clarabella Cow and Pluto. In 'The Karnival Kid' (1929) Mickey also received a voice, provided by Walt himself. In 1930 the first 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper comic was published. Walt wrote the initial scripts, while Iwerks did the artwork. It would eventually be passed on to writers Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris and Bill Walsh, while Win Smith and particularly Floyd Gottfredson shaped it into a marvellous long-running comics series, distributed by King Features.

Lost on a Desert Island by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks
'Lost on a Desert Island', the first Mickey Mouse newspaper strip in 1930, was largely based on 'Plane Crazy' (© Disney)

Meanwhile the laughing mouse became a global phenomenon. His silhouetted head and ears remain the most recognizable advertising logo of all time. In 1932 Disney won a special Oscar for Mickey's creation and, unrelated, the very first Oscar for "Best Animated Short". Over the course of decades Disney would win many more, entering the Guinness Book of Records as the person who won the most Oscars of all time. In 1935 Mickey also received a special award from the League of Nations (forerunner of the U.N.) for being a "universal goodwill ambassador". Every product with Mickey's face on it sold in the millions. But the best part about Mickey's success was that Disney could finally establish a stable independent company: The Walt Disney Studios (1930).


Silly Symphony movie posters (© Disney)

Silly Symphonies
In 1929 Disney launched a new animated series: 'Silly Symphonies', featuring one-shot cartoons based on famous fairy tales, fables, nursery rhymes or novels. These mood pieces were strongly driven by music and used as a testing ground for the studio's technical and graphic experiments. Several have become timeless classics, such as 'The Skeleton Dance' (1929), 'Flowers and Trees' (1932), 'Santa's Workshop' (1932), 'The Three Little Pigs' (1933), 'Old King Cole' (1933), 'The Pied Piper' (1933), 'Lullaby Land' (1933), 'The Grasshopper and the Ants' (1934), 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (1935), 'The Cookie Carnival' (1935), 'Who Killed Cock Robin?' (1935), 'Music Land' (1935), 'The Country Cousin' (1936), 'Little Hiawatha' (1937), 'The Old Mill' (1937) and 'The Ugly Duckling' (1939). However, audiences had to warm up to them since Mickey didn't star in them. Therefore a 'Silly Symphonies' Sunday newspaper page was launched in 1932, written and illustrated throughout the years by Earl Duvall, Ted Osborne, Al Taliaferro, Bob Grant, Hubie Karp, Paul Murry  and more. Most were adaptations of the cartoons themselves, but they also created new storylines. One character, Bucky Bug, even originated in this comic before appearing on the big screen. Several characters introduced in the 'Silly Symphonies' shorts moved on to much longer careers in their comic book adventures, such as The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs (1933), Little Hiawatha (1937) and, most famously, Donald Duck (1934), who was created by Dick Huemer, Dick Lundy and Art Babbitt.


Donald and Mickey in 'Orphan's Benefit'  (© Disney)

Donald Duck & Goofy
Donald, whose quacking voice was provided by Clarence Nash, debuted in the 'Silly Symphony' 'The Wise Little Hen' (1934). Within a year he was transferred to the 'Mickey' series. His bad luck and short temper made him instantly more popular with audiences, since Mickey had already evolved into an incorruptible hero. The third major Disney star, Goofy, was created by Art Babbitt and Frank Webb and voiced by Pinto Colvig. Initially called "Dippy Dawg", the dim-witted and clumsy dingo debuted in 'Mickey's Revue' (1932). From 'Mickey's Service Station' (1935) on Donald and Goofy were teamed up with Mickey. The duck and dingo were paired up as a comedy duo from 'Polar Trappers' (1938) on, until each received their own solo series, respectively with 'Don Donald' (1937) and 'Goofy and Wilbur' (1939). During and directly after World War II Goofy gained more fans through the 'How to...' series. This hilarious thematical cartoon series featured him trying out a wide variety of hobbies and sports, all with disastrous results. Several Mickey, Donald and/or Goofy cartoons have become classics, including 'The Mad Doctor' (1933), 'Orphan's Benefit' (1934), 'The Band Concert' (1935), 'Pluto's Judgement Day' (1935), 'Thru the Mirror' (1936), 'Moving Day' (1936), 'Clock Cleaners' (1937), 'Brave Little Tailor' (1938), 'Tiger Trouble' (1945), 'Hockey Homicide' (1945) and 'Goofy Gymnastics' (1949). The fourth major Disney star, Pluto, was also given his own animated series near the end of the 1930s. In his case his cartoons were always strictly made for young children and thus never as popular with adults as Donald or Goofy. Some side characters originating in the shorts, like the chipmunks Chip 'n' Dale, later received animated series of their own. Chip & Dale were also given their own long-running comics series. Other characters who originated in these theatrical cartoons and appeared frequently in comics were Bolivar the dog, Daisy Duck, Gus Goose and Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey & Louie. 


Promotional art for 'Clock Cleaners'  (© Disney)

Disney comics
Already in the 1930s Disney's characters had found their way to other printed media besides the newspapers. Reprints of the 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper comic appeared in the several incarnations of Mickey Mouse Magazine (1932-1940), which was initially a digest-sized monthly distributed through dairy companies. By 1933 Disney struck a deal with Whitman, a subsidiary of Western Publishing, to rework newspaper strips for the 'Big Little Book' children's book series. Western also began producing the Mickey Mouse Magazine in a partnership with publisher Kay Kamen in 1937. The magazine was transformed into actual comic book format in 1939 and then quickly evolved into 'Walt Disney's Comics & Stories' (October 1940), which was produced by Western and published by Dell Comics. It still featured reworked Sunday pages from the 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Silly Symphonies' strips.


Mickey Mouse Magazine issues of November 1933 and December 1935. The early issues were promotional magazines for dairy companies (© Disney)

Donald starred in more cartoons than any other Disney character which his comics career reflects too. He debuted in Bob Karp and Al Taliaferro's 'Silly Symphonies' comic in 1934, whereupon Gottfredson used him as a side character in his 'Mickey' newspaper serials. Ted Osborne and Taliaferro created a daily gag strip around Donald in 1937, followed by a Sunday page a year later. It however took an oddly long time before the aggressive duck received his own adventure series and the first attempts happened abroad: in Britain by cartoonist William A. Ward. and in Italy by Federico Pedrocchi! In 1942 Carl Barks and Jack Hannah gave Donald his first official U.S. adventure comic in the 'Four Color' series by Dell Comics. Barks continued to write and draw adventures with Donald Duck throughout the following decades, fleshing out the duck's character and giving him a hometown (Duckburg) and a wide range of friends, relatives and enemies. Especially Donald's rich uncle Scrooge McDuck became so popular that he received his own solo comic book in 1953. Both Donald and Mickey received their own title in 1952.

Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold by Carl Barks
'Donald Duck finds pirate gold' (1942), Carl Barks' first Donald Duck story (© Disney)

Particularly in Continental Europe and Latin America the adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have been extraordinarily best-sellers, even decades after Disney comics lost popularity in the United States! Goofy's comics career has been less spectacular. He was usually given the role as sidekick in Mickey's comics and only received gag stories as a solo character. Yet in 1965 Del Connell and Paul Murry finally found a way to feature him in solo adventure stories too, by turning him into the superhero character 'Super Goof', which became a popular spin-off on its own.


Seventh issue of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, and Four Color Comics one-shot #92, starring Pinocchio (© Disney)

New stories with other Disney characters continued to appear in 'Walt Disney's Comics & Stories'. Amazingly enough several of these well-known characters only appeared in one (!) single theatrical cartoon, such as Bucky Bug, Gus Goose, Little Hiawatha and Witch Hazel. Others were mere side characters in feature films, such as Panchito, Joe Carioca, Gus and Jaq, Thumper, Tinkerbell, Madam Mim and Scamp. The latter may be the most surprising of all. The little puppy was only seen during the final five minutes of 'Lady and the Tramp'! Yet they are all still recognizable to many people because they enjoyed a much longer career as comics stars. Certain recurring comics characters like Chief O'Hara, the Phantom Blot, Gladstone Gander, Grandma Duck and Fethry Duck have even never appeared on the big screen. Other movie characters have often outlived their big screen fame in comic strips, such as Joe Carioca and Br'er Rabbit.

Disney comics abroad
As early as the 1930s, unlicensed 'Mickey' and 'Donald' comics appeared in the United Kingdom, Italy and Yugoslavia. To thwart them official local Disney magazines were launched, which were discontinued under Nazi occupation during World War II. When Disney looked for a new foreign market in Latin America during the early 1940s, Disney magazines became more widespread in this continent. After the war new licensed Disney magazines were launched in Continental Europe, reaching immense popularity in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Foreign demand was so huge that in 1962 the Walt Disney Studios produced exclusive stories for publications abroad, which even led to new characters, series and spin-offs. Several foreign publishers received an official license to produce their own stories, such as Édi-Monde/Hachette in France, Mondadori in Italy, Abril in Brazil, De Geïllustreerde Pers in The Netherlands and Gutenberghus in Denmark, which were then syndicated all over the world. As of 2018, Egmont (Scandinavia), Sanoma (The Netherlands) and Disney's own publishing division in Italy are the largest producers of Disney comics worldwide.


Dutch and Italian Disney magazines celebrating Mickey's 90th birthday in 2018 (© Disney)

Disney studio
Walt Disney himself had almost nothing to do with his comics production, other than they all appeared under his name. Artists and writers weren't allowed to sign their own name underneath them, although it must be said that these were often policies by the publishers and distributors.  It took until the 1960s before the identities of these comics authors became publically known, most notably of the "Good Duck Artist" Carl Barks. Although Disney's animators also remained unknown to the general public they at least received credit on screen. Nine of his directors went down in history as the "Nine Old Men", namely Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas. Some animators have become legendary in their own right, such as Iwerks, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt, Bill Tytla, Hamilton Luske and Norm Ferguson. Among the most notable artists who once worked in Disney's animation department (and later often drew comics with his characters too) were Fred Abranz, Pete AlvaradoGeorge Baker, Carl Barks, Jack Bogle, Jack Bradbury, Don Bluth, Carl Buettner, Don R. Christensen, Ron Cobb, George Crenshaw, Shamus Culhane, Jim Davis, Owen Fitzgerald, Mo GollubChad Grothkopf, Frank Grundeen, Don Gunn, Jack Hannah, Gene Hazelton, Ralph Heimdahl, Cal Howard, Al HubbardEarl Hurd, Chris Ishii, Willie Ito,  Chuck Jones, Volus Jones, Lynn KarpSelby Kelly, Walt Kelly, Jack KingBob Kuwahara, Jack Kirby, Rudy Larriva, Harold Mack, Tom Massey, Bob McKimson, Chuck McKimson, Tom McKimsonFrank McSavage, Bill Melendez, Bob Moore, Paul Murry, Dan Noonan, Tom Okamoto, Fred Peters, M.T. "Penny" RossDr. Seuss, Larry Silverman, Paul J. Smith, Fred SpencerTony StroblCecil SurryFrank Tashlin, Riley ThomsonReuben TimminsGil Turner, Cliff VoorheesBill Weaver and Kay Wright. To this day Disney remains the only name general audiences know, but since 1987 the company has given these unsung contributors more credit through the bi-annual Disney Legend Awards.

Disney's technical vision
While his artists did most of the work, Disney guarded the overall vision. He unified the talents of thousands of people into one uniform product. Millions of dollars were invested to improve the look and quality of his cartoons. He strove hard to make his characters and fantasy worlds believable. As he acquired more skilled artists the animation became smoother and more fluid. When his paper-and-ink creations moved there was weight and gravity to their motions. They even seemed to have a mind of their own. 'The Three Little Pigs' (1933) was a milestone in this field since it featured three identical characters who were still distinct by the way they acted on screen, as Chuck Jones once observed. Another milestone was 'Playful Pluto' (1934), in which  Pluto gets stuck on a piece of flypaper and really appears to be thinking how to get rid of it? Disney went so far to write out character descriptions so that his staff could understand Mickey, Donald and Goofy's personalities and animate them accordingly. Voice actors were instructed to never go public as "the voice of...", to keep the illusion alive. Although Disney sometimes used celebrity voice actors (Basil Rathbone, Sterling Holloway, Peggy Lee, Phil Harris) he picked them out in function of the role, rather than for name recognition.


Carl Stalling in 1930 at the piano with standing around him Johnny Cannon, Walt Disney, Burt Gillett, Ub Iwerks, Wilfred Jackson and Les Clark. Seated are animators Jack King and Ben Sharpsteen.

Disney wanted his cartoons to have the same feel of a live-action film. To achieve this cinematic techniques were imitated, the most famous example being the multi-plane camera in 'The Old Mill' (1937) which can zoom into backgrounds. Lotte Reiniger and Ub Iwerks had pioneered a similar technique before, but once again Disney perfected it. He also improved on earlier colour cartoons like J.R. Bray's 'The Debut of Thomas Cat' (1920) and Ub Iwerks' 'Fiddlesticks' (1930) by making the first professionalized full-colour animated cartoon, 'Flowers and Trees' (1932), through an exclusive contract with Technicolor. Disney was the only studio to have a separate department for mood and atmospheric effects. As the artwork became richer, backgrounds showed incredible attention to detail. The look of classic European paintings and book illustrations was mimicked. No costs were spared to overcome huge technical difficulties. Dazzling perspectives, intricate machinery, light and shadow effects, flames, wind, streaming water and dozens of characters appearing all in the same scene... Disney pulled it all off! In some cases his cartoons even did things live-action couldn't imitate at the time! To gain more prestige Disney used famous classical scores on his soundtracks. Many have become animation clichés, such as Gioacchino Rossini's 'William Tell Overture', whenever characters are running, or Franz Liszt's '2nd Hungarian Rhapsody', whenever pianos are played. But he also had composers write out original music for him, such as Carl Stalling (who later joined Warner Brothers), Frank Churchill (who wrote 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' and the songs for 'Snow White', 'Pinocchio', 'Dumbo' and 'Bambi') and the Sherman Brothers (who wrote most of the soundtrack of 'Mary Poppins' and 'Jungle Book'). Several Disney songs have become popular standards in their own right. Famous conductors like Arturo Toscanini and Jerome Kern praised his use of music.


Walt Disney in front of the Pinocchio storyboard

Disney's narrative vision
On a technical level Disney was rarely matched by any of his competitors. But even those who eventually caught up couldn't surpass his gift for storytelling. He knew how to keep a scene solid, understandable and entertaining. One animator, Webb Smith, invented the storyboard to plot out and time scenes better. These were illustrated scripts in sketch form, inspired by comic strip lay-outs. The method was quickly picked up by other studios, even in live-action, and is nowadays a global standard practice for all film and TV productions. Yet only Disney was rich enough to afford test screenings in pencil form, while rival cartoon studios had to plan everything more out in advance, only seeing the end result in complete action when their short was finished. Disney had the luxury that he could still make changes afterwards if he noticed a continuity error or felt a scene fell flat. He instinctively knew how his viewers would respond to it. The genius was very aware of the difference between what was funny in the studio and how it would come across on screen. For the same reason he dismissed any attempt to be trendy, preferring to keep his work as timeless as possible.

The Disney magic
All these elements explain why Disney has remained such an eternal audience favorite. One of the few certainties in life is that one can always let a child watch a Disney film or read a Disney book, without worrying it might be exposed to something unsuitable. Children love them, parents feel comforted and many other adults just enjoy the nostalgia. Disney is an inviting world to revisit time and time again. During the 1930s and 1940s, when the Great Depression and World War II were in full effect, millions of viewers found escapism in Disney's cartoons and comics. The same happened after the war, whenever people were need of a little relief. Today the company remains a dream factory. Famous for their fun and heartwarming, tender, moments.


Nightmarish forest sequence from 'Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs'  (© Disney)

The Disney nightmare sequences
At the same time certain Disney cartoons, particularly their animated features, have gained infamy for featuring quite intense nightmarish imagery. Some parents have occasionally worried about scenes in films like 'The Mad Doctor', 'Pluto's Judgement Day', the Witch and haunted forest in 'Snow White', Stromboli, the Coachman, the donkey transformations and Monstro in 'Pinocchio', the Rite of Spring and Night on Bald Mountain in 'Fantasia', the 'Pink Elephants' hallucination in 'Dumbo', Bambi's mother getting shot, The Headless Horseman in 'The Adventures of Ichabod', Donald freaking out from starvation in 'Mickey and the Beanstalk' and Aurora being led away by a spell to prick herself on the spinning wheel in 'Sleeping Beauty'. Yet all Disney pictures have a happy end, which probably helps the traumas eb away. 

Disney's influence on cartooning
Right from the start Disney made many public appearances, presenting himself as loveable "Uncle Walt", a friend of all children. He became as famous and recognizable as any Hollywood celebrity, the only animator to rise to that status. Film critics respected him as an innovative cineast. The success of his cartoons launched the Golden Age of Animation (1930-1960), when many film studios all started their own animation department to compete with him. Particularly during the 1930s nearly every cartoon studio seemed to have a happy, cheerful Mickeyesque character in saccharine fairy tale stories with sing-a-long songs. Warner Brothers' 'Merry Melodies' and 'Looney Tunes' were directly inspired by 'Silly Symphonies'. Even the fact that many cartoon characters have four fingers on each hand and wear gloves was derived from Mickey, who was redesigned with gloves to make his black hands more visible and who lost a finger to save money on animation. Various Disney character and personality designs have been ripped off by animators and comics artists ever since. The mice in 'The Country Cousin' led to Chuck Jones' 'Sniffles' and Hanna- Barbera's 'Jerry'. Without Donald Duck Tex Avery's 'Daffy Duck', Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik's 'Howard the Duck' and Charlie Christensen 'Arne Anka' wouldn't exist. Max Hare was the prototype for Bugs Bunny, while Pablo the Penguin was ripped off by Walter Lantz's Chilly Willy. Leo Baxendale's 'Little Plum' was modelled after Hiawatha, while Pepo's 'Condorito' was created as a reaction to Joe Carioca. Jef Nys copied the look of the Evil Queen from 'Snow White' for the Queen of Onderland in 'Jommeke' and the gnome Schommelbuik is basically the dwarf Happy from the same film. Rune Andréasson's 'Pellefant' was obviously inspired by Dumbo, while Juanjo Guarnido couldn't help but think of Bagheera in 'Jungle Book' when he drew the title character of 'Blacksad'. In some cases animators deliberately tried to avoid mimicking Disney. Zdeněk Miler created 'Krtek' ('The Little Mole'), because he thought Disney had never used a mole in one of his films. Only later did he find out the existence of 'The Adventures of Mr. Toad' (1946). The speed effects in 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (1935) were also widely copied and eventually surpassed by Tex Avery. The idea of bringing characters in storybooks to life was pioneered by Disney's 'Mother Goose Melodies' (1931). 'Mickey Gala's Premier' (1931) featured Mickey meeting various caricatures of famous Hollywood stars, an idea that had been done before by Otto Messmer's and Pat Sullivan's 'Felix the Cat' cartoon 'Felix in Hollywood' (1923), but became more prominent after Disney did it. Disney's 'Snow White' (1937) set the standard for every feature-length animated film. And 'Fantasia' (1940) became the template for every animated feature with solely classical music on its soundtrack, such as Bob Clampett's 'A Corny Concerto' (1942), Chuck Jones' 'What's Opera Doc?' (1957) and Bruno Bozzetto's 'Allegro Non Troppo' (1976).


Film poster for 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (© Disney)

Snow White
In 1937 Disney made the first animated feature film: 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937). Technically there had been predecessors, like Quirino Cristiani's lost film 'El Apóstol' (1917), Lotte Reiniger's 'Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed' (1926), Aleksander Ptushko and A. Vanichkin's 'Novyy Gullivyer' (1935), Ladislaw Starewicz's 'Le Roman de Renard' (1937) and Ferdinand Diehl's 'Die Sieben Raben' (1937), but 'Snow White' dwarfed them all (pun not intended). The fairy tale adaptation was an extraordinary cinematic experience. The picture had atmosphere, made viewers laugh, cry, feel frightened and kept them entertained like a genuine live-action picture. It showed just how much progress the studio had made in just a decade time. 'Snow White' won critical praise, 8 Oscars and was a worldwide blockbuster. The instant classic attracted celebrity fans like painter Piet Mondriaan, scientists Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing, film director Sergei Eisenstein, the British Royal Family, president Franklin D. Roosevelt and, notoriously, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels (who nevertheless banned the picture in Nazi Germany and Hitler strongly disliked Mickey Mouse). A few days before the film's release an official newspaper comic strip adaptation ran in the papers, scripted by Merrill de Maris and drawn by Hank Porter. It would later be made available in comic book format too. Since 'Snow White' was such a box office hit new animated features would be created every few years, combined with promotional comics. Until 1984 Disney brought all their classic movies back in theatrical roulation every couple of years so younger generations could discover them too. The old promotional comics would then be reprinted as well.

World War II
While Disney is an iconic multinational it's often forgotten that he frequently took huge commercial risks. He constantly came up with new projects and disliked making sequels. Some badly received films would only become classics several years, or even decades, later. Two of those were his next animated features, 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia' (1940). Both surpassed the technical and narrative achievements of 'Snow White' and are often regarded as his personal masterpieces. 'Pinocchio' is an emotionally powerful film, rich in detail and featuring some of the most dazzling animated sequences ever created by hand. Storywise it's his most perfect picture. 'Fantasia' is Disney's most controversial and experimental work. An anthology film where every segment is set to a famous classical composition. It stands out as Disney's most adult and artistic picture. Yet at the time of their release both films  received polarizing reviews because of their darker content. 'Fantasia' in particular was too ahead of its time and considered either too pretentious or too kitschy. Another reason why they didn't do so well had to do with World War II, since Hollywood pictures were banned in all Nazi occupied countries. Disney was devastated and felt he had reached too high. It convinced him that he better gave audiences what they wanted from now on: unpretentious family entertainment. All movies he made after 1940 were still quality pictures, but lacked the innovative spirit from before. Viewers now favoured the far wilder and funnier cartoons at Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes), MGM (Tom & Jerry, Droopy) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) instead. Disney not only lost his interest in animation, but many of his employees too as the result of a long strike in 1941.


Wartime propaganda films (© Disney)

It was overall a depressing time for Walt, whose beloved mother passed away in 1940. His grief was reflected in 'Pinocchio', 'Dumbo' (1941) and 'Bambi' (1942), which all feature child protagonists losing a parent and going through tough emotional ordeals. Yet while 'Dumbo' was an unexpected hit, 'Bambi' didn't do well at the box office either at the time. Disney tried to find a new foreign market in Latin America through two features, 'Saludos Amigos' (1942) and 'The Three Caballeros' (1943), in which Donald visits the continent. Near the end of 1941 the United States got involved in World War II and the studio was commissioned to create various Allied Forces propaganda and military instruction films. It helped them out of the red, but also put most of their other productions temporarily on hold. Interestingly enough, the Axis Forces also made propaganda cartoons and in some of these Mickey and Donald are ridiculed as "enemies". The Japanese cartoon 'Omochabako' (1936) by Komatusuzawa Hajime, for instance, features the folk hero Momotaro battling a giant Mickeyesque mouse flying on a bat. Raymond Jeannin's 'Nimbus Libéré' (1944) was made in Vichy France and stars, apart from André Daix' 'Professeur Nimbus', Mickey, Donald and even Popeye bombing France. The most peculiar non-official appearance of Mickey was 'Mickey à Gurs' (1940), a text comic created by Horst Rosenthal, a prisoner in a Nazi POW camp who unfortunately didn't survive the war. 

Post-war career and activities
After the war U.S. troops liberated many countries from the Axis, which helped Disney regain his pre-war fortunes. Yet since there was still not enough money to make proper feature films four anthology features were made instead: 'Make Mine Music' (1946), 'Fun and Fancy Free' (1947), 'Melody Time' (1948) and 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad' (1949). Like most features Disney made between 1942 and 1950 these pictures are rarely shown in their original form today. The individual segments are often repackaged in new compilation videos. Around this time Disney testified before the House of Anti-American Activities and accused several former employees who left him after the 1941 strike of being "Communist sympathizers". This was more based on grudge than anything else, but many were blacklisted from work for years. Without a doubt Disney's darkest personal moment...


True Life Adventures newspaper feature,drawn by George Wheeler (1955)

Animated features in the 1950s / Live-action films / Nature documentaries
In 1950 Disney's first full-blown animated feature film in eight years came out, 'Cinderella', and was a box office hit. However, his next picture, 'Alice in Wonderland' (1951), based on Lewis Carroll's novel but not too much on John Tenniel's iconic illustrations, received bad reviews. 'Alice' had been a passion project of Disney for years and the fact that it failed frustrated him deeply. 'Peter Pan' (1953) and 'Lady and the Tramp' (1955) were much better received, but he was more preoccupied with other projects, such as live-action films. 'Song of the South' (1946), 'Treasure Island' (1950), '20.000 Leagues Under the Sea' (1954), 'Old Yeller' (1957) and 'Mary Poppins' (1964) became beloved family classics. A bit more forgotten nowadays but still winners of several Oscars were his 'True-Life Adventures' nature documentary films. They showed live-action footage of real animals in the wild. But Disney wouldn't be Disney if he didn't occasionally make these scenes a little more entertaining by playing with the editing and adding funny background music. Once again animals were anthropomorphized under his watch, even if they weren't cartoon characters. Oddly enough even 'True-Life Adventures' was adapted into a comic strip, an educational newspaper feature drawn by George Wheeler from 1955 until 1971.

Television series
Disney was also one of the few Hollywood producers who realized the potential of television. His studio had a library worth of old cartoons which could be rebroadcast on the small screen. He created two long-running children's TV shows, 'The Mickey Mouse Club' and 'Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color' (1955), which showed these shorts to new generations of children. The programs were also excellent tools to promote every upcoming Disney film, often hosted by "Uncle Walt" himself. Disney also produced popular TV series, such as 'Davy Crockett' (1954-1955) and 'Zorro' (1957-1959). 'Davy Crockett' was adapted in a newspaper comic by Ed Herron, Jim McArdle, Jack Kirby and Jim Christiansen, but this was not endorsed by Disney. He couldn't sue them either, since Crockett was a historical character, and thus simply came up with his own comic book series, published by Dell. The artists behind these comic book stories were John Ushler, Nick Firfires and Jesse Marsh, among others. Disney's official 'Zorro' newspaper comic strip was drawn by Alex Toth, while in the Netherlands Hans G. Kresse made a comic strip version of this particular TV series too for magazine Pep.

Disneyland
Walt Disney presenting the map of Disneyland

Disneyland
On 17 July 1955 Disney's most ambitious project opened its doors: a theme park. Theme parks had existed before. Disney even visited several across the world for inspiration, including De Efteling in the Netherlands, which was designed by Anton Pieck. But Disneyland was still something altogether unprecedented. An entire park was built with recreations of various locations depicted in his cartoons. Actors walked around in costumes depicting the familiar Disney characters. Finally Disney had made his fictional worlds as real as possible. Children could now actually meet Mickey, Donald and friends. "The happiest place on Earth" didn't earn its nickname for nothing: it's the most visited location on the planet! Even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was outraged during his 1959 U.S. visit when he wasn't allowed to go to Disneyland because his safety couldn't be guaranteed. To solve problems like these new parks were build all around the globe: Disney World in Orlando, Florida (1971), Tokyo Disneyland in Japan (1983), Euro Disney in Paris, France (1992), Hong Kong Disneyland Resort (2005) and Shanghai Disneyland Park in China (2016).

Final years and death
Disney's next feature, 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959), marked a change in Disney's trademark graphic style. Influenced by Ronald Searle the drawings became more angular and sketchy and remained this way until halfway the 1980s. Audiences didn't react well to this at the time, but 'Sleeping Beauty' did become more reappreciated afterwards. '101 Dalmatians' (1961) was another box office hit, but 'The Sword in the Stone' (1963) was Disney's least popular feature yet. In 1966 A.A. Milne's 'Winnie the Pooh' stories were adapted into a cartoon series, with respect for the original illustrations by E.H. Shepard. It evolved into one of the studio's most popular franchises, still generating new installments decades later. Unfortunately Disney passed away from lung cancer the same year. His death made universal headlines. Contrary to urban legend he was not cryogenically frozen, but just cremated. His final picture, the swinging 'Jungle Book' (1967), was halfway production at the time of his death, but finished posthumously by his staff to become a box office success.


Movie posters for 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' (© Disney)

The Walt Disney company after its founder's death
Between 1957 and 1972 many animation film studios closed down and went on to create low-budget kids TV series. Even though the Walt Disney Company is the only one to survive to this day Disney's passing is still seen as the symbolic end of the Golden Age of Animation. Businesswise they stayed on top. New theatrical shorts appeared more rarely, but their feature films, both old and new, still brought in crowds. Every new Disney cinematic release remained the event of the year for all children. Their TV shows and classic theatrical cartoons kept re-running, while the theme parks were still lucrative. From 1984 on the company carefully made all their classic cartoons available on video, one by one. Soon Walt Disney Home Video became a babysitter in every household. Around the same time the company started producing animated TV series, creating successes like 'Gummi Bears' (1985-1991), 'DuckTales' (1987-1990), 'Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers' (1989-1990), 'Darkwing Duck' (1991-1992), 'Goof Troop' (1992-1993),  'Gargoyles' (1994-1997) and 'Quack Pack' (1996), following it up during the 2000s and 2010s with live-action series aiming at prepubescent girls. Equally popular since 1981 are the 'Disney on Ice' ice skating shows.

But critically many of the post-1966 Disney releases met with lacklustre reception and failed to reach the same iconic status as their superior work from before. It took until Richard Williams' 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' (1988), a live-action film which paid homage to the Golden Age of Animation, before Disney experienced a renaissance. Their classic cartoons were rediscovered by the general public and a whole string of new animated features all became critical and commercial successes: 'The Little Mermaid' (1989), 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991), 'Aladdin' (1992) and 'The Lion King' (1994) won several Oscars in the process. 'Beauty and the Beast' was even the first animated feature to be nominated for "Best Picture". With 'Toy Story' (1996) Disney underwent a succesful collaboration with Pixar to create the first CGI movie. Several other equally succesful CGI features pleased both critics as well as general audiences, among them 'Finding Nemo' (2003), 'The Incredibles' (2004), 'Wall-E' (2008), 'Up' (2009), 'Frozen' (2013) and 'Inside Out' (2015). 'Wall-E' and 'Up' were once again nominated for "Best Picture" during the Oscars (but had to be satisfied with winning "Best Animated Picture" instead), while 'Frozen' not only won the Oscar for "Best Animated Picture", but also became the most commercially succesful animated feature film of all time!

Criticism
Disney has been the market leader in animation since 1928.  In the decades before there were any animation guides around many amateurs wrote the studio to seek out advice or apply for a job. More ambitious cartoonists hoped that Disney might perhaps adapt their comic strip to the big screen? Several people embarassed themselves by referring to characters or cartoons Disney hadn't created. The misconception that Disney created every single animated cartoon in existence still lives today, though isn't that strange. Their brand awareness is so huge that smaller cartoon studios hardly have a chance to make a name for themselves. Even if they have a hit many viewers still think Disney made it. Their creativity is furthermore obstructed by the fact that audiences expect all animation to be cute, innocent and family friendly. This is not only problematic for animators trying to do something different, but even for the Disney company itself. Deviating from their own formulas is considered a huge commercial risk. As a result many of their designs, characters and narratives are constantly recycled. Serious art lovers are irritated by the corny and kitschy clichés: happy sing-a-long songs, sweet princesses, funny animal sidekicks, songbirds helping in the household and lots of cute babies, bunnies and puppies.

Bibliophiles despise Disney for hijacking iconic fairy tales, legends and novels. Many of these stories were drastically simplified, sanitized and bowdlerized. Controversial scenes were removed and totally new plotlines, cute characters and obligatory happy ends added. In some cases the original tales are nearly unrecognizable. Even worse is that these butchered versions have replaced the originals in the mind of the general public. To this day audiences complain that adaptations of these stories are "not the same as in the Disney version", which has often forced modern-day creators to add the Disney additions to the stories, because people are so used to them. Sociologists feel the theme parks are the most disturbing aspect of these methods. Happy, safe dream worlds outside the harsh reality of everyday life. Already the parks are the equivalent of an independent mini-state, with their own monetary units and park owners not allowing outside interference. Some people feel spooked out about the Disney corporation slowly but surely buying out every possible company in the world. Already they own Miramax (1993, sold in 2010), ABC (1996), Jim Henson's Muppets (2004), Pixar (2006) Marvel (2009), LucasFilm (2012) and FOX (2018). Disney has their own TV channel (1983) and a separate film company specializing in films for mature audiences, Touchstone Pictures (1984), who also have a TV department (1985). Disney's legal department is so powerful that they've sued various companies and people for copyright infringement, while trademarking characters they didn't even create themselves, such as Winnie the Pooh and Snow White. Some Disney films, like 'The Lion King' (1994) which shares strong similarities with Osamu Tezuka's 'Kimba the White Lion' (1966), have been accused of plagiarism, yet the original creators don't dare to sue Disney, since they couldn't afford it. Another matter is Mickey Mouse who should've entered public domain by now, but remains trademarked thanks to continuous efforts by Disney's lawyers. Naturally all this power has led to frequent accusations of global Americanisation, or better said: "Disneyfication". Today the Walt Disney Company is the effectively the world's largest independent media conglomerate in terms of revenue. The cultural equivalent of a world empire.


Parody from Mad #19, 1955: Mickey Rodent by Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman

Parody and satire
Since Disney is such an icon of clean innocent children's entertainment the company has always been an easy target for subversive parodies, anti-capitalist and/or anti-American satire. This happened as early as the 1930s with the infamous Tijuana Bibles, where various comics characters were illegally depicted in pornographic activities. Among the more memorable attacks have been Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's 'Mickey Rodent' (Mad Magazine, issue #19, 1955), Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's 'Rat Fink' and Wallace Wood's infamous vulgar 'Disneyland Memorial Orgy' (1967). Marv Newland's 'Bambi Meets Godzilla' (1969) and Whitney Lee Savage's 'Mickey Mouse in Vietnam' (1969) were two infamous underground cartoons killing off beloved Disney characters. The underground comic book 'Air Pirates Funnies' (1971) by Dan O'Neill, Bobby London, Shary Flenniken, Gary Hallgren and Ted Richards depicted Mickey and other Disney characters as sex and drug addicts. It was their determined and ultimately succesful intention to be sued by Disney. Pornographic cartoon parodies of 'Snow White' were made by David Grant ('Snow White and the Seven Perverts', 1973) and Picha ('Blanche-Neige, La Suite', 2007). Ralph Bakshi's 'Coonskin' (1975) was created as a modern day and more political rendition of 'Song of the South'. Swedish cartoonist Charlie Christensen also deliberately created 'Arne Anka' (1983-1995) as a vulgar version of Donald Duck until he was threatened by Disney to redesign his character. Disney parodies have been a staple of  Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park', Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson's 'Shrek', Seth Green's 'Robot Chicken' and  Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' too. In 2015 graffiti artist Banksy redesigned an abandoned theme park into the satirical 'Dismaland'. It was only opened for a month before Banksy closed it down again.

Legacy
Disney has the most entries included in the United States National Film Registry, where films are inaugurated for their "cultural, historical and aesthetical significance". 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' was added in 1989, followed by 'Fantasia' in 1990, 'Pinocchio' in 1994, 'Steamboat Willie' in 1998, 'The Living Desert' in 2000, 'The Three Little Pigs' in 2007, 'Bambi' in 2011 and 'The Old Mill' and 'The Story of Menstruation' (1946) in 2015. Films made after Disney's death have been entered too, such as 'Beauty and the Beast' in 2002 , 'Toy Story' in 2005 and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' and 'The Lion King' in 2016. In 1995 an asteroid was named after Donald Duck. Walt Disney has a star on the Hollywood Walk Fame and in 1978 Mickey Mouse became the first fictional character to receive a star there too. Other Disney characters with a star on the Walk of Fame are Snow White (1987), Donald Duck (2004), Winnie the Pooh (2006), Tinker Bell (2010) and Minnie Mouse (2018). Disneyland itself also has a star there since 2005. Celebrity fans of Disney have been Idi Amin, Walter Benjamin, Charlie Chaplin, Sergej Eisenstein, Elizabeth II, George VI, Jim Henson, Hirohito, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Roy Lichtenstein, Paul McCartney, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Steven Spielberg, Sun Ra and Andy Warhol.

It says a lot that when Time Magazine picked out the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century in 1999 Disney was the only cartoonist to make the list, albeit in the category "Icons of Business" rather than "Cultural Icons". Millions of people have been converted to animation thanks to his achievements. As Disney's films were promoted through various forms of merchandising, including comics, he gave numerous aspiring artists the chance to get a job doing what they liked best. His cartoons, comics and associated merchandising items remain beloved best-sellers even today. His theme parks still attract huge crowds. Of all the film creators from the Golden Age of Hollywood he is one of the few to still be a household name among general audiences. Whenever Disney was asked what he considered his greatest achievement he always told journalists that he was proud of being able to establish a succesful company and keep it running. But he always reminded everybody: "It all started with a mouse."

Countless books have been written and published about Walt Disney and his studio. 'Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life' (1981) by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston is highly recommended for featuring marvellous original artwork, storyboards, atmospheric sketches of many classic Disney pictures, along with technical advice by the former Disney animators. Much unique artwork can also be seen in the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened its doors in San Francisco, California, in 2009.

photograph of Walt Disney at his drawing board
Walt Disney at his drawing board, 1922

"All our dreams can come true -            
if we have the courage to pursue them."

- Walt Disney  

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Disney artists in the Comiclopedia

Series and books by Walt Disney in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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