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The Uncensored Mouse

The Uncensored Mouse

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Once upon a time (actually early 1989), the Mailbu Graphics group (Scott Rosenberg, Dave Olbrich, Tom Mason, Chris Ulm) was publishing the Eternity Comics line of independent black and white comic books.

Some of these comics featured original material like MEN IN BLACK (which later inspired the popular movie) and DINOSAURS FOR HIRE (which inspired a video game). Other comic books in their line featured reprints of comic strips (like the Shadow, Buck Rogers, Polly and Her Pals, etc.) and reprints of old comic books (like the Three Stooges and I LOVE LUCY). Fans of Bruce Timm (whose design work on BATMAN:THE ANIMATED SERIES and so many other animated series has literally transformed how action animated shows are designed) might want to track down some of the comic strip reprint books from Eternity Comics because they feature full color covers by a young Mr. Timm.

Eternity Comics were able to reprint many of these classic comic strips thanks to the collections of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. The San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection was the life work of author and collector Bill Blackbeard. In the Sixties when Blackbeard decided to write a history of comic strips, he found that there was no research center collecting complete runs of comic strips from American newspapers. He also discovered that many public and university libraries at the time were discarding older, bound newspapers after microfilming them. In order to acquire these materials, he established the SFACA as a non-profit organization in 1968. He began collecting newspapers from California libraries and then eventually expanded his collecting efforts until he had accumulated over seventy-five tons of material. (The collection consisted of 2.5 million clippings and tearsheets from American newspapers, dating from 1894 to 1996. Materials in the collection included clipped comic strips, single comic pages, complete Sunday comic sections, and entire newspapers.)

Many of the classic comic strip collections published in the last thirty years are thanks to Bill Blackbeard's accumulation efforts which resulted in a source for some of the only existing copies of American comic strips. Supposedly, Blackbeard's research revealed that the copyright on the early MICKEY MOUSE comic strip had not been maintained and of course, Malibu Graphics thought this was a wonderful opportunity.

A pirated reprint edition of the early MICKEY MOUSE comic strip had been in private circulation for several years at the time but was completely unavailable to the general public. There had been attempts in Europe to reprint the early strip as well. (In fact, in Europe, many years before ANOTHER RAINBOW, there were oversized black and white reprints of all the Carl Barks' duck stories IN ENGLISH!)

Some of the later Floyd Gottfredson work on the MICKEY MOUSE comic strip had been reprinted in a variety of formats but with missing dialogue balloons, missing panels and some brutal censorship. (Just for the record, up to 1989, there were only two times that the Gottfredson strip had been reprinted exactly as originally published in the newspapers: MICKEY MOUSE BOOK No.3 by Whitman in 1934 which had the entire 1933 Wolf Barker Sunday page story in its original color and the Bill Blackbeard edited book SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS where the 1935 daily story "Race for Riches" was reprinted in black and white.)

So Malibu Graphics through its Eternity Comics line would reprint the earliest MICKEY MOUSE comic strips under the title THE UNCENSORED MOUSE. However, well aware that in the late Eighties, the Disney legal department generated three lawsuits a day against suspected copyright violators (which the Disney Company proudly trumpeted in a then current newspaper article), Malibu Graphics decided to put in as many safeguards as possible to avoid legal action.

Each issue would have a totally black cover and no where on the cover or the backcover would there be a mention of "Mickey Mouse." There would be references to "a classic collection of Uncensored Floyd Gottfredson Comic Strips From the 1930s." Inside the comic book, there would be the notice that "Mickey Mouse is a registered trademark of Walt Disney Productions" to demonstrate that they were not trying to challenge that fact. In addition, each issue would be bagged and sealed so that a casual buyer couldn't flip through the comic book and mistake it for a Disney comic book. Basically, Malibu tried to do everything to indicate that while it may have had the right to publish the early comic strip, it was not intending to confuse the marketplace that this was an authorized Disney production.

THE UNCENSORED MOUSE was to be published twice a month beginning with the April 1989 issue and there were hopes that eventually, all the Mickey Mouse comic strips up to the mid-Thirties would be reprinted. The first issue featured the very first Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 13, 1930 (written by Walt Disney himself and drawn by Ub Iwerks) up to the March 5, 1930 installment. (The second issue reprinted the installments from March 6, 1930 to April 26, 1930. The third issue which was prepared and ready to go to press but never printed featured the strips from April 28, 1930 to June 18, 1930.)

Bill Blackbeard wrote a wonderful introduction for the first issue entitled "How Walt Disney Gave A Mickey to America-and Floyd Gottfredson Gave Us A Classic Mouse." That first issue was also supplemented with some great extras like reproductions of an OAKLAND POST-ENQUIRER (the nation's only newspaper to carry the strip from its start) page featuring the comic strip, the first Mickey Mouse Sunday page, a publicity drawing by Gottfredson for a 1936 issue of the HONOLULU ADVERTISER and more.

The second and never-printed third issue both had introductions by yours truly and I will reprint those pieces of priceless prose in part two of this article. In fact, the third issue would have been a great deal of fun as it recounted the story of Minnie Mouse inheriting Old Mortimer's mansion and Pegleg Pete and the Old Shyster trying to get her to sign away ownership so they could find Mortimer's map to a secret gold mine in Death Valley.

"I'll never forgive Pegleg Pete for chaining me to this weight-I hope he breaks out with hives and scratches himself to death!!!" proclaims Mickey Mouse as he tries to rescue Minnie while locked to a ball and chain. Finally, he stumbles into a room filled with cheese and declares: "My gosh!! What cheese---if I only had a bottle of beer!!!"

The reason the third issue never saw print was that no sooner did the first two issues appeared at comic book shops than Disney filed a lawsuit claiming infringement of their character. At no time did Disney dispute that the original strips may have fallen into public domain, just as other Disney treasures had such as the Mickey Mouse cartoon, THE MAD DOCTOR, but also at no time did Disney confirm that the strips may have fallen into public domain.

Of course, due to the nature of the lawsuit, the Malibu Graphics group could not comment and Disney just offered a written statement to news organizations. So, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT had to find an articulate, charming representative to comment on the situation. Failing to find such a person, they were somehow directed to me.

I appeared on ET on April 20, 1989. I never met Mary Hart who narrated the piece. They didn't even send down my good friend, Leonard Maltin, to interview me and who probably could have commented on the whole situation quite insightfully. (Fans of old movies and Leonard Maltin should check out his website: www.leonardmaltin.com and should subscribe to his newsletter which is always a joy to receive in my mailbox.) Nope, ET sent down their film crew who hauled their equipment up a narrow stairway to my second floor apartment.

My living room was filled with Mickey Mouse items from posters to banks to toothbrushes to PVC figures and more. I even wore my red Mickey Mouse suspenders which I figured were not enough to invalidate my credibility but enough to give me a sense of fun.

The crew spent close to an hour in my apartment, filming every nook and cranny that had Disney items (although they avoided the Disney Orgy poster) and I brilliantly defended the Malibu Graphics group, gave a lengthy history of the Mickey Mouse strip, and an eloquent plea of why this material should be available for collectors. So, naturally, ET used a sound byte that I just tossed off after the official interview was finished.

That night, Mary Hart introduced the piece showing a young man at a comic book shop recoiling after opening a copy of THE UNCENSORED MOUSE and intoned: "Some collectors say the Mickey of the Thirties was simply a product of his time."

That was the cue for a quick shot of me with the logo: "Jim Korkis. Comic Historian" as I stated: "Of course, the strips of the Thirties were much more bawdy anyway with ethnic stereotypes and very slapstick violence. And when Walt decided to come up with a comic strip he followed those examples."

As I sat in front of the television set videotaping my moment of glory with my family, my first thought was "What was THAT?" Where was that hour of footage of thoughtful, well-phrased comments? What happened to all those comments that the film crew said were terrific? Why did the guy running the comic book shop get two quick shots and comments and I only got one? And a decade and a half later, I still bemoan the fact that given a second chance, I could have phrased my thoughts more effectively. Sigh.

In the long run, it didn't matter what I said or didn't say. Behind closed doors, Malibu Graphics and Disney reached a settlement before the issue went to court. Basically, it was quite clear that the Disney Company had enough money, enough time and enough lawyer-power to drag this suit through the courts forever and eventually drain the emotional and financial resources of Malibu Graphics. As with many court cases, it is not about justice or right and wrong but merely who plays a better game of legal mumbo-jumbo.

Of course, as part of the settlement, the folks at Malibu Graphics could not talk about the terms of the settlement and despite my personal friendship with them and my professional connection working on the comics, they have never to this day told me what happened behind closed doors. However, they didn't seem unhappy with the results and Eternity Comics kept on publishing ... everything except THE UNCENSORED MOUSE ... and was eventually purchased by Marvel Comics.

Since readers of JIMHILLMEDIA always want to know the inside "secrets" behind the story, the best I can share with you is that the legal team borrowed books from my Disney library that featured photos from early Mickey Mouse cartoons and the questions I was asked have lead me to assume that part of Disney's legal approach may have included the following questions: Have these strips ever been reprinted before in any format after their original publication, especially with a Disney copyright? Are there any images or dialogue in the early comic strips that were directly taken from still copyrighted black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons? Could a reasonable person legitimately confuse this publication with any type of Disney comic book that had ever been printed?

While there was some embarrassment that these early comic strips featured a more raucous Mickey Mouse than the current Disney Company icon and that there were some elements like exaggerated caricatures of African-American cannibals which were no longer acceptable in the Disney Universe, the main concern seemed to be not allowing anyone else to profit from a Disney product and to send a stern warning to anyone else who might even have been considering doing anything similar. (Notice how all those inexpensive videotapes that featured Disney cartoons and theatrical trailers that had slipped out of copyright disappeared from sale around the same time?) Later, the Disney Company published colorized versions of some of the early MICKEY MOUSE comic strips in DISNEY ADVENTURES magazine. Some of you may remember the court ruling on public domain black and white films. If you colorize a public domain film, you can legally copyright the colorized version.

Originally, each of two issues of THE UNCENSORED MOUSE that were published cost $2.50. Searching on eBay or in back issue bins of comic book shops, it is still possible to find copies for close to that original price although there are some sellers who seem to make a healthy living offering them for up to thirty dollars each. As part of the settlement, Eternity destroyed their stock of the issues but there were plenty that were distributed to comic book stores.

Sadly, it is doubtful that the Disney Company would ever consider reprinting these classic strips even in a limited collector's edition for adults although it would be a wonderful way for the Company to celebrate Mickey's 75th birthday by showing why the Mouse captured the hearts and imaginations of the world in the Thirties.

  Next: Jim shares his historical introductions to UNCENSORED MOUSE #2 and the never printed #3 so that you can better understand the importance of reprinting the early years of the MICKEY MOUSE comic strip.
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