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One Mouse, two Floyds

One Mouse, two Floyds

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The old battered drawing table sat in the corner of my office at the Walt Disney Studio. Though it occupied the corner for a number of years, I never worked on it. I considered it a priceless relic. A special piece of Disney history that had been rescued from the dumpster by a few hardy souls who knew the significance of this well worn item. It was the drawing table used by Floyd Gottfredson.

If you're not up on your Disney history, you may not know the name, Floyd Gottfredson. Floyd was the artist Walt Disney chose to write and draw the Mickey Mouse comic strip. Back in the thirties, Mickey mouse was beginning to grow in popularity, and Disney borrowed Floyd from his animation department until he could find a permanent artist to draw and write the strip. This "temporary job" lasted forty five years. Guided by Gottfredson, Mickey Mouse became one of the most entrancing adventure strips of the era. While the animated cartoon Mickey became more of a wimp, Floyd's Mickey was put through every adventure imaginable. Whether it was detective stories, westerns, or science fiction, Mickey Mouse could always deliver the goods.

When my pals and I were young animation artists learning the ropes at the Walt Disney studio back in the fifties, we spent our breaks and lunch hours exploring our new place of employment. Every wing, hallway, or building provided a new learning experience. There was much to see, and many talented people to meet. Keep in mind this was the Disney of the fifties, and artists were everywhere.

One day, we wandered into a structure called the Production Building, located near Stage One on the Disney lot. As we explored the second floor of the building, we were pleasantly surprised to find a group of artists working away at their drawing boards. Without knowing it, we had stumbled into Walt Disney's Comic Strip department. I can't remember all the names of the artists we met, but two of them were special. Al Taliafero, was drawing Donald Duck, and the other gentleman was Floyd Gottfredson, the artist who drew the Mickey Mouse comic strip from it's beginning in the nineteen thirties, to his retirement in the seventies. It was a thrill for all of us to meet the guys who had been entertaining us since we were kids with these wonderful Disney strips.

Years passed, and I forgot about the special day when we met Disney's comic strip artists. My interest was animation, and there was little time for anything else. I never gave Disney comics another thought until the late seventies when I was pleased to have lunch at the Disney commissary with the veteran Disney writer, Cal Howard. Apparently, Cal had heard I had a knack for writing funny gags, and he wondered why I was not working for Disney Comics. I confess I was flattered to be considered as a writer in Disney's comic strip department, but I was about to begin work as a story artist on another animated feature, and writing comics just didn't compare to working in film. As luck would have it, my feature animated project crashed and burned leaving me unemployed, with the Disney offer still standing.

In December 1983, I found myself back at the Disney studio working as a writer in the comic strip department. The move from movies to comics had been surprisingly easy. I was still working with all the lovable Disney characters I had come to know over the years, and I was given free reign to write whatever stories I wanted. I soon realized that because of comics' low profile, the artists and writers had tremendous freedom to create all kinds of material unencumbered by Disney's management. It wasn't long before I realized this was probably the best job I'd ever had.

Besides writing comic stories, I was often called upon to fill in for the staff writers of the Disney comic strips when they were ill or were on vacation. I bounced from strip to strip as my services were needed. This could be anything from "Scamp," "Winnie the Pooh," or the venerable "Donald Duck" and "Mickey Mouse" comic strips. Probably the most fun during this time was the weekly writers meetings with old timers, Cal Howard, Del Connell, and Bill Berg. These guys had seen or already written every gag there was, so they never laughed at anything. You knew you had scored a hit when Cal would casually remark, 'that's funny.' The other writers included veteran gag men, Don Ferguson, Tom Yakutis and Bob Foster. Our boss, Greg Crosby, had been a writer on the Disney strips himself before moving into management.

One day, Crosby called me into his office on the third floor of the Roy O. Disney Building. I was told that Del Connell had announced his retirement, leaving the Mickey strip without a writer. The creator of the Mickey Mouse comic strip, Floyd Gottfredson, had already retired some years earlier, and Del had taken on the job until his retirement. Since I had already filled in on occasion for Del, I was the logical choice to take up the reigns. I had my doubts. Filling in for a writer meant a few days of writing, maybe a week at most. The thought of having to write six daily strips and a Sunday page every week was a daunting task, and I seriously wondered how long I would last before being totally drained of material. Finally, I would be following in the footsteps of Disney writers and artists like Bill Walsh, Del Connell, and the great Floyd Gottfredson. Filling the shoes of these Disney guys whose stuff I had read since I was a kid, was not something I took lightly.

I honestly believed I would be out of ideas in a couple of weeks, but somehow I managed to write the Mickey Mouse comic strip for nearly six years before the contract with King Features Syndicate ran out in the early nineties. Most of what I wrote was called "gag a day" because the syndicate believed that kind of material sold best. However, I longed for the day when I could write the kind of Mickey Mouse adventures I had read as a kid. I hated the "gag a day" concept, because, quite frankly, Mickey Mouse is not really a funny guy. He is, however, a great character, and can be wonderful in stories. Writing Mickey Mouse was not always fun because I was well aware I was no longer dealing with the feisty little character Walt had created. Mickey was now Disney's corporate symbol with all the baggage that came with that image. I can't tell you how many times I found myself in hot water with Disney's legal people because of my gags. One organization thought the Disney company was taking a jab at satellite companies, because I had Goofy using a satellite dish as a bird bath. The assumption was that Disney was taking a swipe at their industry. In reality, it was simply a stupid gag. Over time, I continued to be called before Disney's corporate attorneys for one screw up or another. Though I'm no fan of lawyers, I came to respect Disney's legal guys for all I put them through.

After much pleading and begging, King Features Syndicate allowed me to change the gag format to an adventure format as long as the continuity did not exceed four weeks. Finally, I was able to bring back the good old Mickey Mouse I loved as a kid. I wrote adventure stories and ghost stories. I sent Mickey to exotic locations around the world to fight new bad guys, as well as battle my old favorite, Black Pete. I saw Mickey Mouse as a cartoon version of George Lucas' Indiana Jones. Come to think of it -- maybe that's where George got the idea in the first place. Mickey Mouse was always the scrappy little guy who never gives up. The Mickey adventure stories were a joy, and now I knew why Floyd Gottfredson must have loved his job so much.

Sadly, time was running out for both Mickey and me. King Features Syndicate had been home for Mickey Mouse since the thirties, but now newer, more trendy strips had caught the public's eye, and the contract between King and Disney was coming to an end. With Mickey Mouse in fewer than thirty newspapers, both companies realized that Mickey's time was nearing the end of a long and successful run. I thought long and hard about the final strip I would write. I couldn't help but wonder what Floyd Gottfredson might have written were he still around. I was lucky enough to spend nearly six years with Walt's famous mouse. I only hope I was worthy of this stewardship. Guys like Gottfredson, Walsh and others kept me entertained when I was a kid. Hardly in the same class as these great Disney old timers, I only hope I didn't disappoint them.

What about Mickey? I continue to think he must have retired and moved to Palm Springs. I can almost see him cooling it by the pool with Minnie and his pal, Goofy. As for myself, I was lucky enough to get a call to return to Disney Feature Animation where I would enjoy another ten year run working on animated films. This included moving north to the Bay Area to work on "Toy Story2" and "Monsters, Inc." at Pixar Animation Studios.

Finally, what happen to Floyd Gottfredson's old drawing board? I'm pleased to say it occupies a corner in a special room at Disney's Publishing department in Burbank, along with a treasure trove of original Disney art. Floyd Gottfredson original Mickey Mouse comic strips adorn the well-worn desk, and visitors in the know, are able to look at a genuine piece of Disney history.

Do you want to learn more about Floyd's days at Disney? Then JHM suggests that you pick one (or both!) of the two great collections of Norman's writings & cartoons that are currently on the market: his original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) -- as well as the follow-up to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper." Which you can purchase by clicking on that the image on to the right, which will take you straight over to Afrokids.com.

In both of these two volumes, you'll find cartoons & stories that talk about what it was like to work at the Mouse House back in Walt's day, feature animation's second Golden Age (I.E. The late 1980s - the mid-1990s) as well as the current dark times. All served up with that patented Floyd Norman style.

If you don't have these books yet, you really don't know what you're missing. So go and pick up a copy of "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" and/or "Son of Faster, Cheaper" today!

Go to the Afro-Kids Store

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