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Wednesdays with Wade: Comic art auction no laughing matter

Wednesdays with Wade: Comic art auction no laughing matter

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It always amazes me how many key Disney historical artifacts are in the hands of private collectors. Perhaps it is for the best because Disney doesn't always treasure its history. I know of too many horror stories of Disney history being shredded or tossed in the dumpster simply because storage space was too expensive or that the people in charge had no idea of the true value of an item. That's how the big book Walt opened on the first "Disneyland" television show -- the one where he said "I hope that we never lose sight of one thing -- that this was all started with a mouse" -- fell into the hands of a private Disney collector. Disney sold it to him at a bargain price because they had no clue what it was.

Perhaps as classic film lovers have long learned, private collectors may be the best stewards of these treasures. Certainly, some of the treasures we see on DVDs are the results of private collectors protecting prints and excised scenes from films that the producing studios allowed to disintegrate.

Even the Disney Archives over the years has had to limit its acquisitions because of space limitations.

That's why it is with mixed emotions that I have learned that Dallas, Texas-based Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers sold the Mickey Mouse daily newspaper strip dated January 29, 1930 for $74,850. Almost exactly seventy-six years to the day that that strip was first published.

The strip was #15 in the run of the first Mickey Mouse dailies. Out of those first fifteen dailies, only the whereabouts of the original art for strips number one, three and ten are known to collectors. These strips are part of the original eighteen strips created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for submission to the Hearst Syndicate. The condition of the original art was excellent considering the normal aging with the ink lines being deep and crisp and as for content, it features Mickey firing a gun at a harmless bird. This is truly Walt's original mouse full of mischief and adventure before he became a corporate icon.

Early daily and Sunday original art with Disney characters seldom comes on the open auction market. Most transactions are in private sales directly between dealers and collectors so as not to garner alot of attention. I know for a fact that an early Disney daily has already sold for over six figures, so this recent sale was a bargain despite what seems like a premium price for four panels of art.

Comic strips were probably the most powerful medium of the day for the working man and his family when Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in 1928. More people read comics than went to the movies. One of the big reasons for this was the powerful William Randolph Hearst whose newspapers were circulated among millions of Americans. He had cleverly used comics as a premium to help sell his newspapers. In fact, he paid premium prices to get exclusive rights to certain cartoonists and their strips. Most early cartoonists, including Walt Disney himself, wanted to become either editorial cartoonists or the cartoonist on their own newspaper feature.

Being a natural salesman, Walt realized that having Mickey Mouse appear in a daily newspaper comic strip would help generate interest in the animated cartoons. There was certainly precedence of other cartoon characters like Felix the Cat who appeared in a popular series of animated cartoons as well as a syndicated comic strip drawn by his creator, Otto Messmer.

Around September of 1929, some historians say that Disney approached King Features (Hearst's syndicate) while others say it was Hearst who approached Disney. Like most early history, the particulars are now lost to time. Regardless, Disney needed to send 18 sample strips to Hearst so that Hearst could have at least a three week backlog to guarantee that the Disney Studio had enough lead time to continue producing the strip. Today, newspaper syndicates require an even longer backlog of strips. The strip that was sold is number 15 from the series which Disney originally submitted to Hearst. Iwerks penciled these 18 strips while Walt himself supplied the gags and the dialog. Win Smith did the inking.

Just for the record, it is probably likely that the signature on the strip was not by Walt himself but probably either Iwerks or Smith. It is one of the first examples of someone other than Walt signing his name.

For the first two weeks, Walt very loosely followed the storyline of the first Mickey cartoon "Plane Crazy" which offered the possibility of a variety of more visual gags than "Steamboat Willie." Though "Plane Crazy" was actually the first Mickey cartoon, it had been released after "Steamboat Willie.""Plane Crazy" had been made as a silent cartoon but after the success of "Steamboat Willie" a makeshift soundtrack was added to it. Walt was probably hoping to capitalize on an audience who had already seen this cartoon in a wonderful early example of Walt's famous marketing technique of using one medium to promote a Disney product in another medium. In this case, those who read the daily comic strip were more likely to pay a dime to see Mickey Mouse on the silver screen and vice versa.

Shortly after completing the eighteen daily strips for Disney Studios, Iwerks was lured away by an offer to run his own cartoon studio. The artwork chores fell to Smith and later Floyd Gottfredson who would provide artwork for the strip for decades. Walt's abandoned writing the strip for a variety of reasons, including realizing how difficult it is to produce a daily comic strip in addition to the demands on his time as his studio expanded and increased production. Supposedly one of the reasons for Smith leaving the strip was Walt's insistence that Smith take over the scripting chores. Most fans would agree it was a blessing to have Gottfredson handling the strip and was a probably a major reason for the strip's continued success.

The third week of the strip (which includes strip #15) veered off into an original storyline that has been retroactively titled "Lost on a Desert Island." While the Disney Studio had played around with gags about Mickey Mouse on a jungle island, this storyline is clearly original and not connected to those ideas. So this series of strips begins the first truly original extended story of Mickey Mouse in comic strip form. In strip #15, Mickey's need for food while stranded on an island leads him to shoot a bird who is nesting with unexpected (and Walt hoped humorous) results.

The newspaper strips directly led to the popular series of Walt Disney comic books. The earliest Disney comic book was Mickey Mouse Magazine and it consisted of newspaper strip reprints. When an editor at Western Publishing, Eleanor Packer, decided to put Disney newspaper strips into a monthly format that matched the format of popular comic book, it results in the creation of "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories." In fact in the years before television, millions of Mickey Mouse fans were first introduced to the character in the comic strip or comic books.

And so, another key piece of the Disney history puzzle once again goes into a private collection. Hopefully that will mean that it will be available in the future when some Disney researchers need it.

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