Earlier this month, The Haunted Mansion comic book debuted. The first of a five-issue miniseries, the series was written by Joshua Williamson and drawn by Jorge Coelho, with a special Disney Parks-specific variant cover featuring an illustration by original Mansion Imagineer, Marc Davis. The plot concerns a teenage boy convinced that the spirit of a loved one is trapped within the titular haunted house, and is filled to references big and small to the original attraction.
The Haunted Mansion is the latest series in the Disney Kingdoms’ imprint of Marvel Comics. The first series, Seekers of the Weird, was actually based on an unused idea for what eventually became The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Other titles include the phenomenally popular Figment (the second series of comics just started), and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, written by superstar Marvel writer Dennis Hopeless.
What some might not know, however, is that comics have been a part of the company even before there was a company. In fact, Walt Disney first drew comics while stationed with the Red Cross in France, immediately following the end of World War I. Walt was an ambulance driver then and would frequently draw, oftentimes taking suggestions and ideas from his fellow troops. “I found out that the inside and outside of an ambulance is as good a place to draw as any,” Walt said. When he returned from Europe, he met cartoonist Ub Iwerks and together they formed the Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists company, one of the most profound relationships in the history of the company. After Walt arrived in Hollywood in August 1923, he tried to sell a comic strip he had toyed with earlier, “Mr. George’s Wife,” which biographer Neal Gabler says was pitched once more, without success.
But after Mickey Mouse became a sensation, Walt could finally go ahead with his dream of a comic strip. He was approached by King Features Syndicate, a Hearst-owned print syndication company responsible for distributing comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games, asking for a licensing agreement that would allow them to use Walt’s characters. Walt agreed and the first comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930, after 15 Mickey Mouse shorts had already been produced (with 9 more scheduled for that year alone). Walt was credited with the story, Iwerks with the art, and Win Smith with inking. The plot for the strip was similar to “Plane Crazy,” the 1928 Mickey Mouse short. What makes these early strips so exceptional was that they were actually produced by a department at the studio; key figures like Walt and Iwerks were called upon to engineer these strips.
Walt wrote these strips until May of 1930 (Walt’s famous signature wouldn’t appear in association with the comics until March of that year), signaling a larger creative handover. First Smith would take over, as writer, illustrator, and inker, but then abruptly quit. Walt would find a suitable (and very quick) replacement in Floyd Gottfredson. Gottfredson was an apprentice animator at the studio, when he was assigned the fledgling comic strip, a gig that was supposed to be temporary. As biographer Gabler said: “In the end Walt was too distracted by other obligations to find a replacement and Gottfredson would continue drawing the Mickey Mouse strip until his retirement in 1975.” In 2003, Gottfredson was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend. In 2006 he was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. As Disney historian Jim Korkis said, Gottfredson was “responsible for a series of continuity stories that have rarely been surpassed.”
The Mickey Mouse in these early comic strips was the same Mickey from the shorts: scrappy, outspoken, and prone to bouts of mischief and violence. This made sense, considering how many of the strips were cribbed from the shorts themselves, but also marks a striking contrast to the Mickey that was being developed as an icon, one with smoother edges and a more genial personality. The comics would sometime take the cadence of light-hearted comedy, while other times would veer towards superhero, science fiction, or detective plotlines. Characters introduced in the early, continuity-heavy run included Mickey’s nephews, Morty and Ferdie Fieldmouse, and a spectral villain called the Phantom Blot.
These comics were also enormously popular, and were able to transmit the Mickey persona to countless newspapers across the country. “Like the Mickey Mouse Clubs, the comic strip was an instant success and another enormous boon to Mickey’s popularity–perhaps as powerful an engine in disseminating his image as the cartoons themselves,” Gabler wrote.
But Mickey wasn’t the only comic book in these early days.
In 1932, a Silly Symphonies strip was created (odd, considering that the entire conceit of the short films was that they were based around music). It was a combination of serialized stories, adaptations of the short films, stories featuring Disney characters like Pluto, and, later, adaptations of Disney films including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (a tie-in immediately proposed after the runaway success of the film) and Pinocchio. The Silly Symphonies strip is notable for introducing a new character into the Disney bloodstream: Bucky Bug (originally spelled “Buckey”). He later appeared in an actual Silly Symphonies short, “Bugs in Love” (the final installment in black-and-white), and even made a cameo appearance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? While the Silly Symphonies strip would end in 1942, Bucky would continue making appearances in various comics for another decade.
When the Silly Symphonies strip ended, it was replaced by adaptations of feature films like Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland, and a Sunday-only comic feature Jose Carioca, the cigar-chomping parrot inspired by the pre-World War II trip to South America taken by Walt and a hand-selected team of artists and animators. A comic called Merry Menagerie was introduced, featuring anthropomorphic barnyard animals but no actual Disney characters, and a Sunday-only series called Treasure of Classic Tales, which adapted Disney films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Disney properties like Davy Crockett. There was also a daily panel devoted to the True Life Adventures series of pioneering nature films. From 1955 – 1988 there was a comic devoted to Scamp, the son of Lady and Tramp. In 2001, Scamp would star in a direct-to-video sequel, and in a way these comics acted like film sequels, serving to expand and continue various stories and worlds without impacting the main continuity of things too much.
But the most significant comic book contributions would be the work of Disney Legend Carl Barks, who in Four Color Comics (an anthology comic book series published by Dell Comics) issue #178 introduced Scrooge McDuck, the miserly, Scottish uncle of Donald Duck. Donald had previously been seen in the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies comics, and starred in stand-alone strips, and additional, instantly memorable characters like Huey, Dewey, and Louie debuted in the strips (in a Sunday-only comic in 1937), but in these comics, written by Barks, Donald’s world grew considerably–and quite literally–with the city of Duckburg and its many inhabitants. Between 1947 and 1961 Barks would not only create Scrooge McDuck, but also Gladstone Gander, Junior Woodchucks, Gyro Gearloose, and Magica De Spell (amongst others), characters that would appear, again and again, in various formats, most notably the Disney Afternoon series like DuckTales and Darkwing Duck. These stories were fun and intricate; legendary cartoonist Will Eisner called Barks “the Hans Christian Andersen of comic books,” and said, “His work will remain.” (He was right–Barks died in 2000 at the age of 99, and today highbrow comics publisher Fantagraphics regularly reprints his comics in handsome new editions.)
Winnie the Pooh ran, in comic strip form, for a decade, and comic strip adaptations of films like The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, appeared in the ‘90s. Even today “classic” strips are reprinted on a semi-regular.
And packaging and reprinting those comic strips was the main enterprise of actual Disney-related comic book publishing. Various companies would license and reprint these materials, to varying degrees of success, but it wasn’t until much later that Disney really got into the comic book game. The ‘80s were a time when the comic book form was growing and changing, thanks to powerful new voices in the medium (people like Frank Miller and Grant Morrison), a rise in independent comic books, and the popularity of mainstream crossover properties, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Tim Burton Batman film.
By 1986, most of the Walt Disney comic book licenses had been given to Another Rainbow Publishing, a small imprint out of Arizona that was obsessed with the work of Carl Barks. (Its name was based on an early painting of a young Scrooge McDuck; their Disney imprint, Gladstone Comics, was named after Donald’s cousin, another Barks creation.) The company would frequently reprint original Donald Duck material, but was also devoted to reintroducing the characters in comic book form, including new stories and American adaptations of series that had only been published overseas. Since DuckTales, just as inspired by Barks as Gladstone, was so phenomenally popular, it fueled sales of the comic books.
In 1989, 20 years before Disney would eventually purchase Marvel, Marvel would publish a prestige adaptation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And by 1990, Disney proudly announced the introduction of Disney Comics. “At last! All the ducks come home to roost! (And the mice … And the dogs … And the chipmunks … and the rabbits …)” the official statement read, with silhouettes of Mickey, Scrooge, Launchpad, and Roger Rabbit, rushing towards a magical castle. At the bottom of the announcement were the words: “This could be the start of something BIG.” The initial launch featured titles like Goofy Adventures (“The title says it all!”), Roger Rabbit, and Chip ‘N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, as well as a comic that served as a tie-in to Dick Tracy. These comics did a great job emphasizing the mixture of old and new characters as well as double underlining the synergistic nature of the new venture. Several more titles were introduced in 1990, most resetting at issue #1.
This new Disney Comics venture featured a diverse array of creative talent behind the scenes, including controversial Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and DC Comics editor Len Wein. The experienced team helped work around interesting wrinkles (like the fact that Bob Hoskins only permitted his likeness for the debut issue of the Roger Rabbit comic book, leading to the development of new detective Rick Flint) and ambitious plans (like several series crossing over/sharing continuity). Soon, the initial run of eight titles blossomed; tie-ins were produced for Disney Afternoon series like Tail Spin and films like Shipwrecked, The Rescuers Down Under and White Fang, and a limited series inspired by The Little Mermaid. Soon, additional imprints were planned, like Hollywood Comics (home to an Arachnophobia tie-in book and a planned adaptation of Final Fantasy written by Kurt Busiek with covers by future Atlantis: The Lost Empire designer Mike Mignola), Touchmark (an adults-only line from future Vertigo executive Karen Berger, featuring titles from Morrison and Peter Milligan), and Vista Comics (a proposed competitor for Marvel that never saw the light of day).
After adaptations of Aladdin and what we now refer to as “event series” centered around what was then known as Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris) and the 1992 Olympics, Disney Comics fell back on familiar properties, before closing up in 1993.
Starting in 1999, Dark Horse Comics would occasionally publish Disney tie-in books (like an adaptation of Atlantis, with cover art by Mignola) and Gemstone Publishing, a restructured version of Gladstone, would publish some core titles for a couple of years. In the later 2000s, Disney would license various titles to comic book publishers, including Slave Labor Graphics, which would produce a new series based on Disney’s highly influential Gargoyles show, and BOOM!, who would produce lines based on the Muppets, Disney•Pixar, and Disney Afternoon titles (Darkwing Duck and DuckTales amongst them) and IDW, publishing reprints of European titles and classic comics.
And then, in 2009, Disney acquired Marvel. With the new Disney Kingdoms initiative, the Disney titles would have a new home with prime real estate, as part of Marvel’s acclaimed monthly output (which now includes comic books themed to Star Wars, as well). If there’s any comics company that has been able to introduce new series and maintain them over multiple platforms, it’s Marvel. And what’s more is that the approach isn’t such a complete overhaul, with independent publishers like IDW and Joe Book are still churning out content as well, both online and in print. So while the history of Disney comics is a long and winding one, it’s a story that’s really only just begun, and we can’t wait to turn the page.