Los Angeles in the 1930s.
An artist at the Walt Disney Studios is up late, hard at work putting the finishing touches on the latest Mickey Mouse comic strip. Once completed, their work will be printed and distributed to newspapers across the nation. As one of the contributors to the first Disney Comics series, little do they know, that in the legacy of Disney Comics, this is just the beginning.
In honor of National Comic Day, we’re picking up this story more than eighty years later and exploring the art, production, and global impact of Disney Comics of today. And lucky for us, we have one of the best tour guides in town, Publisher for Global Magazines and Comics for Disney Publishing Worldwide, Gianfranco Cordara. Cordara oversees the production of comics and magazines for everything Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel (kids editions) globally. So if there’s anyone fitting to talk about how Disney Comics bring beloved characters and stories to audiences across the world, it’s totally him!
Our first stop showcases a great example of one of the most popular styles of Disney Comics– the graphic novel adaptation. This format retells an already established story, in this case Zootopia, in a graphical, 2D style. For fans that know and love the story, an adaptation offers the chance to relive their favorite moments in a new way. By contrast, for folks who may not be familiar with the property, the adaptation offers the perfect opportunity to get introduced to the story through a new medium.
Artists who work on these adaptation comics tread a tough line. Whereas a filmmaker gets to tell their story across two hours and thousands upon thousands of frames, comic book artists are more limited. “The real challenge is to reduce a two hour movie into a forty-four to sixty page graphic novel,” says Cordara. “It’s a lot of work on our team to hone in on the key moments and create a style that is immediately recognizable yet can also stand alone as a comic.”
In addition to adaptations, the team also creates extension stories, which, as their name implies, extend the story beyond the film. These pieces can be especially exciting for fans that wish to see new adventures with their favorite characters. When it comes to creating extension stories, the team works closely with the filmmakers to ensure that the stories don’t conflict with potential sequel plans and fit inside the world of the films. “Sometimes the script writers will even come to us with ideas for the comics, such as scenes that got deleted from the movie that they would still like to see brought to life,” remarks Cordara.
The actual production of the comics is a truly global experience and quite different from your typical comic book production process. Usually in comics, you have a scriptwriter, penciler, inker, and a colorist. At Disney Comics, oftentimes several artists will work together on a single page, each focusing on very specific aspects. One artist will do the background, one artist will do the characters, one artist will color the backgrounds, etc. And these people can often be separated by great distances. “It’s a very interesting thing because we work almost around the clock,” remarked Cordara. “We’ll have an American scriptwriter, Italian penciler, the inker is in Australia, and the colorist is in Russia, so it’s kinda fun working that way!”
While the time it takes to produce a comic varies depending on the properties, generally the average length of production is six months from script to colored page. Extension stories sometimes take longer cause you might need to represent things in the book that are not in the movie. “For instance, you might need to talk to the art director of the movie to make sure the way you are drawing this specific room that has never been shown before is actually in line with the style of the movie,” says Cordara.
The Pirates of the Caribbean comic proved to be an especially interesting experience for Cordara because it was one of the first times the team forayed into adapting a live-action film into a comic. “You want to make the character recognizable, but you don’t want to do 1:1 likeness because then that’s a still from the movie. You are constantly towing the line between more realistic or more cartoon-y and there’s a lot of work done to find the right way to interpret.”
The Disney Princess comics have been a great example of how the Disney Comics brand give artists the freedom to experiment with style and be a bit playful with their renderings. “Fans love that the comics go into their personal lives and day-to-day activities,” says Cordara. “It’s very character driven.”
One of the Disney Comics most near and dear to Cordara’s heart is the Duck Avenger series. “Seeing this comic almost makes me wanna cry because my first job 20 years ago in Italy was working as a scriptwriter on this comic.” Created in March of 1996, the Duck Avenger comics were based off of a popular weekly magazine in Italy starring Donald Duck’s superhero alter-ego.
“With the comic, we proposed raising the character into a Marvel-like version that would be more suitable to older audiences.” Their proposition ended up working and the comic became so popular in Italy that at one point they were selling 200,000 copies a month which, compared to the population of Italy, was like selling millions of copies in the US!
While American readers make up a sizeable chunk of the Disney Comics audience, the audience is even more engaged in Europe, where comics are primarily distributed at newsstands and through subscription services. Cordara shared, “In Finland our weekly magazine sells 300,000 copies a week out of a population of 5 million people!”
Today, 80% of all Disney Comics are produced in Italy and Topolino, the Mickey Mouse weekly comic magazine, is a part of the Italian cultural lexicon. “I started reading Topolino, because my father gave the magazines to me, because he grew up reading Topolino. This is truly a magazine that is handed over from generation. When I was a kid, my sister was reading Topolino, my mom was reading Topolino, my father was reading Topolino.” Cordara continued, “If you open up the Italian newspaper, every other day there is a reference to the characters. A rich person is called Scrooge. And an unlucky person is called Donald. The comic has truly become a part of the dialogue in this country.”
Kilala, which tells the story of a young girl who dreams of becoming a Disney princess, is one of Disney Comics’ recent forays into the popular Japanese comic style manga. “Half of all money spent on published books in Japan, including textbooks, paperbacks, etc., is spent on manga so the market is huge!” says Cordara. This format, which is typically rendered in black and white and reads from right to left, is very different in style from other Disney Comics and so the team works closely with artists in Japan to ensure that these comics will appeal to both manga fans and readers in general.
Another recent avenue for Disney Comics has been working with Disney XD to develop comics for some of their shows. “The collaboration with Disney XD has been great!” says Cordara. For the Star vs. the Forces of Evil comic, the team worked directly with the creator of the show Daron Nefcy and had board artist Zach Marcus writing the comic and character designer Devin Taylor illustrating it.
Last but not least, we would be remiss if we didn’t spend a little time giving an update on comics featuring the mouse that started it all! After 86 years, Mickey Mouse is still bringing the charm in gorgeous republished and re-colored editions of the Mickey Mouse comics and adaptations of the Mickey Mouse Shorts series. “What we did with the shorts was take screengrabs and adapt them for comic form,” says Cordara. “A lot of work goes into framing the screengrabs, finding the right place for the balloon, and translating the content into the right flow that one would expect from comics.” When you have a chance, be sure to compare the comic to the short to catch all the tiny details that went into making these!
Whether you grew up with stacks of Disney Comics piled on your nightstand or you’re just starting to dip your feet into this wonder-filled, immersive experience, there’s truly something for everyone to explore and celebrate on National Comic Book Day! So pick up a Disney Comic and uncover the magic!