The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
MICKEY MOUSE'S WORLD OF TOMORROW
Mickey Mouse was once the world's most famous artist-drawn character, a status he achieved about five minutes after Steamboat Willie appeared in 1928. The Disney studio churned out almost a cartoon a month for the next decade, never able to satisfy a demand they spent all the rest of their time creating. Walt wanted his creation to be inescapable but in those early days didn’t know how best to exploit Mickey outside of cartoons and didn’t have the extra income to do so anyway. Others did and followed the smell of potential bales of money back to Walt. He later remembered that “… a fellow kept hanging around my hotel waving $300 at me and saying that he wanted to put the Mouse on the paper tablets children use in school. As usual, Roy and I needed money, so I took the $300.” This was in the fall of 1929. Mickey sold. Over the next decade, an awesome stream of tie-in products and memorabilia allowed Mickey to stare back at you from every room in the house and be tangible in hands small and large.
Walt and brother Roy, who handled the finances, got it. The more Mickey people saw, the more Mickey people wanted. Disney only got a small cut of the merchandise money and had to work hard to control Mickey’s image in the hands of outsiders. A solution presented itself. Doing what the Disney studio was best at, making images of Mickey and retaining all the money that raised, a daily newspaper Mickey Mouse comic strip began on January 13, 1930. Walk wrote and artist Ub Iwerks, who had worked with Walt to create the first experimental Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, drew. The first week's strips even had Mickey building his own plane in a barnyard, echoing that first animated film. Comic strips enjoyed huge prestige and circulation then. Virtually every town in the country larger than a village had competing newspapers, each vying to snag the most popular strips. The format ensured that the Mouse entered children's minds every day for a generation, literally every day after 1932, when a full-page colored Sunday strip appeared.
Walt soon moved out of direct involvement, asking a new hire at the Studio not yet graduated to top animator status to take over the strip temporarily, assuring him he'd get to go back to the prestigious cartoons soon. This is a Hollywood story so you're probably anticipating me. Floyd Gottfredson stayed on the strip for 45 years, writing and drawing it for the next four years and then pulling back to penciling and plotting with a series of artists and inkers, though he returned to inking in 1943.
By then, the Mouse character had firmed to an instantly recognizable core that could be molded to fit any of a thousand gags. Mickey was a bit of Bob Hope, a dash of John Wayne, a tad of Jimmy Stewart, a smidgeon of George Burns. He was an Everyman, an oppressed bumbler in thrall to his capricious girlfriend, the butt of jokes by a huge cast of crazies, a reluctant participant in dangerous adventures, the hero who in the end demonstrated enormous courage, ingenuity, and physical prowess to thwart the villain, save the heroine, and return home with Pluto for another round of suburban homemaker gags. If that sometimes spread him too thin, no problem. He had another strip the next day and the next and the next and the next.
Each new writer created a variant on the basic Mouse. That became a problem during World War II when long-term writer Merrill De Maris left in 1942 and Dick Shaw only lasted a year. Walt turned to Bill Walsh who, as a diabetic, was ineligible for service. Though only 30, Walsh already had a decade of varied show business experience, starting as a writer for the Barbara Stanwyck/Frank Fay stage shows. Walsh would stay on as strip writer for the next twenty years, a part-time job that he must have loved since Walt had him busy doing a few other chores over that time. He wrote and produced the first Disney television specials, was the original producer of Disneyland, and did all the background work and half the writing for The Mickey Mouse Club, being the one constantly on the set with the kids as opposed to the seldom-seen Walt. After those first fabulously successful TV years, Walsh switched over to the fantastically profitable live-action movies Disney churned out, with his peak being Mary Poppins. He was again the producer and co-writer of the movie, the top-grossing film of 1964, and did all the backstage hand-holding of acerbic writer P. L. Travers, a role given to Walt in the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks. Walsh's name is never mentioned in that movie. In real life, he was Disney's number two and responsible for the production of almost everything we remember from Disney during those years.
Surprisingly, Walsh's work on the Mickey strip is not remembered in glowing terms by comics buffs. For them, the golden days were the 30s tenures of De Maris and Ted Osborne. It's not hard to see why. Walsh's first major strip, "The Electro Box," which ran from October 25, 1943 through February 5, 1944 held great gag potential. Mickey, playing around with some radio parts, finds that his finished product accidentally shoots out an electric zap that can do anything. That's right, Mickey Mouse invents a ray gun! As the source for a series of gags, the Electro Box is a fertile wonder. Walsh's handling of the idea is too loose and meandering to stick in the mind. The ray can make objects appear or disappear, grow or shrink. It can show scenes from around the globe and pluck Mickey's ancestor from light waves 180 years away.
Sometimes turning it off reverses the effect, sometimes the effect simply wears off, sometimes it's permanent, sometimes Mickey can somehow fiddle with the box although it has no controls, just a button to push. The sequence works as a fine example of the thin line between fantasy and science fiction, since a magic ring provided by a genie could be swapped with virtually no changes, but the words of science and technology, radio and electricity, convey a wholly new context for the story.
Welsh then reversed himself in "The Pirate Ghostship" and flung Mickey into the past to face Ghostbeard the 17th century pirate, who of course is his old supervillian Peg-Leg Pete in another guise. The ending *SPOILER* is the usual one for time-travel excursions: it was all a dream.
Even the youngest readers must therefore have had an inkling of what was to come when in the very next storyline Mickey is flung into the future. Mickey is hit in the head on August 31, 1944 and receives the next day an invisible cloak. Not an invisibility cloak, a cloak that is invisible. Once donned he finds himself in "the post-war world," the "world of tomorrow."
"The World of Tomorrow" was the slogan of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. The only surprise is that it took Disney five years to turn it into a strip. DC Comics saw the potential much faster, releasing a special World's Fair Comics issue with Superman, Batman, and Robin on the cover in 1940, to go along with Superman Day, July 3, 1940. Although the Fair is widely said to have inspired Walt's plans for Disneyland, Disney the company wasn't active there.
Walsh's handling of tomorrow's world is in line with almost every other comic take of the future: nothing is truly different in the future except that standard middle-class American life has been revised by time-appropriate gadgets (which Gottfredson might equally have contributed as gag creator). You can see this all over the past future from the film Just Imagine in 1930 to The Jetsons in 1963. (And, of course, the same gag with the old switcheroo for past pasts from Charlie Chaplin's 1914 silent short His Prehistoric Past to The Flintstones in 1960. Funny how the past pasts always precede the past futures.)
Mostly the future is the present with propellers. Buses have helicopter blades and so do hobo's hammocks.
As in the story "Love in the Future," two-way videophones double as flat-screen television sets.
Cheap gags about women never change.
And here's a gag that could be straight out of The Jetsons.
Food pills from a vending machine - a gag in Just Imagine - and of course giant vegetables.
After a month of gags, Walsh introduces a plot. There's no crime in the future; potential criminals are identified by their individual vibrations and forced to reform. Even Pegleg Pete has retired to his garden. Or has he? Nope. The only thing changed about him is his leg: he has one. I mean he has two. So why is he still called Pegleg? A double mystery here. Pete had gotten a modern artificial foot back in "The Mystery of Hidden River" three years earlier, but that was before Walsh's time. Gottfredson drew Ghostbeard with a peg so maybe Walsh simply forgot that Pegleg Pete was now simply Pete. Mickey also has a subtle change. In place of the shorts that used to be all he wore, he now is depicted with shirts and long pants, as he would be thereafter. Some commentators make a big deal of this, but he wore a full outfit throughout "The Pirate Ghostship," although not in the single day gag-strips that followed. People who care about continuity shouldn't be comics buffs.
Those little guys are robots, called Mekka Men. The word "robot" was in use by then, of course, but creatures we now would call robots were known by a number of names, especially mechanical men. The world's most famous robot was Elektro, constructed by Westinghouse for the 1939 World's Fair. Robots, Elektro, the electro box, the world of tomorrow... I don't think there's any possibility of coincidence. The 1939 World's Fair obliterated all other popular cultural events as the source of future imagery. Science fiction was then a tiny niche with a total audience in the hundreds of thousands. Walsh drew upon a factor that the vast majority of his audience, the tens of millions of newspaper readers, would be sure to know.
Pete isn't a mere crook, not in 1944. He wants to take over the world. Some commentators write that this dark side of technology represents the future as dystopia, a warning that the machine-made utopia of the World's Fair was naive. Wholly unlikely. This is merely Pete being Pete, no different except in scope than in his dozens of other appearances as a villain for Mickey to thwart. The image of mass-produced emotionless soldiers, built only to fight and die, comes directly from the play that introduced the word robot, Karl Čapek's R.U.R., in which Rossum's Universal Robots are bought by the nations of Europe to do their fighting for them until the robots kill off all of humanity.
The ending has an additional similarity to R.U.R. In the play, robots gain human emotions and a pair emerge to act as the new Adam and Eve to repopulate the world. Walsh introduces a Mekka Girl, Mimi, who doesn't merely fall for Mickey but sacrifices her life to save his.
Walsh (or maybe Gottfredson as plotter) does come up with one original element. To sow havoc and confusion before the attack, Pete plans to replace the distinguished men of the world with robot duplicates.
The robot duplicate ploy got done to death in 1960s spy movies and television shows. But somebody had to do it first. I can't find any evidence of an earlier use of the trope. Duplicates and doubles abound in fiction, as in The Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask. Charlie Chaplin's everyman getting confused for Hitler in The Great Dictator surely was as well remembered as the simultaneous World's Fair. A Mickey Mouse comic strip, not a science fiction or spy novel, seems to be the first to put the pieces together. Remarkable.
Pete gets defeated in the end, of course, after hand to hand combat with the suddenly invincible Mickey. He has a bit of trouble taking off the invisible cloak to go back to his own time. "No buttons! No zipper!" No matter, this adventure too was *SPOILER* also a dream.
The story was adapted into a Big Little Book in 1948, the cover of which is shown at the top of the page.