The story, Can Disney Build a Better Mickey Mouse?, is about updating Mickey Mouse for the children of the of the 21st century, but it’s the graphic re-imaginings that are so entertaining.
“It all began with a mouse,” Walt Disney liked to say. Well, not quite. In 1928, Disney lost control of the rights to a previous creation called Oswald the Rabbit. All but bankrupt, he hastily sought to develop a new character that would be a distinct individual instead of a vaudeville stooge. Along with Ub Iwerks — the only animator who stayed with him — he replaced the rabbit’s long floppy ears with two black disks and came up with one weird creature. Not just physically, though as mice go, he was pretty irregular, with his giant feet, widow’s peak, plunger hands and hose-like limbs.
More surprising was his personality; if it was based, as many people say, on Disney himself (he provided the voice), you’ve got to wonder about Walt. The original Mickey — who made his public debut in “Steamboat Willie,” the first synchronized-sound cartoon — was only partly civilized: uninhibited, bare-chested, rough-and-ready to the point of sadism. His chums were farmyard animals like Claraballe Cow and Horace Horsecollar, and, like most cartoon characters of the period, he blithely trafficked in fistfights, drownings, dismemberments. For violence, the shipboard shenanigans of “Steamboat Willie” far exceed those in “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” the Buster Keaton feature that inspired it. In one sequence, Mickey tortures various animals — banging cow teeth, tweaking pig nipples — in order to produce a rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.”
But that richly drawn, disreputable character, born of desperation and betrayal, got watered down almost from the moment he was introduced. Disney’s first licensed merchandise — a Mickey Mouse writing tablet — appeared in 1929, by which point the first Mickey Mouse Club had already been established (along with its code of behavior).