Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Floyd Gottfredson, The Monarch of Medioka

The first thing to be made clear is that Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse stories were written as daily comic strips, not for comic books (although they were frequently republished in comic book form). This meant that they could theoretically go on for much longer than book stories, which (again, theoretically) offered interesting story possibilities. Theoretically, but probably not actually--look at the glacially-paced soap opera strips still inexplicably running in newspapers to this day. They too theoretically (the word of the day, apparently) have this freedom, and yet they still have zero unironic fans, and with good reason.

But anyway. Keep it in mind. The story that has been retroactively entitled The Monarch of Medioka is, if I'm not mistaken, the longest sequence in the long-running strip's history, running from September 8, 1937 to May 2, 1938. It's also modestly famous for having been banned in Yugoslavia, officials having felt that events in the story could be construed to an unacceptable degree as criticism of the government. That's gotta pique your interest at least somewhat, right? At any rate, I decided I would read it, in one of my periodic efforts to appreciate the rodent.

The story is loosely based on Prisoner of Zenda; Medioka is in financial trouble because of its king's profligate ways, so several of his underlings get Mickey--who looks just like him--to come and take his place for a while to try to calm things down. Naturally, Mickey makes a great king, and solves all of the country's problems. How? Oh, go on, take a wild guess. It's the same way certain persons think every single problem we face today can be magically solved.

That's right: TAX CUTS. This is the beginning and the end of his solution to the problems facing the country. Some guy suggests that this story might have inspired Reagan, and there's a certain gruesome logic to that. More on this later.

Above: President Palin hard at work on her first budget.

Anyway, there's an evil dude scheming to usurp the throne, he gets defeated, the newly-responsible king is reinstated, everyone is happy. The end.

Now, when criticizing this story, we have to accept the fact that part of the problem comes from the transition from comic strip to comic book. In the version that I have (and in all contemporary versions, I think), the strip format is not preserved; instead, the panels are rejiggered to look like it was always meant to be a book. This results in a notably herky-jerky reading experience: abrupt transitions from one scene to another, frequent brief textual recapitulations of what just happened, and joke sequences that seem like bizarre non-sequiturs. This likely wouldn't be an issue were you reading it in the paper strip by strip as it was being published, but for us here today, it kind of is.

That's not the main issue, however. The main issue is this: aside from a few vaguely amusing bits of slapstick at the beginning (mostly involving Horace Horsecollar, my favorite character in the Mickeyverse if I'm required to have one) when the characters are just sort of dicking around before the main actions starts, there is absolutely nothing to recommend The Monarch of Medioka. Well, okay, I suppose there's some minor sociological/historical value to it, but story qua story, there's nothing worth remembering. The jokes are almost uniformly dire, there's absolutely no sense of drama, the art is functional at best, the pacing (even if it isn't all Gottfredson's fault, per se), is terrible, and Mickey is still an incredibly irritating character. And the story doesn't end so much as peter out in a series of pointless gags and then just sort of stop--the least satisfying conclusion imaginable (again, not wholly Gottfredson's fault, but still…). In other words: gah.

The Gladstone Comic Album reproduces some old New York Times articles of the time regarding the Yugoslav censorship thing, and there's an interesting critical essay by Geoffrey Blum (who I think might hate me after I accused Thomas Andrae of plagiarism:-( )that frames the story as a conflict between American and European values--an interesting gloss, but it doesn't make it any more fun to read. Still, those two extra-textual bits at least add some value to the book. I guess.

The other thing of value is that it helps to clarify why I don't like Mickey. Don't think I didn't TRY to enjoy his stories as a young lad--and sometimes I even succeeded, sort of, but it was always an effort, and it never got any easier. See, the thing is, Donald--as written by Carl Barks--is not a simple character. He's occasionally capable of acts of great bravery or generosity, but he just as often flies into fits of rage and falls into crippling self-doubt. He's prone to greed and hubris. You can't pigeonhole him down in any simple way. And that's why he's a great character.

Whereas Mickey--well, unlike Donald, he never had a truly visionary artist behind him, and thus never developed any kind of real humanity. So instead what you have--as amply evidenced in Monarch--is a deeply vapid character. Maugre the odd suicide attempt, he's essentially a relentlessly cheerful, upbeat, boy-scoutish person of absolute moral rectitude. Any shades of gray in his character or in the situations in which he finds himself are notably absent. He's like something out of a Victorian morality tale for small children. In other words: it's very easy to see how he could have inspired Ronald Reagan--his utter, unjustified moral certitude and empty-headed, moronically simplistic pollyannaishness is really a perfect analogue for the attitude that Reagan was trying (and succeeding) to instill in the country with his "morning in America" schtick. It's easy to see why this resonates with people, and in the years of the Depression when the strip was at its height, you can see how this could even be justifiable. But that doesn't make it any more palatable to me.

Was I thinking about all this when I was small? Obviously not. But I sort of think that unconsciously, I understood the differences between Donald and Mickey, and that the one was therefore far more interesting than the other. Of course, it didn't hurt that, regardless of the characters, Barks' plots were generally far more interesting than those that Paul Murray or whoever it was came up with. And I probably did on some level have the idea that Mickey and Goofy were excessively childish, or represented the worst aspects of Walt Disney's empire. To get all theoretical on your asses, you might say that my dislike of the character was--and is--overdetermined.

At any rate, I guess I owe Monarch a debt of gratitude for making me think about these things. I'd still give it one star if this were an Amazon review, however. Maybe an extra star for historical reasons if I were feeling hyper-generous. But there's no reason in the world that anyone who's just looking for a decent story should bother with it.


Anonymous Maisy pontificated to the effect that...

How do you feel about Romano Scarpa? I can't stand the Murray stories just because of the art, but not all the writing is completely terrible. Mickey is a little more discriminating and intelligent in all the "detective" Mickey stories than in the Gottfredson stuff, although I do like some Gottfredson stories. I think my favorite Mickey stories were the Scarpa series about the Phantom Blot but he had a daughter and stuff, or the one with the bad penguin who froze people (I haven't read those in a while and don't want to dig up my copies, sorry). I don't like Mickey's character in either of those but he is definitely more interesting and the stories are good. If he has Goofy and Donald there with him, too, the characterizations round out pretty nicely, like in the ghost detectives story. I think Mickey wasn't really allowed to develop a character because he couldn't be a bad role model. It's kind of the same thing that happened to Popeye, except in this case the role of being tricky and explosive transferred to Donald, so it was preserved. And a character with flaws is definitely more interesting than a milquetoast, as you stated in your post.

3:12 AM  

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