A Mickey Mouse Reader, by Gary Apgar ***-****

AmickeymousereaderThe key word here is “reader”, which means don’t expect a sumptuous coffee table book replete with lush full page illustrations. This is, instead, a collection of articles written over the years about the character Disney referred to colloquially as “The Mouse”, and also some about Disney himself.
The first third or so of the book is somewhat monotonous, because several articles are printed that essentially give the same information. They talk about the first cartoons that played as short films in movie houses during the era of silent films, and the consequence adaptation in which Mickey was given his voice, which was Walt Disney speaking in falsetto. The company was founded on a shoestring by Disney and a partner with whom he fell out when the man swindled him; consequently, Walt’s brother Roy came on board with a significant cash infusion and a willingness to join in. It was Walt Disney’s wife Lillian who prevented him from naming Mickey “Mortimer Mouse”. The character’s humor was modeled largely on the self-effacing humor of Charlie Chaplin, though Disney said that the two did not share political perspectives.
Those who have the attention span and the interest level will find more diverse material in the remaining portion of the book, and everything is fastidiously documented; articles published in a language other than English are reprinted in their entirety in the original language at the back of the book.
Mickey is analyzed up one side and down another by such diverse individuals as Carl Jung, Maurice Sendak, and Stephen Jay Gould; in relation to the last of these, there is an achingly tedious article giving all the cranial dimensions of the various incarnations of Mickey’s head. Who knows? Maybe that will be your favorite part. It didn’t do anything for me. Many others commented on Mickey and his role socially, internationally, and even politically. Some claims that seemed gob-smackingly over the top to this reviewer dampened my enthusiasm a little bit. For example, one commentator said that Mickey is the greatest contribution ever made to world culture by the USA because he is so instantly recognizable and has a different name in every language. The reasoning is specious, because it takes a trademark image and equates it with culture. Given that jazz music was originally hatched on US soil, it’s a little hard to swallow that Mickey is America’s greatest contribution, almost a damning by faint praise. But you can decide for yourself, and this book will throw plenty of claims and historical information in your direction.
In 1937, as world politics became tense, the New York Times pointed out that the only two internationalists left in the world were Mickey Mouse and Leon Trotsky.
The longstanding rumor that Disney was sympathetic toward German fascism before World War II is never addressed. As Mickey has been kept carefully squeaky clean, so is his and Walt’s biography. Instead, it is mentioned that the sight of the Mickey Mouse button worn by children throughout the developed world infuriated Hitler, who wanted German youth to display only the swastika. It is also mentioned that the name “Mickey Mouse” was used as a code during that war. And one of the book’s few illustrations is a political cartoon in which Mickey represents the USA, perched on the nose of , Charles de Gaulle, whom the Allies backed when France was split between the two sides.
Disney’s genius was not only geared toward animation; he had a good head for business. The Disney fortune compounded itself with merchandising. Initially, Mickey’s success bankrolled the expensive production of Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, and the other early, magnificent animated full length films that followed. Tee shirts and wristwatches were everywhere in the 1960’s and 1970’s; Disney took the 50,000th watch that came off the assembly line and put it on his desk, which had once been graced with studio mice (actual rodents) which he had lovingly caged, observed, and set free in fields earlier in his career.
Brief mention is made of the cartoons made in an earlier era that caricatured African-Americans, and I confess I myself had wondered why those dreadful things were not pulled out of circulation, or limited to those studying animation history as opposed to popular entertainment. Brief mention was also made of the NAACP boycott instigated by the release of “Song of the South”, one of Disney’s few flops.
What does the future hold for Mickey, Apgar wonders. Disney himself had pointed out that there were limitations to what one could do with “The Mouse”. After all, Mickey is eternally young and eternally good; unlike Donald Duck, Disney’s more rounded character, Mickey could never have a sexual thought, lose his temper, or take a controversial stand. Because of this, and the fact that he had already been in some 70 short films as well as the acclaimed Fantasia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he more or less hit a dead end (my phrase, not Disney’s).
Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, creator of the graphic novel Maus, commented that if Mickey were to be updated, the obvious thing would be to make him gay. “After all, he’s already halfway there!” This gave me my first real laugh during the time I read this historical collection.
For the general audience, I rate this three stars due to the repetitive nature of a large amount of material and its dearth of artwork. For a niche audience including those researching the history of animation, the history of Disney , or that of Mickey Mouse, my sole concern is what is left out or glossed over: Walt Disney and pre-Hitler fascism; issues with the NAACP; and the reprehensible exclusion of the king of pop, Michael Jackson, who doesn’t even get a mention. For these reasons, five stars are not possible, so four stars for a niche audience. The collection is comprehensive in all that is glorious, and almost entirely devoid of rockier, more controversial moments.

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