Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Sky Island"

Okay! No more dicking around! I said I would write about this MM serial for David, and goshdarnit, I'ma GONNA. It you had told me a year ago that I was going to be writing about a Mickey Mouse story on Duck Comics Revue, I would have assumed that it was some sorta April Fools thing, but no indeed--this is dead serious, or as much so as this blog gets. Hey, it's cool--I don't have the antipathy toward the character that I used to, and I've read a fair handful of Gottfredson stories, so I'm good to go--though who can say what this will look like?
I am given to understand that "Sky Island" here was Gottfredson's own favorite. It's definitely not mine (I pretty strongly prefer the somewhat similar "Mail Pilot" story, for one), though it certainly has its moments. For the record, we are dealing with the version of the story as reprinted in WDC282 and 283. I am told that this is the most "authentic" version available. There WAS a Bill Wright remake that Disney reprinted in an issue of Mickey Mouse Adventures; I haven't read it, but it would probably be interesting to compare the two. Any thoughts about Wright's remakes from the readership?

These, of course, are comic strips we're dealing with. It's really goddamned impressive how, well, good serial strips could be back in the day, given the current, attenuated version of the form. What it also means, however, is that, often as not, the pace of the story before it really gets going is incredibly glacial; ergo, I am going to skip the first few weeks. The setup is simple enough: Mickey decides that he's gonna be a PILOT, 'cause why not? There is a hijink or two as he and Goofy learn to fly, though nothing really vital. Here's where the story proper starts:

Sky car! Certainly an appealingly surreal moment--just drivin' along, casually wavin' like it warn't no thang. Later, Mickey goes back up with Captain Doberman (whose name pretty much speaks for itself, I think--he appears in a number of Gottfredson stories). This time, they actually make contact with the guy.

It's Dr. Einmug, who later on in the story develops a German accent. He's a pretty typical eccentric scientist kinda guy who was later co-opted by various Italian writers.


Ho ho! Of course! But seriously, now...

Ah. Yes, indeed. I hate to interrupt you, Captain Doberman, sir, but that's a pretty huge "if," given that we're talking about a nonsensical pseudo-scientific thing that you just made up. I mean, it could also be that he has an army of invisible demons at his beck and call, and that would be pretty bad too, but there's a reason that that's not anyone's go-to working theory.

Though actually, to be fair, I have no idea how atomic energy works. Maybe it DOES involve atoms all going in the same direction, for all I know. And even if not, we should give Gottfredson and company a fair bit of credit for dealing with nuclear power before it became a big thing.

Later on, Romano Scarpa would create a character called Atomo Bleep Bleep, who is supposed to be a giant atom that Einmug embiggened. That strikes me as a clever use of the character and his interests.


"At least we'll know we died for a swell cause" is my new favorite line ever, and the sort of thing that any military commander should be able to use to rally the troops.

The Sky Island itself: it is undeniably cool-looking.

No explanation is forthcoming about why people are able to walk around in the air hereabouts. I mean, it obviously has something to do with the whole atoms-moving-in-the-same-direction thing, but the parameters of this are never really explained.

Another cool-looking thing, just for the record.

Gottfredson also deserves credit for dealing so directly with these geopolitical anxieties. And Einmug's right, of course, although it's a tough line to walk--there are very few beneficial technologies that can't be co-opted for murder-oriented purposes.

Oh, Mickey--I admire your boundless optimism and faith in humanity, I really do; but even spotting you the extremely dubious premise that this deterrent effect would work, the idea that the US should have unquestioned military dominance over the globe is such a horrific one, for oh-so-many reasons. Though to be fair, not that the US was blameless when this story was written or anything, but it's easy to see how, in a pre-Vietnam world, you could maintain this belief without short-circuiting your brain with cognitive dissonance. Certainly, this bit is a very clear marker of its time--you wouldn't see an argument like that being seriously trotted out in a contemporary story, or at least I very much hope you wouldn't.

…so all of this is interesting enough, but then fuckin' Pete appears. And look! He's reformed! Hey guys--I wonder if he's really reformed? Whaddaya think? Huh? Huh? SUSPENSE!


The problem is, the strip spends what I would call an excessive amount of time maintaining this fiction that, hey, maybe he really IS this time! Anyway, shocking though it seems, it turns out he wants the atomic technology for evil-type purposes.

And GOOD LORD is the physicality of the above image ever unpleasant. It's mainly the huge lips and the little droplets that do it.

Pete can only get into the safe where the secret formula is kept when the safe opens once a day, at nine o'clock, but as you can see, it's not gonna be a problem. Einmug's phlegmatic acceptance of his imminent demise is pretty amusing.

See? German to the core.

This is also a good juncture to note how completely useless Goofy is in this story. I'm not saying the character is intrinsically worthless, but he contributes absolutely nothing to this story, other than a few moments of not-particularly-comic relief. This panel typifies his role, which mostly involves sitting around and staring blankly. To show that it doesn't have to be this way, here's one of the awesomest lines ever, from "The Sheriff of Nugget Gulch."

That's just sublime. I think "goofy" doesn't necessarily connote "stupid," per se, so much as it does "in a completely different mental realm," and the character works best when that's acknowledged.

Anyway, Pete, like Elmer Gantry, was drunk. I'm a bit surprised you could portray that in a Disney thing ("Bubbleweight Champ" merely depicts thinly-veiled drunkenness, so that's okay).

In any case, Mickey escapes, and there's a pretty good, nicely kinetic fight sequence, that features some pretty impressive violence:

WHAM!, indeed. So, the day is saved and Pete is sent packing.

This is more or less the same as a bit in "The Mail Pilot," though that just involved some random soldier.

And Einmug, mercifully, does not give the US eternal hegemony over the globe. Good on you, doc! You've got your head on straight.

Well, "most amazing" would be pushing it, but I do find I like this more after writing about it. I guess my main thing is that Pete doesn't work too well for me here, and I kinda wanted the island to serve as a bit more than just the backdrop for a fight sequence. But! That's okay. It still works on its own terms, and there's just something about these old adventure serials that really speaks to me, and if they involve Disney characters? So much the better.



Blogger Christopher said...

My favorite line: "And if he does not use his parachute, it is his fault– not mine!"

April 7, 2011 at 1:02 AM  
Blogger ramapith said...

"Oh, Mickey--I admire your boundless optimism and faith in humanity, I really do; but [your idea] is such a horrific one, for oh-so-many reasons..."

Maybe that's why Dr. Einmug puts Mickey in his place just two panels later. Long story short: Einmug doesn't share Mickey's faith in humanity, is entirely open about saying so, and Gottfredson seems to be trying to portray Einmug's POV as the more realistic one.

By not mentioning Einmug's classy putdown of Mickey, Geoff, you sort of make it sound like Gottfredson implicitly endorses naive optimism right up until the end twist. I do think Gottfredson did a better job of storytelling than that... essentially, he's out to teach our hero a thing or two, while at the same time keeping him sympathetic—a difficult task.

April 7, 2011 at 2:42 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Yeah, I agree with you, and I probably was slightly naive about authorial intent, although I think it's left a little up-in-the-air. Still, certainly not a debate you would see today, and now I'm bracing for the examples that will prove me WRONG WRONG WRONG.

April 7, 2011 at 2:47 AM  
Anonymous Ryan Wynns said...

Haven't read this story in years. As I grew up, it was awkward to find that duck and mouse comics that I'd thought I'd loved didn't look the same to me at, say, the age of 15 as they had a few years earlier. I was struck by what I saw as cracks and flaws on the surface, like the curtain had been pulled aside to reveal the disillusioning true nature of the Wizard. The comics didn't speak to where I was at that point in my life, and seemed too silly. Eventually, with what I'd like to think of as maturation, I found myself able to appreciate them anew, with an adjusted, more balanced general outlook.

The reason I go into all this is because, as I said, haven't read this one in possibly 15 years or more ... and, gee, GeoX, you've thoroughly tarnished my idealized memories of it! ;)

I was thinking something along the lines of what David said: Einmug's worldview is articulated too consistently throughout the story -- and vindicated by the conclusion, at least in terms of the narrative's trajectory (I mean, saying, "See, that comedic cartoon thug villain wanted that sci-fi super-weapon!" as an argument for nuclear disarmament could use some fleshing out...) -- that I can't really see Gottfredson as speaking through Mickey. And, go easy on Mickey -- his optimism and faith in "[his] country" is cute! (I will say that it's really eerie to think that this preceded certain events of World War II by several years...)

(Also, notice that Mickey said "My country", not "the U.S."? Mickey, like Donald, in his own way, is an Everyman of sorts, and each of their respective locales have generic (I mean, besides, you know, the money bin!) "Anytown...could be YOUR town!" qualities. This, I suspect, has something to do with why the same duck and mouse stories work for both American and European audiences, whether they originate from either continent ... and I'm sure David could elaborate greatly on this. Though, I'm probably taking more for granted than I realize -- I'm sure they look pretty Western to non-Westerners. Well, hence the American-European thing.)

I think "The Mail Pilot"'s higher than "Sky Island" on my favorites list, too (though both are near the top). (GeoX, please don't review "The Mail Pilot" and disillusion me there, too! No, just kidding, I'd love to see your take on it! ;) ) I've always wondered if "The Mail Pilot" was THE source of Tale Spin's use of the term "air pirates" and the idea for the Iron Vulture.


April 7, 2011 at 9:30 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Good comments. I don't think it's inexcusable to use Pete as an exemplar of the sort of person who would want to use nuclear power for evil, even if it does contain a bit of standard-issue cultural paranoia.

Re Mickey as everymouse: on the one hand, sure, absolutely; on the other, he's pretty clearly the *American* everymouse--just look at "Monarch of Medioka," f'ristance, in which it's clearly simple Americanism versus shadowy foreign intrigue (not that the story is exactly an indictment of foreign cultures, but the dichotomy is clear). I find it endlessly fascinating that these characters who are so firmly grounded in American culture are now largely perpetuated by Europeans.

Anyway, don't be surprised to see the occasional mouse story here; I mean, now that I've popped my mouse cherry (and I sincerely apologize for the horrifying nature of that metaphor), there's no reason not to, though the focus will remain ducky.

April 7, 2011 at 7:25 PM  
Blogger Chris Barat said...


Excellent, though-provoking comments. I do think that Einmug's realistic appraisal of the potential evil to which his inventions could be put smacks more of a realization of the nature of "original sin" than anything else. Mickey could have been from Erehwon and Einmug's worries would have been every bit as justified. Ryan made much the same point in his comments.

Note also that this story originally appeared in the late 30's, when international aggression was clearly on the move (e.g. foreign intervention in the Spanish Civil War). Mickey's attitude that "just give US this power and we can take care of things" could be said to have been born of frustration with what was going on in the wider world.

BTW, I'd love to see you discuss "Monarch of Medioka" at some point.

April 9, 2011 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

As David knows, I wasn't too impressed with "Medioka" the first time I read it, but now that I'm more attuned with mouse-type stuff, it may well be worth a re-reading and reappraisal.

April 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

…and very interesting comments re this question of responsibility. That probably deserves a post in itself.

April 9, 2011 at 1:29 PM  

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