The quest for truth permeates much of the world’s literature, from the Grail romances of the Middle Ages, through the early picaresque novels to the moral fables of the world’s great religions. All use a physical journey to symbolise a spiritual quest — a quest for truth. Both the modern adventure story and the detective story are descendants of these romances and fables although the detective story marks itself off by internalising the quest for truth, transforming the physical journey into an intellectual one.
Much of the writing going on in these popular genres, however, takes place in the series format where the writer is required to produce further adventures every month or week. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that, on occasion, an adventure series ventures over into the allied realm of detective fiction.
Usually these stories are not very good — emphasising the writer’s unfamiliarity with the form — but this is not always the case. At least two such ‘occasional’ detectives, Mickey Mouse and The Spirit are well worth seeking out. Both are comic strips. Both appeared, for the most part, in the first-half of the twentieth century. And both have been reprinted in more permanent form.
First Mickey Mouse. This is not the megastar corporate symbol Mickey Mouse of the modern day. Back in the 1930s, Mickey Mouse was a scrappy little fighter, a quick and calm thinker and the very model of slippery grace under pressure — a genuine candidate for the worthy label of larrikin. His incarnation as a daily comic strip began on January 13, 1930 and was initially produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Disney’s senior animator. Floyd Gottfredson took over on May 5, 1930 and was still pencilling the daily strip on his retirement in 1975. He also wrote the strip until 1932 and plotted and co-ordinated the serials until 1943, all through the landmark years of high adventure.
Gottfredson, a fan of Horatio Alger, played down the humour of the strip — though it never completely vanished — and concentrated on the possibilities for adventure the strip’s basic premise allowed. With a flair for creating mystery, a talent for constructing sequences of tension and suspense and an almost complete mastery of the daily comic strip as a form, Gottfredson honed Mickey Mouse until it became one of the best adventure strips in a time celebrated for the quality of its adventure series.
Under Gottfredson Mickey caught cattle rustlers out west, thwarted mad dreams of world domination, discovered buried treasure and genie bearing lamps and became a first class detective. Many of the early stories featured in the strip contained elements of mystery and detection but these were essentially flourishes in otherwise action oriented narratives. By 1933, however, Mickey began appearing in serials that could be legitimately referred to as detective stories. The Seven Ghosts, for instance, which was serialised over 16 weeks in 1936, had Mickey running his own detective agency with Goofy and Donald his unlikely assistants.
He reached what many consider his peak as a detective in the 1939 story, Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot. By this time the strip was appearing seven days a week; as a four panel daily Monday through Saturday and as a larger Sunday offering. Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot ran in the daily strip, also over the course of 16 weeks, from the 5th of May to the 9th of September. Originally unnamed, it acquired its title when it was first reprinted in Four-Color #16 in 1941.
Since then it has appeared a number of times in various guises, most notably as part of the very attractive and very expensive art book Mickey Mouse in Color (Another Rainbow, 1988) and most accessibly as Disney Comics Album #14 — Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot (WD Publications, 1990).
The story revolves around a series of bizarre acts of vandalism perpetrated by a mysterious figure known only as the Blot. The Blot has been breaking into shops, homes and department stores and, ignoring the booty lying about him, methodically smashing cameras. Moreover, not just any cameras are being vandalised, only a cheap imported line sold as Little Korker Cameras seem to attract this mysterious burglar’s ire. Further, the Blot appears to have almost mystical powers, apparently being able to appear wherever he wants, whenever he wants. As Police Chief O’Hara puts it, “This… this ‘Phantom’ we’re after can pop up anywhere, at any time!”
The police are baffled and Chief O’Hara calls in Mickey. Unlike most other members of that exclusive club of brilliant amateur sleuths called in by the police to deal with particularly baffling cases, Mickey holds a Special Investigator’s badge, making his enquiries semi-official. The Blot, however, is aware of Mickey’s investigations from the very start. With his seemingly supernatural talent for travelling unobserved he takes the same taxi to police headquarters as Mickey, even following him into O’Hara’s office. The Blot warns Mickey off the investigation but, in true romantic tradition, Mickey refuses to be deterred, even when the Blot captures him and subjects him to some remarkably inventive — in a sadistic sort of way — death traps. The Blot claims his ‘tender heart’ prevents him from simply killing Mickey outright.
By story’s end most of the mystery has been explained away. The vandalised Little Korker cameras are made sensible, the death traps are escaped and the Blot is captured. But not all the truth is told. Most obviously the Blot’s preternatural ability to come and go un-noted remains unexplained. Part of the reason for this was the series format. Things left unsaid in one story can be used as a hook to generate another. But part of the reason is almost certainly conscious design on Gottfredson’s part. The story, written on the edge of war, is full of the creeping paranoia of the times. The hint of the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable, while unusual in the tradition detective story is, here, used with skill and care to put a barbed edge onto the apparently clear and simple.
Mickey went on to other adventures, even to other escapades as a detective, both in the daily strip and, when that had turned him into the middle-class wimp we know today (Gottfredson once said, “it’s as if our Mickey has had a lobectomy”), in the magazines such as Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. In the latter especially Bill Wright serialised many a strange tale through the late 1940s and 1950s. Many of these were old Gottfredson stories redrawn but some made up a run of entertaining but otherwise unremarkable original detective stories.
Mickey Mouse survives to this day, albeit in diminished form, his days as a detective and adventurer coming largely to an end 40 years ago.
Another whose swashbuckling days ended two generations back but who has not been diminished by shabby appearances in other guises is Will Eisner’s adventuring detective, The Spirit.
The Spirit first appeared on the 2nd of June, 1940 as the lead feature in an experimental 16-page comic book insert slipped, initially, into about 20 American Sunday papers. The Spirit occupied the first seven pages with two other features — Lady Luck and Mr Mystic — filling out the signature. Because the first page of the Spirit story also served as the cover the supplement came to be known as ‘the Spirit section.’ This unusual format meant The Spirit’s adventures were short, sharp self-contained stories rather than the long sprawling narratives characteristic of the daily adventure strip. Even when Eisner later began doing multi-part stories, he made each weekly part largely self-contained.
WIll Eisner, creator, writer and artist for The Spirit, was also the creator of the insert package in which The Spirit appeared, this venture being just one of the many varied and truly entrepreneurial ways in which the Manhattan-born artist sought to expand the range of markets open to him. Out of print for many years the entire run was reprinted in a monthly black and white comic book by Kitchen Sink Press. The same publisher also produced several collections of Spirit stories in colour, as they originally appeared [2000 addendum: Kitchen Sink Press ceased operations mid-1999 –BF].
The first Spirit story was straightforward enough. Danny Colt, criminologist and private detective, apparently dies, in suitably melodramatic circumstances, at the hands of the criminal scientist, Dr Cobra. Shortly thereafter a mysterious, shadowy figure helps the police track down and (after a fire-fight) kill Dr Cobra.
The mysterious figure is, of course, Danny Colt. Knocked into catatonia and buried alive he has ‘returned’ from the grave and now decides to remain ‘dead’ to fight crime as a ‘Spirit,’ thus joining the growing ranks of mysterious crime fighters of the day (eg The Shadow, The Spider and The Batman).
The Spirit remained a largely unremarkable example of the type throughout the war years, during which time Eisner was with the US Army drawing instructional material. After the war he returned to the strip “bristling with ideas” and, with a talent and skill sharpened by four years of drawing educational comics, transformed The Spirit into one of the greatest detective series ever to appear, in any media.
Eisner described his conception of The Spirt as “a satirical combination of Zorro and Philip Marlowe” and although accurate enough it only just begins to describe the range and depth of the strip. Eisner was essentially interested in telling stories about ordinary people, in highlighting both the humorous and the tragic, the sentimental and the heroic aspects of his character. This meant that many Spirit stories are not about The Spirit at all — in some the character makes only the most fleeting of token appearances.
Eisner sought — and to a large extent succeeded — to portray the world he perceived around him in much the same way as Charles Dickens portrayed his world just over half-a-century earlier. Like Dickens, Eisner had a real flair for creating characters with unusual yet very apt names — Sparrow Fallon, Humid J Millibar and the Halloween witch, Hazel Macbeth — and a concern with depicting elements of the world — rain, fog, flames and so on — in a way almost palpably real.
In the strip’s 12-year run The Spirit stared, featured and walked on in a seemingly endless series of fine stories. Ranging from The Big Sneeze Caper (February 6, 1949), a wonderful spoof on crime jargon to The Perfect Crime (January 5, 1947), a harrowing portrayl of psychological breakdown. Moving on further we find the series of Christmas stories, in which a different ‘spirit’ solves the crime and the regular Spirit’s constant affrays with beautiful, capable and deadly women (who had names like Wild Rice, P’Gell, Thorne Strand, Sand Saref and Wisp O’Smoke). Through all of these Will Eisner took his character as far and as deep as any detective the genre has seen.
For all their differences there is an essential feature these two ‘occasional’ detectives share which goes far beyond the coincidental commonalities of era and (series) format. That feature is humour. In Mickey Mouse the humour was broad and often slapstick, well in keeping with the rough and tumble, supremely confident character Mickey was. In The Spirit the humour, although occasionally stooping to the pratfall, was largely cerebral in appeal, concentrating on the wry observation and the deadly barb, rather akin to the side-swiping humour of so many Cary Grant movies. This shared trait is now rather rare in the detective genre, it being rather preoccupied these days with the gritty and grimy or the sinister and shadowy. When humour is used it is to spoof the whole genre (eg the Pink Panther movies or The Singing Detective) rather than enliven the tone.
In days past, however, the detective story was noted for sharp wit, tight and funny banter and often exceptionally clever writing. In Mickey Mouse and The Spirit those who have tired of the old clever detective fiction through too much re-reading have something ‘new’ and just as exciting to look forward to.