The Disney icon went from animation to comics, black-and-white to colour, logo to merchandise to theme park mascot, until it quietly faded away
A mouse, dressed like the aviator Charles Lindbergh, is building a plane, and dreaming of being a great pilot. He takes his girlfriend with him on his first flight. But then comes obstacle after obstacle — his girlfriend is swept out and away, a storm approaches; the mouse ends up on a desert island, where natives decide to cook him alive. Mickey fights them all off single-handedly.
That was the first-ever Mickey Mouse comic strip, printed in The New York Daily Mirror 90 years ago, on January 13, 1930. Even though ‘Steamboat Willie’, the first animated film on the mouse, catapulted Walt Disney to fame in 1928, it was the comic strip that triggered international fame for Mickey Mouse—primarily because of the very limited reach of films.
The comic strip also kicked off demand for merchandise and marked the first major success for the animator Walt Disney, and his eponymous company. By 1931, the comic was already being published in 40 newspapers across the US and about 20 other countries.
And Mickey was a mouse for his era. By this time, with the US stock market in freefall, unemployment booming and America’s image before the world shaken, Mickey quickly became — and was moulded to be — a Depression-era hero. An upbeat EveryMouse who cheerfully faced whatever odds came his way, and as cheerfully conquered adversity.
Over time, he would fight pirates and Nazis, solve mysteries, go on adventures. His girlfriend, Minnie Mouse, played a growing role; as did his arch-nemesis, a giant cat named Pete.
In fighting his own and his girlfriend’s battles, he would sometimes be despondent, or hopeless, but it never lasted long. He always saw the upside, bounced back and found a way to go on.
By 1933, Mickey had become Disney’s best travelling salesman — and the merchandising had begun. The mouse saved the Ingersoll-Waterbury watch company during the Depression. Ingersoll bounced back from near-bankruptcy at the same time that Walt Disney was struggling to make profits, and they did this by working together to create Mickey Mouse clocks. They’re still making them, under the Ingersoll-Timex brand, for use in nursery rooms around the world.
With the clocks, the floodgates were opened and next came push-button Mickey telephones, and stationery; kids’ apparel, bags, water bottles, tiffin boxes… anything a child might use, had to have Mickey on it. In India, by the 1980s, nearly every kid either yearned for or delighted in a Mickey Mouse cake at their birthday party.
At its peak, the Mickey Mouse phenomenon was powering movies, merchandise and a first-of-its-kind theme park — Disney World, opened in Florida in 1971.
Then came an early boom in animation. Children had more to choose from, including other Disney characters like Donald, Daffy, and Goofy. By 1983, Mickey Mouse movies felt it necessary to mix in some of these characters to stay relevant.
As Mickey sales and popularity continued their decline in the US, the comic department of Mickey Mouse was shut in 1990.
In 1995, it became official. The Mickey Mouse ears were dropped from the Disney logo, in favour of the Disney castle. The company, which had partnered with Pixar by this time, wanted their brand to evoke a sense of imagination and fantasy. And Mickey wasn’t it.
Then came the big boom in computer graphics imagery, 3D animation, and the animation box office. Disney stepped up, expanded. It bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, adding ‘Spider-Man’, ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Star Wars’ and now ‘Coco’, ‘Moana’ and ‘Frozen’ to their catalogue.
Mickey & Friends slipped quietly out of the wings. They still make Disney money in merchandising. In 2018, Mickey and gang together brought in $3 billion in merchandise sales. But ‘Toy Story 3’ alone made nearly $10 billion in merchandise sales in the same year. Ninety years later, Mickey is still around — largely as a throwback and an instantly recognisable element of nostalgia.
Last March, Gucci launched a 3D-printed handbag with Mickey Mouse face, priced at about $4,500 (`3.2 lakh). In December 2018, Apple launched Bluetooth headphones featuring the cartoon print. There’s also Mickey face screensaver option in the Apple Watch.
“Mickey Mouse is an interesting case of how merchandise can hurt a comic character,” says illustrator and comic creator, Abhijeet Kini. “Children today know the Mouse as a cartoon on their stationery or apparel, but don’t know the wonderful stories the Mouse narrated.”
Disney has also recently collaborated with beauty and skincare brands such as MAC, L’Oreal, Maybelline, The Face Shop and Innisfree to have the character on packaging.
But the world has changed, and a white mouse with nothing much to say, well, it’s not that cute anymore.