Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Disney Comics Story (1990-1993): Ready to Launch

The Striking Cover Art For Mickey Mouse Advenures #1 (April 1990)
Pencil Art by Todd Kurosawa, Inked by Gary Martin
© Disney

We concluded our Prologue with the Walt Disney Company's revocation of the formal comic book license from Another Rainbow Publishing's Gladstone imprint at the close of 1989. Shifting cultural influence and an surprisingly aggressive speculation market had re-invigorated the comic book industryin a likewise parallel, The Walt Disney Company was experiencing a renewed interest in their library of animated characters, both new and old. These events sparked the notion in Burbank that new comic books published in-house would logically trump the popularity of the Gladstone books, whose cornerstone was firmly placed in classic comic material of the 1930s through the 1960s. By self-publishing their own comic books, the Walt Disney Company would:

  • no longer have to share the profits with an outside licensee;
  • depict their I.P. as they deemed appropriate, dispensing with creative and editorial battles over classic vs. contemporary content; and
  • gain the freedom to promote new projects and franchises to the comics page, without having to negotiate individual licenses per project

Corporate Expansion in a New Decade

Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures Was Restored As a Strong Presence in Hollywood By the Start of the 1990s
Image Courtesy of Trend Wallpaper
© Disney

The road to the 1990s was paved with gold as far as the Walt Disney Company was concerned: domestic theme parks were well-attended and expanding, as new resorts were being developed around the world. A strong film slate during the second half of the 1980s kept Studio coffers healthy via their new Touchstone Pictures label, with hits such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Good Morning Vietnam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Dead Poets Society.

 1989's The Little Mermaid Was an Immediate Success, and Re-established the Animation Division's Reputation For Feature Animated Fare
© Disney 

Walt Disney Pictures was bouncing back as well: 1989 brought box office gold with the family comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, followed by the wildly successful animated feature The Little Mermaidthe animated film that placed Disney animation back on top of the heap.

Walt Disney Domestic Television Had Developed an Impressive Lineup of Quality Programming During the 1980s
© Disney 

The television market was sewn up too, with no less than a 24-hour premium cable channel, prime-time network hits like The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and original syndicated animated series such as DuckTales and Chip n' Dale: Rescue Rangers, with each outlet seeded with significant plans for rapid growth.

The media empire was back on the riseas its prominence and projects grew more ambitious, so did the departments within.

The Success of the Late 1980s Had It's Price: The Once-Familial Atmosphere of The Walt Disney Studios Had Grown Formal and Corporate
Image © & Courtesy of

Like in so many periods of corporate growth, the arrival of new management sometimes arrived in unwanted forms to existing and new departments: eager, but less than creative executives who knew profits had to justify their salaries. With awakened success, more of this management style permeated the companythe price to pay was that the familial, campus-like atmosphere of the Walt Disney Studio was dissipating into the ether of memory.

Merchandising, Merchandising, Merchandising!

 Studio Co-Founder Roy O. Disney Poses Amongst a Plethora of Official Disney-Licensed Merchandise, Circa 1953
© LIFE Magazine Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt
Photo Courtesy of Viewliner Ltd.

For decades, licensing had always been the most profitable arm of the company, even during the leanest years. Classic properties like Cinderella and Peter Pan and new properties like The Little Mermaid covered their production costs many thousands of times over in ticket sales, home entertainment, soundtrack recordings and all manners of related merchandise produced by approved licensees.

By 1990, the licensing division was known as Walt Disney Consumer Productsthis subsidiary had grown exponentially due to the company's new prosperity. In fact, the consumer products division had expanded so much that sub-subsidiaries needed to be established to manage particular lines of merchandise. Products such as preschool toys, collectibles, soft goods, timepieces, and (of course) the publishing of books and magazines.

A Sampling of Recent Titles From Disney Editions
Image Courtesy of Steven Miller
© Disney

Thus, several imprints for diverse publishing endeavors were formed (later carried under the banner of The Disney Publishing Group): Disney Editions, Disney Press, Hyperion Books, and Hyperion Books for Children. A fifth imprint, W.D. Publications, Inc., was formed especially for Disney's self-published comic book line, set to launch a month after the final issues of the original Gladstone comics hit the stands.

Setting Up Shop

In 1988, a full year prior to the termination of the Another Rainbow/Gladstone license, the plan had already been underway to bring the Disney comic books in-house. The proposal was spearheaded by Michael Lynton, the successful and influential marketing head of Walt Disney Consumer Products. Lynton reached out to Jim Shooter, the somewhat controversial Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics from 1978 to 1987, and soon-to-be founder/publisher of the Valiant Comics line of books in 1989.

Former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter Nearly Held The Same Title For the Disney Comics Line
Image © & Courtesy of Jim Shooter

Shooter was selected by Lynton as a consultant, and as the first choice to be Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Disney's new comic book line. This grand opportunity was torpedoed by Lynton's due diligence: when references were requested, prominent comics professionals described Shooter as a "monster" and claimed they, nor other creators would ever want to work for the company with Jim Shooter at the helm. 

The duties became divided: in a questionable move, the title of Publisher was awarded to Randy Achee, who held no comic book publishing experience (his background was in the publishing of controlled circulation magazines and the sales of ad space within.) The more logical appointment was that of Len Wein as Editor-in-Chief. Wein was a prominent writer and editor for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Project founder Michael Lynton became the Executive Editor.

Disney Comics Founders Pose With Gladstone and International Walt Disney Comic Books (October 1989)
Pictured, Left to Right:
Len Wein (Editor-in-Chief), Sally Prendergast (Marketing Manager),
Randy Achee (Publisher), Bob Foster (Managing Editor), David Seidman (Editor)
Below Center: Michael Lynton (Executive Editor)
Photo © & Courtesy of Bob Foster

With the polarizing appointments of the less-qualified Achee as Publisher and the industry-experienced Wein as Editor-in-Chief, it was clear the aforementioned unwanted executive interference was already present at W.D. Publications, Inc. More names joined the roster, thankfully closer related to the field of comic books and animation: Bob Foster became Managing Editor, David Seidman and David Cody Weiss as Editors, and Cris Palomino as their "peerless one-woman Production Department."

Floyd Norman (Left) Worked on Animation Storyboards During Walt's Time, and Did Significant Work Re-Establishing the Mickey Mouse Comic Strip for King Features Syndicate
Photo © Disney

Since comic books had become big business, the new publishing effort was to be touted as a major force entering the marketplace from the outset. Longtime Disney artist and writer Floyd Norman was working within the publishing department at that time, and recalled the initial crunch to prepare for the aggressive launch of eight monthly, ongoing titles:
"Big shot executives from New York took charge of the prestige units but our comic book company was given little regard. I honestly believed they would have given us more respect if we had been publishing sleazy girlie magazines. I do not joke when I say our editors did a lot of their early work on packing boxes. Disney had given the artists and editors a firm deadline on getting the books to press yet there was no furniture available. In spite of these challenges, Disney entered into the world of comic book publishing with their usual snotty attitude. The company not only paid the lowest page rates but refused to allow the artists to retain their original art. Word of Disney's arrogance spread throughout the comics industry and before long many were eagerly anticipating our doom."
– Floyd Norman, February 2013

The First Publications? P-P-P-Please!

Surprisingly, the initial release from W.D. Publications, Inc. was not a comic book proper, but an slick, oversized, prestige format book under the banner of A Disney Movie Book, employing still frames of actual animation as comic panels, with dialogue balloons added. The first Disney Movie Book was an adaption of the Roger Rabbit short subject Tummy Trouble, which preceded the hit Walt Disney Pictures release Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in June of 1989.

Intended as an Ongoing Series, Disney Movie Book #1: Roger Rabbit in Tummy Trouble Was The First Book Published By W.D. Publications, Inc. in Early 1990
© Disney/Amblin

From a marketing standpoint, it made perfect sense: Roger Rabbit was a hot property, with Tummy Trouble as the first in a series of theatrical shorts. Two more shorts, Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix-Up (1993) were produced, but never adapted into future Disney Movie Books. This first volume sold well but failed to break even, leaving Tummy Trouble as the lone entry in an attractive, abandoned series. Tummy Trouble even included the premium of a fold-out movie poster—a scheduled Roller Coaster Rabbit adaption (presumably Disney Movie Book #2) was intended to include a flexible, vinyl record containing the wild musical score for that short.

 A Tie-In to the Upcoming Walt Disney Pictures Release, DIck Tracy: Big City Blues Was a Prestige Format Graphic Novel With Bold Art By Kyle Baker
© Disney/TMS News and Features, LLC

The next release in February 1990 was a touch closer to a traditionally-sized comic book. The original graphic novel Dick Tracy: Big City Blues was the first of a three-issue prequel and comics adaption of the upcoming Walt Disney Pictures release Dick Tracy. The prequel mini-series was written by John Francis Moore, with the film adaption written by Len Wein. All three books were dynamically drawn by Kyle Baker, who took the art in a more dynamic, independent comic book style (rather than emulating the comic strip style of Tracy creator Chester Gould and his successors.)

But these were not "official" releases under the Disney Comics imprint. Those titles were in preparation, and about to show up in a matter of weeks: featuring new content, bright white pages and vibrant computer coloring to take place of the traditional newsprint and four-color presentation that had long been the norm for traditional Walt Disney comic books...

April 1990: Disney Comics Launch

April 1990: The First Month of Disney Comics, Featuring (Mostly) #1 Issues
© Disney/Amblin

"We are going to produce an expanded line of comics, to broaden the audience beyond the collector's market. We'll be going with both updated and brand-new titles. We're looking for the Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson of the future."
Publisher Randy Achee to Disney Magazine, Spring 1990

The rigors of setting up, hiring staff, commissioning artists and overcoming stumbling blocks behind them, the Disney Comics line launched on schedule in April of 1990, with an ambitious slate of eight monthly, ongoing titles featuring classic Walt Disney characters and newer Disney properties of that era. The eight titles at launch were:
  • Mickey Mouse Adventures
  • Donald Duck Adventures
  • Goofy Adventures
  • Uncle Scrooge
  • Walt Disney's Comics and Stories
  • Roger Rabbit
  • DuckTales
  • Chip n' Dale: Rescue Rangers
With the exception of the long-running Uncle Scrooge (issue #243) and the even longer-running flagship title Walt Disney's Comics and Stories (issue #548), all the Disney-published titles reset their issue numbering to #1, for both consistency's sake and to capitalize on the collector's market.

 Editor-in-Chief Len Wein Welcomes Readers to Disney Comics in The Inaugural Edition of His Monthly Between The Lines Column
(Click to Enlarge)
© Disney 

The traditional Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy books officially added "Adventures" to their titles, justifying the issue #1 designation. Justified, except that Gladstone had already been publishing a Donald Duck Adventures title in addition to the standard Donald Duck bookhowever, Disney Comics chose to start again at issue #1. The same numbering reset was done for the DuckTales comic book previously published by Gladstone, which has caused confusion for collectors and completists ever since! (Read my post on the ongoing confusion this caused HERE)

There Was a Desire to Jump-Start New Collectors Via a Box Set of Disney Comics #1 Issues Through The Disney Store and Catalog
Image © & Courtesy Funmerica Comics

To reach out beyond the collectors' market, a special edition box set of the six #1 issues was offered via The Disney Store and its companion mail catalog: the comics were shrink-wrapped and accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity. The set retailed around $75, which may have been a touch too highthe six books were not unique or variants, simply the direct market editions sold at comic books stores (no UPC bar code) that could still be purchased for $1.50 apiece.

Even corner identifiers and logo treatments were conformed to show a unification and identification that these books were the stamp of a new regime. The initial Disney Comics output featured brand new commissioned material, plus European stories that had never been printed in the U.S., as well as classic content from the Western Publishing era to round out the books (and satisfy former Gladstone readers).

In a Cheeky, Satirical Format Similar to MAD Magazine, Goofy Adventures Placed The Goof Throughout History and in The Guises of Legendary Figures
Panel Detail From Goofy Adventures #4, (July 1990)
Art by Rick Hoover
© Disney

Of the new offerings in particular, Mickey Mouse Adventures and Goofy Adventures boasted some impressive new content by Stephen DeStefano and Rick Hoover that strengthened and re-invigorated those characters in comics form. The new Mickey Mouse Adventures material had several references to Floyd Gottfredson comic strip serials, as well as nods to the later years of Western Publishing, while being fully unique and entertaining in their own right. Goofy Adventures contained some of the outright funniest new content, not keeping the Goof chained to any one continuity, but allowing him to step into history and fictiontaking a typically goofy approach to the roles of figures like Genghis Khan in one issue, Dr. Frankenstein in the next.

Early Pre-Order Numbers for the Roger Rabbit Title From Disney Comics Were Promising, Even With New Detective Rick Flint Standing in for Eddie Valiant
Panel Detail From Roger Rabbit #4 (July 1990)
Art by Cosme Quartieri, Robert Bat, Ruben Torreiro, and Carlos Valenti
© Disney/Amblin

As newer titles go, initial orders for the new comics showed that the Roger Rabbit title was the strongest contender in the new line. The comic took place after the events of film, with a caveat that would impact the continuity of the stories: the likeness rights of actor Bob Hoskins as Detective Eddie Valiant were not in place for the series beyond issue #1. This led to Valiant leading a new human detective character, Rick Flint to pair with Roger for new capers in 1940s Los Angeles. The format wisely contained a live-action and 'toon adventure, with a back-up story set in the cartoon district of Toontown.

Like Many Contemporary Publishers, Comics Based on TV Series DuckTales and Chip N' Dale: Rescue Rangers Ran Storylines Across Multiple Issues During Their Disney Comics Run
Panel Detail From Chip N' Dale: Rescue Rangers #3 (June 1990)
Art By Hector Savedra and Nestor Torreiro
© Disney

Most kids who came home from school at that time quickly settled in to watch a full hour of syndicated Disney animation with new episodes of DuckTales and its companion Chip N' Dale: Rescue Rangers, which always garnered high ratings in their local time slots. It was a natural to bring both into the Disney Comics fold as individual titles. In a new format for domestic Walt Disney comic books, both titles carried plots across multiple issues, a prolonged method of sales via storytelling that DC, Marvel, and others had found success in. This was just prior to the premiere of the Fall 1990 two-hour programming block known as The Disney Afternoon... and Disney Comics already had plenty of plans for that, too.

Early Efforts Were Made To Satisfy Fans of Classic Walt Disney Comics Content Via the Disney Comics Album Series, to Varying Degrees of Success
© Disney

The pages of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, Donald Duck Adventures and Uncle Scrooge held closest ties to the Gladstone content: fan favorites William Van Horn, Don Rosa and Carl Barks could be found there, albeit with some new twists. The format of  the squarebound Gladstone Comic Albums remained with the numbering also reset and re-christened as Disney Comics Albums, which served to further cater to the classic comics collector. Unfortunately, the contents were often uneven, and thoughtful/contextual commentary from Editors such as Geoffrey Blum were sorely missed.

The First Prestige Format Graphic Novel Under the Disney Comics Imprint Was the 1968 Comics Adaption of The Jungle Book by Carl Fallberg and Al Hubbard
© Disney

As was the marketing team's intent, comics adaptions of classic and new Disney films were planned to be published in both standard and graphic novel formats to coincide with the release of the films in theaters or VHS. By the Summer of 1990, the first graphic novel under the Disney Comics imprint was a dual prestige format and traditional softcover reprint of the 1968 Gold Key comic book adaption of Walt Disney's The Jungle Book, drawn by Al Hubbard and written by Carl Fallberg. Many brand-new film adaptions were already in various stages of development.

Gateway to "The Disney Explosion"

There was no starting small, and the first few months were the gateway to what would be dubbed "The Disney Explosion" when MUCH MORE than these eight monthly titles would become available: annual specials, graphic novels film tie-ins and and several other projects were in stages of development. Next time, we'll look at what those encompassed.

Detail Art From June 1990 Disney Comics "Reach For The Stars" Ad
© Disney

Click the title below to continue to the next installment:

The Disney Comics Story (1990-1993):
The Disney EXPLOSION!!!


Joe Torcivia's Round-Up of the First Month of Disney Comics

I'd also like to give a BIG thank you to Joe Torcivia, who shined a spotlight on our Prologue a few weeks ago at his own blog The Issue At Handnot just by way of links, but an ENTIRE POST titled Dan Does Disney Comics!

The Gracious Joe Torcivia Bestows the Highest Junior Woodchuck Honor
Praise & Screen Grab Courtesy of The Issue At Hand

Joe's got some material relevant to our next few chapters in the Disney Comics story which we'll be linking to, and I can't say enough good things about his own posts... if you enjoy hanging around here, you'll certainly like spending time over at TIAH.


scarecrow33 said...

Once again, Dan, you've provided a fascinating backstage glimpse at the formation of Disney Comics. What a launch it was! Eight regular monthly titles, comic albums, movie tie-ins, etc. It looked like Disney had every intention of satisfying even the most critical and discriminating comics buyer. The early months of the Disney Comics were sheer delight. And I'm glad you referenced the Roger Rabbit title, which was extraordinarily good and was a popular subject of conversation among comics collectors of the time. While ostensibly aimed at kids, it had a lot of "adult" humor and in-jokes, in the manner of the film that inspired the comic book. (There was a little bit of concern that Jessica seemed to be drawn with only one eye in any given panel.)

Printed on high-quality paper with vibrant colors, the Disney Comics seemed to be setting a standard, and showing that they were going to treat us fans as responsibly as the folks at Gladstone had done. Every month there seemed to be something new to get excited about. Reprints of classic material, plus a wealth of new stories. So OK, I thought, more power to Disney with their own comics line!

Yes, that was how it started. Looking back on it now, this looks like the perfect setup for a Shakespearian tragedy. Caesar's popularity is assured; he is at the pinnacle of his success. While it was Goofy who was associated with historical figures during this era, the Caesar figure was really Mickey, at least as far as my analogy goes. Little did anyone know that the Mouse's demise was soon to come. Et tu, Disney?

Joe Torcivia said...


Will you EVER cease to amaze?!

I hope the answer to that question is NO!

Thanks for the all-too-kind words on my humble Blogging efforts, and consider them reflected back a hundred-fold!

I’ll have my linking post to this up by Monday morning! Amazing work, my friend!

Dan said...

Hey, Scarecrow:

Thanks for so much excellent feedback! It's clear you were there every month watching things unfold and grow month by month at the beginning.

I thought the Roger Rabbit titles (TITLES? more on that in the next installment, folks) were quite good, considering the boundaries they had to work with—no licensed characters from other Studios and just a smattering of Hoskins as Eddie Valiant. The comic probably would have resembled the "Roger Rabbit" TV series they couldn't get off the ground because of extended rights issues w/ Amblin, etc.

Caesar is a very apt analogy to the story of the Disney Comics line! I don't intend to portray any one side in a bad light here, but the recent anecdote by Floyd Norman certainly lines up with your comparison to Caesar's reign!

— Dan

Dan said...


Thanks for the heaping praise, sir and thank YOU so much for the attention you've brought to this and other related posts around here!

One thing I thought interesting when looking back at this time period is not only the comics that were never produced, but the comics that were never even conceived... the Studio had produced Jim Varney's films like "Ernest Goes to Camp," a character that was EVERYWHERE during that time, not to mention Disney's initial purchase of Jim Henson's Muppets, and so on.

Sure, a "Golden Girls" comic might not have been a big seller with five print runs in 1990: but it would sell like CRAZY today. Hmm. I may have to either make some calls or do a blog post on this subject, someday... *

Thanks again, for all ya do and keep it up!

— Dan

* "Golden Girls" comic books ©2013 Dan Cunningham

Dana Gabbard said...

As someone who had a front row seat to this history this post pretty well tracks with the buzz we fans heard. Love that comic strip publicity photo! The hubris of Disney in thinking they could on the cheap waltz in and become a peer of Marvel and DC stuns. Hope you mention roadkill like Touchmark (which at one Comic Con was promoted with flyers for Sebastian O. by Grant Morrison) or those European properties at one Con they previewed in a slide show as among upcoming offerings.

Onward to the Implosion! (a phrase I coined based on the legendary DC implosion of the 70s).

Dan said...

Thanks, as always, Dana! Thanks, too for the link to the Touchmark flyer, which will certainly be utilized... I'll be sure to quote your comment.

The Touchmark and Hollywood imprints (plus more) will play a role in the next installment, posting sometime in January. It'll focus on the ferocious push towards the Disney Comics publishing expansion and the projects that never were (it's going to be extremely image-heavy.)

The installment following that will indeed take us into the "implosion" again, with due credit to you! There's been so much positive response to this series and I REALLY appreciate the assistance and feedback from everyone.

– Dan

Dbenson said...

If you can find it -- I think it was "Spy" Magazine -- Kyle Baker wrote a funny piece about the Dick Tracy project, specifically Warren Beatty's people needing to approve how he was drawn.

Dana Gabbard said...

WOW! I look forward to this peek at the downward spiral. I remember the last Comic Con panel on Disney comics was a grab-bag with some of the folks doing comic books (maybe from Gemstone?) and some folks doing stuff for Disney Adventure Digest (like Gorilla Gorilla) plus maybe Don Rosa. My impression is at that point the studio still saw the digest as an incubator for properties that could be turned into TV shows, etc. Some of the digest characters also had book collections. Plus Disney Italia's Kylion and W.I.T.C.H were touted in Con giveaways one year and I think a few collections of them issued in the U.S. Joe has a copy I gave him of the giveaway the Disney booth at Con had a few years ago I grabbed a bunch of copies of celebrating the history of Disney comics. It was full color and rather elaborate, for a freebie. Thought it might mark some sort of publishing push (maybe through their youth book publishing division). At this point the Disney comics activity in this country is limited to the Fantagraphics series. Marvel has allegedly said no to doing any comics with Disney properties.

Dan said...


Thanks, I'll see if I can't find that article! It's pretty interesting, and not too surprising considering Beatty's Hollywood clout. I've heard stories of many stars having clauses for final approval in likeness rights negotiations.

Kind of makes ya wonder about the octane level of the martinis Beatty's people slugged down during the lunch when they approved those funky/chunky Dick Tracy movie action figures released that summer?

– Dan

Dan said...

Thanks, Dana!

Yes, I still have quite a bit of ground to cover, the "Explosion" itself is a pretty deep well–Disney Adventures will certainly be covered next time. I think the digest might deserve a few smaller history posts in itself, simply by virtue of the digest's longevity (long outlasting the Disney Comics line *and* The Disney Afternoon.)

The current state of dormant Walt Disney comic books is unfortunate, but Fantagraphics has their Barks and Gottfredson rolling out, as well as the upcoming Don Rosa collection. My educated guess is they'd want to circulate those books before publishing traditional comics with reprints featuring any of that material.

Not quite Carl Barks or Walt Kelly, but Marvel is testing the waters in January with their take on "The Museum of the Weird" the abandoned W.E.D. project by Rolly Crump. So who knows what we might see in 2014?

– Dan