Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Disney Comics Story (1990-1993): Prologue

Disney's Self-Published Comic Books Ran From 1990 to 1993
© Disney

The U.S. comic book boom of the 1980s restored the medium to the mainstream forefront. Once-sagging sales figures due to low circulation and constrictive distribution methods (discussed HERE) were back on the rise. This new attention brought forth publishing of new and resurrected titles during that period—a wide variety, the likes of which had been unavailable for decades.

Within that crop of fresh, four-color entertainment came a re-vamped line of Walt Disney comic book titles. The tale of The Walt Disney Company's stint at self-published comics is about to unfold here as a multi-part series... 

Don't Worry—We'll Get to This Guy Soon
Image Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books
© Disney

...but before we get to ducks and mice, let's have a bit of history to place things in context. In modern-day comics parlance, this post can be considered "Chapter Zero."

Coming of Age 
Comic books had taken a remarkable turn in the public eye by the close of the 20th Century. Legendary cartoonist Will Eisner's desire to elevate the art form was brought to fruition with the 1978 release of his seminal work A Contract With God. The dramatic collection of stories told through sequential art brought the term graphic novel into our lexicon.

Will Eisner's A Contract With God Was the First Widely Recognized Graphic Novel in the United States
Image Courtesy of willeisner.com
© Will Eisner

Exposure of graphic novels as literature was aided largely in part by the success of Art Spigelman's Holocaust memoir Maus, and Frank Miller's contemporary handling of an aging Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns. Selected graphic novels began to show up as The New York Times Best Sellers, and were added to public school reading lists (joining European imports such as Goscinny & Uderzo's Asterix series, and Herge's Tintin.)

Maus Recounted the Horrors of the Holocaust in Comic Strip Format, Casting Animals as Various Races and Nationalities
Interior Art Image Courtesy of  SHS Art Web Gallery
© Art Spiegleman

Something Old, Something New
In mainstream pop culture, a brand-new property captured the imagination of children and teenagers across the United States: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began life as a self-published, independent black and white comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The crazy concept with the even crazier title caught on quickly when the characters were licensed as a highly sought-after line of toys and an immensely popular animated television series beginning in 1987. A quarter-consuming arcade game followed in 1989, with the first of three big-budget feature films slated for release in 1990. The favorable response to these oddball heroes let loose a flood of valuable merchandise and product tie-ins, all of which led back to comic books in the form of collected back issues, spin-offs, and an alternate comic book adaption of the animated series.

Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Directly and Indirectly Helped Birth a New Generation of Comic Book Readers
Image Courtesy of Man-E-Toys
© Viacom International, Inc.

Close to follow was the much-hyped 1989 blockbuster cinematic release of Tim Burton's Batman for Warner Brothers, which placed the gritty world of Gotham City at the forefront of the DC Comics universe. The feature film boasted the inspired and unexpected casting of Michael Keaton in the titular role, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, accompanied by a chart-topping, multi-platinum soundtrack featuring original music by Prince. This cross-demographic appeal couldn't be ignored, and it was impossible to turn a corner during the summer of '89 without seeing the familiar winged logo. Naturally, this led to a profitable wave of bat-branded merchandise, from T-shirts to breakfast cereal to video games, and cyclically, back again to comic books. New and collected Batman and Joker stories from DC Comics were in high demand, in addition to the official Batman movie comics adaption written by Denny O'Neil with lush art by Jerry Ordway.

The Summer of 1989 Was the Summer of Batman: The Hit Feature Film Brought Another New Audience and Former Readers Back to Comic Books
Image Courtesy of Wide Screen World
© DC Comics/Warner Bros.

The Turtle and Bat phenomena were remarkably timed: both properties ignited dual fuses, causing an explosion in the American comic book marketplace. A new generation discovered comic book entertainment via other forms of entertainment media, finding their way to newsstands and the relatively new establishments known as comic book shops that had surfaced in the past decade.

Comic Book Shops Opened Around the Country During the 1980s
Image © and Courtesy of Comics101.com

This surge in popularity benefited lifelong, core fans of classic comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Mentheir commitment rewarded with hardbound collections, expanded content and spin-off titles of favorite characters. But a boost from pop culture movies and television was only half of the reason for the explosion...
The Collector's Market 
While some sought entertainment, an equal share of others came looking to cash in on the "easy money" of soaring prices for vintage and current back issues that the news outlets had begun to exploit. The comic book collector's market was in full swing.

The Comic Book Collector's Boom Helped the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide Expand and Spawned Many Periodicals on Comic Collecting

The speculation boom lured adult consumers who would never otherwise pick up a comic book, and publishers made sure to keep them coming back each week. Some crafty marketing techniques to ensure a single customer's multiple purchases of the same issue included limited print runs, polybagged editions, variants (different cover art on the same issue) and embellished "incentive" covers.

Cover Gag for Bartman #1:
 The Simpsons Have Satirized Everything, Including the Comics Industry's Sales-Drving Technique of Cover Variants and Enhancements
Image Courtesy of Simpson Crazy
© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

New comic book shops quickly opened up across the country to service the new audience that arrived on the comics scene, fueled by the factors above. One thing was clear—comic books were no longer just for kids. They were now taken seriously as:
  • a form of literature,
  • an extension of popular movie and television productions,
  • valuable to the corporations that owned the I.P., and
  • investments to speculators who spent serious money each week on new releases
The funny books had indeed come of age. A long way from the days of languishing sales in the 1970s, and even further from the slings and arrows of Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in 1954.

Mouse House Resurrected

The Animation Department Poses For One Final Picture Before Their Evacuation From the Walt Disney Studio's Main Lot (Circa 1984)
Courtesy of The Pixar Podcast
© Disney

Like the comic book industry, Walt Disney Productions was emerging from dark times as well by the of the decade. Upon surviving a hostile takeover and near-liquidation by Investors and corporate raiders, the wilting media powerhouse became re-established as The Walt Disney Company in 1985 with the appointment of Michael Eisner as CEO/Chairman of the Board and Frank Wells as Presidenttheir early restructuring of the company and updating of the Studio's output and image took a near-immediate hold.

Existing projects in varying stages of development were heavily scrutinized, and the notion of productions more in line with competing Studios no longer eschewed. This included animated product as well. Prior to the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid and the money-making template it would cast, two high-grossing achievements of the decade were animated projects that fueled new excitement by reaching into the Studio's past:

 The Syndicated TV Series DuckTales Owed Its Success to the Walt Disney Comic Book Stories of Carl Barks
Image Courtesy of Financial Post
© Disney

The first was the 1987 original animated series DuckTales, with a heavy foundation on the comic book stories of Carl Barks. The syndicated afternoon show debuted with consistently high ratings, thanks to a healthy budget offering scripts and visuals of much higher quality compared to most animated television offerings of the time. A combination of classic and new characters led to a remarkable 100-episode run, spawning a hit video game, and a full-length feature film released to theaters in 1990.

A Bounty of New DuckTales Comics Were Produced In Argentina and Italy, Featuring Characters From the Popular Television Series
Panel Detail From Gladstone Publishing's DuckTales #13 (Series I—March 1990) 
Art by The Jamie Diaz Studios  
© Disney

New comic book stories featuring DuckTales characters were produced by Italian Publishers and through the Jamie Diaz Studios in Argentina, appearing in U.S. and overseas comic books, digests and magazines.

A Critical Success and a Technical Marvel, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Restored the Value of Classic Cartoon Characters From Multiple Studios
Image Courtesy of Blu-Ray.com
© Disney/Amblin

The second project followed ten months later, with the 1988 release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a joint project with Disney's new Touchstone Pictures division and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. The box office smash created a significant boost in interest of well-known classic animated properties seen in the film from various Hollywood Studios. The new characters of Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit and Baby Herman became instant classics, and Disney immediately set up production of a new series of short cartoons with significant plans to incorporate them into the theme parks.

 Marvel Comics Published the Graphic Novel Adaption of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Combining the Talents of Comic Book Legends Dan Spiegle and Daan Jippes
© Disney/Amblin

In a bit of ironic foreshadowing, a comic book adaption of the film was released as a prestige format graphic novel by Marvel Comics in 1989, some twenty years prior to The Walt Disney Company's $4+ Billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. The oversize adaption shined with art by a pair of comics legend: Dan Spiegle handled the live-action scenes incorporated with cartoon characters and settings by Daan Jippes.

These projects broke the ice of a notably stale two decades of lackluster animated fare. In another direct parallel to comic book publishers, the recent success prompted Disney's re-examination of their existing I.P. and aggressive development of new properties.

This re-examination included the Walt Disney comic book license and the deal that was currently in place, about 400 miles southeast of Burbank, CA...

There's Always Another Rainbow

Another Rainbow Publishing Held the Walt Disney Comic Book License Through Their Gladstone Imprint From 1985 to 1990
Image Courtesy of The Comic Prospector
© Disney

In 1986, the license to publish Walt Disney comic books had been granted to Another Rainbow Publishing, a modest company in Scottsdale (later, Prescott,) Arizona. Founded and run by two well-known collectors and champions of comics as an art form: Russ Cochran and Bruce Hamilton. Another Rainbow had already met success with lavish lithographs and a special edition book of Carl Barks's oil paintings. These were produced alongside a high-end, archival series of hardcover box sets reprinting the entirety of Barks's Walt Disney comic book work, as well as E.C.'s line of Horror comics and Marjorie Henderson Buell's Little Lulu.

 Another Rainbow Produced The Original Carl Barks Library:
Ten, Three-Book Box Sets (Set I Pictured Above)
Product Image Courtesy of My Comic Shop
© Disney

Cochran and Hamilton may have lacked the financial clout of Eisner and Wells, but where they lacked in dollars, they made up for in heart. So devoted to the work of Carl Barks were the duo, that their company name was based on the title of an early Barks oil painting of a young Scrooge McDuck: Always Another Rainbow. The imprint for their Walt Disney comic book license would bear a similar tribute: Gladstone Comics was named after the Barks-created cousin of Donald Duck with perpetual good luck: Gladstone Gander.

Cochran and Hamilton Named Their Comic Book Line After Donald Duck's Frustratingly Lucky Cousin, Gladstone Gander
Image Courtesy of Duck Comics Revue
© Disney

Two 100-page specials appeared on newsstands in late 1985, followed by the debut of the  "core four" monthly titles* in July of 1986. As Gladstone's launch restored Walt Disney comic books to newsstands and spinner racks, they received a bump in sales and critical praise. Bi-monthly titles, prestige format albums and specials were gradually added to their publushing schedule.

 Utilizing Excellent Presentation and Carefully Selected Content, Gladstone Published Some of the Finest Stateside Walt Disney Comic Book Titles
Image Courtesy of Filmic Light
© Disney

Editors took great care in presenting each issue's content: for the first time in the United States, Disney stories and art were properly credited to the artists, writers and colorists in the format they were originally presented. Thought-provoking text articles often accompanied comic stories, providing context and history on the featured tales. Not only did the Gladstone books reprint and credit classic domestic stories, they imported a HUGE treasure trove of translated stories from Disney's mammoth Danish comics publisher, The Gutenberghus Group (now The Egmont Group.) The original Gladstone comics also gave modern-day comic legends Don Rosa and William Van Horn their first chance at creating official duck stories.

Gladstone's Uncle Scrooge #219 Debuted The Son of the Son: Don Rosa's First Official Disney Duck Story
Image Courtesy of The D.U.C.K.Man
© Disney

Initially, the Another Rainbow/Gladstone staff had minimal interference from Burbank executives, who were likely pleased with long-dormant profit from U.S. comic books. In turn, the comics likely experienced a bump from the September 1987 debut of DuckTales as a new generation discovered the exploits of the world's richest duck each weekday afternoon. But the powerful wake of new success impacting The Walt Disney Company was about to shake up the fate of the Gladstone comic book license significantly.

Comic Influences
The news media's increasing focus on comics books and related properties such as Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had motivated the Disney Studio to greenlight production of TWO big budget, live-action film adaptions of comic properties:

Dick Tracy (1990)
Poster Art Courtesy of Flick Facts
© Disney/TMS News and Features, LLC

Slated for release in the summer of 1990 was a highly-touted film adaption of Chester Gould's famous comic strip detective Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna and a slew of memorable cameos.

The Rocketeer (1991)
Poster Art Courtesy of Collider
© Disney

The following summer was a property the Studio optioned several years earlier: The Rocketeer, a popular independent comic book by Dave Stevens, with a Saturday Matinee serial flavor, starring Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connolly and Alan Arkin.

Of course, Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer were licensed outside properties with adventure and action themes (the type of which The Walt Disney Company didn't own outright). This returns us to the Company's aforementioned re-examination of their existing I.P.which included looking closer at their own comic book output through Gladstone Publishing.

Creative notes from a once-quiet Burbank began to show up at the Gladstone offices more frequently: one notorious incident was a note regarding Barks-drawn duck characters looking "off-model" on the cover of a comic book album, suggesting Studio-approved models in it's place.

The Carl Barks-Drawn Cover to Gladstone Comic Album #21: Donald Duck Family Sparked a Surprising Red Flag From Burbank Executives
Image Courtesy of Amazon.com
© Disney

Gladstone's four-year output of Carl Barks covers were never a conflict before—it became apparent that while the marketing folks enjoyed profits from the work of Barks and many other Disney comic artists, they held little notion of their content or value. The I.P. was considered more valuable than the reason the comics were popular in the first place.

The truth was: if it wasn't for Carl Barks's ducks and Floyd Gottfredson's mice, there would likely be no market for reprints of Walt Disney comics in the first place.

1980s Marketing Executives Never Quite Pieced Together That the Work of Carl Barks (Right) and Floyd Gottfredson (Left) Set the Standard For Walt Disney Comic Books Around the Globe
Portrait Photo Courtesy of  Carl Barks Art
© Disney

Similar interference continued until the close of 1989, when The Walt Disney Company chose not to renew their comic book license with Another Rainbow/Gladstone. The resurgence in interest of their classic characters and the boom in the comic book market inspired Disney to undertake something they'd always left to others: the company would publish the comic books themselves. The desire being that all profits could be kept in-house, and editorial control wouldn't receive any creative pushback. This business plan now in motion, the final Gladstone comics were released to newsstands and comic book publishers during the first three months of 1990.

A class act up to the end, Gladstone didn't cover up or hide what was to come, nor were they outwardly vengeful or bitterclick the image below to read their farewell message to faithful readers, and a hint of the change that would come to Walt Disney comic books the following month:

Editor Geoffrey Blum Wishes The New Disney Comics Effort Well in the Final "Cross Talk" Section of the Original Gladstone Run
© Disney

End Prologue
So... this finally brings us to the doorstep of our main topic—there's plenty more to come, but this is a pretty logical stopping point. 

Below are a few images to serve as a preview of what to expect in the next chapter, in which everything discussed here converges into into the preparation and launch of the 1990 Disney Comics line (and that's exactly what the comic book imprint was named):

"This Could Be The Start of Something BIG!"
The First Official Advertisement For Disney's Self-Published Disney Comics Line
© Disney/Amblin

Synergy was keyan in-house Disney Comics line would be the perfect place where a tie-in to an upcoming comic-based big-budget film could be exploited:

In 1990, a Mini-Series and Official Comics Adaption of the Disney Studio's Upcoming Dick Tracy Feature Was a Natural Fit
© Disney/TMS News and Features, LLC

To create buzz and entice the collector's market, most titles were reset to issue #1 to promote collectability, while classic and new characters were given titles of their very own:

At the Initial Launch of the 1990 Disney Comics Line, New and Classic Disney Characters Received Their Own Titles
© Disney/Amblin

The start of the Disney Comics line was a bold endeavor, with an even bolder publishing plan. Click the title below to continue to the next installment:

* The long-running "core four" titles in U.S. Walt Disney comic books are Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney's Comics and Stories: these four titles have been restored most often by comic book publishers that acquire the license.


scarecrow33 said...

It's really helpful to get background information like this. Thanks for another wonderful job on reporting about Disney comics!

Those times were rough for a subscriber. I remember being surprised when every Gladstone issue was giant-sized, without a hike in subscription prices. When I finally realized that Gladstone was shutting down their publication of Disney comics, I was depressed. My depression lifted somewhat when I found that the Disney publishers were honoring the remainder of my Gladstone subscriptions by sending me two copies of every premiere issue, and then continuing my subscription from that point forward. And actually, the first year or so of Disney comics was exciting and delightful. Little did I know that an even bigger disappointment loomed on the horizon...but you will cover that in a future post, I have no doubt...and you know exactly to what I am referring.

Keep up the great work! Thanks again!

Joe Torcivia said...

Magnificent work, Dan!

By now, you should know you can expect to find a link to this wonderful piece at my Blog!

You cover a period I feel has receded far enough into history to be objectively analyzed – but has yet to undergo such analysis on any noteworthy scale. Somebody really oughta do it, someday! Looking forward to the next chapter!

Dan said...

Thanks so much for the kind comment, as always, scarecrow!

Yes, the end of the original Gladstone run was bittersweet: the giant-size issues were a treat for us readers, as they allowed the Gladstone Editors to utilize content planned for the coming months before the transition to the self-published books by Disney. It's always interesting to wonder the route the original Gladstone line would have taken had the license not been revoked.

I know EXACTLY what you're referring to as to the fate of the 1990-1993 Disney Comics line, and that's where we're headed... it's all very interesting when placed in context of the comics industry at the time, as we'll unravel in future posts: stay tuned! - Dan

Dan said...

Thank YOU, Joe for the great post highlighting *this* post over at TIAH! Some very generous praise there, and it's much appreciated. As we get into the meat of the self-published Disney Comics era, you can be sure I'll be linking to relevant posts on that imprint from your blog, and GeoX's Duck Comics Revue.

Indeed, this period is lesser documented and I'm trying to uncover materials that I've had long tucked away to provide (as you noted) an objective look at how conditions changed during 1990-1993. Though it seems like a narrow span of years, a LOT happened, causing what was intended as a single post to become a series unto itself! - Dan

Ryan Wynns said...


Those giant-size issues at the end of Gladstone's original run remain some of my favorite issues of any comics, ever! (See my review of Donald Duck Adventures #19's "In the Footsteps of Jules Verne" here:http://ryanwynns.blogspot.com/2012/04/retrieved-from-storage-in-footsteps-of.html)

-- Ryan

Dan said...

An excellent review, Ryan: scarecrow83 brought up those giant-size issues in the first comment here... it's something I ought to add to the body text of this chapter. The generous 64-page issues during Gladstone's last few months were sort of a nice "parting gift" to the readers the first time around.

The final Gladstone Series I MM issues provided my first taste of Romano Scarpa's Mickey Mouse work with "Kali's Nail" & "The Mystery of Tapiocus VI"—again, a shame it ended when it did, as they were just getting started bringing his material to U.S. readers (and with excellent David Gerstein/Joe Torcivia-quality translations!)

I'm going to be adding a Notes section to each chapter, and will certainly add your review of DDA #19 to the Notes in Prologue. Thanks for commenting! - Dan

Ryan Wynns said...

Thanks, Dan! Yes, it was Scarecrow's comment that inspired mine.

And by the way, GREAT post. I was eight years old when Gladstone's first run was brought to an end and Disney Comics was subsequently launched, and reading your post is like reliving that unforgettable, formative time of my life. All of the images in your post are very, very familiar, in a very, very, welcome way.

And as Joe Torcivia said, it's great to see thorough and accurate coverage of this subject, after so long. The Wikipedia article on Disney Comics (the publisher) isn't too bad, but -- and don't get me wrong, for there are good reason for encyclopedic standards -- it's dry overly list-like. A blog article facilitates using one's own voice in relating context and building in perspective and analysis. I think that your formatting, including the selective placement of thee images, would be very engaging to "newbies" interested in learning about these comics.

-- Ryan

Dan said...

Thanks very much for the praise, Ryan! Your description is precisely the way I hoped it would flow to newcomers, and serve as a touchstone to those familiar with the comics at that time... always nice to know the message was clear.

I agree with your take on the Wikipedia page—it serves as a CliffsNotes version for most subjects and can't help but be on the sterile side. What I hope to accomplish with these posts is an objective view on the different publishers of the comic books and the people and circumstances that brought them to newsstands.

Reliving the past is another enjoyable aspect of putting these posts together: sifting through the cover art in my own collection, I can remember where and when I purchased each book, and what was happening in my teenage years at the time... sort of like the way wealthy Scottish ducks hoard their coins as memories!

- Dan

Dana Gabbard said...

Strange to think this is now almost ancient history. Going to be very curious about the next chapters about the ups and downs of Disney Comics. Have you see Bob Foster's blog post? Recently a L.A. blog posted a link to the picture as a "can you believe that is Michael Lynton" sort of thing. His role in all this is very interesting.

Dan said...

Hi, Dana:

Yeah, it's sorta hard to believe, but it's now been twenty years gone by since the Disney Comics line finished their run.

Thanks for pointing out Bob Foster's post: I have indeed seen it while researching this series, and that photo will actually be featured in the next chapter! I've found some other interesting info devoted to the starting up of Disney Comics that will prove very telling of the imprint's fate.

Your name will come up in the text as well... over in the comments section of "The Issue At Hand," the mighty Joe Torcivia pointed out your coining of a particular phrase that will certainly come in handy as an apt descriptor: