Monday, February 17, 2014

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

Disney Comics Ad for Uncle Scrooge #250 (November 1990)
Cover Art by William Van Horn
 © Disney

The story thus far...
  • In our PROLOGUE we uncovered how the comic book industry bounced back during the 1980s, thanks to an infusion of media interest via television and cinematic adaptions of comic book-based properties along with a collector's craze due to a rising speculation market. In a fascinating parallel, the reputation and financial well-being of Walt Disney Productions was revived thanks to Roy E. Disney's lobbying and grafting of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells into the company during the same period. The dormant U.S. Walt Disney comic book license was granted to Another Rainbow Publishing's Gladstone imprint for a successful run, until the comic book boom led a reinvigorated Walt Disney Company to reclaim the license and publish the comics in-house.

  • CHAPTER 1 looked at the phasing out of the old ways to accommodate the growing corporate culture at The Walt Disney Company, while zooming in on the formation of the new comic book line under W.D. Publications, Inc. A month after the final Gladstone comics hit newsstands, eight Walt Disney comic book titles debuted under the in-house imprint, appropriately named Disney Comics. The books featured slick formatting and a large share of all-new content, with ambitious plans for growth within that first year.

By the summer of 1990, comic book stores were thriving, and continued to pop up everywhere across the United States. No longer resigned to tables at used bookstores and flea markets, Proprietors cannily broadened their brick-and-mortar store inventory with collector's supplies and niche magazines. Many more added non-comic book items such as trading cards, or movie and sports memorabilia, with the intent of enticing a cross-pollination of consumers to their shops.

As the 1990s Kicked Off, More and More Comic Books Were Published, Causing Diamond's Monthly Direct-Sales Catalog Previews to Increase Its Page Count Every Month—Previews Soon Rivaled Many Local Telephone Directories!
Images Courtesy of Spideys Cards & Valiant Fans 

Aggressive publishing schedules led new and return customers to make more frequent visits to the comic books shops that were proliferating across the country. It was the "perfect storm" for the comic book industry.

We're #1

Smaller, independent publishers such as Caliber, Malibu, Valiant and Dark Horse Comics expanded and experimented with content—comic books began pushing the envelope, further evolving and re-defining the approach of comics into sequential art narratives.

Of course, DC and Marvel remained the mightiest forces, and "event" books became an equally mighty tool, wherein an epic change or milestone for their characters or worlds was touted proudly across the cover in banners proclaiming "Special Collector's Issue!" Another popular technique was the resetting of issue numbering to get an assured bump in sales. A #1 issue was a sure way to tempt consumers to begin collecting full runs (just as the in-house Disney Comics line practiced in the previous chapter.)

A Sampling of #1 Issues Released in 1990,
During the Height of the Comic Collecting Boom

Many publishers utilized this technique in some capacityfor some, like the restored Harvey Comics line, it would become a casual practice. The more level-headed approach to releasing a #1 collector's issue were the appointments of Specials, Annuals, or a Limited Series featuring new or well-known characters. The Limited Series was also a trial balloon for potential new ongoing titles, which would (logically) score another #1 issue sales bump.

The Disney "Explosion"

Full-Page Ad for July 1990 Disney Comics Releases
Image Courtesy of Cracked Magazine and Others
© Disney

With a burgeoning comic book market and hot properties from The Walt Disney Company, the future of the Disney Comics line looked bright. Their initial launch landed the comics in outlets beyond the direct market, monthly issues could easily be found on newsstands, and comic book spinner racks in convenience stores or drugstores. National book retailers at the time such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton added a wide selection of comic books to their magazine displays. Of course, subscription forms were offered in every issue of Disney Comics, as well as other print venues.

Disney Comics Subscription Forms Were Featured in Every Monthly Issue and Through Any Other Print Venues W.D. Publications, Inc. Could Tap Into
© Disney

Promotional ads and letter column replies printed in the first few months of Disney Comics contained promise of expansion, and they surely delivered. Disney Comics planned to close out 1990 in a big way. After all, the Walt Disney Company had plenty of projects in the works, ready for synergistic expansion...

Annuals and Limited Series

While some modern sales and marketing strategies from other publishers were put to work right away, others were legacy concepts from decades ago... one of the most memorable traditions of the Western Publishing years were the themed 100-page specials beneath beautiful painted covers, released throughout the year for a whopping 25¢.

Dell comics readers could go back to school with Donald Duck's nephews, spend Halloween with Bugs Bunny, take a summer vacation with Tom and Jerry, or even visit a four-color version of Disneyland. But the most-anticipated Dell Giant of the year was Walt Disney's Christmas Parade—chock full of yuletide fun with Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Br'er Rabbit and a cast of other Disney friends.

A Sampling of Memorable Dell Giant Covers

The Editors of the Disney Comics line decided to expand upon the tradition with four annual titles, and the promise of another collector-friendly set of #1 issues. These annual issues kept the framework of Disney characters around a seasonal theme, but the sturdy prestige format devolved to a traditional "floppy" book and a 64-page count. The storybook-style painted cover art of the Dell specials was eschewed for traditional, colored line art in a "wraparound" format (a scene encompassing both front and rear covers.) The first of these four was Autumn Adventures in September 1990, followed seasonally by Holiday Parade, Spring Fever and Summer Fun.

Wraparound Cover Art for the #1 Issues of the Season-Themed Annuals Published by Disney Comics
(Click to Enlarge)
Cover Art © Disney

The annuals primarily contained re-colored classic domestic or overseas material, but a smattering of new content was created beyond the dense cover art. Holiday Parade #1 justified it's all-inclusive title with the inclusion of "Shine a Little Light" a Chanukah-themed story, the first of such in domestic Walt Disney comic book history.

"Shine a Little Light" Evoked the Original Chanukah Story: a Notable First of Diversity for U.S. Walt Disney Comic Books
 Panel Details From Holiday Parade #1 (1990)
Written by Cherie Wilkerson, Pencils by Cosme Quartieri, Inked by Rubén Torreiro
© Disney

Actually, the featured set of characters starring in "Shine a Little Light" could also claim credibility as the hosts of another Disney Comics first. What would that be? Let's spin it...

Bringing You a Disney Afternoon

 The Disney Afternoon Premiered in the Fall of 1990, Providing Multiple Tie-Ins for Brand-New Disney Comics
Image Courtesy of Vintage Disneyland Tickets
© Disney

The first Disney Comics Limited Series was a tie-in with the Fall 1990 television premiere of TaleSpin, a new animated series from Walt Disney Television Animation, starring the characters of Baloo and King Louie from Walt Disney's 1966 animated feature The Jungle Book in a different premise. TaleSpin premiered on the newly-launched two-hour kid's programming block The Disney Afternoon, comprised of with daytime stalwarts DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers (which were already monthly Disney Comics titles) and a syndicated package of Disney's Saturday morning hit, The Adventures of the Gummi Bears.

 TaleSpin: Take Off was the First Disney Comics Limited Series, Quickly Followed by an Ongoing TaleSpin Series
Cover Art © Disney

Like DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers before it, TaleSpin premiered as a 2-hour television movie, "Plunder and Lightning" to set up the daily TV series. The movie was faithfully adapted as the first Disney Comics Limited SeriesTaleSpin: Take Off consisted of four issues with a nice touch of consistent cover designs to tie the books together. Two months after the final issue of the limited series was released, a monthly, ongoing TaleSpin title hit the stands, giving fans and collectors the opportunity to snag another #1 issue. Of all the comics based on The Disney Afternoon shows, the original stories written for TaleSpin was the most faithful to the source material.

A bounty of fun could be found in Annuals, Limited Series and ongoing monthly titles, yet they weren't the only place to find comics featuring characters from The Disney Afternoonthere were even more new, BIG adventures to be had, in a smaller format...

Disney Adventures

The First Newsstand Issue of Disney Adventures (October 1990)
Image Courtesy of Photobucket
© Disney

While creative teams kept busy preparing new content for monthly books and specials, yet another ambitious comic-based project was preparing to launch in the fall of 1990. Executive Editor Michael Lynton conceived a U.S. equivalent to Italy's wildly popular digest Topolino (a long-running publication featuring Walt Disney comic book stories): Disney Adventures featured articles, puzzles, contests and full-length comic book stories based on The Disney Afternoon properties. There was no mistaking the connection, as early issues of Disney Adventures proudly boasted a banner or stamp touting it as "The Official Magazine of The Disney Afternoon."

 The Format of Italy's Popular, Long-Running Digest Topolino Was a Major Influence in Creating Disney Adventures for the U.S. Market
Cover Art © Disney

Lynton believed Disney Adventures was a special project, and the digest's roll-out plan was equally inspireda preview edition (or issue #0) was created to get kids excited for the upcoming monthly publication. Kellogg's cereals ran a number of promotions with premiums for The Disney Afternoon in the summer months of 1990: one of which offered the special preview issue of Disney Adventures as a mail-in offer with proofs of purchase from cereal boxes. The preview issue was no slouch, containing two full-length comic stories featuring DuckTales, Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers and the very first TaleSpin comic story published in the U.S. The line-up of creative talent was no slouch either, with names like Giorgio Cavazzano, Romano Scarpa and Marv Wolfman on the bylines.

"The Chaos Coin Catastrophe!"—A DuckTales Painted Story From Disney Adventures
Panel Details From Disney Adventures Preview Issue (Summer 1990)
Written by Marv Wolfman, Art by Giuseppe Dalla Santa, Color by Leopoldo Barbarini
Images Courtesy of Cracked Magazine and Others
© Disney

The two-part, lead DuckTales story in the preview edition held another unique distinction for U.S. Disney comics: the characters were drawn in traditional ink outlines filled in with vibrant, solid colors against against painted and rendered backgroundsa time-consuming technique that showed up in early issues of Disney Adventures. The style made the characters pop and supplied an appearance closer to the animated series.

Most important was that national distribution for Disney Adventures far eclipsed that of the standard comic books or graphic novels from Disney Comics. The digest actually benefited from its compact size: Disney Adventures was a convenient item that didn't take up much retail space, so it was made available to retail stores beyond newsstands or comic book shops. The format, plus cover art of kid-friendly celebrities and familiar Disney characters was lightning in a bottlegranting it the most coveted placement of all: on supermarket and drugstore checkout racks.

Archie Digest Titles Have Found Success on Checkout Racks For Decades
Image © & Courtesy of Comic Book Brain
Cover Art © Archie Comics

Only Archie Comics had previously achieved such ubiquitous availability and eye-level prominence for two decades prior. The placement of various Archie digest titles at supermarket checkout racks kept those characters at the forefront—this positioning was especially significant as comics sales and distribution waned during the 70s and early 80s. For many Gen-Xers, their first exposure to the teens from Riverdale was via the digest format at supermarket check-out lines.

With maximum exposure, and the dedicated format of a brand-new 65-episode series each year, The Disney Afternoon would become a major source of content across W.D. Publications, Inc.the television block brought more animated Disney content into homes via network television than ever before.

Life is Like a Hurricane (Even On the Silver Screen)

The 1990 DuckTales Feature Film Unofficially Connected the Dots of Walt Disney Comic Book History
Image Courtesy of Disney Detail
© Disney

At this point in time, all roads really wind together. Considering that:
  • DuckTales was birthed from the original stories of Carl Barks,
  • the success of DuckTales was the genesis point of The Disney Afternoon,
  • the success of both entities motivated the birth of the Disney Comics line

The influence of Walt Disney comic books was inescapable that summer, as August brought yet another piece of the synergistic puzzle to the silver screen... DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp was released to theaters on August 3, 1990.

The feature film continued the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his grandnephews, with some fluid, expressive animation thanks to a higher budget than the standard television episodes. The story takes a more kid-friendly departure from the original Barks material (a tone the TV series had understandably taken)but the brightest gem that came out of the film's production was the Indiana Jones inspired one-sheet poster illustrated by none other than the renowned movie poster artist Drew Struzan:

Acclaimed Illustrator Drew Struzan Created the Poster Art for DuckTales the Movie
Image Courtesy of IMP Awards
© Disney

Struzan's involvement casts a nice parallel: the duck stories by Carl Barks inspired many aspects of the Indiana Jones series to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. In an act of mutual admiration, the official DuckTales logo was inspired by the Raiders of the Lost Ark logo treatment.

DuckTales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp Was the First Original Adaptation of an Animated Feature From Disney Comics
DuckTales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp Graphic Novel Adapted by John Lustig, Art by Carlos Valenti, Cosme Quartieri, Robert Bat & Rubén Torreiro
© Disney

Of course, with all the history behind the DuckTales feature, it only made sense to bring things full circle with a comic book adaptation of the film. DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp was the first all-new animated movie adaptation from Disney Comics, sold as a 64-page graphic novel soon after the film's theatrical release. Drew Struzan's dynamic poster art served as a fitting cover for the graphic novel.

At the Movies

Promo Ad for the Disney Comics Adaption of the Feature Film Shipwrecked!
Shipwrecked! Graphic Novel Adapted by William Rotsler, Art by Dan Spiegle
Image Courtesy of
© Disney

Of course, Walt Disney Pictures continued to produce live action films too. Beyond the new Dick Tracy Mini-Series and official movie adaptation (covered in Chapter 1)—several other new live-action features from the Studio were being adapted as 64-page graphic novels for release in the coming months: the upcoming family action/adventure film Shipwrecked!, and a feature film version of Jack London's White Fang. Of course, there were already plans afoot for an official adaptation of the following summer's movie version of The Rocketeer as well.

Disney Comics Also Adapted the Live-Action Feature Film Version of Jack London's White Fang
White Fang Graphic Novel Adapted by Bobbi J.G. Weiss and Drawn by Richard Moore
Image Courtesy of
© Disney

Most surprisingly, Disney's hit live-action family film from the previous summer of 1989, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids never found its way to a comic book adaptation. Despite its box office success, the film had minimal merchandising exposure. What's even more surprising that this trend continued with the film's 1992 theatrical sequel: Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

Hollywood Comics
© Disney

Spinning a New Web: Hollywood Comics

With the market for family fare tied up, Michael Eisner appointed another film label, Hollwood Pictures, as a complement to Disney's Touchstone Pictures. The target was continuing to create content for mature audiences, with a diversity of films that wouldn't necessarily dilute the award-winning Touchstone label. The first Hollywood Pictures release was a joint effort, once again with Amblin Entertainment. Tapping into a common fear of spiders, the comedy thriller Arachnophobia starred Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. The tone of new film was perfect comic book fodder, and led to the first signs of branching out for the Disney Comics line...

Hollywood Pictures Birthed Hollywood Comics: The First New Imprint in the Planned Expansion of the Disney Comics Line
© Disney

Hollywood Comics was the first official comic book imprint spun off from Disney Comics. Naturally, the debut outing was the official movie adaptation of Arachnophobia, a 64-page graphic novel released simultaneously with the film in August of 1990. The art was deftly penciled by comics legend Dan Spiegle and inked by Sam Parsons in a varied panel format, which gave the comic an open, broad feel.

The Graphic Novel Adaptation of Arachnophobia Was the First Release from Hollywood Comics, Allowing For More Intense Imagery Than Would Be Expected From the Traditional Disney Comics Line
Panel Details from the Arachnophobia Graphic Novel (August 1990)
Adapted by William Rotsler, Pencils by Dan Spiegle, Inks by Sam Parsons
© Disney

FInal Fantasy

 Final Fantasy From Hollywood Comics Was Anticipated as the Next Piece in the Puzzle of Disney Comics Expansion
 Image Courtesy of Disney Weirdness
© Disney

The next Hollywood Comics project announced was another first: comic books based on an outside property licensed exclusively to W.D, Publications, Inc. from SquareSoft, Inc.

A 4-issue Limited Series based on the immensely popular video game Final Fantasy II, was being written by Kurt Busiek (Astro City, The Avengers) drawn by Dell Barras (Transformers, Death's Head) under covers by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. The scripts were completed by Busiek, and the first two issues fully drawn when the project was dropped the following year.

Initiate Phase Two

The launch of Disney Comics and Hollywood Comics signaled the completion of phase one for the Walt Disney Company's entering the comic book marketplace. With a steady publishing slate of their well-know properties and plenty of seed cash in the coffers, phase two began development. The ultimate plan to dominate the industry was being assembled by W.D. Publications, Inc. The goal would be to publish original content of genres most associated with comic books: superheroes, crime, drama and horror.

Of course, gritty, mature or violent subjects would shatter the borders (and the stigma) of traditional Disney characters and the company's family-friendly image. The newly desired genres necessitated another new imprint in order to accomplish this. Of course, W.D. Publications, Inc. had already shown it's ambition and brio from the outset: so let's make that TWO more new imprints...

The Touchmark Comics Logo Was Designed by Todd Klein
Image Courtesy of Emillo Torres
© Disney

Touchmark Comics

Touchmark Comics was conceived as the imprint dedicated to more mature, sophisticated content in the vein of Alan Moore's work on The Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Not quite identical to the film label as Hollywood Comics was, Touchmark was a close relative to the Studio's Touchstone Pictures label. The press booklet handed out at the 1991 San Diego Comic-Con offered a dictionary definition casting out a good idea as to why:
touchmark [ˈtəch-ˌmärk] n 1: an artist's symbolic signature on a work of art 2: an identifying maker's mark impressed on pewter

Touchmark Comics Giveaway Promotion Poster
Image Courtesy of Comic Book Resources
© Disney

Karen Berger was a sharp Editor at DC Comics, who had pushed the envelope for smarter, edgier and more sophisticated content in her titles. For instance, Berger was responsible for bringing in Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison to the pages of DC. Her like-minded and equally able Assistant Editor Art Young was hired away by Disney to conceive and head up the entire Touchmark line of new titles and given carte blanche for subject material and creative talents. Young arranged a top-notch line of comic book talent such as Peter Milligan, Brian Bolland and Grant Morrison for Touchmark's initial offerings. Young also contacted the premier industry letterer and logo designer Todd Klein to conceive the logo treatment, the process of which Klein describes in an excellent blog post HERE.

 The San Diego Comic-Con Preview Booklet Contained a Look at Enigma, Mercy and Sebastian O
Image Courtesy of Comic Book Resources
© Disney

The titles and synopses for three titles were previewed: Enigma, Mercy and Sebastian O—Touchmark Comics was positioned to be a major forerunner to the immensely popular DC imprint of Vertigo Comics.

Vista Comics

The other new imprint announced was Vista Comics (most likely a nod to the Studio's Buena Vista Pictures television and film distribution arm.) Vista Comics was more of the competitor to the classic Marvel and DC comic book lines with superhero and science-fiction themes. Initially, there were plans for new adaptations and expanded adventures of characters from past films such as Tron and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. Continuing tales of Dave Steven's The Rocketeer following the premiere of the 1991 film were also a possibility.

Vista Comics Might Have Brought New Tales of Leslie Nielsen as The Swamp Fox
Image Courtesy of TV Acres
© Disney

It remains to be known if there were plans to create original superhero characters or teams that wouldn't have been outside I.P.—sadly, there remains little documentation on the planned content of Vista Comics.

New Disney Classics

As mentioned above, the DuckTales movie adaption was the first new graphic novel of an animated film from Disney Comics. We saw in Chapter 1 their initial graphic novel offering was a reprint of the 1968 Gold Key comics adaption of The Jungle Book.

The Fall 1990 Home Video Release of Peter Pan Gave Way to the Next Classic Reprint in Graphic Novel Format
© Disney

The Jungle Book was published to coincide with the theatrical re-release of the film during the summer of 1990, and likely a strategically synergistic lead-up to the premiere of TaleSpin in September. Another classic reprint soon followed to serve a similar purpose: the 1953 Dell comics adaption of Peter Pan (also drawn by Al Hubbard) reprinted as a graphic novel to mark the inaugural home video release of the film that September.

The Little Mermaid Graphic Novel Was a Faithful Comics Adaptation of the Hit 1989 Animated Feature Film
Panel Details From The Little Mermaid Graphic Novel (December 1990)
Adapted by Tom Anderson, Art by Xavier Vives Mateu
© Disney

Though the previous summer's hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids didn't make the transition to a comics adaption, the film from 1989 that did move forward was the box office mega-hit The Little Mermaid. Mermaid became the first new comic book adaptation of a feature from Walt Disney Animation by Disney Comicsthe difference here is that the bulk of the production on the DuckTales movie was done overseas, and produced under a separate production company, DisneyToon Studios. The Little Mermaid Official Movie Adaptiaton made its way onto the stands as a 48-page graphic novel. The comic adaptation was originally created through The Gutenberghus Group for Denmark's long-running Donald Duck comic magazine Anders And & Co. The art was purchased by W.D. Publications, Inc., then translated into English (the comic was published in their respective countries in December of 1990.)

More Mermaid

 By the End of 1990, Plans Were Already Underway For a Disney Comics Limited Series of The Little Mermaid, With the Prospect of Launching a New, Ongoing Series
The Little Mermaid Limited Series #2 of 4 (January 1992) 
Cover Art by Steve Rude
© Disney

The Little Mermaid was already out of theaters for a year, and available on home video by the time of the graphic novel's release. But Walt Disney Feature Animation hadn't produced a film this successful in decades—Mermaid quickly developed a wide fan base, so it was only natural to capitalize on the success of the film's characters. Disney Comics may have purchased the movie adaptation from overseas, but the staff was already working on an original, 4-issue Limited Series of The Little Mermaid featuring the adventures of Ariel before she came to live on the surface.

Disney Comics Brought on the Diverse Talents of Peter David to Write 1991's The Little Mermaid Limited Series
Image © & Courtesy of We Talk Comics Podcast

Just how wide was Ariel's fan base? Wide enough that comics writer extraordinaire Peter David (who by that time had crafted successful runs on Aquaman for DC, The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine for Marvel) approached Len Wein at the 1990 San Diego Comic-Con and exclaimed: "I hear you're doing a Little Mermaid comic. You better let me write it or I'll break your legs." His subtle persuasion landed him the job. David's earliest drafts for Mermaid were smart, and shone through with a love for the film's characters. There will be more to say about The Little Mermaid Limited Series in the next post of The Disney Comics Story.

Now Playing

While Ariel got her first treatment of four-color fins, two other animated projects were being prepped for graphic novel treatments... set to release in November 1990 was The Rescuers Down Under, to be accompanied by a new 30-minute featurette The Prince and the Pauper, starring none other than the Studio's flagship trio of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

The Soft, Hand-Painted Style of The Prince and the Pauper Graphic Novel Gave the Book a Touch of Class!
Panel Details From The Prince and the Pauper (November 1990)
Adapted by Scott Saavedra, Illustrated by Sergio Asteriti
© Disney

The Prince and the Pauper adapted the Mark Twain story nicely, and featured some of the finest animation of the classic characters since the days when Walt Disney himself roamed the halls of the Animation building. The comic adaptation was not only a faithful 64-page interpretation of the featurette, it went beyond the convention of traditional Walt Disney comic books, taking the technique of painted backgrounds in the early Disney Adventures comics one step further: the entire comic book was hand-painted in a soft illustration style by longtime Italian Disney artist Sergio Asteriti, giving the adaptation a rich, storybook feel.

 Scheduled for Publication Near the Film's Theatrical Run, The Rescuers Down Under Graphic Novel Was Released Several Months After the Home Video Release
Image Courtesy of Disney Weirdness
© Disney

Despite the extra time hand-rendering painted color took, The Prince and the Pauper was published on schedule. The first possible sign of "biting off more than you can chew" for Disney Comics was the delays of the comic adaptation for The Rescuers Down Under. Ads for the graphic novel were printed in December of 1990, but the release of the graphic novel was delayed long after the film's cinematic run and VHS release the following year.

The same promotional page was printed with revised copy in Disney Comics by late 1991 exclaiming "You Loved the Movie and Video..." The art team behind the adaption was the same behind many of the standard monthly titles and Disney Adventures: thus, the monthly books simply had to come out on schedule, leaving work for specials either rushed or left on the back burner.

Monthly Mayhem

Walt Disney's Comics and Stories Celebrated Milestone Issue #550 in June 1990
Wraparound Cover Art by David Pacheo and Larry Mayer
© Disney

Despite all the extra comics being released at a healthy pace, the standard eight monthly titles were published on schedule, missing only a few release dates. This feat was especially commendable, and shows the dedication of the creative and editorial teams, considering the staggering amount of new content created for Disney Comics in a mere matter of months.

Uncle Scrooge Soon Celebrated a Milestone, Too: Issue #250 in November 1990
Wraparound Cover Art by William Van Horn
© Disney

Milestones were approaching for the two remaining long-running title that held onto their original issue numberingthe 550th issue of the flagship Walt Disney's Comics and Stories in June of 1990 and the 250th issue of Uncle Scrooge in November of 1990. Both issues were commemorated with special new wraparound covers and expanded to 48 pages for the month, each filled with vintage stories.

Cover for Mickey Mouse Adventures #9
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" Illustration by Al White
Image Courtesy of Comic Book Covers
© Disney

Another milestone that would play a big role that year was the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney's "concert feature" Fantasia. Disney Comics marked the occasion in Mickey Mouse Advenures #9 with a new adaption of the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment from the film. There had been a comic book adaptation of the sequence by mouse stalwart Paul Murry in Dell's Silly Symphonies #2 in 1953. The updated story in 1990 was a more faithful version of the famous sequence, which is often regarded as "Mickey's Finest Hour." The new adaptation was lovingly written with an original framing device by Marv Wolfman, the art was penciled by Steven DeStefano and inked by Gary Martin.

The Disney Comics Adaption of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" Captured the Drama and Dynamic Visuals of the Famous Fantasia Segment
Panel Details From Mickey Mouse Adventures #9 (December 1990)
Written by Marv Wolfman, Pencils by Stephen DeStefano, Inks by Gary Martin
© Disney

The team of DeStefano and Martin had already been receiving high praise for their work in Mickey Mouse Adventures since issue #1. Under the thoughtful editorship of David Cody Weiss, their fun, yet dynamic style paired with smart writing by Michael T. Gilbert and Marv Wolfman did an excellent job re-introducing Mickey to comics. The new stories recalled the spirit of the scrappy, adventurous mouse from the early days of Floyd Gottfredson's serialized comic strips, adding new heavies to the Mouse's Rouges Gallery, and most notably restoring the gravitas to Mickey's most lethal foe, The Phantom Blot.

The Phantom Blot Returned to His Cold-Blooded Roots in the Pages of Mickey Mouse Adventures
Panel Details From Mickey Mouse Adventures #8 (1990)
Written by Lee Nordling, Pencils by Stephen DeStefano, Inks by Gary Martin
© Disney

Sadly, only a handful of stories by the team were produced, before DeStefano departed the pages of Mickey Mouse Adventures. He'd already been working with the King Features Syndicate licensing department as the official artist for another classic character: Popeye the Sailor. Thankfully, DeStefano's Popeye deal allowed enough flexibility to occasionally return to Disney Comics, providing cover art and shorter comic stories for Disney Adventures.

Stephen DeStefano Became the De Facto Artist for Popeye the Sailor Projects and Merchandise
Image Courtesy of Stephen DeStefano
© KFS, Inc.

Everything Old is New Again

Sales on the monthly books had dipped some since the first issues, as was the usual trend after a release of #1 issues... but some titles, such as Goofy Adventures suffered severe drops in sales figures within the first eight months. Marketing folks and Editors paid attention to reader feedback via monthly letter columns. There was often spirited feedback and a chance to see what consumers wanted to see.

The 'Toon Back-Up Stories From Roger Rabbit Would Be Spun Off Into a New Monthly Companion Title in 1991: Roger Rabbit's Toontown
Image Courtesy of Weaselsite
© Disney/Amblin

For instance, the 'Toon-centric back-up stories in Roger Rabbit were grabbing more attention than the main feature. So much attention, in fact, that a new monthly title was in preparation for 1991 to showcase new stories for the Maroon Cartoon characters: Roger Rabbit's Toontown

Duckling triplets Huey, Dewey and Louie could always found as supporting players in the monthly pages of Donald Duck Adventures, Uncle Scrooge, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, and DuckTales—but the boys hadn't had their very own title since Western Publishing snuffed the campfire of Huey, Dewey and Louie: Junior Woodchucks in 1983, as the longtime publisher began to phase out their entire comic book line under the Whitman imprint.

A Junior Woodchucks Limited Series Was Announced For the Summer of 1991
Junior Woodchucks Limited Series #1 of 4 (May 1991) 
Cover Art by Jukka Murtosaari
© Disney

A resurrected Junior Woodchucks title was in development by Disney Comics as another 4-Issue Limited Series, for 1991. Once again, with the hope of sales high enough to justify a new, ongoing Junior Woodchucks title (and, once again, hitting that gold strike of two #1 issues!)

 The Gummi Bears Nearly Had a Limited Comic Book Series From Disney Comics, Plans Were Scrapped When It Was Realized That Network and Syndicated TV Broadcasts Were Ending in Late 1991
© Disney

Another proposed Limited Series was for Disney Television Animation's The Adventures of the Gummi Bears. The show had been on the Saturday morning line-up for six years—in 1990, syndicated episodes of the show held the lead slot for the first year of The Disney Afternoon programming block. More than enough comic book content had been produced overseas to fill four issues, but the reality was that Gummi Bears was going to be phased out of syndication by the fall of 1991.

Gladstone's Cover Proposal for an Earlier Gummi Bears Comic Album 
Cover Art by Daan Jippes
© Disney

A few years earlier, Gladstone had commissioned cover art by Daan Jippes, with plans to devote an issue of their comic book albums dedicated to the Gummis, but that too, never made it beyond the proposal stage.

Fowl Play?
A Book on the Genealogy of the Duck Family Could Have Been Possible
Panel Detail From "Happy Birthday Donald Duck" by Marco Rota (1984)
Image Courtesy of The Disney Comics Forum
© Disney

Another more mysterious project was brought up, but never quite came to light. In the letter column of Donald Duck Adventures #6, Editor Bob Foster wrote:
"We are in the process of doing a duck genealogy book that will include the story of how Huey, Dewey and Louie came to inherit Donald Duck as their uncle."
Now, Bob was possibly being cheeky there, though it remains a fascinating project. Perhaps too ambitious a project for a small staff already juggling multiple projects. Not to mention, there are a lot of contradictions in 50+ years of Walt Disney comic books across the globe—what counts and what doesn't?

In a Bit of Foreshadowing, Don Rosa Made the First Official Mention of Scrooge McDuck's Younger Sisters (Based on Carl Barks's Duck Family Tree) in "Return to Xanadu"
 (Click to Enlarge)
Panel Details From Uncle Scrooge #262 (November 1991)
© Disney

Ironically, Disney Comics was only a year away from printing Don Rosa's "Return to Xanadu" in Uncle Scrooge containing a clue—hinting that Rosa was about to tackle the subject of creating a dedicated genealogical timeline and canon for the ducks.

Striking a Balance

From the beginning, the Disney Comics editors struck a good balance of new, classic, and translated material from overseas within the monthly titles carried over from the Gladstone era. While some cheered on the new comics, others pined for reprints of vintage material.

The results of the monthly output were balanced reasonably well, but it's fair to notice that early on, there was a larger share of new material, or newly translated stories by overseas artists such as Victor Arriagada Rios, (better known as "Vicar") and other Gutenberghus Group artists. Vintage stories by Carl Barks or Paul Murry would surface to make sure the collectors were kept in mind and open their work up to new readers.
Bob Foster's Dedication to Titles Under His Editorship Shows in Personally Hand-Drawn Cover Concept Sketches and Color Comps
(Click to Enlarge)
Image Courtesy of Bob Foster
© Disney
One of the most striking differences in the Disney Comics line beyond unifying most of the logos was the cover art. The covers from Disney Comics had taken on layouts similar to covers from Marvel Comics, versus the traditional practice for Walt Disney comic book covers going back to the days of Dell/Gold Key comics, in which backgrounds details were often kept to a minimum: sometimes as a vignette, or keeping characters large and afloat against a solid color background.

The layout choices might have been to make the new covers gel better with modern sensibilities or other titles on the racks. This doesn't mean that careful thought wasn't put into their designs, as Bob Foster's preliminary roughs above show. In fact, a majority of those who desired vintage material disliked the "Marvel-ization" of the Disney characters in the new stories. Luckily, there was some new content that hadn't changed from the Gladstone days...

"It's Bats, Man!"—Disney Comics Provided a Perfect Nod to the Batman Craze of the Early 1990s
Donald Duck Adventures #6 (September 1990)
Cover Art by William Van Horn
© Disney

Cover art from William Van Horn skewed more towards the traditional layouts, and Gladstone fans could at least be satisfied with his newest covers and stories appearing practically every month. Van Horn often wrote his own material, and occasionally drew from scripts by John Lustig that worked perfectly with Van Horn's fun and sometimes loopy sensibilities. Interestingly, there would be letters printed with push-back from readers that his style was too loose, where others absolutely adored this take on the ducks.

Between Doing Comic Book Work for Gladstone and The Gutenberghus Group, Don Rosa Wrote Two Episodes of TaleSpin For Walt Disney Television Animation
(Don's Episode Titles Shown Above)
Image Courtesy of 2719 Hyperion
© Disney

Beyond the first Disney Comics issue of Donald Duck Adventures, only a few new stories by Don Rosa trickled in. The reason for this was Rosa's transition from selling his first stories directly to Gladstone/Another Rainbow. After a brief stint writing for Walt Disney Television Animation (he is credited for writing two episodes of TaleSpin), and doing story work for Dutch Publisher Oberon and Welsh Publishing in the U.S. for a DuckTales magazine. Rosa finally returned to his drawing board to create new duck stories for the Gutenberghus Group (later renamed the Egmont Group), which would eventually show up in Disney Comics following Don's original script in English. It was a contractual agreement with the Denmark company that the U.S. publisher could run the stories once they saw print in Europe. Eventually, Van Horn would start producing stories for Gutenberghus as well.

Cracks in the Veneer

Don Rosa's reluctance to produce stories directly for Disney Comics was based on their practice of not returning artwork to the artists upon publishing of the work. Other artists took notice of this among a growing restlessness, plus rumblings of arbitrary rates paid per page.

Despite their best efforts to please marketing teams, longtime readers and new readers, there were changes afoot by the end of the year. The Disney Comics Album series were intended to fill the void of classic reprinted material (with the exception of Album #5 which was a collection of short-form Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers stories.) 

Neither Classic Nor New Material Could Save the Disney Comics Album Series From Low Sales and Early Cancellation
Disney Comics Album Series #5—Chip 'N' Dale: Resuce Rangers, The Secret Casebook (October 1990)
Cover Art Pencils by Keith Tucker, Inks by Gary Martin
  © Disney

But the Disney Comics Albums failed to sell at the level the Gladstone Albums had. Despite an identical size and format, right down to the numerical designation inside a circular I.D. on the covers, the Disney Comics Albums left something to be desired.

Gladstone ran a total of 35 in their comic album series from 1987 to 1989the Disney Comics Albums only lasted a total of 8 before cancellation at the close of 1990.

The hard fact was that with so much product published within a period of eight months, Disney comic book market saturation had already begun to set in.

The Disney Comics Album Series became the first casualty of the subject of our next chapter: the event famously coined by Duckburg Times Publisher Dana Gabbard as "The Disney Implosion."

Click the title below to continue to the next installment:


Bob Foster's Online Portfolio

Comic Book Resources: The Great Archie Comics Experiment of 1989-90

Comic Book Brain on Archie Digests-Part I

Comic Book Brain on Archie Digests-Part II

Ryan Wynns on the DuckTales Series II from Disney Comics

Stephen DeStefano on Tumblr

Touchmark Comics: Comic Book Legends Revealed by Brian Cronin

Touchmark Comics by Emillo Torres

View the Entire Contents of the Kellogg's 1990 Preview Issue of Disney Adventures


Dana Gabbard said...

It should be noted having access to those checkout racks entails a major financial expenditure. The Archie folks pioneered it and Disney bit the bullet and for some time the Digest was not only a financial success but an incubator for talent, as was clear at some of the Comic Con panels especially when Disney Comics folded. I still remember some barbarian strip from Europe they showed some panels of in a presentation one year during a Comic Con panel -- any information on that?

There is stuff I forgot or never heard covered in this installment. Thanks. The hubris of Disney is so depressing. I had letters to Comics Buyer's Guide warning they seemed ripe for a fall for various reasons. S*I*G*H

Joe Torcivia said...


Great job on this! And were not even at the “Implosion Phase” yet!

As I said at my own Blog: "I will say that I’m now of the mind that Disney Comics strayed too far from the “core” of what Gladstone and Western Publishing did previously – and that may have been a large part of the problem. You decide."

What I’ve now come to call the “Core Four” titles (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Uncle Scrooge), a few titles reflecting the juggernaut of The Disney Afternoon and one-shots or limited series for current feature film adaptations should have been enough. …And, maybe that WOULD have been enough to sustain them, as it had previously sustained Gladstone Series I.

But I’m certain the “Bean Counters” (with no offence to Fenton Crackshell) at Disney, would never have settled for modest profits in those high-flying days – and gutted the whole thing after 18 months, eventually tossing the carcass back to what would be remembered (for better or for worse) as Gladstone Series II.

And, oh yeah… I also said that this valuable material should someday be a BOOK!

Supremely well-done, my friend!


Dan said...


Thanks for your great feedback: as to the financial expenditure allocated to the placement on checkout racks, it seems like such a "given" for any publisher with a larger media company behind it to make that initial investment. The Archie model proved the level of returns due to prominent placement. It's surprising Time/Warner never took it on with their DC Blue Ribbon digest of the 70s-80s, or attempted a MAD digest (I'm sure you recall there were a ton of pocket-size MAD paperbacks in bookstores back then, as well as some DC titles.)

The Disney Adventures story is a series of posts unto itself, and the sole publication that had a remarkable lifespan from the Disney Comics era. Tempting as it is to recount the digest's history, I may leave that story to someone possessing a full DA library... it certainly deserves attention. and I agree with you 100% that it was a fine incubator for talent. My research pulled up some material from the later years and I was pleasantly surprised at the high level of illustration talent.

I'm not familiar with the Barbarian strip you mentioned, but around 2004 The Disney Channel ran an animated series called "Dave the Barbarian"—perhaps what you saw were comic pages based on that show?

Glad things were refreshed for you from this post: I had to make some judicious cuts, because the post was getting extremely long: a LOT happened during the first 12 months or so of Disney Comics. This chapter took as long as it did because *I* forgot how much came out that first year, it turned into much more research and editing than I realized! - Dan

Dan said...


Thank you, as usual for the praise and the praise-swelled post over at TIAH! Your thesis on the "core four" and selected specials would have been a wiser starting point from the inception: basically the Disney Comics formatting and line-up post-Implosion (minus Mickey) but it was already to late to bounce back by that point.

To place an educated guess: I imagine Michael Lynton observed a list of what Gladstone was then publishing: eight titles and two albums, not realizing those titles were on a schedule of rotating every other month (four titles and one album a month) *and* that these consisted of primarily reprinted material and support text. The decision to maintain a schedule of eight monthly titles, each with a high percentage of new material on a MONTHLY basis was bold for any new publishing venture.

You're so right that the bottom line is the bottom line, of course: modest to low profits were already out of vogue in the company by 1992. Michael Eisner had made it clear that every branch of the company *had* to become a profit center, lest they become victim of severe cuts, or worse, face liquidation. It's amazing that Disneyland Paris is still operating in 2014 (but that's another story!)

A book on the overall history of Walt Disney comics in the U.S. would be a wonderful read if it doesn't come across like a textbook or financial report... perhaps someday we can make it happen! Thanks again for banging the drum! - Dan