Even though we’re fully past the holiday season, I find myself still reflecting on it (and the books that are regularly a part of it). I’m a devout Christian, but I struggle with Christmas every year. It should be a time of celebration, but I often find myself dreading it. I dislike the modernity of it, and the commercialized sheen of it, and try to avoid that as much as possible, which makes me a regular Scrooge in the Hoffman household. My distaste for the capitalist bent of Christmas has to coexist with everyone else’s expectations for the season; while I’d rather we do something meaningful with our time during Christmastide, I’m always having to make a Christmas list for the annual family gift exchange.
With this reluctance noted, Fantagraphics has spent quite a few years making my life as easy as possible around Christmas. There’s always a new Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Uncle Scrooge collection coming out around this time, a convenient gift that I will actually enjoy, unlike a novelty bottle of hot sauce or a pair of dog hair de-shedding gloves (which, if anyone could tell me how to de-shed the gloves after you’ve de-shedded the dog, that would be very helpful).
I’ve only gotten a little pushback from my requests for a new Mickey or Donald box set each year. They are an easy gift for befuddled parents and relatives, and unlike all of my other comics proclivities, easily explained. “I love the characters and the art,” I would explain to my family. “I love the history in these books, and what they represent. Gottfredson is a genius, and these comics are still amazing. I hope to share them with my children someday.” The good news is that that day is now – you can often find my oldest child hanging out in my office emerged in the House of Mouse with a book by Gottfredson, Scarpa, Rosa, or Murray.
In that same lineage is the latest Fantagraphics Mickey Mouse release, Zombie Coffee, by Régis Loisel. The production is quite nice on this book – Fantagraphics has designed a portrait slipcase for a landscape book, which gets around the inherent shelf-depth issues that most landscape books deal with. The color is rich and deep, and the paper quality makes the book feel much bigger than its 80 pages would otherwise suggest. I’m sure there are folks out there that would collect Mickey Mouse comics printed on napkins, but the production quality alone could justify the purchase of this book as a gift for a friend.
Thankfully, you’re not just buying a well-produced book — you’re buying one of the best Mickey Mouse stories published in ages. Mickey and Horace Horsecollar play leading roles alongside Minnie and Clarabell Cow against the dastardly Rock Fueler, a hippo banking tycoon looking to buy up all the property in the local area (including Mickey and Minnie’s house) in order to build a fancy new golf course. Fueler sets the local riff-raff against Mickey and friends to try to muscle them out of their homes after they refuse to sell, but, when that doesn’t work, he uses the culinary chemistry skills of two stork scientists to bewitch the entire town into working just to pay for exorbitantly priced hamburgers that smell amazing but taste like nothing.
Loisel does a remarkable job evoking the Depression-era feel of Steamboat Willie and the slapstick of Gottfredson’s best work. It’s funny, and, despite the old-timey setting, has a remarkably timeless story. The themes of the worker vs. capital, power, money, and gentrification, ring true to the now of 2023 without feeling out of place in a Mickey Mouse comic. The story might feel a little Hallmark compared to our day-to-day lives — the good guy does come out victorious in the end, after all — but even though it’s well-worn, it’s a remarkably fun rendition of a classic story.
Loisel is clearly creating an homage to the original Mickey Mouse comic strips, but there’s a sense of modernity to these comics that is undeniable. The original comics of Gottfredson, especially at his peak, evoke a sense of a stage play – there’s a standard pacing and angle by which the reader approaches the comic with every reading, as though you were sitting in a theater watching Disney characters perform. This design and pacing choice in the comics harkens back to the minstrel theater that is at the core of the Mickey Mouse aethetic. When he’s working at his best, Gottfredson’s lines are tight and precise, and you have the sense that his control over the pen when creating these comics is extraordinary. However, there are moments when Gottfredson lets his characters leave the stage in one way or another. When the classic stage is disrupted, Gottfredson’s comics feel disjointed or strange. Loisel’s Mickey, on the other hand, is more of an action movie; the reader follows the adventurous mouse off stage and through the loop-de-loop of swinging demolition balls and the screech of tires, changing the reader’s viewing angle so often that it can be hard to remember which way is down. The motion of Loisel’s creative approach to Mickey makes me think of the way animation has changed since the 1930s. When Gottfredson was originally making his Mickey Mouse comics, animation was still very much in its infancy; Steamboat Willie came out only 2 years before Gottfredson began his 45-year run on Mickey Mouse. His aesthetic and design choices for the comics mimicked the squash and stretch of their corresponding animation. But in 2023 the way artists (including the studios owned by the House of Mouse) use animation to tell stories is far more complex, and Loisel’s approach mimics that more modern aesthetic. While I suspect that some readers will dislike the way this collection diverges from Gottfredson’s traditional approach, I ultimately found it charming.
While there have been many creators who have tried their hand at making Mickey Mouse comics, this story makes me yearn for more Loisel. The author’s love for the craft and the subject matter in this book is unmistakable. His colors are impeccable despite seeming to be dashed off, and the scratchiness of his line feels perfectly in sync with the story he is telling. It all comes together as one cohesive whole. Zombie Coffee is, above all things, a raucous, joyful book. When each page of a book is this alive and this enjoyable, Zombie Coffee is a testament to what the form can achieve.
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