Words an’ Pictures: Blot Out the Lights!

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Greetings! After the discussion of Jacques Tardi’s West Coast Blues in my last post, I wanted to turn to another gritty crime-thriller, Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot from 1939.

Now, if “Mickey Mouse” and “gritty crime thriller” don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence, I would encourage you to think again. While nowadays, Mickey Mouse is essentially a mascot for the Disney corporation, in the 1930s and ’40s, he took down crime syndicates, solved mysteries, fought the Nazis, and more, all under the pencil of Floyd Gottfredson. If you’re interested in a more thorough discussion of Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comic work, you can feel free to read my earlier post here.

At its core, Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot is a classic Gottfredson caper, beginning with Mickey being called in by police chief O’Hara (by 1939, Mickey had already helped the police several times) to assist in an investigation into a series of robberies. All the police have to go on is the fact that the sole target of all of the crimes is one particular type of camera, and a series of enigmatic notes signed “The Blot.”

The action kicks in early — with Mickey being kidnapped by the Phantom Blot immediately after speaking to O’Hara — and does not stop for the duration of the story. This is certainly not the only mystery ever solved by Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, but I would argue that it is possibly the best. After nearly ten years of experience with the strip, Gottfredson’s plotting had hit an all-time high. The Phantom Blot story could be considered to be the beginning of one of the best runs of stories in the history of the strip, which ran until the outbreak of WWII, when the strip was temporarily drafted into wartime propaganda (a rant for a future post perhaps).

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My favorite thing about this particular storyline, however, is its darkness. The story begins with an urgent call from the police on a dark, stormy night, and an unexplained stalker follows Mickey on his trip to the station. The Phantom Blot (which we soon find out is what the shadowy figure is called) perfectly undercuts Mickey’s optimistic dialogue, highlighting one of my favorite aspects of Gottfredson’s strip in general. Oftentimes, Mickey doesn’t appear to be different from his modern day interpretation, but when Gottfredson takes the sunny, childish cartoon Mickey and places him in serious situations, he allows a depth of character to come through that is unfortunately absent from most Mickey Mouse-related cartoons coming out today.

From the beginning, this is a very serious story, with Mickey being trapped by the “Blot” in several deadly traps at different points. The Rube Goldberg aspect of these situations undercuts the dread with some humor, but it is fairly dark humor that does an excellent job of building up the Phantom Blot into one of Gottfredson’s greatest villains. The most fascinating thing about this story is arguably the Phantom Blot himself. Due to his shadowy nature, all we know about him is that he is completely unhinged, ready to murder Mickey in increasingly elaborate ways, and willing to go to great lengths to steal cameras for no apparent reason.

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It is also apparent that Gottfredson had been spending some time at the movies, with traces of film noir all over this story’s visuals. This is definitely one of the darker Mickey Mouse stories, both thematically and visually, with most of the action occurring at night. The most apparent example of noir influence on this story is in its antagonist, who, visually, is like a film noir trope gone to the absolute extreme. Why have a villain who simply casts a dark shadow when you could have one who literally is a dark shadow?

Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse is one of the greatest comic strips of all time, and Outwits the Phantom Blot is one of its best storylines, offering a great gateway into a large body of classic work. While there are certainly some classic elements of Gottfredson stories that are not present in this tale (primarily in its lack of side-characters), it exemplifies many of the things that make the strip such a classic: a nefarious villain, dynamic visuals, humor (sometimes fairly dark), and a firebrand mouse to hold everything together. While Mouseton may be bland and safe today, it was once the setting of murder, intrigue, and shadows that creep about in the night, and I encourage you to return to those times in Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot.

— Quinn Stratton, Comic Blogger

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