A fan of mine from France, Guillaume, recently purchased my two “Mickey at 60″ comics through my website’s William Stout Bazaar. He had some questions about the origin of those books that I answered in an e-mail. I thought it would be fun to share our dialogue with you.
How did this project originate? Were some strips passed along? (scribbles passed on during meeting brainstorming?)
When I was at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), it happened to be during the time of Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday. We were being inundated with Mickey’s 60th birthday promotions and hype. I was getting sick of it. I thought, “What would Mickey really look like if he were 60?”
I figured physically, like a lot of old movie stars, he would have let himself go. I proceeded to draw a simple, overweight, grungy cartoon version of Mickey. The little drawing got a great reaction when I passed it around at a meeting. I loved that minimal effort was put into the drawing; it was very spontaneous. I started thinking about Robert Crumb’s comics, and how simple and unpretentious his drawing style is. The spontaneity and freedom of his work greatly appeals to me. Known for my work’s slickness, I wanted to try something along the lines of what Crumb did and see if I could pull it off.
I drew a three-panel comic strip with Mickey expressing various emotions. I drew word balloons but I left them blank. I passed it to my friend (and colleague at WDI) Jim Steinmeyer. He filled in the word balloons. What he wrote was hilarious. I drew some more strips this way and passed them to Jim, just to see what he would write. His text in those was brilliant as well. I collected the strips, put them all on to one page and made xerox copies. Then I distributed the copies to anyone who was interested there in our office area at WDI.
The pages got a great reaction, so we did more. I made a promise to myself not to get slick with any of this. I did not pencil the strips. They were all drawn actual printed size. It never got boring because Jim never knew what I was going to draw and I never knew what Jim was going to write. I occasionally gave Jim a brief guideline (“Mickey’s in the stages of having a heart attack,” or “Mickey’s getting audited by the Internal Revenue Service,” for example), but I never dictated any of Jim’s dialogue, as tempting as that was.
If you look at the first book, it’s easy to spot the early strips. My style for that book rapidly developed. After just three or four pages it codified into a cohesive style. It continued to change after that, but only by slight increments.
After awhile, I thought, “I think we might have enough pages here to make a book.” In keeping with its underground flavor, I wanted it to be as raw and crude and underground as possible in its presentation: crude printing (xerox), crude binding (two staples). I called it an “Anti-Comic.” I printed up the books and began to sell them within WDI. They sold briskly. Then I took a box of the remaining copies to San Diego for Comic-Con. Whooosh! They sold out within two hours! Some people bought six copies each!
Working as full time consultants for Disney, Jim and I didn’t feel right about making money from this, so we donated the profits from the book to the Crippled Children’s Society.
The “underground” aspect was important to me, as underground comix were pretty much dead at that point in time and I really missed them. I also was inspired by Ed Ruscha’s self-produced fine art books from the late 1960s. I saw the “Mickey at 60″ books in a similar light, as signed, limited edition fine art artist’s books.
“Mickey at 60″ was my first self-publication. It laid the groundwork for my highly successful sketchbook line that was to follow.
Did people at Disney know your and Jim’s project before it was finished?
Yes; it began as a form of office humor. As we created more and more pages, the demand for those pages grew. Eventually, the first issue was collected and published. After hearing about it through the Disney company grapevine, Michael Eisner personally requested a copy of the first book from me. I sent it to him through our inter-office mail system.
Did you know Jim before Disney ? I just read some strips of volume 2 but it seems that there’s great mutual understanding in the description of the Mouse (socially, politically…)
Jim and I were hired at WDI the same day and immediately put on a huge project together. One day mysterious anonymous (and brilliant) caricatures of members of our group began to appear on the walls of our meeting room. For months the identity of this mystery caricaturist was unknown. Eventually, it was revealed to be Jim. He’s like that. Very private, very mysterious — but always with a great sense of humor behind whatever he is doing.
Jim Steinmeyer is one of the most interesting (and funniest) guys you’d ever want to meet. He’s legendary within the magic community. What I call his “day job” is creating grand illusions for the world’s greatest magicians. Jim was close to Orson Welles and developed magic for him. He created all of Doug Henning’s tricks. He created the big illusions for the Las Vegas shows of Lance Burton and Siegfried & Roy. He made the Sleeping Beauty Castle and Statue of Liberty disappear on live TV for David Copperfield. He created the magic illusions for the live “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” stage shows and recently for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Jim is also a successful television special producer (as is his wife, Frankie Glass). He is the world’s greatest authority on late 19th century stage illusions and has written several books on the history of magic. We collaborated on his best seller “Hiding the Elephant – How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear” (I drew all of the magician’s portraits for the book).
Jim rarely performs himself, preferring to be the Man Behind the Curtain, but when he does, he’s incredibly charming and charismatic in a sweet, funny way.
Through our time at WDI, Jim and I became very close. We both shared a similar sense of humor; very dark and with no respect whatsoever for authority. Because I worked in film and Jim worked in various aspects of show business, we both had met lots of show biz personalities. We incorporated what we knew about The Biz in our Mickey strips. “Mickey at 60″ was quickly not about Mickey Mouse at all; it immediately became a vehicle for show biz satire and parody.
Jim and I are no longer at WDI, although we still occasionally work on projects there. Our collaborations since WDI include “Hiding the Elephant…” and a number of magic posters for the magic conference Jim presents in Los Angeles every two years.
What about vol.3?
I’d love to do a volume three. I’ve roughed out some ideas already. It takes time, though — both mine and Jim’s. I get easily distracted by paying jobs…
I also began writing a “Mickey at 60″ one man show. I was originally writing it for our mutual friend, Roger Cox. Roger would have been ideal to portray Mickey on stage but he sadly passed away. Roger’s death took a lot of the wind out of the sails of that project. I would still like to get back to it and finish it. I think it would make a great one man show and a hilarious “autobiographical” (from Mickey’s point of view) graphic novel.
You worked on other projects ( I know of illustrations for one of Jim’s books) but did you stop because both of you left Disney ?
The second “Mickey at 60″ was drawn eight years after the first one, long after I had left WDI. It was an election year. Mickey Rooney had just announced his candidacy for President. I thought the timing was pefect to do another Mickey in which Mickey ran for President. I talked it over with Jim and we produced the second volume.
Jim and I are still close. We try to collaborate whenever possible. We live in two different work worlds, however, so it’s not always easy to find something we can work on together.
Did people at Disney say they wouldn’t tolerate any more books?
No. In fact, Michael Eisner wrote me a personal letter telling me how much he enjoyed the first issue of “Mickey at 60.” There was even talk of including “Mickey at 60″ as a presence in the Comedy Warehouse (a club I helped to design) within the Pleasure Island section of Walt Disney World. I drew up “Mickey at 60″ drink napkins and Jim wrote hilarious word balloon dialogue for them. They were never manufactured, however. It seemed strange and ironic that WDI was going to license our “Mickey at 60″ character from us.
“Mickey at 60″ is one of the projects of which I am proudest. I truly think it’s one of the funniest comic books ever written. The show biz satire is dead on and hilarious. I look back at those drawings and wonder how I did them. It’s some of the simplest, yet most expressive work I’ve ever done.
Unlike my other work, neither book ever got reviewed or distributed because of a great Fear of Disney. So, “Mickey at 60″ has remained to this day a great, but little known, “underground” icon.