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The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Twenty-Two

Stout’s annotations are in italics.

Segueing from Stout’s involvement with Underground Comix to his creation of a modern underground classic, MICKEY AT 60, seems (Mr.) natural at this point in the interview.

ARCUDI: On the flip side of that is Mickey at 60 – isn’t that really a reaction to what was going on at the time?

STOUT: Absolutely. It was a reaction to my own work in a sense. Mickey at 60 came about when I was working as a full-time consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering, designing additions to Disneyland Anaheim, Tokyo Disneyland, Euro-Disneyland, and Walt Disney World in Florida. This happened to be during Mickey Mouse’s 60th Anniversary. We were being inundated with this Mickey’s 60th stuff.

I stopped and thought one day, “What would Mickey really look like if he were 60? He hasn’t done a picture in years; he’s probably let himself go. Minnie’s divorced him and is living off of her alimony in Miami.” I did this drawing of this fat, grotesque rat-like creature. He’s unshaven and sulking in his own sort of miserable past glory. I showed it around and it got a big laugh, a big reaction at work.

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a strip of this guy.” So I did a three or four panel strip and I left the word balloons blank. The strip consisted of just Mickey’s facial expressions changing. I passed the strip with the blank balloons to my friend Jim Steinmeyer, one of my best friends at Disney, a brilliant guy. He’s probably the world’s greatest authority on 18th and 19th century stage magic. He creates and designs magic tricks for a living, like the major illusions for David Copperfield, all of Doug Henning’s stuff, Siegfried and Roy, Lance Burton – Jim’s the best; an extraordinary guy. He’s also a very funny writer and a great caricaturist as well.

Jim filled in the word balloons with some of the funniest dialogue I’d ever read. It just had me on the floor. I thought, “This is great.” I drew some more strips and passed them to him, just to see what he would write and he wrote some more stuff in them.

It was just as funny if not funnier than the stuff he’d originally written. People saw them and they wanted copies of them, so we Xeroxed copies and passed them around. We kept doing this because it was so much fun.

It was the antithesis of everything that I was known for as an artist. People usually expect really slick, completely planned-out stuff with a really fine finish from me. I was always fascinated, though, by Robert Crumb’s comics and sketchbook stuff. A lot of the stuff that he did wasn’t penciled. He was inking it directly from his head. He did a lot of it actual size. It was just amazing to me. And it looked great, besides. So, I made a promise to myself that I would draw these strips actual printed size but I wouldn’t pencil them. I would just go right to ink. I wouldn’t even use rulers for the panel borders. That way it didn’t seem like work. It was really liberating to be that free with my line.

Because I wasn’t actually writing them except for doing dramatic visual set-ups for each strip, the actual dialogue was being written by Jim Steinmeyer, this kept it really exciting and fresh for both of us. He never knew what I was going to draw, and I didn’t know what he was going to write; it was entertaining and amusing and always a surprise to each of us.

After a while, I thought, “You know what? I think we might have enough of these strips for a book. Wouldn’t it be fun to… (harkening back to my underground stuff) … publish a Mickey at 60 book and see the public’s reaction.”

Again, I deliberately did really cheesy printing; it was Xerox printing on white paper with cardstock covers and a two staple binding. I called it an “anti-comic” because it was sort of the “anti-” of everything else I’d done in comics. There was a purposeful crudeness to it.

We did a limited signed edition. I thought of it more as an art object like the artist books that Ed Ruscha (pronounced Roo-SHAY) did back in the `60s. For comics people who aren’t familiar with Ed Ruscha, which is probably all of you out there, he was an important Los Angeles pop artist who did – and still does – extraordinary stuff. He worked in a realistic art manner with a great sense of humor. Probably his most famous piece is one that’s not actually funny. It’s a picture of the Hollywood sign at sunset.

He would do stuff like render blobs of water pooling up on a slick surface and he would make the water spell out the letters “drops.”

Or he’d render all of these realistic-looking ants; they’d all be bunched together in clusters that spelled out “ants.” Stuff like that. Ruscha’s work got appropriated by a lot of people, especially in advertising.

Ed Ruscha used to do these cool little books of his photographs. Judy Goode, my girlfriend at the time (1970), turned me on to Ed’s art books. Ed was the Best Man at her first marriage to celebrated pop artist Joe Goode. Ed did one book where he photographed the entire length of the Sunset Strip and then made a book titled Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

The book was printed on one continuous sheet so that you could unfold the pages of the book and see the entire Sunset Strip. Another book was of places that were called Ed’s. Another was just photographs of Los Angeles palm trees. You could purchase these inexpensive books (I wish I had) in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gift shop.

So I saw Mickey at 60 as being an art object like Ed’s books were. It was unbelievably successful. We printed 300 copies; it sold out in about two hours at Comic-Con in San Diego. Michael Eisner personally requested a copy. I sent him one via our WDI interoffice mail system. We charged 15 bucks apiece for them and donated all of the money to the Crippled Children’s Society. Since Jim and I were doing work at Disney, we didn’t feel that it was right to make money from anything even slightly related to Disney — although we hung on to all of the Mickey at 60 rights. A good thing to do, as later Disney licensed the character from us for use in their Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island in Walt Disney World.

They also licensed a page we did for inclusion in The Art of Mickey Mouse book. There we were, in a fine art book with Andy Warhol.

ARCUDI: Every strip, you do the art first and there was no discussion at any point about the direction any of these strips were going to go?

STOUT: There was discussion about the direction, but it was in the vaguest of terms. I would never dictate dialogue to Jim. For instance, I would say, “This is Mickey at a book signing, and no one’s showing up for the signing. Or maybe one person shows up. On this page, he’s in the progressive stages of having a heart attack.” [Laughter] Not only is he having a heart attack – and this is something I didn’t know of course, because I didn’t write the dialogue – he’s in the recovery room after the heart attack, and you discover through Jim’s dialogue that Mickey’s been given a heart transplant; he’s been given the heart of the baboon from The Lion King. Which of course sends him directly into another heart attack. We wouldn’t tell each other what we were going to do. That was part of the fun of it.

ARCUDI: You were really dictating more the way the story was going than Jim, I guess by virtue of the art?

STOUT: Not necessarily. There’d be a page and I’d say, “This is Mickey in Las Vegas.” I wouldn’t tell him any more than what he could conclude from the pictures – that Mickey’s watching a stage show or he’s working the slot machines. Because of Jim’s Vegas experience, Jim suggested that Mickey play Keno in one strip.

ARCUDI: I know you weren’t with Disney anymore, but when you did the second issue, did you do the strips in the same fashion?

STOUT: Yeah, the exact same way. It was a little more frustrating for me because I was really tempted to write. I really wanted to write some stuff of my own, but I thought, “No. I really want to keep that Jim’s domain.”

ARCUDI: Was that liberating in the sense of, “Hey, I don’t have to do what everybody expects Bill Stout to do when I do this?”

STOUT: That was exactly the most liberating factor of it, discovering that I can do something kind of rough and crude and it’s still effective as art; it doesn’t have to be the ultimate in slickness. There was such a freedom to that.

It was also interesting to me what happened with the strip and where it went. Even though the very first drawing was, “O.K. What would Mickey Mouse look like if he were 60,” almost immediately the strip had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. It was really a satire of old Hollywood actors that both Jim and I had known; the life of these guys who were still mentally living in their days of former glory but who were now holed up in these squalid little bungalows, all bitter about the biz. There’s a lot of Mickey Rooney in our Mickey. It became a satire on show business, especially as Mick tries to get work and has to deal with the studios. At one point Disney takes away his ears. They won’t let him wear the ears in public any more. [Interviewer laughs.] That came out of a real life situation, when the studio who owned the Lone Ranger wouldn’t let Clayton Moore (the actor who played the Lone Ranger on the TV series) wear the Lone Ranger mask in public.

ARCUDI: Have you done anything since?

STOUT: We did that second issue of Mickey at 60 you mentioned in 1996. It was an election year, so we had Mickey running for President — just as Mickey Rooney had done. Looking back at this issue recently, I was astounded. For the readers of this new version of the interview, I’ll show you a few of the strips that gobsmacked me with their prescience. You’ve got to remember that this was written in 1996:

Remind you of anyone?

I am a big fan of Edward Hopper‘s art. I adapted five of his drawings and one painting to portray the bleakness of Mickey’s life. Unlike the strips, these were pretty tightly executed, as I really wanted to keep the Hopper flavor and mood.

ARCUDI: Have you allowed yourself that same freedom since then?

STOUT: Well, yeah, somewhat with my sketchbooks, although they seem to be getting tighter and tighter. One of the things I do now with some of the sketchbooks I’ve published is show my thumbnail drawings. I also show sketches that aren’t necessarily finished sketches but that I think have a kernel of either a good design or a good idea; they’re not necessarily all slick and finished.

That’s the sort of stuff I like to see from artists. I learn so much more from looking at sketches and drawings when I go to museums than from looking at the finished paintings. Because the finished painting – it’s difficult to see how the artist thinks because all of his thinking is buried under the layers of paint and and a slick finish. The artist is actually trying to remove you from that in his finished work and to present the finished work as an entity on its own, whereas I’m more interested in the process of how the artist got to that finished piece.

My Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dinosaurs and Monsters sketchbooks show that process. It shows stuff like, “I started out drawing a T. rex this way, but I didn’t like that, so I redrew it that way. But I had a better idea the third time and that’s the one I went with.”

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