Walt Disney, founder of the world's biggest and most famous entertainment enterprise, may not have created many comics himself, but as the creator of iconic characters like 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Donald Duck' his influence can't be overstated. Born Walter Elias Disney in Chicago into a family of Irish immigrants, he spent his childhood in Marceline, Missouri and later Kansas City, where he took Saturday courses from the Kansas City Art Institute. The family returned to Chicago in 1917 where Walt attended the Chicago Art Institute and was the school paper cartoonist.
During World War I, he was an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in France, while sending his cartoons to magazines like Life and Judge back home. Back in civil life in 1919, Walt decided to further pursue his artistic career in Kansas City. He found employment with the Pesman-Rubin Art Studio, where he did artwork for advertisements. Influenced by cartoonists like George McManus and Carey Orr, he even developed a comic strip called 'Mr George's Wife'. Disney eventually left Pesman-Rubin to begin his own shortlived studio with his former studio colleague Ub Iwerks. The duo's commercial art studio didn't work out, but their collaboration proved fruitful. They subsequently joined the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where they did their first animation work.
Highly intrigued by this new art form, Disney opened his own Laugh-O-Gram Studio in 1921, where he produced short animated films that were screened in the local Kansas City cinemas owned by Frank L. Newman. Disney's first employee was Fred Harman, the future creator of 'Red Ryder', and the studio later also hired Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Iwerks. The studios went bankrupt after which Walt decided to try his luck in Hollywood, California. He joined forces with his brother Roy. They found the New York distributor Margaret Winkler prepared to distribute the so-called 'Alice Comedies', that Walt had started in Kansas.
The 'Alice's Wonderland' cartoons where the first production of the Disney Broters' Studio in the Silver Lake district. The series was a combination between animation (the cat Julius) and a real life girl (Alice, orginally played by Virginia Davis) and also featured the first appearance, or at least a predecessor, of Mickey's nemesis Peg-Leg Pete. By 1927 the Disney Studio's were hired by Universal to produce an all-animated series, which resulated in the creation of 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit'. Oswald was a hit and gave Walt and Roy to opportunity to expand their studio. An argument over fees left the brothers without a contract and without a characters, since Universal owned the rights, in 1928 (it took the Disney Company until 2006 to reacquire the rights to Oswald).
Mickey Mouse postcards, around 1931
Disney was forced to come up with a new protagonist. Instead of a rabbit, he picked a mouse, and Mickey was born! Graphically created by Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse's first appearance was in the 1928 silent shorts 'Plane Crazy' and 'The Gallopin' Gaucho', but he was first presented in the following year with 'Steamboat Willie', a cartoon with sound! The cartoons were largely produced by Ub Iwerks, while Walt provided Mickey's voice. Mickey was already joined by his girlfriend Minnie in the first cartoons, as well as Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cow, who were an actual horse and cow at first. The cast was soon enhanced by Goofy (who was originally called Dippy Dawg) and Pluto.
The adding of sound to cartoon films provided new opportunities, such as the 'Silly Symphonies' series, that started with 'The Skeleton Dance' in 1929. These were short, humorous animations in which the characters, mostly anthropomorphic animals, moved in time to music. Some of these characters became modern icons, such as Bucky Bug ('Bugs in Love', 1932), The Big Bad Wolf ('The Three Little Pigs', 1933), Little Hiawatha (1937) and, most notably, 'Donald Duck' ('The Wise Little Hen', 1934). The short-tempered duck, narrated by Clarence Nash, also appeared in the 'Mickey Mouse' shorts that same year, and eventually got his own line of cartoons in 1937, starting with 'Don Donald'.
The short films had provided the Disney Studio's enough opportunities to experiment with animation techniques, like the multiplane camera invented by Iwerks, that Walt's dream of a feature-length animation film could become reality. The first film was 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', and it was a revolution upon its release in 1937. It was followed by classic films like 'Pinocchio' (1940), 'Fantasia' (1940), 'Bambi' (1942), 'Cinderella' (1950), 'Peter Pan' (1953) and many more, that have thrilled many generations until today. Walt Disney held creative control, while he surrounded himself with the greatest talents available, such as Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas (this group of animators was later refered to as "Disney's Nine Old Men").
Lost on a Desert Island, the first Mickey Mouse newspaper strip in 1930, was largely based on Plane Crazy.
Very early on, Disney used the popularity of newspaper comics to further promote his films and characters. The first official 'Mickey Mouse' comic strip appeared in US newspapers on 30 January 1930, and was written by Disney himself, and drawn by Iwerks. Iwerks was replaced by Win Smith after a couple of episodes, and Disney handed over the writing duties to Floyd Gottfredson in May. Gottfredson, in cooperation with writers like Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris and Bill Walsh, would continue to further develop Mickey's comic character in many classic newspaper stories until his retirement in 1975.
Donald Duck finds pirate gold (1942), Carl Barks' first Donald Duck story
Earl Duvall and Al Taliaferro were assigned to make a weekly 'Silly Symphonies' Sunday comic strip. Besides adaptations of the films, they also made new continuities with Bucky Bug. By 1938, Taliaferro moved on to do a daily gag strip starring Donald Duck and his nephews, written by Homer Brightman and later Bob Karp. Donald's character was deepened in the many classic stories Carl Barks made for the comic book line that Dell Publishing/Western Comics had started in 1942. A great many new characters were added to the Duck universe, of which Donald's greedy Uncle Scrooge and the brilliant inventor Gyro Gearloose and the most notable.
Many of the other Disney characters also found their way to Dell's 'Four Color Comics', and the most popular eventually got their own title. New stories with the Big Bad Wolf, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Bucky Bug, B'rer Rabbit and Little Hiawatha were created by the Western's staff artists, including Paul Murry, Tony Strobl, Jack Bradbury, Gil Turner, Al Hubbard, Carl Buettner, Riley Thomson and many more. It didn't take long before these stories, as well as the newspaper comics, were distributed all around the world. Some countries even began their own production of stories, such as Denmark, France, Italy, Brazil and the Netherlands.
Although all the comics appeared under Disney's signature, Walt's focus was by then on the cartoons, the many TV shows the Disney Company produced (and Walt often hosted himself), and... an amusement park! Disney drew his first sketches for an amusement park in 1946, but it wasn't until 17 July 1955 that the grand opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, was presented live on television by Ronald Reagan, among other hosts.
Walt Disney presenting the map of Disneyland
By the early 1960s, Walt Disney Productions had established itself as the world's leading producer of family entertainment. Not only his animated films, but also live action films like 'Mary Poppins' have become classics. Plans for a new themepark in Orlando, Florida were made, as well as an Experimental Prototype City (or Community) of Tomorrow, called EPCOT. Walt Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 1966, and passed away on 15 December of that year, a couple of days after his 65th birthday. Shortly afterwards, Roy Disney announced that the new themepark would be called Walt Disney World, in honor of his brother. The park opened in October 1971.
The Walt Disney Company is, to this day the world's largest entertainment multinational. After a period of decline in the seventies, Disney's film department rose like a phoenix with action-packed romantic animation films like 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King'. The company pioneerd again with the 3D animation films made in cooperation with Pixar Studios, such as 'Toy Story', 'Finding Nemo' and 'Monsters Inc.'.. New theme parks have been opened in Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, and Disney comic magazines appear all over the world. In 2009 the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Comics, home of classic superheroes like 'Spider-Man', 'The Hulk', 'Iron Man' and 'The X-Men'.
Walt Disney at his drawing board, 1922
"All our dreams can come true -
if we have the courage to pursue them."
- Walt Disney