Opening from 'Lost On A Desert Island' (13 January 1930), and thus Mickey's first comic strip appearance. © Disney

Ub Iwerks is one of the legends of animation, famous for his work with Walt Disney. He is credited with the creation of the world's most famous cartoon character, 'Mickey Mouse', a fact even the Walt Disney Company nowadays acknowledges. Iwerks furthermore created many of Mickey's side characters and was the first artist to draw a comic strip about the iconic mouse. He drew in a lively style and was both fast as well as efficient. The man furthermore made several technical contributions in the field of special effects. Throughout most of the 1920s, he was Disney's loyal right hand, co-creating the foundations of what is now the Disney empire. For six years during the early 1930s Iwerks tried out a solo career and set up his own animation studio. Lack of success forced him to return to Disney, where he spent his final years as a special effects expert.

Early life and career
Both Iwerks and Disney were born in the same year, 1901, but Iwerks hailed from Kansas City rather than Chicago. Ubbe Eert Iwwerks was of German descent: his father had emigrated from East Frisia to the USA in 1869. From an early age he showed a talent for drawing both fast as well as efficient. In 1919 Iwerks met Disney and they co-founded their own studio Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, which went bankrupt within a month. A year later they joined the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where some of their colleagues were Hugh Harman, Fred Harman and Friz Freleng. Iwerks and Disney studied animation - still a young and crude medium at that time - and made cartoons after hours. By 1922 they felt confident enough to quit the company and start their own animation studio, producing the 'Laugh-O-Gram' series.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, by Ub Iwerks
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. © Disney

Even back then Disney was an ambitious man. He wanted to improve the quality of his cartoons and bring the audience something different. His 'Laugh-O-Gram' series were an early attempt to adapt well-known fairy tales into animated cartoons, but failed to interest any major distributors. As a result his company went bankrupt again. With financial aid from his brother Roy a new series was established: the 'Alice Comedies' (1923), which combined animation with live-action. It had more success and for five years Disney managed to keep out of debt. Iwerks was such a fine draftsman that he animated most of the scenes personally. This encouraged Disney to quit drawing himself by 1926 and focus on the stories, production and organisation. That way each man could do what he was best at.

Advertising art from The Film Daily Year Book 1929. © Disney

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
In 1927 the 'Alice' series had overstated their welcome. Iwerks created and designed a new cartoon character, 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit'. Thanks to his exceptional drawing skills and Disney's understanding of story structure, 'Oswald' did well with audiences. However, their producer Charles Mintz refused to raise their budget. When Disney complained he was shocked to learn that it was Mintz, rather than him, who owned the rights to the character. Not only did he take away their breakthrough character: he also bought almost Disney's entire staff. Only Iwerks remained loyal to his good friend. Up until 1943 new ‘Oswald’ cartoons would be created, the majority by Walter Lantz, but they were never quite as popular again. As a comics character Oswald lasted longer. In 1935 DC Comics launched a comic book series around Oswald, drawn by Al Stahl. In 1942 Dell Comics relaunched ‘Oswald’ comics, with the help of writer John Stanley and artists like Dan Gormley, Dan Noonan, Lloyd White and Jack Bradbury. Production kept going long after Oswald had vanished from screens. In 2006 the Walt Disney Company bought the rights to Oswald back, making the rabbit part of the Disney universe.

Mickey Mouse
Bankrupt once again, robbed from their only genuine hit and with only a one animator left, Disney's Hollywood career seemed over. Yet Ub and Walt ultimately had the last laugh when Iwerks redesigned Oswald into a mouse. Disney and Iwerks took much of their inspiration from the pantomime comic 'Adventures of Johnny Mouse' (1913-1915) by Clifton Meek, which featured a mouse of whom Disney admired its "cute little ears". Their character was dubbed 'Mickey', a suggestion from Walt's wife, and became Disney's new attempt to create a cartoon star of his own. Mickey's first two shorts, 'Plane Crazy' (1928) and 'Gallopin' Gaucho' (1928) received lukewarm reviews, but once Disney added sound to his third cartoon, 'Steamboat Willie' (1928), Mickey Mouse became a huge commercial and universal hit. While 'Steamboat Willie' wasn't the first sound cartoon in history, it was the first professionally slick marriage between sound and animation. Sounds, music and imagery were blended so well that it made Disney rich. Soon he and Iwerks had enough money to found their own independent company, launching the immortal and invincible Disney empire.

Ub Iwerks
Ub Iwerks in 1929

Style and craftmanship
Iwerks' hand in Disney's success is often unfairly overlooked. For many decades the company downplayed the fact that Iwerks created Mickey, but eventually they did give him the proper credit. While Walt voiced Mickey until 1940 and came up with engaging storylines Iwerks gave the character life. From a technical point of view he was an extraordinary cartoonist. His characters had a vitality which could compete with the best cartoons from the 1920s. He almost singlehandedly drew every frame of the 'Oswald' and early 'Mickey' cartoons, thanks to his amazing working speed. During the making of 'Plane Crazy' he made 700 drawings in one day, breaking 'Felix the Cat' animator Bill Nolan's previous record of 600 drawings in 24 hours. Iwerks also created many of Mickey's friends, such as Minnie Mouse, Clarabella Cow and Horace Horsecollar, and his arch nemesis Pegleg Pete (who actually originated from a 1925 'Alice' short). Mickey's spirit owed a lot to Charlie Chaplin and naturally the character's closest predecessor 'Felix the Cat' by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer.

Mickey Mouse by Ub Iwerks

Mickey Mouse comics
Iwerks often worked alone, but at his own insistance. When the first Silly Symphony 'The Skeleton Dance' (1929) was made, Disney urged Iwerks to let others help him animate the picture, but he stubbornly refused. Seemingly tireless, Iwerks also drew the first 'Mickey Mouse' comic, 'Lost on a Desert Island', which was distributed to newspapers by King Features Syndicate from 13 January 1930 on. The story was written by Disney himself, and borrowed heavily from the recent shorts 'Plane Crazy' (1928) and 'Jungle Rhythm' (1929), but also from older 'Oswald' and 'Laugh-O-Gram' films. However, Iwerks retired from the comic after only a few episodes in early February 1930, and handed the strip over to his inker Win Smith. Smith called it quits in May of that year, after which Floyd Gottfredson brought the 'Mickey Mouse' newspaper comic to greater heights in the decades that followed.

Mickey Mouse by Ub Iwerks

Solo career
The reason for Iwerks' sudden interruption was not tiredness but a severe falling-out with Disney. Walt wanted to professionalize his cartoons and move away from the weightless "rubber hose" animation that was in vogue in those days. As skillful as Iwerks was, he just couldn't meet these new standards. His reluctance to work in a team also became too problematic. Eventually he left Disney and started his own animation studio at M.G.M. He produced many shorts, of which the series 'Flip the Frog' (1930-1933) and 'Willie Whopper' (1933-1934) are the best known. None of his pictures were very succesful and only 'Balloonland' (1935) has remained a cult favorite. Iwerks lacked Disney's talent for storytelling and was more preoccupied with the technical aspects of his films than the content. In 1933 he invented a multiplane camera almost seven years before Disney would to the same. While Iwerks' version was less flexible it was at least cheaper to receive the same astounding results. But none of his skills could hide the fact that his cartoons looked increasingly old-fashioned while Disney and the Fleischers upped the ante in terms of sophistication. By 1936 he was forced to close his studio down. Among the people who once worked for Iwerks were Dick Bickenbach, Lee Blair, Mary Blair, Stephen Bosustow, Scott Bradley, Les Clark, Ben Clopton, Shamus Culhane, Izzy Ellis, Al Eugster, Dick Hall, Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, Cal Howard, Earl HurdChuck Jones, Tom Massey, Grim Natwick, Virgil Ross, Irven Spence and Frank Tashlin.

Still from 'Balloonland'

Return to Disney
Iwerks briefly worked for Warner Bros, producing four 'Porky Pig' cartoons - the latter two directed by Bob Clampett. He then joined Columbia Pictures until finally returning to Disney in 1940. There he worked as a special effects technician until his death in 1971. In the late 1950s, he invented the Multihead Optical Printer, a technique that allowed an animated character to interact with real-life actors, as featured in Disney's films 'The Three Caballeros" (1944), 'Song of the South' (1946) and 'Mary Poppins' (1964). He also worked at WED Enterprises, helping to develop many Disney theme park attractions during the 1960s, including the Hall of Presidents in Disneyland. Iwerks' adaptation of a photocopy machine to transfer drawings directly onto cels saved animators a lot of time and was first used in '101 Dalmatians' (1961). Apart from Disney he also did the special effects for Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic 'The Birds' (1963). He passed away in 1971 and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1989.

Self-portrait by Ub Iwerks

Series and books by Ub Iwerks in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.