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' (1928), 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 dynamic style and was both fast as well as efficient. As Disney's loyal right hand, he co-laid the foundations of what is now the Disney empire. Between 1930 and 1936 Iwerks tried out his own animation studio. Lack of success forced him to return to Disney in 1940, where he spent his final years as a special effects expert. Many of his technical contributions in this latter field have been important to the history of cinema. 

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. In 1919 Iwerks met Disney with whom he co-founded their own studio: Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The reason his name was put in front of Disney's was because Walt felt 'Disney-Iwerks' would sound too much like an eyeglass manufacturing company. Nevertheless they 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. After hours Iwerks and Disney studied animation - still a young and crude medium at that time - and made their own cartoon shorts. 

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

Laugh-O-Gram / Alice Comedies
By 1922 Disney and Iwerks felt confident enough to quit the company and start their own animation studio. Disney 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 was succesful enough to keep Disney out of debt for a few years. Iwerks was such a fine draftsman and fast worker that he animated most of the scenes personally. In 1925 he also created the very first enduring Disney character: Peg-Leg Pete, who would be re-used three years later as Mickey's nemesis Pete. By 1926 Disney quit drawing and focused exclusively 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 Mintz owned the rights. Not only did he take away their breakthrough character: he also bought away nearly Disney's entire staff. Only Iwerks remained loyal. Mintz produced new ‘Oswald’ cartoons up until 1943, the majority directed by a still unknown Walter Lantz, but the series was 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 he ultimately had the last laugh when Iwerks redesigned Oswald into a mouse, heavily inspired by the pantomime comic 'Adventures of Johnny Mouse' (1913-1915) by Clifton Meek, of which Disney admired its "cute little mice ears". At the suggestion of Walt's wife they named their mouse 'Mickey'. His first two animated cartoons  'Plane Crazy' (1928) and 'Gallopin' Gaucho' (1928) failed to find a distributor, but once Disney added sound to his third cartoon, 'Steamboat Willie' (1928), Mickey Mouse became a huge commercial and universal hit. While not the first sound cartoon in history, sound effects, music and imagery were blended so well that it was a groundbreaking technical achievement. Within only a few years Mickey Mouse became the most succesful and iconic animated series on the planet! In 1930 Disney established his own independent company which evolved into one of the wealthiest multinationals of all time. 

Ub Iwerks
Ub Iwerks in 1929.

Style and craftmanship
Walt Disney voiced Mickey from 1928 until 1940. He also gave him his personality and guidelined the engaging storylines of his animated shorts. In spirit Mickey owed a lot to Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character and naturally the previous most popular animated cartoon star in the world: 'Felix the Cat' by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. But Iwerks' contributions are still often overlooked, mostly because Disney is more famous. For decades the company downplayed his role in Disney's success, even claiming that Walt stood behind him as he first created the famous mouse. Today it is firmly acknowledged, even by the Walt Disney Company itself, that Iwerks basically designed Mickey on his own. He also created many side characters, such as Mickey's girlfriend Minnie and their friends Clarabella Cow and Horace Horsecollar. Pete, who originated from a 1925 'Alice' short, was now reintroduced to become Mickey's arch nemesis. Pete originally looked more like a big cat, making him and Mickey the first cat-and-mouse duo in animation. This would pave the way for Hanna-Barbera's Tom & Jerry' (1940-1958),'Pixie, Dixie and Mr. Jinks' (1958-1961), 'Punkin' Puss & Mushmouse' (1964-1965) and 'Motormouse and Autocat' (1969-1971), as well as Famous Studios' 'Herman and Katnip' (1940-1958), Terrytoons' 'Roquefort Mouse and Percy Cat' (1950-1955) and Matt Groening's 'Itchy and Scratchy' (1987) in 'The Simpsons'. Originally Pete had a peg-leg, explaining his original nickname 'Peg-leg Pete'. But animators had trouble remembering which leg it was, so after a while he was drawn with two legs instead. 

Iwerks was an extraordinarily talented cartoonist. His characters have 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 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. 

Mickey Mouse by Ub Iwerks

Mickey Mouse comics
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, in February 1930, after only a few weeks, Iwerks retired and handed the strip over to his inker Win Smith. Smith also called it quits by May, after which Floyd Gottfredson continued the comics series. During a brief interruption of two weeks - from 9 to 21 June 1930 - Jack King took over, but otherwise Gottfredson was the lead artist of the 'Mickey Mouse' comics for almost 45 years! He would develop the mouse into a proper comic strip character and bring both the comic, as well as the franchise in general, to greater heights. 

Mickey Mouse by Ub Iwerks

Leaving Disney
When Iwerks quit drawing the comic strip he also left Disney. The ever-ambitious Walt wanted to move away from the weightless "rubber hose" animation and make his characters look more realistic. In order to do so his animators needed to professionalize their drawing skills and stay "on-model". As skillful as Iwerks was, he just couldn't meet these new standards. His individualism also became problematic, since Disney wanted the company to evolve into a team effort. When Iwerks left, Disney's composer Carl Stalling followed his example. He was convinced that without Iwerks Disney was doomed. As history has proven, he was wrong...

Solo career
In 1930 Iwerks started his own animation studio at MGM. He produced many shorts, of which the series 'Flip the Frog' (1930-1933) and 'Willie Whopper' (1933-1934) are the best known. Yet none 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 in 1937, 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. He invented the Multihead Optical Printer, a technique that perfected interaction between an animated character and 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, co-developing many 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). 

Recognition
Iwerks won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement (1960) for his design of an improved optical printer for special effects and matte shots. He and Petro Vlahos also shared an Academy Award of Merit (1965) for the conception and perfection of techniques for color traveling matte composite cinematography. He was posthumously given a Winsor McCay Award (1978) at the Annie Awards and named a Disney Legend in 1989.

Death, legacy and influence
Ub Iwerks passed away in 1971. While his best work remains in the shadow of Disney he is still regarded as a legend. It cannot be overstated that he created the most recognizable fictional character on Earth! No small feat by any means. Mickey Mouse revitalized animation at a moment when the genre seemed to lose its popularity with audiences. The laughing mouse not only built the immortal Disney Empire, but also spawned the Golden Age of Animation (1930-1960). All film studios in the 1930s started their own animation department in the hope of creating their own succesful cartoon series. During the early 1930s many had a Mickeyesque character. Even the fact that many classic cartoon characters only have four fingers on each hand and wear gloves was unconsciously based on Mickey. Countless cute mice in children's stories, comics and cartoons have been modelled after him. In the 1930s all theaters had to run Mickey cartoons or people wouldn't enter them. At the time the phrase: "What? No Mickey Mouse!' was a popular euphemism for disappointment. Irving Caesar even wrote a novelty song about it: 'What! No Mickey Mouse? (What Kind Of Party Is This?) (1932). In 1932 Mickey became the first cartoon character to win an Academy Award and in 1978 he was the first fictional character to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1932 the League of Nations named him a "universal goodwill ambassador".

Mickey remains the mascot of the Walt Disney Company and used on millions of merchandising products, including comics and cartoons. Various Disney comics magazines carry his name in the title. Both him, Minnie Mouse and Pegleg Pete are still main cast members in his franchise. In the 1988 film 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' by Richard Williams and Robert Zemeckis Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cow appeared in cameos next to dozens of other classic cartoon characters. Mickey's round face and ears are one of the most recognizable company logos in the world. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Béla Lugosi, George V of the United Kingdom, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt named him "their favorite actor". Emperor Hirohito was such a fan of Mickey that after his death he was buried wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. Both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein created pop art paintings featuring Mickey. Together with Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty and Siegel & Shuster's 'Superman' (1938) Mickey is one of the few iconic characters to become a symbol of the United States. Not for nothing did U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 name Mickey "a symbol of goodwill, surpassing all languages and cultures. When one sees Mickey Mouse, they see happiness.". And in 2008 president Barack Obama joked: "It's always great to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me." 

Naturally Mickey is also the most parodied and ridiculed fictional character of all time. It already happened during the 1930s, when Mickey and his friends were shown in pornographic situations, exemplified in Tijuana Bibles. The Japanese animated cartoon 'Omochabako' (1936) by Komatusuzawa Hajime features the folk hero Momotaro battling a giant Mickeyesque mouse flying on a bat. Raymond Jeannin's 'Nimbus Libéré' (1944) was made in Vichy France during World War II and stars, apart from André Daix' 'Professeur Nimbus', Mickey, Donald and even Popeye bombing France. The most peculiar non-official appearance of Mickey was 'Mickey à Gurs' (1940), a text comic created by Horst Rosenthal, a prisoner in a Nazi POW camp who unfortunately didn't survive the war. Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's 'Mickey Rodent' (Mad Magazine, issue #19, 1955) was a hilariously cruel spoof, while Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's 'Rat Fink' was created as a vulgar parody of the iconic mouse. In Whitney Lee Savage's silent animated cartoon 'Mickey Mouse in Vietnam' (1969) Mickey - as a U.S. symbol - is drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, where he is shot upon arrival. The underground comic book 'Air Pirates Funnies' (1971) by Dan O'Neill, Bobby London, Shary Flenniken,Gary Hallgren, Ted Richards depicted Mickey and other Disney characters as sex and drug addicts. It was their determined and ultimately succesful intention to be sued by Disney. Even today Mickey is frequently used in subversive satire of children's media, the United States and/or the Walt Disney Corporation. 

Nevertheless, Iwerks left his cultural mark on the world. His cartoons have drawn respect and admiration from people like Osamu TezukaJean-Louis Lejeune and John KricfalusiFriz Freleng once said: "At the time, just making a character move was an accomplishment. Iwerks could make characters walk and move; he could move a house in perspective. I though he was a genius when it came to the mechanics of animation." His name also lives on in the Annie Award 'Ub Iwerks Award for Technical Achievement'. And Walt Disney himself always said that everything his company had accomplished within his lifespan "all started with a mouse." 


Self-portrait by Ub Iwerks.

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