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

Ub Iwerks was a legendary American animator, 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 also created several enduring side characters, like Minnie Mouse, (Peg-leg) Pete, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cow. He was renowned for his dynamic style and ability to work fast and efficient. As Disney's loyal right hand during his early years of struggle, he co-laid the foundations of the Disney empire. In 1930 he was also the first artist to draw a comic strip about Mickey Mouse, thus making him the first official Disney comics artist in history. However, his comics career was brief: it only lasted a month. Between 1930 and 1936 Iwerks tried to establish his own animation studio. Lack of success brought him back to the Disney Studios in 1940, where he spent the rest of his career as a special effects expert. Many of his technical contributions have as been important to the history of live-action cinema as to animation.

Early life and career
Ubbe Eert Iwwerks was born in 1901 in Kansas City as the son of a barber. His father was a German immigrant, from East Frisia. Since the Netherlands also have a region named Frisia certain biographies have often incorrectly claimed Iwerks was from Dutch descent. From an early age he showed a gift for drawing. Iwerks' father left the family when Ub was a teenager. He was forced to drop out of school and get a job to help his mother survive. 

Meeting Walt Disney
In 1919 Iwerks and Disney first met, while working for the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio in Kansas City. Both men had a lot in common. They were born in the same year, with Disney only being nine months younger than him. Both had a bad relationship with their respective fathers, but were fascinated with animation. In 1919 they founded their own animation studio: Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Disney put Iwerks' name first, since he felt 'Disney-Iwerks' would give the wrong impression that they sold eyeglasses. Their business went bankrupt within a month. In 1920 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 
By 28 June 1921 Disney and Iwerks felt confident enough to quit the company and start their own animation studio. They named it the 'Laugh-O-Gram Studio'. They employed several animators they had met at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, namely Hugh Harman, Friz Freleng and Carmen Maxwell. Disney was an ambitious person and had many ideas for cartoons. Inspired by Terrytoons' series 'Aesop's Fables', Laugh-O-Gram also created animated shorts loosely based on well known public doman stories. Only in their case not fables, but fairy tales. Unfortunately, on 20 November 1923 their enterprise went bankrupt again. Disney left Kansas City and moved to Los Angeles, where his uncle Robert and brother Roy lived. 

Alice Comedies
With financial aid from his brother Roy, Walt Disney established a new series in 1923 which he named the 'Alice Comedies'. The series was bought by Winkler Pictures, run by Margaret Winkler and her partner Charles Mintz. Loosely based on Lewis Carroll's novels 'Alice in Wonderland/ Alice Through The Looking Glass', it featured the live-action adventures of a real girl, Virginia Davis, in an animated world. The combination of live-action with animation wasn't new, but it was succesful enough to develop into a series. The 'Alice Comedies' (1923-1927) was Disney's first modest commercial hit. It allowed him to reorganize his studio. By 1926 Disney quit working as an artist and focused exclusively on production and story development. Iwerks became his main animator. He was a such a fine draftsman and fast worker that he did most of the work in the cartoons himself! By dividing the tasks each man could do what he was best at. Iwerks created his first recurring character, Julius the Cat, who was Alice's sidekick in the 'Alice Comedies'. His design was obviously plagiarized from Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer's 'Felix the Cat'. In the cartoon 'Alice Solves the Puzzle' (1925) he created another cartoon cat and incidentally Disney's first enduring character: (Peg-leg) Pete. 


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'. Again its design took a lot of inspiration from Felix the Cat. Oswald nevertheless lived up to his name. Much to the company's luck the cartoons did well with audiences. Disney wanted to improve the quality and therefore asked producer Charles Mintz for a raise. Mintz not only refused, but also reminded him that he owned the rights to the character. For years numerous articles and books have claimed that Disney was surprised by this revelation. In reality he knew very well what was in their contract. His real shock was that Mintz bought out nearly his entire studio behind his back, leaving him behind with only nine loyal employees, namely Iwerks, Les Clark, Johnny Cannon and six inkers and painters (one of them Disney's future wife). 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 comic 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. Oswald now received two adopted children, Floyd and Lloyd, to create stories around. 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
After losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney was bankrupt once again, with only a handful of animators left. His Hollywood career seemed over. Yet he ultimately had the last laugh when Iwerks redesigned Oswald into a mouse. The new character was directly inspired by the pantomime comic 'Adventures of Johnny Mouse' (1913-1915) by Clifton Meek, because Disney liked Johnny's "cute ears". Originally Disney wanted to call the character 'Mortimer', but at the suggestion of his wife he was eventually named 'Mickey'. The first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, 'Plane Crazy' (15 May 1928) and 'The Gallopin' Gaucho' (August 1928) were chronologically the debut of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. The older character (Pegleg) Pete, who originated in the 'Alice Comedies' series was reintroduced in 'The Gallopin' Gaucho' to serve as Mickey's main antagonist. However, the shorts were released yet, because distributors weren't very impressed with them. Around this time the first live-action sound films broke through, with Alan Crosland's 'The Jazz Singer' (1927) becoming a huge success. Disney had seen a Paul Terry cartoon, 'Dinner Time' (1927), which experimented with a prerecorded soundtrack, and realized this novelty could be used in animation too. Improving on Terrytoons' attempts, Disney created a perfectly synchronized cartoon with sound effects, music and voices: 'Steamboat Willie' (1928). This cartoon was instantly picked up by distributors and thus became the first official Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released. Since Minnie Mouse and Pegleg Pete were also present in it, it became their official debut too. 'Steamboat Willie' became a massive hit. It made Mickey Mouse a star and finally enabled Disney to establish a stable and financially succesful studio. In 1930 the Walt Disney Company was founded, evolving into one of the wealthiest multinationals of all time. 

Ub Iwerks
Ub Iwerks in 1929.

Style and craftmanship
Ub Iwerks played a major role in the early success of the Walt Disney Company. He was an extraordinarily talented cartoonist. His characters have a vitality which could compete with the best cartoons from the 1920s. Thanks to his amazing working speed, he almost singlehandedly drew every frame of the 'Oswald' and early 'Mickey' cartoons. 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. At his own insistance, Iwerks often worked alone. 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.

Since Walt Disney's name is more famous with general audiences he often receives credit for all his employees' achievements. For decades Iwerks was no exception to this rule. Many articles, books and documentaries claimed for years that Disney was the "creator" of Mickey Mouse. In some variations Disney watched over Iwerks' shoulder while he instructed him "how to draw" the mouse. Disney can indeed be credited with establishing Mickey's personality. In spirit the happy mouse owed a lot to Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character and 'Felix the Cat' by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. Disney also came up with the engaging storylines which made the early 'Mickey Mouse' cartoons such a huge success. Even if he didn't directly think up the plots, he streamlined the ideas and kept creative control. And Disney from 'The Karnival Kid' (1929) up until 'Fantasia' (1940) Disney was also Mickey's original voice. But today it's firmly acknowledged, even by the Walt Disney Company itself, that Mickey's design was all to Iwerks' sole credit. He gave Mickey his iconic buttoned shirt and, from 'The Opry House' (1929) on, white gloves. Since Mickey's skin is black his hands were often difficult to see when he held them in front of his body. White gloves made it easier to see what he was doing. Mickey originally had five fingers, but to save money he was redesigned with four. It also made his hands look less like a banana bunch. 

Pete
Iwerks created many side characters which remain part of the Mickey Mouse franchise to this day. One of them was the first Disney villain: Pete.  Pete originated in the Alice comedy 'Alice Solves the Puzzle' (1925) where he was nameless. In 'Steamboat Willie' (1928) he was firmly established as Mickey's nemesis. Pete was a natural for this role, since he is a big black cat. Originally he was drawn with two legs, but in a 'Mickey Mouse' comic, 'Mickey Mouse in Death Valley'' (21 April 1930) he was given a peg-leg and the nickname 'Peg-Leg Pete'. Pete's wooden leg remained a physical characteristic in the comics and was also introduced to his animated counterpart. However, artists had trouble remembering that his right leg was wooden. In many cartoons and comics from the 1930s it's sometimes his right, then his left. By 'Moving Day' (1936) he was drawn with two legs instead. In the comics he received two legs from 1941 on. Mickey and Pete are also the first cat-and-mouse duo in animation. They 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'. 

Minnie Mouse, Clarabella Cow and Horace Horsecollar
In 'Steamboat Willie' (1928) Iwerks also introduced Mickey's girlfriend, Minnie Mouse. She goes down in history as the first major female animated character, though she was always a side character to Mickey. Minnie is also the first of many female animated characters to be basically just a clone of the male counterpart, only with huge eyelashes, a dress and gently gestures. In this regard she paved the way for Petunia Pig (Looney Tunes) and Winnie Woodpecker. To conclude, Iwerks additionally created Clarabella Cow, also first seen in 'Steamboat Willie' (1928), and Horace Horsecollar, who was introduced in 'The Plough-Boy' (1929). The anthropomorphic cow and horse are a couple and were very prominent characters in the early 1930s cartoons. In the 'Mickey Mouse' comics they remained main cast members ever since their introduction. Originally Clarabella was drawn with visible utters, but at the demand of censors this part of her anatomy was removed. 

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, by 8-10 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 17 May, after which Floyd Gottfredson continued the comic 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. 

Leaving Disney
When Iwerks quit drawing the comic strip on 8-10 February 1930 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. 

Mickey Mouse by Ub Iwerks

Mickey Mouse after Iwerks' departure
As history has proven, both Disney and Mickey Mouse were perfectly fine without Iwerks. Mickey Mouse went on to become a global cultural phenomenon. In the 1930s all theaters had to screen Mickey cartoons or visitors wouldn't enter them. The phrase "What? No Mickey Mouse!" became 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). The laughing mouse revitalized animation at a moment when the genre seemed to lose its popularity with audiences. His success is traditionally seen as the root of the Golden Age of Animation (1930-1960). In the early 1930s many film studios started their own animation department to compete with Disney. Many had a happy cheerful Mickeyesque character as their protagonist. But none could top Disney's mouse in terms of success. He became the most merchandized fictional character in existence. In the film 'The Princess Comes Across' (1936) Carole Lombard played a Swedish princess who named "Meeky Moose" her "favorite actor." In the 'Laurel & Hardy' film 'Babes in Toyland' (1934) a monkey is seen dressed up as Mickey Mouse. Famous writers like John Betjeman and E.M. Forster, directors like Sergej Eisenstein, Hollywood actors Mary Pickford, Béla Lugosi and Charlie Chaplin and heads of state like U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, George V of the United Kingdom, Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Japanese emperor Hirohito all declared themselves Mickey Mouse fans. After death Hirohito was even buried with his Mickey Mouse watch. Cartoonist David Low named Disney's mouse "the most important graphic achievement in art since Leonardo Da Vinci." 

Unbelievable as it may seem today, Mickey Mouse originally met with controversy too. In Germany the cartoon 'The Barnyard Battle' (1929) was banned because Mickey fights cats who wear 'pickelhaube', a pointed helmet associated with the German army. A 1935 Nazi newspaper even felt Mickey was a bad role model for children, since mice are vermin. The Nazis temporarily banned Mickey Mouse cartoons, but public pressure forced them to allow screenings again. Once World War II broke out, though, and U.S. export was cut off, Disney cartoons were banned in Nazi occupied Europe until the Liberation. In 1935 the Romanian government also banned 'Mickey' cartoons out of concern that "moviegoing children would be frightened of seeing a colossal mouse on the screen." In 1937 the Yugoslavian government banned 'Mickey' comics because one plot about an uprising felt similar to the then current political turmoil in their country. A year later Fascist Italy also banned the export of U.S. media and comics, but Mussolini made an exception for Mickey Mouse. That is, until 1941, when all U.S. media was banned.

Solo career
Between 1930 and 1936 Iwerks ran his own animation studio at MGM. Among the people who once worked for him 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, Win Smith, Irven Spence and Frank Tashlin. He tried to create his own characters, of which 'Flip the Frog' (1930-1933) and 'Willie Whopper' (1933-1934) enjoyed the most longevity. Win Smith made an attempt at a 1931  newspaper comic based on 'Flip the Frog', but it never caught on. Out of all of Iwerks' animated cartoons 'Balloonland' (1935) reached cult classic status. The story revolves around an evil pincushion man trying to prick balloon characters. In 1933 Iwerks also wrote history by inventing a multiplane camera, which allowed an incredible illusion of depth in the animated backgrounds. It took the Disney Studios seven years before they came up with a more efficient model. Although Iwerks' multiplane camera was less flexible, it achieved the same impressive results at a cheaper cost. Unfortunately Iwerks' technical achievements always overshadowed the content of his cartoons. His plots and characters were bland and forgettable and lack Disney's talent for storytelling. Even in the early 1930s Iwerks' cartoons looked increasingly old-fashioned compared with what Disney and Fleischer Brothers produced. By 1936 Iwerks was therefore forced to close his studio down. Only in later decades his solo cartoons have been revalued by animation historians and fans. 


Still from 'Balloonland', 1935. 

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. The technique was used from '101 Dalmatians' (1961) on, where the spots on the dogs could be added without having to redraw them again and again. Apart from Disney he also created 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. Iwerks was posthumously given a Winsor McCay Award (1978) 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 is the most famous mouse of all time. Countless cute mice in children's books, comics and cartoons have been modelled or subconsciously inspired by him. Even the fact that many cartoon characters were gloves and/or only have four fingers on each hand is derived from Mickey. Mickey's round face and ears are one of the most recognizable logos on the planet. The mouse is the mascot of the Walt Disney Company. His face is featured on numerous products. Various Disney comic magazines carry his name and face in the title and the heading. He is the official head of each Disney theme park too. 

The rodent was the first fictional character to receive an Academy Award, which happened in 1932. Yet Disney received the prestigious statue, not Iwerks. The same year the League of Nations named Mickey a "universal goodwill ambassador". In 1978 U.S. President Jimmy Carter named the character "a symbol of goodwill, surpassing all languages and cultures. When one sees Mickey Mouse, they see happiness." That same year Mickey was honoured as the first fictional character with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 40 years later, in 2018, Minnie Mouse also received a star on the same walk. Mickey, Minnie, Pete, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cow were among many classic animated characters to receive a cameo in Richard Williams and Robert Zemeckis' 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' (1988). 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 Mouse is one of the few iconic characters to become a symbol of the United States. In 2008 president Barack Obama joked: "It's always great to meet a world leader who has bigger ears than me." 

Plagiarism of Mickey Mouse
Naturally Mickey is also the most plagiarized, parodied and ridiculed fictional character of all time. It already happened during the 1930s, when animated cartoon stars like Milton and Rita (Van Beuren), Foxy the Squirrel and Bosko (Warner Brothers) were basically rip-offs of Mickey's design. Disney even sued the Van Beuren Studios in 1931. Around the same time certain cartoonists in Europe drew unofficial comics starring Mickey, such as Ivan Sensin ('Dozivljaji Mike Misa', 1932), Sergije Mironovic's 'Mike i majmuna Doke' ('The Life of Mickey the Mouse and monkey Djoka', 1932), Nikola Navojev and Vlastimir Belkic ('Mika Miš', 1936) in Yugoslavia and Giove ToppiGiovanni BissiettaBurikoGuglielmo Guastaveglia, Giorgio Scudellari and Gaetano Vitelli's 'Topolino' (1930-1935) stories in Italy. In Japan mangaka Shaka Bontaro drew another illegal Mickey Mouse story: 'Mikkii no katsuyaku' ('Mickey's Show', 1934). In Thailand Wittamin drew 'LingGee', a character who was a hybrid of Mickey Mouse, Horace Horsecollar and Popeye. His story 'LingGee Phu Khayi Yak' (1935) plagiarized panels and storylines from Floyd Gottfredson's 'Mickey Mouse' story 'Rumplewatt the Giant'. Paul Terry's animated cartoon character 'Mighty Mouse' (1942) was also very close to plagiarism, from design, down to the name. The Croatian cartoonist Veljko Kockar created an anthropomorphic cactus in 1942, Kaktus Bata, whose design and stories were very reminiscent of Mickey Mouse too. 

Parodies of Mickey Mouse
Also during the 1930s Mickey and his friends were shown in pornographic parodies, 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', Robert Armstrong's 'Mickey Rat' and Eric Knisley's 'Mickey Death' were created as vulgar parodies 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. 1971 was a particularly rich year for Mickey parodies. In Gerald Scarfe's animated short 'A Long Drawn Out Trip' (1971) Mickey lights a joint in one memorable scene. In Neon Park's poster  'Chemical Wedding' (1971) the famous mouse is featured in a surreal comic story. The underground comic book 'Air Pirates Funnies' (1971) by Dan O'Neill, Bobby London, Shary FlennikenGary 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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