On November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse made his first appearance on screen, “Steamboat Willie” was the short, black and white animation film that marked the debut of the famous mouse. This first Mickey had rather crude features, which would later be transformed into a more gentle appearance, especially one that would better relate to kids. One has to remember that the first animation movies were not necessarily intended for children only, and they were usually designed as amusing complements to feature films intended for all audiences. Only later, the big studios –and especially Walt Disney, the creator of Mickey– would realize the enormous marketing potential of movies for kids, which, since children wouldn’t attend the shows alone, would necessarily involve the family as an audience as well.
Unlike other characters who were first developed as comic strip characters and then crossed over into the film medium, Mickey only in 1930 made its first appearance as a comic strip in various newspapers. In 1941 it started to appear in a comic book, where, with some interruptions particularly between 1954 and 1962, and between 1991 and 2002, it has continued to be present until today. However, the golden period of the comic book was during the decades of 1940 to 1950, later being supplanted by television as the primary medium for children to familiarize with Mickey as well as with other of the many pop culture characters, while these days the Internet plays that role.
Of all of Disney’s characters, Mickey is still today the most famous, and to some extent, an archetypical figure of American pop culture. When Disney created this mouse, he was careful to keep control of the character, unlike his bad experience with his first creature –Oswald the Rabbit– which he lost to the studio for which he worked before. So intense is the connection of Disney with Mickey that the mouse has become a symbol for the Disney studio itself, and in a way, a projection of its own image, or the perception that Disney wanted to project of himself and his company. Initially seen in the early films as part of a tradition of the picaresque literature, i.e. a mischievous character, Mickey evolved into a sort of exemplary citizen, a conservative typical “good” American, especially in the comic book format. A large part of the repertoire of Mickey’s stories, especially from the 1950s, consisted of helping the police chief, Captain O’Hara, to catch lawbreakers.
Mickey has also been a “political animal” taking a role as a model even at an international level. In 1935 the then League of Nations recognized Mickey Mouse as an “International Symbol of Good Will,” a recognition that in Disney’s view, was a distinction given to himself and his vision of the world. For his part, Disney made good use of his connections in the U.S. to promote his particular vision with substantial government support. When in the early 1940s his studio was close to going under, Disney got important contracts to make propaganda wars, so Donald Duck went to fight the Nazis, and Mickey managed to mock Hitler (in their own propaganda, the Nazis usually presented their enemies as mice, so Mickey’s animosity for the German dictator was a fitting revenge).
Mickey is now one more of the many creatures that populate the vast universe of children entertainment, but it is undoubtedly one of the most typical figures of popular culture. He is still loved by many, but is also a character with controversial sides: a conservative yet compassionate individual, or a passionate defender of traditional values who would now be joining those who want to make America great again?