Silly Symphonies: New book beautifully publishes Disney comic strips from the 1930s

This week, Fantagraphics is releasing a gorgeous book reprinting the "Silly Symphony" comic strips from July, 1935, to February, 1939. "Silly Symphony" was syndicated to newspapers at this time as a "topper," appearing on Sundays above the larger "Mickey Mouse" comic strip. It started as a vehicle for publishing print versions of Disney's popular "Silly Symphony" series of cartoon shorts, but during this period, it evolved into an umbrella title for different types of Disney comic strips.

This book has beautiful reproductions of the comic strips, and as usual, Fantagraphics has great explanatory text going through the history and context of the comics.

During these years of 1935-1939, most of the comics were "Silly Symphony" cartoon adaptions to multi-installment comic strips. J.B. Kaufman does a fantastic job of analyzing the comics, and explaining the cartoon shorts that that they were adapting. The comic strips could be rather faithful adaptations of the cartoons, or sometimes the cartoons would just suggest the characters and theme of the story, and the comic strip would go in different directions. These installments were mostly written by Ted Osborne or Merrill de Maris, and magnificently drawn by Al Taliaferro.

One interesting example is toward the end of the book, when the comic strip adapts a cartoon short that was planned by the Disney studio, but never actually produced, "Timid Elmer."

The book even includes a page showing several story sketches made for the unmade cartoon that happen to have been drawn by comics superstars Carl Barks and Walt Kelly.

It was in August of 1936 that the comic strip first deviated from the cartoon short adaptation format, to feature individual gag comics featuring Donald Duck.

The Silly Symphony comic strip marked its first major turning point in the late summer of 1936, launching a new long-running continuity, not built around an individual story, but designed simply as a starring vehicle for Donald Duck. … Al Taliaferro, the artist who had first introduced Donald to the comic page, was developing his own special fondness for the character. Taliaferro had ambitions for a separate comic strip starring the Duck, and pressured Walt Disney for a chance to try out his idea. Walt's answer was to give artist and duck a trial run, turning over the Silly Symphony Sunday strip to Donald for what amounted to an extended audition.

The audition was a success. A new Donald Duck comic strip debuted in newspapers in early 1938. Notable during this audition was the introduction of three new characters. Donald's nephew's Huey, Dewey, and Louie did not originate in cartoons, but rather in this run of comic strips. Here is their first-ever appearance, in which they electrocute and the douse Donald.

When Donald's run ended in December of 1937, "Silly Symphony" took another unprecedented turn, starting a series adapting the upcoming movie Snow White, the first full-length animated movie. These comics were not drawn by "Silly Symphony's" artist since 1932, Taliaferro, but by Hank Porter, assisted by Bob Grant, with a darker, more realistic, more textured and shadowy style.

The comic strip debut of the story was timed to coincide with the movie's release, but because of production delays, the movie wasn't given wide release until 1938. So for millions of Americans, their first look at Snow White was not on a movie screen, but on the newspaper page. This sneak peek may have contributed to the movie's success — it would become the highest grossing sound film of all time (until it was surpassed the next year by "Gone with the Wind").

Whether deliberately or because of late movie edits, the comic strip version does not hew precisely to the movie. One noticeable difference in the comic strip is an enlarged role for the Prince.

[T]he Disney crew had considered an elaborate plot thread in which the jealous Queen had the Prince seized and imprisoned in a dungeon, from which he later made a heroic escape. These scenes … were cut from the film but survived intact on the comic page.

Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies 1935-1939: Starring Donald Duck and the Big Bad Wolf is due to be released on December 12.

All images posted with permission of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.