Today: The creation of Mickey Mouse.
Ub Iwerks and Mickey Mouse
Mickey Mouse is the mascot of The Walt Disney Company’s many shows, movies, theme parks, and toys. Approaching his 90th birthday this year, we decided to look into Mickey’s past and decide whether the company’s founder, Walt, really deserves credit for creating the iconic cartoon character.
Ub Iwerks is attributed sporadically as a contributing creative force to the creation of Mickey, but Iwerks and Disney worked together long before the merry mouse. The two met working in a commercial art studio in 1919. Iwerks was an industrious and innovating animator, outpacing many of his fellow cartoonists and developing a new animation technique that combined live actors with drawn characters.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Disney, fast becoming an adept businessman took Iwerk to Universal studios, pitching the new animations. There, they fell under the influence of Charles Mintz, who would have the pair create an original character—anything but a cat—to sell the studio.
In 1927, the duo returned with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a character that predates Mickey, but whose artwork—by Iwerks—would be very similar. The studio liked Oswald, and Disney set up an animation company to produce a series of animated shorts.
After a time, Disney had taken the management reigns of the endeavor and pushed Mintz for a more lucrative salary. Mintz would have none of it. He informed Disney that Universal owned the character and that he could easily hire the Disney animation staff out from under him.
An important learning moment and a dark lesson for Walt, he knew never to let another person own his characters. The only animator to leave Universal with him was his old friend Ub, but the two desperately needed a new character to sell.
Here the stories become much more complicated. While Mickey would eventually emerge as the new studio’s character, the particulars of his conception are muddled at best. While the Walt Disney Company will sometimes credit Walt and Ub for his creation, Walt Disney’s own stories about coming up with the idea for Mickey have varied wildly.
Family members say he came up with the mouse on his way home from his meeting with Mintz. Walt would tell stories of a trained mouse he had kept while drawing late into the nights at the studio. His home city of Kansas regaled tales of him playing with mice in his family barn. While these stories could be true, we know for a fact that Disney was a clever storyteller and a cunning salesman with a history for changing details about Mickey when the ends suited him.
With the outstanding success of Steamboat Willie, the studio’s success was cemented. Disney whipped his character into a money-making machine, licensing the character for advertisements and cultivating a fan club that would carry him into the creation of the world’s first theme parks. One particular adjustment he constantly made was the date of Mickey’s birthday. While most Disney scholars acknowledge the premiere of Steamboat Willie as Mickey’s birthday, Disney had no problem changing it to line up with whatever promotion paid him best.
Amidst this avalanche of cash and credit, Ub Iwerks would have a number of falling outs with his long-time friend. According to one report, after hearing Walt regale an audience with how he had invented Mickey, a little girl asked him to draw his famous character, and, without a thought, he passed the job on to Iwerks. Ub Iwerks soon left Disney to start his own animation company, feeling he was underappreciated for his role at Disney’s studio.
While it’s fair to question Disney’s role in making the mouse, is it fair to say Iwerks was solely responsible? One thing we’re sure of is that Iwerks was almost completely responsible for the art and design of Mickey in the shorts he animated—and that he had drawn Oswald, the character Mickey is almost a blatant copy of. While Walt Disney may have helped conceptualize the character, or have even suggested a mouse, it is Iwerks who inevitably drew and designed Mickey. Disney, on the other hand, was busy putting into practice what he learned from Mintz, making good on his promise to own his characters.
Either way you look at it, Iwerks likely is responsible for the character of Mickey, but Disney was pivotal in making him a household name. Much like the controversy over the creation of many Marvel characters between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, however, there’s much incentive for the company man to claim ownership of it all, and Disney—which also owns Marvel now—has all the power it needs to keep anyone from proving otherwise.