As you’re probably already aware, one of the biggest entertainment news pieces of 2024 so far has been Mickey Mouse’s status in the public domain. The earliest incarnations of the character ticked over into the public domain on the 1st of January, 2024, opening the door to all kinds of interpretations. Multiple horror movies and video games have already been announced, plus all kinds of videos on YouTube. The comics community has also taken advantage of the character’s public domain status, with plenty of comics released in the first seven days of the year.
Traditional publishing is a slow-moving beast. However, there has been a grassroots movement in the webcomics scene where the character has been used in interesting ways already.
The highest profile of these is Mousetrapped by Randy Millholland. Known for Popeye Sunday strips and Something*Positive, the cartoonist has crafted an ongoing webcomic inspired by the Steamboat Willie short. It chronicles the down-on-his-luck Steamboat Willie, who tries to rebuild his life after being kicked off the steamboat.
This strip feels like it has staying power as it’s using the characters and concepts to create something that doesn’t rely on shock value – e.g. a cheap horror movie. I’m curious to see where it goes.
Other strips chose to discuss Mickey’s status in the public domain, copyright, and how there’s a race to the bottom to take advantage of it.
This one by PJ Draws happens to include Winnie the Pooh, who entered the public domain in 2022.
Some people just want insert the character into their own comics, like the ones below:
And some are just having fun with the character.
Although, there’s a lot of crap out there too. As many of the above strips comment on, there’s a race to the bottom to see shocking interpretations of Mickey Mouse. While subversive takes on the character aren’t new, with parody laws allowing many takes to be done over the decades, these new ones are not particularly interesting or really have anything to say. They’re more about doing it because they can – like this Ben Garrison strip – than using the character to say anything.
However, there are restrictions to how the character can be used. For starters, the only incarnation of Mickey Mouse (as well as Minnie Mouse and Pete) in the public domain is the one that was featured in Steamboat Willie and Crazy Plane animated shorts. Any versions appearing after 1928 are still under copyright protection. It’s likely that Disney will take action if copyright is not honoured, stating to the the BBC, “We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright,”.
Additionally, you won’t see the name “Mickey Mouse” anywhere in these works. This is because it’s a registered trademark owned by Disney. As a result, the Mickey Mouse character will be called Steamboat Willie or another name that derives from the famous cartoon character’s name.
Will traditional comic publishers get in on the action? It’s safe to assume that they probably will eventually. However, don’t expect every publisher to do so. Many – such as Marvel Comics, Fantagraphics, Dynamite Comics, and Dark Horse Comics – have relationships with Disney and wouldn’t want to jeopardise any licensing agreements they have. However, I could see Steamboat Willie popping up in an Image Comics book or being part of DC Comics’ multiverse in the not-too-distant future.
As you can see, there’s already a mad dash for people to use the public domain Mickey Mouse in the first seven days. One can only assume that this will continue to snowball, with plenty of bad interpretations. However, we’ll get a few excellent ideas come out of this and that’s worth being excited about.