Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Talking Horse Riding a Non-Talking Horse

I've always liked Horace Horsecollar. He first appeared in the 1929 cartoon short "The Plow Boy" as Mickey Mouse's plough horse. He wasn't quite anthropomorphic in that appearance, but he soon took to walking on two legs regularly and appeared as a supporting character in a number of Mickey cartoons. He was also Mickey's regular partner in adventure in the mouse's daily newspaper strip. Within that context, he had his share of kick-butt moments.

But by 1942, poor Horace had disappeared from the cartoons and faded into relative obscurity. So did Clarabelle Cow and prima donna singer Clara Cluck.

But good characters are never completely forgotten and Horace would still pop up from time to time--mostly within the pages of Disney Comics.

The first issue of Disney Comics Digest (June 1968) contains a Horace story titled "Westward Ho-Ho." The Gold Key digests were mostly reprints, but I can't find a reference for this story  as having a previous appearance, so this may be its first appearance.

It's a straightforward and fairly funny tale. Horace is managing the "Sagebrush Songbirds," a singing duo consisting of Clarabelle Cow and Clara Cluck. They are touring the West, but things take a dangerous turn when they arrive at the town of Greasewood Gulch.

Reoccurring villain Black Pete is robbing the bank. When Pete barrels into Horace and gets his mask knocked off, he decides he has to kidnap Horace to keep his identity a secret. He tosses Horace on his horse, but the horse (that's the actual horse horse, not Horace) panics at the sound of the girls rehearsing and runs off without Pete.

Pete steals Horace's car, which means he also takes along the attached trailer with the girls still in it. Everyone ends up at Pete's hideout, where a bit of slapstick allows Horace to get the upper hand and capture the bandit.

Tony Strobl--a regular Disney artist from the late 1940s into the 1970s --provides crisp, clean art that tells the story well and highlights the humor.  This essay accurately states that "Strobl's drawing style is characterized by its clean, even and harmonious lines, with a tendency towards the static. Sometimes this is what gives it an extra flair, stoically calm figures in the midst of chaotic events."  

There's one aspect of the story that is kind of subtle, but is important to bringing the humor across effectively. Black Pete kidnaps Horace, then later tells the girls that he has to hold them prisoner as well.  But at no time does he seem overtly threatening. In fact, he actually pleads with the girls when he tries to take them prisoner, rather than making threats.

This is important. There's no shortage of superb Disney stories in which the characters are in life-threatening situations and face off against murderous villains. Heck, Mickey once engaged in a pretty intense dogfight against a pirate zeppelin! But here we have a short and extremely lighthearted tale in which overt danger would have been a distraction. It would have gotten in the way of the humor. Strobl and the uncredited writer understood this and the story is all the better for it.

"Westward Ho-Ho" also reminds us that the Disney Universe is a very odd place. Horace is a "person," but Pete's horse is an "animal." Heck, there are "real" cows and chickens in the Disney 'Verse, but here we have Clarabelle and Clara presented as "people." It's another example of the classic Goofy/Pluto dilemma (which was recently parodied in one of the excellent new Mickey Mouse cartoons.)

I suppose it's kind of like C.S. Lewis' Narnia, where there are both talking and non-talking variations of animals and there's a clear distinction made between them. Or maybe the Disney Universe was built on the remains of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where only a small number of humans survive and radiation has mutated a percentage of animals into intelligent beings. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

But it's the sort of thing that's just plain fun to over-think. Horace Horsecollar is riding a horse, for gosh sakes. How can that not be a subject for discussion?

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