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Does Mickey Mouse have a Wayback Machine?

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

At home and at work, we're deluged with never-ending offers to enlarge various body parts and engorge bank accounts with a regularity that would be humiliating if only a few of us were singled out.

Occasionally, e-mail that isn't from porn merchants or con men offering to "transfer" billions plundered from African banks to American checking accounts will slip through. Last week, I got the following inquiry from someone who has way too much time on his hands -- literally:

"Hello, if you are a Time Traveler I am going to need the following: 1) A modified mind warping Dimensional Warp Generator # 52 4350a series wristwatch with memory adapter. 2) Reliable carbon-based or silicon-based time transducing capacitor. I need a reliable source!! Please, only reply if you are reliable. Send a SEPARATE e-mail to me at: [e-mail address withheld by special order of the Galactic Space Time Continuum Consortium]."

Since I already deal with deja vu creeping up on me with irritating regularity, I had no problem ignoring yet another appeal for help by a wannabe time traveler. Isn't there already enough hassle in the world without worrying about someone tinkering with the very fabric of time and space as we know it?

I had a good laugh about it until another e-mail landed in my mailbox a few days ago with a link to a story on CNN's Web site. Under the headline "Medieval Mickey Mouse?" was a story that made me reconsider my dismissal of time travel:

"KLAGENFURT, Austria -- Restoration work on an Austrian church has uncovered a 700-year-old fresco that some say bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse.

"The 'medieval Mickey' is one of a group of animals and mythical creatures surrounding St. Christopher on the exterior of a church in the village of Malta in the province of Carinthia."

The story was accompanied by a close-up of the fresco. An outline of Mickey's ghostly profile can clearly be seen amid 700-year-old flecks of paint. Its resemblance to the profile of Mickey on the poster for Disney's first full-length animated cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," is enough to give even skeptics goose bumps.

Is it an elaborate forgery? It's got to be -- unless time travel is possible. An art historian quoted in the story speculates that the profile could be that of a beaver or a weasel -- two creatures that didn't exactly turn up regularly in Christian iconography.

Could it be that a fresco painter toiling in the religious art guild of the 1300s had an ecstatic, momentary vision of a future dominated by Disney's ever-lengthening corporate shadow? Did this anonymous 14th-century painter depict Mickey's profile as a warning to future generations?

The most chilling possibility is one that I can hardly bring myself to utter. After successfully lobbying Congress to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain for another 20 years with the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Disney's lawyers figured out how to go back in time to complete the job.

What better way to ensure Disney's perpetual monopoly over Mickey Mouse throughout history than by establishing artistic claims that begin in the distant past? Though bad copyright law, the plan is certainly sinister enough to have been concocted by Disney's lawyers. Suddenly, Euro Disney doesn't seem so ludicrous.

Yesterday I casually mentioned the story about the 700-year-old Mickey Mouse fresco to a colleague who sits one desk over.

"While driving in to work," she said, "I heard on the radio that today is the anniversary of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon."

With those words, the clammy hand of coincidence immediately gripped my heart. A quick check on the Disney Web site confirmed how right my colleague was.

"Steamboat Willie," the first cartoon with synchronized sound, debuted 74 years ago yesterday at the Colony Theater in New York. No one knew it at the time, but it would also signal the birth of the Disney empire.

After a few quizzical looks from colleagues, I calmed down. Whatever the 700-year-old fresco is, it isn't the work of Disney's lawyers. I know this in my heart now. But silly me, I'm still not ready to give up on the lone time traveler theory yet.

Tony Norman can be reached by e-mail at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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