This is the story of five kids and a mouse.
Mickey Mouse. Yes, that Mickey Mouse. The same one that adorns t-shirts, lunch boxes and coffee mugs all over the world. The courts even said so.
As for the kids, they weren’t Mouseketeers, and this certainly wasn’t the Mickey Mouse club. This was the 'Air Pirates'—the notorious group of underground cartoonists who took on one of the largest media corporations in history…and lost. Kind of.
It begins with a boy—Dan O’Neill, who, at 21, became one of the youngest syndicated cartoonists of all time with his strip "Odd Bodkins," which began its run in 1964. Over time, however, O’Neill’s sensibilities began to shift as he became more politically and socially involved in the emerging counterculture scene, leading to more pointed and subversive material in the strip. The audience, he told Civilized, loved it. The syndicate? Not so much. "There were three firings," he said. "By the last one I knew I was finished, so I thought I might as well try and get my copyright back."
He figured that if he engaged in copyright infringement, the syndicate would surrender the strip back to him out of fear of a lawsuit. So, he incorporated nearly 30 characters into the strip "before they brought the hammer down." It didn’t work. The paper let him go, but opted to retain the copyright anyway.
Fired for the third and final time, O’Neill struck out on his own, looking for a new way to create. Inspired by The Second City improv groups in Chicago, he wanted to see if he could replicate that kinetic energy on the comics page.
"I thought, nobody had ever done improvisational storytelling in comics. Sure, the 'Zap' artists were doing 'jam sessions,' where they would draw unconnected panel after panel going 'aren’t we terrific artists, aren’t we pretty,' but it was bullshit. It wasn’t comics. Comics need a writer."
Before long, he met up with 20-year-old Bobby London and 23 year-old Ted Richards at the Berkley Tribe, an underground newspaper based out of California. They were working as staff cartoonists on the paper, and the trio quickly hit it off, and began planning to work together.
This, O’Neill says, is why they headed for the Sky River Rock Festival, a ten-day concert in Washington state. "It was a scouting mission," he explained.
Shortly after they arrived, O’Neill took note of a sound truck that had been painted by a 25-year-old artist named Gary Hallgren, who at that time had been running a sign painting business out of Seattle. Admiring the lettering in particular, O’Neill said, "I need the guy who did that!"
"Somebody got me and brought me over to the media tent," Hallgren told Civilized. "So there was Dan, looking like David Crosby drawing a comic strip in the rain. I was rather impressed by that."
So then there were four, but O’Neill still didn’t feel the group was complete. "I told the guys that we needed to find a woman, because this thing would be no damn good without one."
Shary Flenniken, then a 20-year-old illustrator, had been working for an underground newspaper, mainly run by 60s radicals like the Weather Underground, when she connected with the others at the festival.
Fed up with the limiting parameters of the extremist thinking, she was looking for a new venue for her work—one that still aligned with her political sensibilities, but that gave her the freedom to explore and experiment in her work.
"Sure, we were against the establishment," she told Civilized. "But we were also against the radical establishment, who were just as much assholes as anyone else."
Being somewhat familiar with each other’s work prior to the festival, it didn’t take long for the artists to connect with one another, and they immediately began collaborating. Before the festival was over, they had produced a four-page tabloid called the 'Sky River Funnies,' reproduced on a mimeograph machine in the back of a former NASA artist’s van. It was to be the first of several publications over the next year.
Thus, the Air Pirates were born.
There were other artists along the way, of course. O’Neill says that he had an entire list of cartoonists he was considering for the group, which included comic legends Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman ("talk about stiff"), but few were chosen, and fewer still lasted.
Whittled down to its core five members, the Pirates set themselves up in a two-room studio space in San Francisco. There, they made comics throughout the day, spending their nights in sleeping bags on the floor. Food was an issue, but they soon found creative ways to sustain themselves, like teaching themselves how to break into the building’s Coca-Cola machine.
"We didn’t have much in the way of food," O’Neill remembered. "Hallgren brought down about four pounds of black Afghani hash we were going to sell to support ourselves, but we just ended up smoking it."
Before long, the Pirates moved from their small studio into a warehouse owned by director Francis Ford Coppola—an upgrade in every respect. Not only was there considerably more space, but it had a bathroom with a shower, and even a small kitchenette. Supplies were easier to come by as well. Flenniken remembers stumbling across a set of baby dolls, dipped in wax and placed in jars that were used for the Coppola-produced film 'THX 1138,' before taking them out and filling the jars "with brown rice and things."
Clearly, the Pirates were moving on up in the world, and they set in on what would soon become their most impactful work.
The goal of the Mickey Mouse comics, they all agree, was ultimately a political one. The war on Vietnam had been raging for over 15 years by that point, and the Pirates were looking for a deserving subject upon which to vent their frustrations. The decided that their target had to be corporate culture. This is when they began writing the Mickey stories.
Their Mickey, who in look, style, and temperament was not all that different from Disney’s Mouse, opened his first strip by asking, "The whole world thinks I’m cute…so why won’t Minnie fuck me?"
The Mickey stories were done for two issues of a comic book they called the Air Pirates Funnies, both of which featured depictions of the character as a drug runner on the cover. The general plotline was that Mickey and Minne’s 'nephews', actually their children, kidnap their parents in an effort to become "legitimate."
Over the years, comparisons have been made to Tijuana Bibles, the depression-era flipbooks featuring poorly-rendered cartoon characters having sex with one another. The Pirates (rightly) think this is unfair as it overlooks the political undertones behind their work.
"The politics and cartoons were hand-in-hand," said Hallgren. "There was a lot of social ills out there, and the underground press were the only people really covering them."
Then there is also the quality of the writing and draftsmanship. Unlike the pornographic flipbooks, where the 8-panel narratives centered almost entirely around cartoons screwing, the Air Pirates comic actually follows a storyline that aped both the style and tone of the Mickey Mouse newspaper strips quite well…it just also happened to feature a lot of cartoons screwing.
So, how did the Pirates really feel about the mouse? On this point, they have mixed feelings.
"He was a nothing character," said Richards. "The fact that a whole theme park was built around this thing was just absurd to us."
"The Floyd Gottfredson Mickey was alright, but I never really followed it," admitted Hallgren.
"They were just bringing him back to what he always was," said Flenniken. "Mickey was sort of this scrappy guy before Disney cut his balls off."
Clearly, adapting Mickey Mouse was not a labor of love on behalf of the Pirates. Instead, he was a symbol—one that the reader would come to with a set of preconceived ideas, which the artists would then be able to easily subvert. The closer the imitation, the more potent the parody. Not everyone in the group believed that they had hit their mark, however.
"A higher level of artistry requires a higher level of satire to make it distinguishable from the original," said London. "But, after the first issue, that just didn’t happen. All you had left was a well-drawn mouse with a dick."
There is evidence that the group had already begun fraying at the edges even before Disney became involved. London, who doesn’t look back on the time fondly, claims that O’Neill stopped caring about the content or the politics behind the work itself in his crusade against copyright laws.
The others are of the mind that London retroactively feels used and manipulated by O’Neill into putting his neck on the line for a cause he didn’t really care all that much about.
O’Neill wholeheartedly agrees with this assessment.
"I brutally used him for my own purposes, like I did with all them," he said cheerfully, although Richards asserts that London was "very much a willing participant."
"You don’t draw a panel of Mickey Mouse going down on Minnie because somebody told you to."
In the years since, it has become mythologized within the comics world that the lawsuit Disney brought down on the group was actually O’Neill’s plan for the Air Pirates all along.
This, by all accounts, is completely true.
"Yeah, it was his idea, but he had a ton of ideas like that," said Flenniken. "He’d be like, 'we should get sued by Disney,' then, he’d take another drag off his joint and say, 'let’s dress homeless people in police uniforms and have them sell the comics. Oh, then we could rent a blimp and…'"
"Of course I wanted to get sued—that was the whole point," said O’Neill. He knew the company was litigious, which he said was the main reason he appropriated the character in the first place. "Who sues kindergarteners for having cartoon characters on the walls of their classroom? Walt Fucking Disney does."
O’Neill seems especially proud of his part in instigating the lawsuit. He is quick to recount a story of befriending the disavowed gay son of Disney’s chairman of the board and recruiting him in yet another one of his schemes to get the comic noticed by company executives.
"He takes them and puts them all around the board meeting at Dad’s house, they all come in, take a seat and there’s an Air Pirates comic book sitting right and front of them. It was terrific."
London, however, doubts that this theatrical display was necessary.
"Disney has an office whose sole job is to hunt for violations," he said. "Because of the Realist’s Wally Wood poster, they knew just where to look. Nobody had to hand deliver them a damned thing."
The consensus between Flenniken and Richards, at least, was that it was actually the subscription page on the back of the books that had agitated Disney the most.
"We had a thing on the back cover that said, 'send away for more Mickey Mouse stories'. It wasn’t 'Mickey Rodent,' or 'Mickey Rat,' we were offering the real Mickey Mouse—and selling subscriptions to it," said Richards.
Regardless of what actually prompted the lawsuit, Disney eventually did sue the Pirates on October 21st, 1971, accusing them of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and intentional interference with business and trade disparagement through the wrongful use of its characters.
The complaint requested that Disney be awarded all of the Air Pirates’ profits, surrender of the remaining books, $5,000 from each infringement, reimbursement of attorneys’ fees, as well as an additional $100,000 from each defendant. Roughly estimated, this equaled out to about $160,000 from each of the four men (Flenniken, whose work with the group didn’t extend to the Mickey stories, was not implicated in the lawsuit).
The Pirates claimed that the work was protected under the First Amendment, but from the outset, their case didn’t look good. The presiding judge said early on that if the Amendment were to apply in this trial, it would "obliterate copyright protection," allowing anybody to commit copyright infringement, so long as they said it conveyed a satirical idea.
O’Neill’s decorum didn’t help matters, either. For his first court appearance, he showed up dressed like Jack Palance in the movie 'Shane', complete with black hat, buckskin jacket and a gun holster. As he once recounted to Bob Levin, the author of 'The Pirates and the Mouse': "I step out on the 18th floor like I’m going to draw. The US marshal leaps over his desk, grabs me by the throat, and hoists me in the sky. I’m strangling; and he whips open my coat, and in the holster is… a banana!"
His behaviour didn’t improve from there. The case, which lasted ten years, was beset by several stops and starts, largely due to O’Neil’s continuous instigation and Disney’s refusal to back down. One highlight from this time included a televised press conference on behalf of the Air Pirates that ended with O’Neill yelling, on air, to horror of his lawyers, "We’re guilty! We’re guilty!"
Ultimately, the courts agreed. The Air Pirates lost their case in 1972, before appealing to the Ninth Circuit, which subsequently ruled against them 3-0 in 1978.
By 1979 Disney, with its injunction in force, was content to let things stand with the Pirates. That is, they were, until O’Neill (along with Hallgren, signing as "#00"), contributed an eight-page Mickey comic to 'Co-Evolution Quarterly', an offshoot of the 'Whole Earth Catalogue', in which the famous mouse couple, now married, attribute their successful retirement to the Air Pirates. In the last page of the story, an anatomically correct Mickey Mouse and a five-fingered Minnie wonder just how accurate is too accurate for parody?
This action prompted Disney to pursue an additional $10,000, and imprisonment for six months. So now, it was official—O’Neill faced real, honest-to-goodness jailtime for drawing Mickey Mouse.
He and 'Quarterly' publisher Stewart Brand argued that the work was a "political essay," that explored the "metaphysical distinctions" behind copyright law, and therefore fell under "fair use". This argument was solid enough that it helped carry the case along for a few more years.
Eventually, weighing their $2 million in losses pursuing the case against the extreme improbability of collecting from O’Neill, Disney more or less gave up in 1981, saying they wouldn’t attempt to get their money or pursue further action so long as the Air Pirates refrained from drawing the character for a public forum again.
This, in O’Neill’s estimation, was a resounding success. They had found the limits of copyright law and set a legal precedent for parody.
"The Air Pirates are the most political cartoonists of all time," he said. "We knocked down Disney and re-established the First Amendment."
Today, Mickey continues to evade the public domain.
Under the copyright laws of the 1920s, when the character first emerged, he was protected for 56 years, meaning that what the Pirates had done with the character would have been entirely legal after 1984. But, with Mickey being as valuable as he is, the company could not possibly have allowed this, and successfully lobbied congress to extend their copyright by decades, once in 1976, during the Air Pirates trials, and then again in 1998.
Now 90 years old, the character remains untouchable by those not under Disney’s corporate umbrella.
After the Air Pirates, Hallgren, a trained illustrator, continued to work in the field, creating his own comics, and doing commissions for publications like Mad, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. For the most part, he feels good about his time with the Air Pirates.
"There’s some cringeworthy stuff in there, alright," he said. "But if you’re going to make your mistakes in public, you’re just going to have to own them and live with it. So I’m proud of everything."
Ted Richards continued to develop his Dopin’ Dan character on an irregular basis throughout the rest of the decade, but soon turned his focus to the more popular 'Forty Year Old Hippie' comics. He largely retired from professional cartooning in 1981. Since then, he has worked in the world of web development and computer design for Atari and Apple, among others. He’s still proud of the Air Pirates work.
"It was a great experience," he said. "I mean, that’s where we learned how to draw."
Flenniken’s long-running strip, "Trots and Bonnie", which follows the trials of its pubescent pre-teen protagonist (often in explicit detail), began in the Air Pirates before migrating to the pages of National Lampoon in 1972, where it stayed until the early 1990’s.
"A lot of my fans are now in prison for pedophilia," she said, laughing.
She and London married in 1972, but split up shortly thereafter in 1976. His character, the George Herriman-inspired 'Dirty Duck', also moved to the Lampoon before becoming a regular feature in Playboy. I asked if he credited his time with the Air Pirates for the character’s success, and he answered with a simple "no".
O’Neill, for his part, won his own personal copyright bid years later, regaining the rights to his strip 'Odd Bodkins', which he continues to work on to this day. He also serves as a director at a gold mine in Northern California. As a proud Irishman, it’s befitting.
Overall, he’s happy with the work that the Air Pirates did, calling it "damn impressive."
"It’s still a federal crime for me to draw a picture of a mouse," he said, with great pride.
Photo Credit: The Estate of Clay Geerdes. All illustrations by The Air Pirates