Air Pirates

last gasp

The Air Pirates were a group of cartoonists who created two issues of an underground comic called ‘Air Pirates Funnies’ in 1971, leading to a famous lawsuit by The Walt Disney Company. Founded by Dan O’Neill, the group also included Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, Gary Hallgren, and Ted Richards. The collective shared a common interest in the styles of past masters of the comic strip, and in creating their stories for the collective each set out to imitate the style of an old time cartoonist.

Flenniken emulated Clare Briggs and H. T. Webster in her ‘Trots and Bonnie’ comics, London’s strip ‘Dirty Duck’ paid homage to the style of George Herriman’s ‘Krazy Kat,’ Richards’ ‘Dopin’ Dan’ was supposed to be influenced by Bud Fisher but showed more similarity to Mort Walker’s ‘Beetle Bailey,’ and Gary Hallgren drew a strip called ‘Pollyanna Pals’ in the style of Cliff Sterrett’s ‘Polly and Her Pals.’ The original Air Pirates were a gang of Mickey Mouse antagonists of the 1930s; O’Neill regarded Mickey Mouse as a symbol of conformist hypocrisy in American culture, and therefore a ripe target for satire.

The first issue of Air Pirates Funnies was dated July 1971, and the second issue dated August. Both were published under the Hell Comics imprint, and were distributed through Ron Turner’s Last Gasp publishing company. The lead stories in both issues, created by O’Neill, Bobby London and Hallgren, focused on Walt Disney characters, most notably from Floyd Gottfredson’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ newspaper strip, with the Disney characters engaging in adult behaviors such as sex and drug consumption. O’Neill insisted it would dilute the parody to change the names of the characters, so his adventurous mouse character was called ‘Mickey.’ Ted Richards took on the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, opening up a second wave of parody attacking Disney’s grab of contemporary American and European folklore.

The original nucleus of the Air Pirates collective began to form when Bobby London met Ted Richards at the office of the ‘Berkeley Tribe,’ an underground newspaper where both were staff cartoonists. London later drew a highly fictionalized account of their experiences at the Tribe in his story ‘Why Bobby Seale is Not Black’ in ‘Merton of the Movement.’ In 1970 they attended the ‘Sky River Rock Festival’ near Portland, Oregon and met Shary Flenniken and Dan O’Neill at the media booth, where Flenniken was producing a daily Sky River newsletter on a mimeograph machine. Before the festival was over the four of them produced a 4-page tabloid comic, ‘Sky River Funnies,’ mostly drawn by London. After the festival Flenniken and Richards went to Seattle, where Flenniken was doing graphics for the Seattle Liberation Front’s brief-lived underground newspaper, Sabot. London went back with O’Neill, who had a studio and a syndicated strip in San Francisco, and started working with him, contributing a ‘basement’ strip to O’Neill’s syndicated ‘Odd Bodkins.’ In early 1971 they invited Flenniken and Richards, along with Gary Hallgren, a Seattle cartoonist who had met O’Neill at the festival, to San Francisco to form the Air Pirates collective.

After the Pirates were established, Willy Murphy, Larry Todd and Gary King started hanging around the collective and contributing to their projects, missing the original ‘Air Pirates Funnies’ but appearing in later Air Pirates comics like ‘Merton of the Movement’ and ‘Left Field Funnies.’ Along with these projects the Pirates also released ‘Dan O’Neill’s Comics and Stories,’ a Bobby London ‘Dirty Duck’ collection, and a ‘Dopin’ Dan’ book with side stories by other members of the collective. A Flenniken ‘Trots and Bonnie’ comic was announced, but never released. Most of these comics were distributed through Last Gasp, some with a ‘Cocoanut Comics’ logo on the cover.

O’Neill was so eager to be sued by Disney that he had copies of ‘Air Pirates Funnies’ smuggled into a Walt Disney Company board meeting by the son of a board member. On October 21, 1971 he got his wish as Disney filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, copyright infringement, trademark infringement and unfair competition against O’Neill, Hallgren, London and Richards (Flenniken had not contributed to the parody stories). Disney later added Turner’s name to the suit. The Pirates, in turn, claimed that the parody was fair use.

Accurately telling the story of Disney’s lawsuit against the Air Pirates is difficult, due to the conflicting memories of the litigants; however, it is fair to say that all through the lawsuit, O’Neill was defiant. The initial decision by Judge Wollenberg in the California District Court went against the Air Pirates, and O’Neill’s lawyers appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. O’Neill suggested the other Pirates settle, and leave him to defend the case alone. Hallgren and Turner settled with Disney, but London and Richards decided to continue fighting. To raise money for the Air Pirates Defense Fund, O’Neill and other underground cartoonists began selling original artwork—predominantly of Disney characters—at comic conventions.

During the legal proceedings and in violation of the temporary restraining order, the Air Pirates published some of the material intended for the third issue of ‘Air Pirates Funnies’ in the comic ‘The Tortoise and the Hare,’ of which nearly 10,000 issues were soon confiscated under a court order. In 1975, Disney won a $200,000 preliminary judgement and another restraining order, which O’Neill defied by continuing to draw Disney parodies.

The case dragged on for several years. Finally, in 1978, the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Air Pirates three to zero for copyright infringement, although they dismissed the trademark infringement claims. In 1979 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. O’Neill later claimed that his plan in the Disney lawsuit was to lose, appeal, lose again, continue drawing his parodies and eventually to force the courts to either allow him to continue or send him to jail. (‘Doing something stupid once,’ he said, ‘is just plain stupid. Doing something stupid twice is a philosophy.’) O’Neill’s four-page Mickey Mouse story ‘Communiqué #1 from the M.L.F.’ (Mouse Liberation Front) appeared in the magazine ‘CoEvolution Quarterly’ in 1979. Disney asked the court to hold O’Neill in contempt of court and have him prosecuted criminally, along with Stewart Brand, publisher of the periodical.

By mid-1979, O’Neill recruited diverse artists for a ‘secret’ artist’s organization, The Mouse Liberation Front. An M.L.F. art show was displayed in New York, Philadelphia and San Diego. With the help of sympathetic Disney employees, O’Neill delivered ‘The M.L.F. Communiqué #2’ in person to the Disney studios, where he posed drawing Mickey Mouse at an animation table and allegedly smoked a joint in the late Walt Disney’s office. In 1980, weighing the unrecoverable $190,000 in damages and $2,000,000 in legal fees against O’Neill’s continuing disregard for the court’s decisions, the Walt Disney Company settled the case, dropping the contempt charges and promising not to enforce the judgment as long as the Pirates no longer infringed Disney’s copyrights.

In Bob Levin’s 2003 book ‘The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture,’ New York Law School professor Edward Samuels said, ‘I was flabbergasted. He told me he had won the case. ‘No, Dan,’ I told him, ‘You lost.’ ‘No, I won.’ ‘No, you lost.” To Dan O’Neill, not going to jail constituted victory. However, Samuels said of the Air Pirates, ‘They set parody back twenty years.’ The case remains controversial among comics critics and free-speech advocates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.