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: Flenniken emulated Clare Briggs' family comic strips in her Trots and Bonnie comics, London's strip Dirty Duck paid homage to the styles of E.C. Segar's Thimble Theater and George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Richards' Dopin' Dan was similar to Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey and Gary Hallgren had a great interest in Cliff Sterett'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. Both issues are considered highly collectible today.
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.
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. By late 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, delivered on July 7, 1972, 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 #21 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 CoEvolution Quarterly.
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, 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 marijuana cigarette 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.
- Levin, Bob. The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture. (2003) Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 1-56097-530-X
- Disney's War Against the Counterculture (article by Levin based on his book)
- Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates - excerpt from judgment
- Bobby London and the Air Pirates Follies
- Original Air Pirates Art
- Bobby London replies : Disney and The Air Pirates 02/22/2000
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