A Cartoon Culture War: Soiling Disney’s Image

By CHRISTIAN NEWTON Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 08, 2003



Disney’s War Against the Counterculture 

By Bob Levin 

Fantagraphics Press, 266 pages, $24 


Tearing down symbols is an evolutional inevitability of civilization. If you’re a symbol, whether a statue in Baghdad or a Connecticut WASP who’s made a fortune marketing lifestyle products to insecure homemakers, sooner or later, you’re coming down. And apparently, cartoon mice are not immune to this phenomenon. 

Berkeley author Bob Levin’s new book, “The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture” faithfully documents the story of a group of young outlaw cartoonists calling themselves the Air Pirates who set about tearing down, what must be for every cartoonist, the ultimate symbol of corporate domination in their medium—Mickey Mouse. 

The book follows Dan O’Neill, a comic strip prodigy who, in the early 1960s at the age of 21, had a nationally syndicated comic strip and a home at the San Francisco Chronicle. As the sixties progressed O’Neill became more and more submersed in the exploding counterculture of the Bay Area, and his strip “Odd Bodkins” became stranger and stranger. Eventually O’Neill offended or alienated everybody in mainstream publishing, was fired from the Chronicle and had his strip dropped from every newspaper in the country. (It is now published weekly in the Berkeley Daily Planet.) 

Undeterred by his career setbacks, O’Neill, who by the late sixties had become a sort of hippie Hunter S. Thompson for the comic book set, formed the Air Pirates and dedicated them to attacking Mickey Mouse as a corporate raider of the American psyche and a symbol of cultural imperialism. 

The Pirates started producing and distributing comic books that portrayed Mickey and his pals engaging in vivid sex acts, swearing like sailors and doing or dealing large amounts of various drugs. Disney found out about the comic books, and having spent 30 years cultivating a squeaky clean image, was not amused at seeing Minnie performing oral sex on Mickey. The Mouse House laid down a copyright infringement lawsuit the size of Magic Mountain and tied up the Pirates in court for a decade. The ensuing battle changed the lives of everyone involved. 

Levin’s book, which contains several pages of original Air Pirates artwork, covers a lot of ground. He weaves his tale around a well-detailed backdrop of the social state of the nation and Bay Area during the1960s, throwing in a history of the comic book industry, a synopsis of Disney’s evolution as a media conglomerate and an insightful snapshot of copyright law.  

However, while following the Pirates’ case as it meanders through the courts, Levin goes a bit off course. Levin is an author and an attorney. And it shows. At times the detailing of legal minutia asks the reader to share the same love of the law that Levin possesses, and ultimately that draws away from the narrative.  

Otherwise, the book hums along nicely, with particularly astute observations regarding the way Disney, while cornering the global market on the childhood dreams, had “appropriated, emasculated and sugar coated not only America’s folklore, but the world’s fairytales and myths.” 

In fact, Disney did seem to have a hand in every child extortion scheme going back then. The Mouse had his little white gloves in everything from major motion pictures to apparel like Davy Crockett hats. (Licensing agreements were the major source of revenue for the company at the time.) From television shows like “The Mickey Mouse Club” to theme parks like Disneyland, Mickey was truly a corporate titan. As such, for 1960s revolutionaries, baby boomers raised on the Magic Kingdom, Mickey Mouse was a near perfect symbol of middle-class conformity and intellectual homogenization. 

Bob Levin has written a good, fair, detailed account of Dan O’Neill and the Air Pirates self-destructive obsession with ripping off, and tearing down, Disney. (And after all the dust settles, their rationalization for doing so almost holds up.) 

Levin’s book nearly becomes a cautionary tale of what happens when people are foolish enough to cross the powers that be. But in the end, it doesn’t matter who lost or who won the legal case; Disney went on to generate enormous profits in the eighties under the leadership of Michael Eisner, and the Air Pirates went on to become legends of the comic book underground. Today, original Air Pirates artwork fetches outrageous sums of money at comic book conventions all over the nation.  

The emotions that incubated and fueled the counterculture movement of the sixties have long since flamed out; but the Air Pirates, by taking direct aim at the heart of an American icon, did nothing less than claim their place in a revolution.