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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/01/2004 Archived Entry: "We must start our revolution at once!"

The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the CountercultureThe Pirates and the Mouse:
Disney's War Against the Counterculture
Bob Levin
Fantagraphics Books, 270 pages, $24
ISBN: 156097530X

Reviewed by William Wentworth-Sheilds

If you only know Mickey as a 'Hello Kitty-esque' theme-park mascot, The Pirates and the Mouse is a startling and evocative book that recreates an earlier time, when Mickey Mouse was an important, potent avatar of American values.

From 1930 to 1955 the daily comic strips and Sunday pages Floyd Gottfredson plotted, illustrated, and often wrote, were the most vivid expression of Mickey's personality and world-view. After 1955, the format of the strips changed from adventure serials to gag-a-day jokes centered on Mickey's life as a suburban working everyman (Gottfredson continued to illustrate the strip until 1975.). But for a quarter of century, the character featured in the comic strip was a very different beast from the bland, blank, safe creature we know today. Mickey was a bravura, swashbuckling hero to match and exceed the adventures of the man who inspired his first animated short, Plane Crazy: Charles Lindberg. Mickey retailed his fair share of innocuous, slapstick humor, but the heart of the strip were longer stories that featured Mickey as a muckraking journalist, an FBI agent, the beneficiary of a genie's lamp with the ability to wish away city dumps, and poverty, a pilot charged with delivering medical supplies to a remote Alaskan village, and a detective who unmasks a smuggling ring posing as ghosts in a haunted mansion. The strip had a distinct and visible point of view, a political voice and focus that was noticed by others before Air Pirates Funnies began its abortive run.

In 1937, Gottfredson began a story that centered on the premise that the ruler of an obscure, financially destitute Ur-Eastern-European country just happens to look remarkably like Mickey Mouse himself. Mickey's doppelganger is a dissolute, spoiled, arrogant, immature fellow who is seen by his advisers as an obstacle to his nation's solvency. King Michael is gently convinced to take (quite literally), an extended vacation, while his advisers bring in Mickey. Some remarkably familiar "reforms," such as cutting taxes, reducing government expenses, and some unfamiliar ones as well, such as cutting the size of the army in half, are enacted at the instigation of Mickey's can-do spirit. The latter sequences, of Mickey explaining how to utilize the talents of all the out-of-work soldiers he has laid off is a fairly bittersweet echo of the times, and Disney's subsequent efforts as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government during WWII, producing PSA's and training films for the military, including the notorious Victory Through Air Power (Which was released a few weeks ago as part of the DVD collection On the Front Lines, removing it from the short list of films Disney has declined to republish, Song of the South being the most notable example.).

Mickey incurs the wrath of the fictitious Duke Varlott, who resolves to put an end to the "King's" new programs, saying, "One dagger may succeed when a thousand swordsmen fail!" This made the actual government of Yugoslavia rather uncomfortable, and they banned several installments of the strip. And they arrested the reporter for the New York Times and Reuters, Hubert Harrison, who reported their censorship. "Monarch of Medioka" ends by restoring the status quo, more or less. Michael is shown the error of his ways, resolves to grow up, and stop throwing the lavish parties that are bankrupting his country. Mickey and Minnie foil Duke Varlott's coup attempt, enabling Michael to return to his palace in a hay cart with the cheers of his people ringing in his ears. He pledges to continue Mickey's reforms, and Mickey and Minnie begin their journey home. Mickey, the nation-builder!

The entire story is an extended riff on the 1937 adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr, a fairly straightforward technique employed many times by Gottfredson. He would often lift plot-lines, and story ideas from current movies, and from shorts and movies being produced at Disney. He ruthlessly devoured the cultural landscape around him, and his strip was as current and edged with satire as any that shared the page. It wasn't Doonesbury, but it had a point of view, and underneath the saccharine exterior, Gottfredson's art was deeply political. Fairbanks' Zenda is a swashbuckling sword-fighting romance epic. In Gottfredson's hands, it becomes something stranger and dangerous, a duel matching men with guns and cannons against Mickey, armed with nothing more than his false identity, and his wits. Long before the Mission: Impossible television series, or the James Bond movies, or Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Gottfredson crafted stories representing an American hegemony that was beneficent, wise, resourceful, and subtle. In 1970, a small group of young underground comic-book artists came to believe, after twenty years of wars in Europe, Korea, and Vietnam, that this portrait of American power was a lie, and proposed a novel and unsettling avatar to express their newly ascendant understanding, and strike back at the established order: Mickey Mouse.

By proving that Mickey could work just as effectively as the embodiment of their viewpoints, they would make manifest the agenda the Disney Company propounds, and reveal its corrupt and malignant propagandizing of the discredited establishment. In service to this ambitious undertaking, Dan O'Neil, Ted Edwards, Bob London, Shary Flenniken, and Gary Hallgren published two issues of a comic-book titled Air Pirates Funnies under the imprint "Hell," a nod to Dell Publishing, the company actually licensed to publish comics featuring Disney's properties, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Uncle Scrooge. The "Air Pirates" were originally villains featured in a 1933 series of strips titled "The Mail Pilot," reprinted in glorious color by Gladstone/Another Rainbow/Pantheon Books for Mickey Mouse's sixtieth anniversary, in 1989. It is possible that someone involved with that particular publishing event has a dark sense of humor. The Air Pirates of 1933 utilized a gigantic, magnetic, metal spider hanging from a vast zeppelin, shrouded in a man-made cloud to snatch planes out of the sky. The Air Pirates of 1970's vintage utilized far more confusing weapons that, often as not, missed their intended targets by a wide margin.

Bob Levin drew from a series of articles he wrote for The Comics Journal as the inspiration for The Pirates and the Mouse and it retains the pacing and tone of a good magazine feature. Most of his sources are still alive, including all five of the original creators of Air Pirates Funnies. As much as it is a treatise of a landmark legal case, one that "set back parody twenty years," it is an oral history of a decade-long event at the epicenter of the world of underground comix. There are two major difficulties Levin (and his readers) encounter in this project. First, it is steeped in the ambiguity of remembrances seen through a haze of marijuana, alcohol, and acid. Compounding this phenomenon is the man at the center of the narrative, the fellow who conceived and articulated the mission of undermining Disney's grip on American culture using its own characters. In the words of one of his attorneys, a quote that can be found in the first of the many, many footnotes to the main text (190 in all), "You don't talk to Dan [O'Neil] if what you're interested in is some Kantean[sic] discourse addressing the abstract nature of truth. He's Irish." Everywhere he appears in the text, curlicues, caveats, footnotes, addendum, and bemusement follow close behind.

Communique #1 from the M.L.F.Pirates is a short book that covers an enormous subject. There are chapters devoted to summarizing the histories of the Disney Corporation, the Underground Comics movement, the birth of comic conventions, the emergence of the direct sales market for comic-books, Dan O'Neil, Irish Revolutionary and Epic Fabulist, and not least, the decade-spanning slap-fight that was Disney's response to the publication of Air Pirates Funnies. Despite taking such a very long road to its final conclusion, the outcome was never in doubt. O'Neil and his co-conspirators never succeeded in convincing a single judge of the merits of their defense, not the man assigned to run their trial (Which never actually transpired, because they failed to defeat Disney's motion for summary judgement. Indeed, their lawyer failed to meet the deadline for responding to Disney's motion.), not the three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, or the magistrate who decided to impose the maximum allowable damages under the law as punishment for their infringing behavior. The Supreme Court declined to even hear the case. Only after all these men had decided against him, did O'Neil produce something that succeeded in articulating his arguments concerning the limits of copyright protection, the protected status of parody, and the hypocrisy of Walt Disney's moral vision.

With a $190,000 judgement hanging over his head and a decade-spanning series of rulings from the federal court system entered against him, "Communique #1 from the M.L.F.," a four-page manifesto explaining his intentions, and limning his answers to the legal and moral questions raised by his adventure, appeared under Dan O'Neil's name in Stewart Brand's Co-Evolution Quarterly #21, in the spring of 1979. Stewart Brand, who founded and edited the original Whole Earth Catalog, would go on to co-found The Well, and was one of the founding board members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His resume notes his role in founding and editing CoEvolution Quarterly, but alas, is silent on his stature as one of the few, the brave, the absolutely-fucking-insane who have published Dan O'Neil's work.

Pirates reprints "Communique #1" in its entirety, along with the covers of the two Air Pirates Funnies comics, the cover and further exerpts from the Air Pirates Pirate edition, produced in 1971 in violation of the injunction forbidding O'Neil, Richards, et al from featuring Disney characters in their art, as well as photos of the main players, and a great deal else besides. It's almost worth the asking price for the illustrations by themselves. What makes Levin's analysis interesting is his careful weaving of legal analysis with his first-hand reporting, featuring the people directly involved. We learn, for instance, that the original vision of the air pirates, to comment on, and revile Disney's cultural agenda with its own properties is worthwhile, and worth being protected. The artwork they actually created and published in the pages of their comic book? A tougher call. As a case study of modern copyright law, and the conflict between free expression, intellectual property, corporate, cultural, and countercultural values, The Pirates and the Mouse is an invaluable primer, and should be parked in a place of honor on your bookshelf next to Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas, and Free Culture

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