There’s something arresting about shots of celebs caught with their pants down, whether crude drawings of Clark Gable or Little Or- phan Annie bumping uglies in Tijuana Bibles, or lo-res screen-grabs of Paris Hilton’s courtesan chops. But the law takes a dim view of appropriating the rich and famous for purely prurient purposes. So what happens when a genuine artist puts such outrages to work satirizing the machinations of the powerful? Enter Dan O’Neill, the protagonist of Bob Levin’s The Pirates and the Mouse, “a man unhobbled by factual restraints when a touch of moon-dust will enliven life’s dance.” In 1963, O’Neill, a 21-year-old college dropout, created the Odd Bodkins comic strip for the San Francisco Chronicle. O’Neill filled his panels with such bon mots as “To see or Nazi. That is the question,” and caricatures of Superman smokin’ weed and Christ crucified on a telephone pole. These counterculture provocations eventually got him canned, but not before he learned the lesson (presented in Levin’s typically wry prose) “that what America truly needed was the destruction of Walt Disney.”
In 1971, O’Neill gathered a cadre of underground cartoonists to launch Mickey Mouse Meets the Air Pirates Funnies, featuring most of Disney’s stable in flagrante delicto (when they weren’t busy smuggling dope). The Pirates had grown up loving Disney’s artistry, but came to despise his corporation’s watered-down folklore. Ted Rich- ards, one of these renegade Mouseketeers, resented Disney’s “corporate seizure of the American narrative” and believed the Pirates were “helping the people regain access to their own stories.” Reflecting back on the period, O’Neill says, “It was everybody’s duty to smash the state. And we smashed a lot of it; but, you know, they smashed us back.” Indeed, despite fair-use copyright provisions protecting satire, the Pirates shortly found themselves hauled into court by humorless Disney lawyers. (Uncle Walt himself was a master at poaching story lines and music from the public domain. But six years ago, in a classic case of socialized subsidies for private fortunes, his corporation lobbied for, and won, an extension of copyright protection to “life of the author plus seventy years,” thereby keeping some future visionary’s paws off Disney’s characters for decades to come.)
Levin, a lawyer by trade, cogently explains the tensions between treating copyrights “no differently than any other piece of property” and recognizing that “all knowledge derives from prior knowledge [and] society can benefit . . . from a widespread dissemination of facts, ideas, and theories.” Despite a few editorial gaffes—a misdated story, a chapter-head typo—his lucid narrative overcomes the Pirates’ drug-fogged memories and years of tangled, Bleak House-like litigation. After a decade of injunctions and huge fines (uncollectible from the chronically broke O’Neill), the Pirates finally promised to cease and desist—that is, until the Air Pirates Special Pirate Edition, by the “Mouse Liberation Front,” featuring an ulcer-ridden Mickey working the phones and sweating the grosses of Aladdin. Dating from the mid ’90s, it is beautifully drawn and hilarious: Mickey fumes over the cost of keeping Walt cryogenically preserved—”Wouldn’t I like to pull the plug on that old popsicle!”—then nails the ethos of the Reagan/Bush years: “I am Mickey Mouse and I am the American Dream!! It’s simple . . . I got mine . . . Fuck you!”
Anyone who’s been cattle-herded through the Magic Kingdom has seen this side of Disney’s world, epitomized by currently embattled CEO Michael Eisner’s statement, “We have no obligation to make history . . . to make art. . . . To make money is our only objective.” Seems it’s the Pirates who truly loved Mickey, and the bosses who still just want to screw him.