The Air Pirates - Knock Off Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Anna Swann-Pye

By Anna Swann-Pye

Let’s set the scene first: in 1963, The San Francisco Chronicle made 21-year-old college dropout, Dan O’Neill, the youngest syndicated cartoonist in American newspaper history. His strip was called Odd Bodkins and was an increasingly controversial political cartoon featuring bodiless creatures. Eventually, The Chronicle fired O’Neill (multiple times, but for good in 1970) when his political radicalism became too obvious for the newspaper’s fancy.

Meanwhile, Gary Hallgren, a creature of the counterculture recent college graduate with a degree in art and a tendency toward social upheaval counterculture, was painting radical signs in Seattle. “I thought I could be a hippy if I could get my head on straight,” Hallgren tells BreakThru Radio.

The two found each other in 1970 when O’Neill asked Hallgren to join him in San Francisco to work on an underground comix series. Underground comix, Hallgren explained, was an unfettered comic movement for strictly adults. They were sold in limited markets: “In head shops, never in drugstores.”

Together, with the company of a few other counterculture cartoonists – namely Bobby London, Shary Flenniken, and Ted Richards – they decided to create an underground comix series with the purpose of taking down Disney. They named both themselves and their comic The Air Pirates.

The cover to Air Pirates Funnies #1, many copies of which were siezed by Disney in the midst of a copyright suit.

Image courtesy of Gary Hallgren.

“It was an improvised sort of thing,” Hallgren tells us, “O’Neill had this idea and, honestly, I don’t believe he thought we’d actually take him up on it. But in the Spring of 1970, everyone converged in San Francisco. We played off of each other and then translated it onto the page. We tried to develop material as best we could and eventually we found a publisher that wanted to run with the Disney stuff.”

They came out with two issues – each of which used Disney characters to tell terribly un-Disney-like stories. O’Neil’s “The Mouse Story,” for example, was a “tale of awakening within Mickey” — a recognition of sin and a resulting redemption. Mickey is presented as depressed and voices many discontents – including, but not limited to, a number of sexual misgivings.

Hallgren’s “Tortoise and the Hare” cover depicts the hare floating on the tortoise down a river, playing poker, and smoking a joint. Tortoise says to Hare: “Hey… Hey! Gimme a hit, Hop-Head!”

So – as O’Neill, Hallgren, and their comrades were expecting – Disney learned of the series (with some help from O’Neill, who handed the comics off to the gay son of a Disney board member), and a long and ridiculous trial and lawsuit ensued. “I mean why have a fight if no one comes?” O’Neill asked reason.com. And what a fight it was.

“What it came down to was this,” Hallgren says. “It was a question of fair use versus unfair use. We had the attitude that we had the right to do this. Disney was an American institution. They demonstrated that they owned the images and we demonstrated that we had the right to use them. It was too big a concept for the law – it took eight years and a lot of extra legal activities.”

The Pirates claimed protection for their work using the First Amendment. They argued that Mickey was a part of a collective unconscious and was a widely known and understood American symbol. The defense also argued that, under the “fair use” doctrine, artists are allowed to reproduce limited amounts of material in small-scale situations.

As Hallgren emphasized, the law was pretty dumbfounded for a long while and the case stood still. It didn’t help matters that individual Air Pirates considered settling with Disney, even as they continued printing the comic in secret. With a lot of money and a little jail time on the line, no one was quite sure how the trial could move forward through appeals circuits.

In the end, Hallgren told us, it was the mobilization of young America that ended the fight, through various events and art shows under the banner of the “Mouse Liberation Front,” or M.L.F. When young people got involved, Disney knew to pull out. “They told us not to do it again and pretty much left it alone,” he told us.

Young people came to the defense of young people for the sake of counterculture, art, and revolution. The entire story is pretty impressive. But it seems like we should be asking if this type of movement is even relevant today, when revolutionary fervor has become somewhat stilted among young people. We asked Hallgren what he thought about the possibility of engaging in counterculture in this day and age.

“I’m not sure,” he began, “Occupy Wall Street was very exciting. The thing is, there’s this vague unhappiness among young people today. They feel apathetic, and I sense that there’s a resentment of an older generation, perhaps because we were doing things in the ’70s and are now making them feel like they can’t. I understand that. And modern technology doesn’t have the same framework for protest as prints did. But as modern communications become more codified and less novel — as they are used as tools and not playthings — I think they can be used to the advantage of the young.”

This is not to say that these cartoonists fought a long and dirty battle for nothing. They certainly left the eight years of legal turmoil unscathed, for all intents and purposes.

“It took up a lot of energy,” Hallgren tells us, but that seemed to be about all. The cartoonists are still drawing. Hallgren has been a freelance artist ever since.

“The notoriety that The Air Pirates brought was really useful,” he told us. It also can’t hurt that his cartoons are pretty amazing. Their work can and should be explored on his website, garyhallgren.com.

Hallgren’s beliefs, too, are pretty much the same. Although he told us that he has become somewhat less of a lefty, he still seems to be fighting some of the same battles. On the “welcome to my website” portion of garyhallgren.com, he writes: “By the way… Don’t use anything without permission, unless you are a satirist or parodist. Good luck with that.”

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