Air Pirates

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This article is about the group of cartoonists. For fictional pirates of the air, see Air pirate. For other uses, see Air pirate (disambiguation).
Air Pirates
Named after Mickey Mouse antagonists of the 1930s
Formation 1971; 45 years ago (1971)
Founder Dan O'Neill
Extinction 1980; 36 years ago (1980)
Purpose to parody old-time comic strips and The Walt Disney Company
Key people
Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, Gary Hallgren, Ted Richards
Subsidiaries Mouse Liberation Front

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 (then Walt Disney Productions).[1] Founded by Dan O'Neill, the group also included Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, Gary Hallgren, and Ted Richards.

The original Air Pirates were a gang of Mickey Mouse antagonists of the 1930s; O'Neill imagined Mickey Mouse to be a symbol of conformist hypocrisy in American culture, and therefore a ripe target for satire.

The collective shared a common interest in the styles of past masters of the comic strip, and in creating their stories for the collective each set out to imitate the style of an old-time cartoonist:

The lead stories in both issues of Air Pirates Funnies (published in July & August 1971), 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 use of contemporary American and European folklore. In doing so, they infringed Disney's copyrights by using characters the company created without permission. October 21, 1971, Disney filed a lawsuit against O'Neill, Hallgren, London and Richards (Flenniken had not contributed to the parody stories).


The nucleus of the Air Pirates collective began to form when London met Richards at the office of the Berkeley Tribe,[when?] an underground newspaper where both were staff cartoonists. (London later drew a highly fictionalized account of their experiences at the Tribe in his story "Why Bobby Seale is Not Black" in Merton of the Movement [Last Gasp's "Cocoanut Comix" imprint, Oct. 1972].) In 1970 London and Richards attended the Sky River Rock Festival near Portland, Oregon and met Flenniken and O'Neill at the media booth,[3] where Flenniken was producing a daily Sky River newsletter on a mimeograph machine. Before the festival was over the four of them produced a four-page tabloid comic, Sky River Funnies, mostly drawn by London.

Meanwhile, O'Neill, who was producing the strip Odd Bodkins for the San Francisco Chronicle, but was fearful of losing copyright of, decided on an odd tactic to regain control of his strip: he would engage in copyright infringement, which he reasoned would force the newspaper to surrender the strip's copyright back to him for fear of being sued. O'Neill worked 28 Walt Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse and Pluto, into the strip. In late November 1970, the Chronicle fired O'Neill for the final time and discontinued the strip.

After the Sky River Rock Festival Flenniken and Richards went to Seattle, where Flenniken was doing graphics for the Seattle Liberation Front's brief-lived underground newspaper, Sabot. London went back to San Francisco with O'Neil and started working with him, contributing a "basement" strip to Odd Bodkins.

In early 1971 O'Neill invited Flenniken and Richards, along with Gary Hallgren, a Seattle cartoonist he had met at the festival, to San Francisco to form the Air Pirates collective.[4]

After the Pirates were established, Willy Murphy, Larry Todd and Gary King started hanging around the collective and contributing to their projects, missing the original Air Pirates Funnies but appearing in later Air Pirates comics.


Air Pirates Funnies[edit]

The first issue of Air Pirates Funnies was dated July 1971, and the second issue dated August of that year. Both were published by Ron Turner's Last Gasp publishing company under the Hell Comics imprint.

Other Air Pirates titles[edit]

  • Dan O'Neill's Comics and Stories (Company & Sons, 1971)
  • Dirty Duck (Company & Sons, Dec. 1971)
  • Air Pirates Funnies tabloid (Air Pirates Collective, July 1972)
  • Merton of the Movement (Last Gasp, Oct. 1972) — "Cocoanut Comix" imprint
  • Left Field Funnies (Apex Novelties, late 1972)
  • Dopin' Dan (Last Gasp, May 1972–October 1973) — includes side stories by other members of the collective


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. He was so eager to be sued by Disney that he had copies of Air Pirates Funnies smuggled into a Disney board meeting by the son of a board member. On October 21, 1971, he got his wish as Disney filed a lawsuit against O'Neill, Hallgren, London and Richards (Flenniken had not contributed to the parody stories),[3] alleging, among other things, copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition. Disney later added Last Gasp publisher Ron Turner's name to the suit. The Pirates, in turn, claimed that the parody was fair use.[1]

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 sold original artwork — predominantly of Disney characters — at comic book 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 (Last Gasp, 1971), 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.[1]

The case dragged on for several years. Finally, in 1978, the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Air Pirates 3-0 for copyright infringement, although they dismissed the trademark infringement claims.[1] 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.

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.[citation needed] 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 City, 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 joint in Walt Disney's office.[citation needed]

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, Disney 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."

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Tom Sito (October 6, 2006). Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 236–37. ISBN 0-8131-7148-2. 
  2. ^ Patrick Rosenkranz (2002). Rebel visions: the underground comix revolution, 1963-1975. Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 978-1-56097-464-2. 
  3. ^ a b RINGGENBERG, S.C. "Bobby London and the Air Pirates Follies," Comix Art & Graffix Gallery (5-12-98).
  4. ^ Patrick Rosenkranz (2002). Rebel Visions: the Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975. Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 978-1-56097-464-2. 


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