The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture

By Bob Levin

Fantagraphics Books (2003), $24

Bob Levin's The Pirates and the Mouse tells the story of five counterculture cartoonists from San Francisco who committed themselves to skewering the arch morality of the Disney realm. Dubbing themselves the Air Pirates, they spent much of the early 1970s churning out underground comics depicting Mickey and friends as sex-crazed drug addicts. Turning the Disney myth on its head drew the wrath of the Magic Kingdom's lawyers, who pursued an epic copyright-infringement lawsuit against the cartoonists that eventually landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with a lower court's ruling that the Air Pirates had indeed infringed on Disney's copyrights. The case, Levin argues, was a groundbreaking confrontation between cutting-edge satire and corporate stoicism. "Draw a mouse," he writes. "Go to jail."

A Berkeley attorney with two other books to his credit, Levin is best when unraveling the oftentimes absurd judicial proceedings that meander from courtroom to courtroom across a decade. Unfortunately, he proves less adept as a narrator. Levin is clearly in the cartoonists' camp (an admittedly fun place to be), but his prose strains to ape the vivid, drug-soaked revelations of the Air Pirates' comic strips. Too often, the book sags under the weight of hazy, had-to-be-there digressions typical of late-'60s hell-raisers, and Levin gives the impression he's writing the story mostly as an excuse to revisit the heady spirit of those halcyon days. Indeed, his decision to include himself as a character -- discussing his own life, his previous books, and his wife tagging along on interviews -- lends the narrative an amateurish tone that detracts from the well-articulated principles the Air Pirates were fighting for.

Still, even a marginal writer can't go wrong with this story, and the book is a good read if only for the frequent moments when Levin stands back and allows the Air Pirates' leader, Odd Bodkins creator Dan O'Neill, to offer his hilarious, brilliantly offbeat aphorisms on the value of fighting back for the hell -- and fun -- of it. (O'Neill advises: "With FBI, the best thing to do is answer the door naked. They hate that. Then every question they ask ... 'Well, search me.'") If Levin can't write half as vividly as O'Neill and his cohorts drew, the revolutionary zeal of the source material still makes the tale worthwhile.

 
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