Given the nice numbers that the very first installments of Jim Korkis' new 12 part series "The History of the Comic Book" racked up for the site this past weekend, it's fairly obvious that a large number of you JHM readers are pretty serious comic book fans.
Well -- if that's really the case -- then you guys are going to the book that I'm reviewing today: Bob Levin's "The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture" (Fantagraphics Books, June 2003). This is a wonderful new true-life tale that starts off in the 1960s. It details the daring exploits of one Dan O'Neill, who was once the youngest syndicated cartoonist to ever be hired by a major daily newspaper in the United States. (The "San Francisco Chronicle" took a chance on Dan's strip -- "Odd Bodkins" -- in 1963, back when O'Neill was just 21 years of age.)
As the 1960s came in full flower, O'Neill found himself (no pun intended) drawn to the counterculture. Dan saw America's youth turning its back on the status quo and decided that he too wanted in on the fun. That O'Neill wanted to use his obvious gift for satirical cartooning as a way to tilt at some corporate windmills.
And which company did Dan select as his primary target? One of America's best known entertainment conglomerates: Walt Disney Productions. And how did O'Neill decide to satirize Disney? By using the corporation's own copy-written characters in some brand new comic strips that Dan and his friends drew. Which showed Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the gang doing some decidedly un-Disney-like things like swearing, shooting up and screwing around.
Of course, once Disney's lawyers finally got wind of this (according to Levin's research, it was Dan himself who made Walt Disney Productions officials aware that he and his friends -- Ted Richards, Bobby London, Gary Hallgren and Shary Flenniken -- were publishing comic books that made unauthorized use of the corporation's trademarked characters ... evidently because O'Neill hoped that this move would draw Disney into a fight), they filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Air Pirates. (That's what this ragtag group of counterculture cartoonists called themselves. The Air Pirates. Which -- some of you may recall -- was the same name that a bunch of comic book villains who used to tormented Mickey Mouse back in the 1930s used as well.)
Disney's attorneys reportedly thought that this case -- Walt Disney Productions vs. the Air Pirates -- would be a slam dunk when they originally filed their brief back in October 1971. Little did the corporation's legal team realize that -- nine years later -- that they'd still be in court. Still struggling to find a way to prevent O'Neill from publishing yet another adult comic book featuring the Disney characters.
"The Pirates and the Mouse" is quite a yarn, folks. A tale that has plenty of twists and turns, during which a extremely large cast of colorful characters continually troops on and off-stage. In the hands of a less talented writer, it would be easy for this incredibly convoluted tale to become totally incomprehensible.
That's why I'm pleased to tell you that author Bob Levin was actually up to the challenge. Bob has done an extremely clever thing with "The Pirates and the Mouse." He's taken this true-to-life tale and reshaped into a hybrid sort of book. Half courtroom drama, half counterculture history.
Levin also shows considerable skill in the way he leads his readers through this briar patch of a book. Making sure that you're always able to keep track all of the significant players. Not to mention serving up lots of intriguing little side stories as this 30-plus-years-in-the-making epic ambles toward its amiable conclusion.
I have to admit that I really enjoyed reading Levin's book. That said, I also have to acknowledge that "The Pirates and the Mouse" may not be everyone's cup of tea.
What's the problem? Well, several of the Air Pirates' somewhat shocking Disney-related cartoons are reproduced here. So -- if you're the type of person who thinks that you'll be scarred for life if you ever happened to see an image of Mickey Mouse masturbating -- then this may not be the book for you.
If -- on the other hand -- you think that you'd really enjoy reading a well written history of a truly intriguing aspect of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s / early 1970s, then by all means go pick up a copy of Bob Levin's "The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture."
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