Free Mickey

Can Disney keep its top mouse out of underground comics?

Sep 3, 2003 at 12:00 am
As Congress battles the Federal Communications Commission over media consolidation that threatens to turn America's news and entertainment spectrum into a giant blur of infotainment pabulum, the timing for a book about Disney's mostly successful attempts to squish a cartoonist who dared satirize Mickey Mouse and Co. is perfect. Too bad that, unless you really groove on the intricacies of legal jousting, a lot of it is also pretty boring.

The Pirates and the Mouse recounts the protracted but now forgotten legal battle between a group of underground cartoonists who called themselves the Air Pirates (borrowing the name of the villains in early Mickey Mouse animated shorts) and the Walt Disney Co., which sued the living bejeezus out of them over the course of nearly a decade. The Air Pirates' leader was a brilliant San Francisco oddball named Dan O'Neill, who while still in his 20s was riding high through a syndicated newspaper comic strip called Odd Bodkins. As the 1960s heated up, the strip became increasingly political and editors started dropping it like it was rat poison. Bitter, O'Neill decided that all things wrong with America could be traced back to Disney and set out to destroy them. In the end, of course, the reverse happened.

The book provides a good thumbnail sketch of the evolution of the comic-book industry and a short history of the rise of Walt Disney the person as well as the corporation, but it gets bogged down in all the legal wrangling back and forth once MouseCo gets out its fangs. Chunks of chapters are taken up by repetitive courtroom verbal skirmishing and quotes pulled from the legal filings, and as the case drags on the story does, too. Author Bob Levin is an attorney who writes with a droll wit, and his interest in the minutiae of copyright law is as admirable as it is mind-numbing.

And it's hard to get too riled up about Disney's bullying legal tactics when the guys it's going after are writing stories about Mickey trying to force Clarabelle Cow to suck his cock. There's a great book to be written about the litigious nature of Disney and its voluminous attempts to stifle satiric creativity as well as any forms of competition whatsoever, and The Pirates and the Mouse would be worth a chapter inside it. Just not a whole book.

Tom Siebert writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].