45 Years, 45 Days: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture

Draw a mouse, go to jail. That, it seemed, was the ultimate
conclusion of a case that wended its way throughout the 1970s from
the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to
the Supreme Court and back. In an age of easy and ubiquitous
copying, that case matters more now than ever.

On one side was the plaintiff, Walt Disney Productions. Its
good-hearted, uplifting, family-oriented fare drew upon
values–patriotism and Puritanism, consumerism and conformity–that
the cultural revolution of the ’60s had called into question, and
fed those values back to a public in need of reassurance, earning
it, back then, $750 million a year.

On the other side was the defendant, cartoonist Dan O’Neill. His
career’s trajectory, though mostly downward, was, in its commitment
to a free-spirited, convention-defying, bluenose-shocking,
light-out-for-the-territory view of the personal and public good,
just as resolutely mythic-American as Disney’s….

As the ’60s revolution wore on, O’Neill decided that what
America truly needed was the destruction of Walt Disney. So…he
rounded up a ragtag band of rogue cartoonists who called themselves
the Air Pirates, after a group of evildoers who had bedeviled
Mickey Mouse in the 1930s. In 1971 they produced two issues of an
underground comic book in which a number of Disney characters,
particularly Mickey, engaged in very un-Disneylike behavior,
particularly sex.

In 1979 O’Neill stood before the bar, 38 years old, unemployed,
with total assets of $7, a 1963 Mercury convertible, a banjo, and
the baggy gray suit he was wearing. Disney, which already had a
$190,000 judgment against him, sought to have him fined another
$10,000 and imprisoned for six months.