Air Pirate Funnies is where parody met lawyers

Air Pirate Funnies was created by Dan O’Neill with the help of Bobby London, Shary Flenniken, Gary Hallgren and Ted Richards in 1971. Only 2 issues were ever printed. The first in July, the second in August of that year.

Air Pirate Funnies was an underground comic (meaning it was not published by some big publishers but by those who worked hard creating the work).

Air Pirate Funnies was drawn in the style of the 1930s Disney comics but showed the characters engaging in purely adult behaviour such as sex and drugs.

I know this is very tame by today’s standards – you can find similar materials on many sites, including YouTube, with only occasionally the character’s owner demanding it is taken down.

But not back in 1971, the days when Disney sued for using characters and stories that frankly were in the public domain, such as the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs. Disney clearly targeted Air Pirate Funnies for that very reason.

So what exactly happened? I will not try and bore you with all the legal details as there have been several books written on what exactly happened. Here it is in short.

Disney got a copy of Air Pirate Funnies and called their lawyers, accusing Don O’Neill and the others of copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition.

In 1972 Don O’Neill and company claimed Fair Use, but the California District Court still ruled against them. Which then slapped them with a $200,000 judgement. So what did Don O’Neill and the others do? They attempted to appeal that ruling.

They went to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and still lost, although the copyright infringement case was dropped. As they tried to make money to bring their care to the Supreme Court, they published a work based upon The Tortoise and the Hare.

The record is in Public Domain, but after all that hard effort to not mention the cost, Disney got a court order and confiscated all 10,000 printed copies.

Eventually, they were able to take their case to the Supreme Court in 1979, but they refused to accept the case.

In 1979 Don O’Neill created a 4-page story, Communiqué #1 from the M.L.F. (Mouse Liberation Front), which appeared in the magazine Co-Evolution Quarterly #21.

There was a second one which, according to sources, was delivered in person to Disney Studios. I cannot find any information on whether the second one was released to the public.

In 1980, with a $190,000 judgement left unpaid and $2 Million US Dollars in legal fees, Disney just dropped the entire matter.

So who were the people behind all of this…

Dan O’Neill, who did Odd Bodkins, was a comic for the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran for 6 years and focused on the Counter Culture movement of the 1960s.

Bobby London, who did 2 underground comics before this, Merton and Rat Subterranean News.

Shary Flenniken has a similar story as they were already part of the underground comic scene. Who later would be the Editor of the National Lampoon.

Gary Hallgren just appeared on the comic scene in the early 1970s with his own work appearing in the Northwest Passage, a local newspaper based out of Bellingham, WA, USA before his work appeared in Air Pirate Funnies.

His later work includes the San Francisco Comic Book, an underground publication. “Mort the Dead Teenager” was published by Marvel Comics.

Ted Richards was already in the underground comic scene at this time. But by 1987, he had already founded his own company Adware, which produced software for Windows and Macs.

To what happened later…

As best as I can search, the 3rd issue of Air Pirate Funnies was planned but was then killed by their legal problems. I cannot find any evidence that any work on that issue has survived to this day, let alone that a complete issue even existed.

All unsold copies of Air Pirate Funnies were destroyed by court order. Making what was sold very rare. I found a recent auction (not eBay) where Air Pirates Funnies #2 sold for $350.

In 2010 someone created Mouse Liberation Front on Facebook. The entire page only contains 7 posts, and that last one was on August 12, 2012. Except for an MLF card, there is no other art on that page.

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