Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fish And Mouse

Echoes Of The Air Pirates

(Cartoon: Mr Fish, June 18, 2012)

"Mr Fish" is possibly the most acerbic and sharp-eyed, brook-no-bullshit editorial cartoonist / artist to appear in the past thirty years. Recently, Da Fish published a panel showing Dumbo, beloved character of the film by the same name, bemoaning his being confused with the symbol of the Republican Party -- which is now a racist, troglodyte political church.

They are the 'party' of hostility to women, minorities, and the poor. The 'ideas' this collective mutant freakshow represents are repression, exploitation, and simple, rapacious greed. They are political surrogates of the rich.

They are, in short, an abomination that should be scraped from the surface of the earth -- and they feel pretty much the same about America's Left and Progressive Dogs like myself.

If I were Dumbo, I'd be unhappy, too. The only group which could be less happy than the Elephant are his owners, the Walt Disney Company, which the character in The Fish cartoon describes as a
multi-national, multi-gazillion-dollar corporation that promotes sexist and racist and ethnocentric stereotypes, unhealthy body image, unrealistic notions of moral and immoral behavior... the myth that everybody is a hero and that success and happiness happen in direct correlation with the effort a person exerts towards realizing his or her dreams...
Now that Herr Fisch has published the cartoon (and it's a good cartoon), he may be waiting for the arrival of The Letter From Counsel For The Mouse. And at that point, I'm sure another thing will happen.

Because, Da Mouse got no sense of humor when it comes to 'creative license' with its loveable characters, and there's a bit of history which precedes Mr Fish's action which he's probably aware of. You may not be -- but, luckily, you and three other people and the Parakeet reading this blog also know a talking Dog with a long memory.

Artist Dan O'Neill, Holding Original 'Air Pirates' Art At Comic-Con 
(Photo © Gruntzooki [Cory Doctorow])

Underground Comics in America began in the mid-1960's, as prominent a fixture in popular art as the concert and music posters being created by Alton Kelly, his occasional collaborator Stanley Mouse, Vic Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson. Since 1954, comic books in the United States had been reviewed and approved by the Comics Code Authority, the industry's version of self-censorship which refused to publish depictions of violence, sexuality, drug use and socially relevant content in comics.

In other words, it was perfectly correct to depict American soldiers killing Our Enemies in generic War Against The Reds Comics (whatever they were actually called). It was fine to depict America's teenagers frolicking cleanly in Archie and Jughead. It was acceptable because Badness never wins, and Goodness, American-style, always triumphs in the Land Of The Free.

Approved Comic Images: Manly Heroism, Dead Reds, Homemakers
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; It's Easy And Fun!)

It was not correct or acceptable to introduce America's Youth to reefers, or to suggest sexual behavior between The Next Generation Of Americans. It was not correct to use profane language, or depict The American Way as ethically ambiguous or, at times, Wrong, or to show crimes committed which did not eventually lead to punishment.

There were Occupy protestors Al-Qaeda Unions Commies in that world long ago, sworn to subvert our American Way Of Life -- and organizations like the Comics Code Authority or the Catholic Legion Of Decency or the Hays Commission or the House Un-American Activities Committee were there to protect us -- from ourselves. For our own good.

Gilbert Shelton, Little Orphan Amphetamine; "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" 
Comix, 1969.  Clearly, Not 'DC Comics Code' Material.
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; Easy And Fun!)

So much of our history, since the turn of the last century, has been wrapped up in the dichotomy between official "truth", and Reality. This disparity has always been true, but with the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the escalation of war in Southeast Asia less than a year later, more people felt that sense of cognitive dissonance in life; the worm at the heart of the rose.

Some people did something about it; some were musicians, writers and artists: So, a "counterculture". In 'Popular' art there was a literal explosion of 'alternative' cartoons and comics between 1967 and into the Seventies -- it was as if Jules Feiffer and the Free Speech Movement and the Village Voice begat the Berkeley Barb and the L.A Express and, ultimately, Zap Comix.

Issues of comics like Zap, Yellow Dog Comix; Arcade; Bijou Funnies; Wimmens Comix; Mister Natural; Motor City Comix, Junkwaffel and others were risky to print or distribute. Their content made them adults-only publications, and like cigarettes, or liquor (or what was referred to in my child-time as Beaver Magazines), sales to minors were prohibited by law; anyone ignoring that fact could face fines, revocation of a business license, or even jail time.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the contents of "Comix" from the Sixties seems tame. How could anyone get pushed out of shape by most of this stuff? There is demonstrably worse language, skin and 'deviant behavior' on Cable teevee. Well, you kinda had to be there. . And in order for all that to seem tame, someone had to push the limits of what's considered publicly acceptable artistic expression.

Air Pirates Funnies, Issue No. 1, 1971

In 1971, a group of cartoonists who had been active for several years creating their own individual work produced two issues of an underground comic called Air Pirates Funnies. Founded by Dan O'Neill (who had a syndicated newspaper comic strip, "Odds Bodkins"), the group included Shary Flenniken, Bobby London ("Dirty Duck"), Gary Hallgren, and Ted Richards. Together, in San Francisco, they constituted the Air Pirates Collective.

An Original London's Dirty Duck: Part Groucho, Part Herriman
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; It's Easy! Okay, It's Fun Too!)
© Bobby London

Not The Creature Made In Burbank: O'Neill's Mouse
The Air Pirates intended to push the boundaries of what was considered "fair use" in creating parody in art, and freely used Disney's flagship characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse; according to Wikipedia, "O'Neill insisted it would dilute the parody to change the names of the characters, so his adventurous mouse ... was called "Mickey". Ted Richards took on the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, opening up a second wave of parody attacking Disney's grab of contemporary American and European folklore."

(Publishing a counterculture parody using Disney's characters didn't originate with The Air Pirates; In 1967, Lee Krassner's conspiracy-theorist magazine, The Realist, published a cartoon, "The Disneyland Memorial Orgy". The Disney organization was not amused.)

The Air Pirates Collective published a number of works besides the Air Pirates Funnies -- O'Neill released a Comics and Stories issue, a collection of Bobby London' "Dirty Duck" (which began appearing in National Lampoon magazine), among other titles. A Trots and Bonnie issue by Shary Flenniken was announced, but never appeared; Flenniken's work joined London's as a contributor to the Lampoon's comics pages.

Shary Flenniken's Trots And Bonnie, © Shary Flenniken
(Click On Photo For... You Know The Drill.)

By drawing their flagship character as a dope-smoking, profanity-using mouse who literally begs for sex and gets involved in complicated situations, Dan O'Neill knew he was shaking a rag at the Disney Company bull. In fact, he appeared to be spoiling for a First Amendment fight: Again according to Wikipedia, O'Neill arranged for copies of "Air Pirates Funnies" (which had gone through two issues, and a third being readied) to be smuggled into a meeting of the Disney Co. board of directors in mid-1971.

By October of that year, "Disney filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, copyright infringement, trademark infringement and unfair competition" against O'Neill, London and other members of the Air Pirates collective. Counsel for The Pirates claimed that the Funnies were parody, and legally permitted under the doctrine of fair use.
Accurately telling the story of Disney's lawsuit against the Air Pirates is difficult, due to the conflicting memories of the litigants; however, it is fair to say that all through the lawsuit, O'Neill was defiant.

The initial decision by Judge Wollenberg in the California District Court, delivered on July 7, 1972, went against the Air Pirates... During the legal proceedings and in violation of [a] temporary restraining order, the Air Pirates published some of the material intended for the third issue... [which led to 10,000 copies of a comic, "The Tortoise and the Hare" to be] confiscated... In 1975, Disney won a $200,000 preliminary judgement and another restraining order, which O'Neill defied by continuing to draw Disney parodies.
In 1978, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3 - 0 against the Air Pirates for copyright infringement, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a further, last appeal.

During all this, O'Neill continued drawing The Mouse in violation of the original 1971 restraining order, publishing a new Mickey Mouse story in publisher Stewart Brand's magazine, CoEvolution Quarterly in 1979. Disney demanded O'Neill be held in contempt of court and jailed, along with Brand.
O'Neill delivered [the new Mouse story] in person to the Disney studios, where he posed drawing Mickey Mouse at an animation table and allegedly smoked a joint in the late Walt Disney's office.

In 1980, weighing the unrecoverable $190,000 in damages and $2,000,000 in legal fees against O'Neill's continuing disregard for the court's decisions, the Walt Disney Company settled the case, dropping the contempt charges and promising not to enforce the judgment as long as the Pirates no longer infringed Disney's copyrights.
ONeill abided by this agreement and no further Mickey Mouse stories appeared in print.

The opinion over O'Neill's colorful defiance is split: On one side, advocates of free speech, pushing the envelope of artistic expression and sticking it to the Man because "No one can tell me I can't draw a mouse!". On the other are those who believe the lawsuit handed a victory to Disney that set back future attempts to define and expand the limits of parody and fair use.

Peter Griffin Shows His Inner Mickey -- You Don't
See Disney Suing Fox Over This, Do You?

However, and this is just one Dog's opinion, other artists have expanded on the Air Pirates' parody of Mickey as an opportunity to keep pushing the limits of what constitutes infringement and fair use -- for example, in an episode of "Family Guy" that aired on a local teevee channel this evening ("A Hero Next Door"), Peter walks past his new paraplegic police officer neighbor, looking like a recognizable cartoon character.

Chris Ware; Original Art For Quimby The Mouse
(Click On Photo For Larger Image. We Beg You.)

But, I'm really reminded of Chris Ware's character, Quimby The Mouse. The idea of using a mouse in a cartoon isn't copyrighted... but in looking at Ware's drawing, it's hard not to see the iconic shadow of our collective childhood at work -- and the history of the Air Pirates' work.

The Air Pirates are still with us. O'Neill is still drawing. So is Shary Flenniken, and Bobby London, Ted Richards and Gary Hallgren. O'Neill is still kicking ass and taking names, in the artistic sense.

I met O'Neill briefly in the early 90's when he was involved in attempting to open a club for politically-motivated standup comedy in San Francisco's North Beach (another local artist set up the meeting to discuss my doing posters promoting the effort). O'Neill and I played a few games of pool; I was impressed by his gentle sense of humor, bracketed by a sharp spirit that brooked no bullshit.

We didn't discuss the Air Pirates or the suit with Disney at that or any other subsequent meetings. Even though O'Neill is one of America's principal comic illustrators of the counterculture era, I never pumped him for reminisinces or details about hanging out and working with the likes of Crumb, London, Flenniken, Green, Shelton, et al. If you ran into Manet, you wouldn't monopolize having a conversation with him by focusing on the controversy around Déjeuner Sur L'herbe.

Mr Fish, in my opinion, is another artist who brooks no bullshit in a similar way. He tells the truth, he pushes the limits of "what is considered acceptable content" in parody or humor. Recently, in Truthdig, he published an article, "Obscenity", recounting a moment in his childhood when certain things about the freedom of expression became clear [paragraphing added for emphasis]:
The idea to save the world by writing FUCK YOUR ASS on 100 pieces of paper, folding them into airplanes and floating them out my bedroom window like dandelion spores came to me over Memorial Day weekend about 15 minutes after I started horsing around with my older brother Jeff in the back seat of my mother’s station wagon...

Jeff was trying to wrestle me into a headlock so that he could spit an ice cube down the back of my shirt... when I accidentally kicked him so hard in the nuts that I swear he blacked out for a full 30 seconds.

Ten minutes later I ... explained to my stepfather how I, without provocation, had kicked him in the balls.

“Testicles,” corrected my stepfather, narrowing his eyes like a marine biologist who had just pointed out someone’s misclassification of a dolphin as a porpoise...

“They’re testicles, not balls.”

“Well, aren’t they the same thing?”

“Yeah,” said my stepfather, “of course they are, but just call them testicles. Saying balls upsets your mother.”

...To suddenly realize at age 7 that balls and testicles referred to the same thing was a real eye-opener for me. It meant that the obscenity of the word balls was not intrinsic to the thing that it referred to, but rather to the word itself -- to the physicality of the word, to how it looked and sounded.

How else to explain the acceptability of the word testicles, which referred to the same thing that the word balls did and was not obscene? ...

The debate about the obscenity of words seemed no different to me from the civil rights era debates about what freedom and justice and equality should look like... It was time to demand equal rights for all speech because all speech was connected to all ideas, which were connected to all deeds, which were connected to all acts, which were connected to all hopes and dreams, both realized and not.
I have a feeling that O'Neill would agree with that. And, when he sees the cartoon of Dumbo sitting at the bar (something tells me he has), I believe he'll smile: One reason we can laugh at that Disney-character parody is due, in part, to The Air Pirates having already explored that territory, first.

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