Although he is today more often in trouble in the foothills of the Sierra than once he was in the saloons of the outer Richmond,
San Franciscans who came to know and love this man in years gone by, realized, even then, that we had never before, and would never again, meet a character quite as mad, and quite as wonderful, as the cartoonist Dan O'Neill.
Hundreds of us have our own favorite Dan O'Neill stories; yet we are all now surpassed by the publication of a charming new book, The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture by Berkeley writer and lawyer, Bob Levin. The book is published by Fantagraphics Books up in Seattle, is now everywhere around town, should you want to run out and buy a copy, which is something I highly recommend that you do.
Unless, of course, you don't actually like to laugh...
Focusing on what history will no doubt regard as O'Neill's greatest caper-although clearly our man ain't finished yet-the Mouse in this book is of course none other than Mickey, and the Pirates are, or were a group of cartoonists called the Air Pirates whom O'Neill organized largely to yank Walt Disney's chain back in the late 1960's.
When O'Neill's first comic strip-the often sublime Odd Bodkins-began in the Chronicle some forty years ago this very year-it was reminiscent, more than anything else, of the world of Pogo, and of Walt Kelly, the great Irish American cartoonist of the previous mid-century.
Yet as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, and things began to get very strange around this town, Pogo's gentle and restrained liberal influence on O'Neill went right by the boards, and Odd Bodkins soon took up his position at the cultural and political barricades with all the other lunatic, and often drug-ridden art and entertainment forms which typified the brain candy readily available to all of us masses in that unique decade.
O'Neill's Irishness, it should also be quickly said, was also always at the center of his work. Indeed, just before he was fired from the Chronicle for the umpteenth time, it was discovered that the small type at the foot of the strip was in fact actual Morse code. When decoded, the script turned out to be mad little messages to the IRA to try to hold out until Dan could actually make it over to Belfast, and join the fight in order to put the movement finally over the top.
And so in 1971, hanging to his day job at the San Francisco Chronicle by the skin of his teeth, yet crazed with a desire for still more power, the always temperate, and moderately balanced O'Neill decided that rather than be the good boy everyone has asked him to be, he might better take a run at that huge Irishman who stood at the top of his own chosen food chain-that fellow California Irish fantasist, the man the world already knew as Walt Disney.
Thus, in the dead of night, in a run-down warehouse south of Market, old Dan, and pals began to generate a series of new comic books which featured a clearly recognizable Mickey and Minnie Mouse conducting themselves much like Monica and her President in a decade still yet to come. In July of 1971, Air Pirates Funnies #1, which carried the actual front cover title "Mickey Mouse Meets the Air Pirates Funnies" appeared under the counter in head shops and radical bookstores around the globe.
Ah, the fleeting nature of fame. Within 90 days of that publication, shocked and utterly scandalized, the Walt Disney Empire, in all of it's might, moved in to stop O'Neill from ever again publishing these obviously proud and avowedly pornographic comic books. This war would last for the next 20 years. The story of this struggle-one of the most amazing legal battles in all of American judicial history-is a story wonderfully told in Bob Levin's new book The Pirates and The Mouse.
You can guess, of course, who ultimately won (see Gore /Bush Florida election returns, 2000). Nonetheless, I am happy to report, ensconsed in the foot hills and still lost gold minds of the high Sierra's, the amazing O'Neill is today in as fine a form as ever.
Talking to him the other night on the phone I learned that he had recently been voted a member of the Board of Directors of one of mountain's last remaining gold mines, and was otherwise threatening to turn a local radio program he co-hosts into a second home for all the truly seditious musicians, writers and cartoonists still left on our planet. "You can get a guy playing this banjo in Hawaii, and we can cut that under this woman reading a poem in Wisconsin, and play it all up against a wall of applause coming from a bar in Texas. We can do it all today on the Internet," he was saying the other night on the telephone. "That Bush guy wants no part of me."
Long may his spirit reign.