last update 5-12-98

BOBBY LONDON AND THE AIR PIRATES FOLLIES

by S.C. RINGGENBERG


In addition to his fame as the creator of the award-winning "Dirty Duck" comic strip in National Lampoon and Playboy, and his stellar work carrying on Segar's Popeye for King Features, Bobby London has been notorious since the early '70's as one of the legendary Air Pirates.

Who were the Air Pirates, you ask? They were a group of underground cartoonists led by "Ods Bodkins" creator Dan O'Neill that also included London, "Dopin' Dan" creator Ted Richards, "Trots and Bonnie's" Shary Flenniken, and signpainter turned cartoonist Gary Halgren. Their notoriety rested on the two issues of the Air Pirates underground comic that caused the entire group (with the exception of Flenniken) to be sued by Walt Disney Productions for copyright infringement. What prompted the suit was the lead stories in each issue, written and drawn by Dan O'Neill, that depicted Mickey and Minnie Mouse having sex, getting high and smuggling drugs.

But as Bobby London pointed out when recalling the case, "Mickey Mouse was pretty much Dan O'Neill's baby. The only things I was really interested in at that time was Dirty Duck and Shary Flenniken. And those were the two main reasons I stuck around with the group called the Air Pirates...everything else has always been credited to O'Neill. It was his brainchild and he took credit for it publicly at the time, and so it should be known as his thing...Popeye was always my thing, Mickey Mouse was Dan's thing." London does not deny that he was named in Disney's original suit, "I was involved, certainly, because I was involved in the publication of it, and...my name was right there and I was part of it. However there was a rumor, an erroneous rumor, that Dirty Duck was part of that lawsuit and that wasn't true. Dirty Duck was never touched by that lawsuit."

Disney's response to the this perversion of Mickey Mouse's "image of innocent delight" (wording that stems from Disney's original suit) was quick and to the point. Within a short time of the publication of the second issue of Air Pirates, all the artists involved were served with a summons. The Air Pirates case subsequently dragged through the courts for years, becoming something of a cause celebre in the world of underground comics. The case has been depicted in the media by some of the principals, chiefly Dan O'Neill, as an example of underground cartoonists courageously fighting for their First Amendment rights against a large and powerful corporation and winning.

As Shary Flenniken recalled it in a 1980 interview: "What happened was really beautiful. The case was never won in court. There was what they called a summary judgement passed, which was like an out of court (settlement) between the Walt Disney lawyers and the judge...There was never a trial. It went to the state Supreme Court and was finally turned down by the federal Supreme Court, as far as I know, on appeal."

But did the Air Pirates really win their case against Disney? Bobby London remembers those events somewhat differently. He recalls that period in his life not through a rosy, nostalgic haze as a time of underground camaraderie and commitment to the principles of free speech, but as a time of great personal and professional stress. For Bobby London, his involvement with the Air Pirates was anything but a victory. As London recounted the events of twenty-odd years ago for Gauntlet: "It was the most frightening time of my life and I don't know where these people come off trying to make it look like it was a really wonderful time..."

To better understand why Bobby London came to feel this way it's necessary to know how he became involved with O'Neill, et. al. In 1969, after short stints working as an underground cartoonist for underground papers such as New York City's The Rat and The Chicago Seed, London trekked to San Francisco, the underground cartoonists' mecca at the time. As London wryly noted, "after I left, every paper would get taken over by Weathermen or SDS people...And I didn't get along with these people very well because they wanted me to draw a lot of communist propaganda...I was not a political person despite what Shary Flenniken said in her interview in The Comics Journal. I considered myself to be a cartoonist first and I had been resisting for the longest time to...just be a pair of hands for the counterculture."

Upon arriving in the San Francisco area, London started working for The Berkeley Tribe, an underground paper which he described as "an offshoot of The Berkeley Barb." London first made the acquaintance of Ted Richards, a cartoonist newly arrived from Cincinnati, and subsequently met O'Neill and Flenniken (his future wife) through Richards at the 1970 Sky River Rock Festival. London's first substantial contact with O'Neill came when London hitched a ride home from the Sky River Festival with him. "I...got a ride with O'Neill, and O'Neill stopped off at his place in Marin County and showed me his studio and told me that he wanted to put together a comic book company. And he talked about how great it was to do a syndicated cartoon strip but he wanted to put together an underground comic book company, and he was looking for a group of artists to help him." At the time London wasn't really interested in working with O'Neill, having just broken up with his girlfriend and deciding that life on the West Coast wasn't for him. After returning to New York and making a vain attempt to patch up his relationship with his girlfriend, London did, in fact, return to the West Coast eventually settling in what he described as "a really terrible section of Oakland". While living there and "just wondering what the hell was going to happen to me", Dan O'Neill reappeared in London's life, having somehow tracked him down, and urged London to join forces with him. London stubbornly refused for several days, then relented and moved in with the older cartoonist. "I was living a nice, quiet life in O'Neill's little crackerbox house off the Russian River...I was perfecting my drawing technique. And the best thing about that period was getting to watch a real, professional daily comic artist meet his deadline up close, which was a great opportunity.

"The idea sort of was that I would be (O'Neill's) assistant., whatever that meant. Actually, I did my own little "Dirty Duck" strips under his and we talked about this comic book company, and there wasn't much mention, or any mention at all, actually, of Walt Disney characters or anything like that. His idea was that we would assemble a group of artists, maybe four or five of us. At that time...he had his eye on Gary Halgren, (Ted) Richards, (Shary) Flenniken, me, and Dan O'Neill, him. Which was all okay with me, and he wanted to produce one comic book a month...He said none of this namby-pamby underground stuff where you meet deadlines whenever you want. We're going to put out a monthly periodical...It seemed like something that was really too good to be true at this point. I was just all for it."

Despite his enthusiasm for the idea of an old-fashioned cartoonists' studio, London did have some reservations about working with O'Neill, "as we worked on the "Od Bodkins" deadlines, I just began to notice that he was using lots of Disney characters in his stuff...When he began to suggest that we use the Disney characters in an ongoing serial in the back of the book, I said, `No way. I do not want to do that. I am not using other people's characters. I do not want to engage in any copyright infringements, or trademark violations or anything like that...The idea of doing, lampooning establishment characters...in some kind of Mad magazine way...just seemed ridiculous to me because I had created my own characters and I wanted to pursue that and that alone." However, after London voiced his objections to O'Neill's concept, London remembers O'Neill trying to reassure him by saying, "`Look, my lawyers did some research and they found out that the copyrights on the earliest thirties Disney comic strip characters are in public domain. They copyrights have expired. If we use these characters and we don't use any names they may try and take us to court. They may do some kind of thing in the papers, but they won't have a leg to stand on and nobody will get hurt.'" Despite his reservations, at the time London felt inclined to believe O'Neill, noting, "Look, the guy was a syndicated cartoonist and so when he said he had lawyers, I'm twenty years old, I believe he had lawyers, you know. And I didn't say yes and I didn't say no, but he had really hooked me with the idea of doing a monthly comic book...That was what I really wanted to do."

In 1971, after being dispatched to Seattle by O'Neill to bring Ted Richards and Shary Flenniken back to the Bay area so they could all begin working on O'Neill's comic book company, London wound up being united with Flenniken and settled down with her, sharing a house with her and several other women. During a brief breakup with Flenniken, London lived alone in the house, concentrating on developing his cartooning skills, "that's where...I drew the first twelve or fifteen Dirty Duck pages. It was incredible...I was just learning and developing in leaps and bounds. It was a very inspired time for me." Those first Dirty Duck pages eventually wound up being included in the first issue of the Air Pirates. After completing them, London went back down to Berkeley with Ted Richards, but without Shary Flenniken. Several weeks later, Flenniken arrived in San Francisco, and "We set up this shop in the industrial district of San Francisco and started to work..." The Air Pirates' original studio was small, and personal tensions ran high. "It was like five people in two rooms. It was very, very weird...Ted and Shary did not get along. Dan and Ted barely got along. Gary (Halgren) was his quiet self and I was just like, just trying to write and draw for everybody...I just burnt myself out to a crisp within a few months."

Even at the beginning of the Air Pirates saga, London sensed trouble on the horizon. "...we were getting the first issue together. I'm sitting at the drawing board, and O'Neill passes this board with a drawing on it to me, and there it is, you know. It's two panels with Mickey Mouse in them. He had told me there would be no trademark violation, and so that's why the title of that story was called, "The Mouse", because he was placating me at that time. He didn't want me to leave. And, so I just sort of took a deep breath and went along with it, and I don't know what he told Ted. I don't know what he told Shary at the time, but I'm not sure that it was the same thing that he told me because this whole deal about pubic domain was just in my head...and Dan had put it there. I didn't really speak to the others about it and they thought I was crazy for doing this. And so a real row developed and there was a split in the group and somehow the first two issues came out."

By this time, London's reservations about O'Neill's use of the Disney characters had resurfaced, "...I remember where I reached one point where it was generally agreed that we were going to hear from Walt Disney Productions and what were we going to do? And I had suggested that we just stop doing, drop the Disney thing, keep cranking out the books, but just use our own characters, which was the idea that I thought we were going to do to begin with. And that was soundly hooted down...at that point I began to lose interest in the group."

What happened next are events that were permanently burned into Bobby London's brain. "Dan disappeared about three or four days before the process server turned up." What caused O'Neill to take flight, London speculates was a number of factors, "Some kind of fight ensued. It looked like (O'Neill) was having a nervous breakdown, but actually, I think it was a combination of things. Part of it was that he began to really guilt-trip over what he had told me and he...just got in a fist fight with Ted, jumped on his motorcycle and took off into the night. And about three days later the process server comes to the door." As soon as the papers were served, London remembers being, "absolutely petrified." However, with O'Neill absent, other priorities reasserted themselves. "The first thing I had to do was keep working because we had moved to...a larger studio that was owned by Francis Ford Coppola. It was some sort of firehouse that had been turned into a warehouse for American Zoetrope. It was something like four hundred dollars a month. We had absolutely no money, and it was decided that Bobby was going to start cranking out comic books that were going to pay the rent. And there was a pre-sold, without my permission, really, there was a pre-sold Dirty Duck comic book...so that the Air Pirates could get their thousand dollars and not be thrown out into the street. And it was up to me to crank out a thirty-two page book in about two weeks."

Despite numerous distractions, and the enormous pressure of the Disney lawsuit, London managed to complete the promised Dirty Duck comic book, though he notes with some bitterness, "It nearly killed me. It sent me to the hospital. Shary Flenniken jokes around in her Comics Journal interview about how I was so stoned I was lettering too small. The actual fact was that I was so distracted by all the fights between her and Ted, and Dan taking off, and having to get this thing out so we all would not get thrown into the street that I just, I just zoomed through all this stuff and just did these Herriman-looking pages and finished the deadline, and within a couple of weeks after that I was in Franklin General Hospital being treated for anemia. I had a 106 degree fever and ...the doctor had told my father that if my temperature had gone up maybe one or two more degrees I probably could have died, because I was totally undernourished. I was living on Oreos and pork buns that were provided by Ron Turner and Last Gasp for three months...I think the only thing that happened between the Dirty Duck book fiasco and my collapse was the press conference for the Air Pirates."

Following his recovery, London wed Shary Flenniken in San Francisco, and the couple were contacted by National Lampoon editors and invited to audition for the magazine. London and Flenniken's strips were both accepted, and the pair relocated to the Seattle area and settled into a comfortable routine of producing Dirty Duck and Trots and Bonnie, their respective Lampoon strips.

Meanwhile, the Air Pirates case continued to drag through the courts. Then in 1974, in London's words, "something very bizarre happened...Dan O'Neill's lawyers sent me an out of court settlement with the Walt Disney Productions people and he had told Gary Halgren that it would be perfectly legitimate for him to sign it, and in fact he probably should. And I was about to sign it when Shary gives me this whole lecture about the First Amendment, my loyalty to Dan O'Neill, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory...and how could I sign this thing. She basically talked me out of it." Within four months, however, the entire situation had wreaked its toll on London and Flenniken's personal life, and the couple split up. London perceives the breakup of his marriage to Flenniken as just one aspect of the fallout from the Air Pirates case.

In the period following the breakup of his marriage, London travelled to San Francisco, lived briefly in Washington D.C. and Provincetown, Mass, before moving into Manhattan. Although he went through "a very hard period" one winter during which he was living in a drafty flat and getting served with divorce papers, by the following spring things were looking up for the young cartoonist. He began getting illustration work from publications like The New York Times, The Village Voice and Esquire, and at one point, "Harvey Kurtzman was grooming me to be a gag panel cartoonist for Esquire." Following Kurtzman's departure as Esquire's art director, London gravitated to Playboy around 1976, at first just writing scripts for cartoonist Ralph Reese, but soon producing color Dirty Duck strips for Playboy's Funny pages.

London was now working for Playboy, one of the most prestigious American markets for any cartoonist. Things were looking up for Bobby London after a string of personal and professional setbacks. "I had gotten to the point where I had broken up with Shary and moved to New York and finally got used to living on my own and was starting to get some semblance of a life on my own, actually financially survive living in Manhattan, that's when Dan O'Neill decided to break the federal injunction on his Disney drawings one more time..."

What happened was that Dan O'Neill, chafing under the weight of the original Disney suit, decided to form the Mouse Liberation Front. As Shary Flenniken described it, "...what Dan O'Neill did was start this massive publicity campaign that he was doing at these conventions. He got these other artists, fine artists, and people who'd worked for Disney to do their version of any art they wanted to, with a mouse in it as a theme. Dan took this work around to conventions and showed it. And they sold merchandise with `MLF--The Mouse Liberation Front' on it. He had Mouse Liberation Front belt buckles and rings and little boxes of malted milk balls called `Mouse Droppings'.

The effect of O'Neill's actions on London's life was disastrous, both personally and professionally, "I...was... trying to settle out of court with Disney on my own, once I was away from the Air Pirates...And when Dan had drawn those first Mouse Liberation Front drawings, I was in the middle of negotiating out of court with Walt Disney and finally settling this thing for me. But once the Mouse Liberation Front surfaced, they pulled out of negotiations with me because they thought that I was part of it...when Dan heard that I had, part of trying to settle out of court with Disney was pretty much explaining to Disney how the whole thing came to be, and when Dan heard that I was talking about it...he went berserk and started calling me up at all sorts of hours of the morning and saying not nice things to me...at this point, all hell seemed to break loose. I was ready to get married for a second time. I was actually making money,...and all of a sudden, this happened and just scared everybody away from me, and of course, the settlement with Disney just fell through."

One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the situation was that London's reputation was damaged. "This whole Mouse Liberation something radicalized people in the underground comics. All of a sudden I became a bad guy because...Dan, at the time, was trying to paint me as being some kind of a Judas..."

London's involvement with the Air Pirates ended in 1978, the same year London notes, "I went to (Italy to) get the Yellow Kid Award" as the best writer/artist of the year, in recognition of his work on Dirty Duck. Ultimately London says he "considered it over when it was over...when my lawyers here in New York finally got a separation from Dan O'Neill's lawyers from me..." Upon London's return from Europe, he received news of the final chapter in the long and twisted Air Pirates saga when, according to London "Disney just plain threatened to throw Dan in the clink for contempt of court and he finally...signed a settlement with them. And it was officially over...at which point he went around telling people that we won."

A phone call by O'Neill to London's home gave Bobby London's mother a chance to have a last word of sorts on the Air Pirates case. As London remembered it, "...he called my house in Queens one time...and he said to my mother, `We won. Did you hear?' and my mother says, `What did you win, the booby prize?' Good 'ol Mom. She was pretty upset about the whole situation."

There is, however, a final ironic coda to the whole affair. Several years after the Air Pirates case was settled, Playboy axed their entire funnies section as a cost-cutting move, leaving Bobby London high and dry, since drawing Dirty Duck for Playboy was his sole source of income at the time. While London cast around for some other way to make a living, "A friend of mine had told me to try and get a job at the Disney merchandising art department here in New York. And after laughing wholeheartedly at this idea, I decided to give it a try." Ironically enough, London was hired. No one ever mentioned the Air Pirates while London worked there, though he recalls a rather awkward moment when, "...one day the art director, who had become a very good friend of mine, came out and talked to the artists as he customarily would do at the end of the day, and he made some sort of joke about dirty Mickey Mouse comics and the place got really quiet. I didn't look up or move or anything, I just kept working, and it just passed...apparently some people up there at Disney knew and they didn't mind because they got to know me and they got to like me. So, I kept the job. The only reason I left Walt Disney was because while I was there, I got a call from King Features asking me to try out for Popeye."



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