The question “are you a man or are you a mouse?” has special significance to the career of illustrator and former underground cartoonist Gary Hallgren. He’s one of the men who took on the mouse — Mickey Mouse, that is.

The underground comic book studio which Hallgren was part of in the ’60s and ’70s ran afoul of Walt Disney Studios and found itself subject to a highly publicized court case over the cartoonists’ use of Disney characters in very adult cartoons.
Hallgren is one of the artists featured in “When Comics Went Underground,” showing at MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St., through Nov. 28.

Hallgren got his start cartooning in the late 1960s, when he worked his way through college churning out conventional magazine-style gag cartoons for a faculty newspaper. His world changed when he encountered Zap Comix #2, an underground publication that bore the legend “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only” on its cover.
Hallgren immediately approached his local underground paper, the Northwest Passage, to contribute cartoons more in the underground vein. His first published work there was called “Dog, Duck and Rat,” and it allowed him to be a lot more personal in his presentation.

“I had also just discovered marijuana and drugs and things like that, and that tended to be my subject matter at the time — stoner comics,” he said.

“Dog, Duck and Rat” was also a precursor to the style of Disney lampoon that would later make Hallgren infamous when his cartooning collaborative, the Air Pirates, went up against Walt Disney in 1971.

“ ‘Dog Duck and Rat’ were definitely Disney stylings before the Air Pirates,” Hallgren said. “It was my natural proclivity. It was pretty obvious. I wasn’t copying Disney, but the Donald Duck stories from Uncle Scrooge were always my favorite adventures — they were the best drawn, the best constructed. I wasn’t interested in superhero stuff.”

The Air Pirates were slapped with a lawsuit from Disney that became an epic court battle, still a legend in the world of copyright infringement.

Hallgren became involved with Air Pirates founder Dan O’Neill after college. Hallgren and another artist had opened a successful sign shop in Seattle where out-of-town artists would stop by and hang out. That was how Hallgren met some other Air Pirates, including Bobby London and Ted Richards. He was introduced to O’Neill at a rock festival in 1968 upon O’Neill’s request.

“O’Neill was drawing his Odd Bodkins comic strip in the press booth of the Sky River Rock Festival when I showed up,” Hallgren said. “Right then and there he said, ‘I’m trying to put this studio together, and I’m looking for a hungry cartoonist who wants to draw some Disney stuff and kick ass.’ I said, ‘When do we start?’ “

Several months later, in 1969, Hallgren helped open Air Pirates Studio in San Francisco, which led to the release of Air Pirates Funnies #1.

“It was mostly Disney related,” he said. “The idea was to find a classic cartoonist that you really liked and use that as a medium to write and illustrate modern topics.”

One of the stories for the issue was crafted through improvisational theater methods that O’Neill had been trained in and wanted to apply to cartooning. Each cartoonist took on a personality — they lifted villain identities from old Disney cartoons like Peg Leg Pete and The Phantom Blot as their identities — and wrote a section before passing it along to the next guy. The story featured very adult interpretations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and continued into the next issue.

“It was supposed to be picaresque, never-ending adventure,” Hallgren said. “They’d have adventures and swear and do drugs and have sex and act like real people. Part two, the story was more or less finished. It was finished because they served the injunction, and there never was a part three.”

Ringleader O’Neill made it apparent that he was actually hoping for a lawsuit from Disney from the beginning. His idea framed the copyright transgression as part of a protest and also a bit of performance art.

“He provoked them for sure,” Hallgren said. “One of the things about this whole thing is that it was never designed to win — it was designed to lose but in a spectacular way, and in that case, it was successful.”

Despite the cease and desist order, O’Neill continued with the counter-culture bravado within the courtroom — he had a talent for provoking the mainstream and he liked to use it.

“O’Neill was enjoying it,” Hallgren said. “He was a very good performance artist, but when we went to the federal court for our hearing, he always looked like a Buffalo Bill character — he wore a Stetson and had a big bushy mustache and a leather jacket.
“That day, he put on a gun belt and put a banana in the holster and went to court. The bailiff didn’t think that was funny at all. He pulled it out [the banana] and handed it to the bailiff, but he didn’t pull it out carefully — he pulled it out like he was going to shoot. He was really pushing it there.”

Hallgren eventually signed a confidential agreement with Disney, a one-time offer that got him off the hook. The remaining Air Pirates named in the suit — most specifically O’Neill and London — faced a significant cash judgment, further restraining orders and several more years in court.

O’Neill continued to draw Disney characters at comic book conventions and even created the Mouse Liberation Front — which Hallgren had some involvement with — until exasperating Disney into dropping many of its legal pursuits. All total, it was an eight-year court battle.

Hallgren worked to translate his notoriety and talent into a freelance art career, spending his summers as a caricaturist in Provincetown. He eventually began working for National Lampoon, which built up his portfolio of work and opened the door to Forbes Magazine and beyond.

“It’s weird to jump from National Lampoon to Forbes Magazine, but the art director at Forbes read National Lampoon,” Hallgren said.

He said he has never been hurt by the Disney lawsuit — in fact, he’s probably been helped by it.

“It’s been only a good thing,” he said. “It was an entree to the whole world of underground comics and, by extension, humor magazines and then the whole magazine world.”

Hallgren’s move away from the underground comics world was followed by the inevitable dulling of the form, thanks to some who chose to ride on the counter-culture’s coattails.

“That first flowering, the first five or six years of underground comics, was an explosion of unrestrained imagination,” Hallgren said. “Once everybody started jumping on the bandwagon, of course it got diluted, and the exploiters started printing really bad stuff. And then the political climate became oppressive and there came a big backlash against obscenity. The comics got diluted and got sued.”

Hallgren is not one to live in the past. He currently works out of his studio in Holyoke, maintaining a successful illustration career with his work appearing in publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many others, including books — but old delights sometimes die hard.

“I’m not supposed to do Disney stuff, ever,” he said. “That hasn’t really stopped me, but it stopped me from doing it in a spectacular way. I don’t really call attention to it.”

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