David Rees clearly has a lot on his mind.
The 30-something artist's comics are just a few frames, but they pack a manifesto's worth of punch in sarcastic criticism and biting wit. His flagship strip "Get Your War On" rivals any op-ed page political comic in insightful humor. However, Rees' voice is unmistakable for any other - not simply because of the profanity that precludes GYWO's placement in daily newspapers, but because of his ruthless blending of clear, civic-minded thinking with spoiled-American apathy.
This former fact-checker for Maxim magazine was thrust into the public square when he began posting his clip-art strips on the internet shortly after 9/11. What began as a personal release for pent up anger and emotion spread quickly via word-of-mouth - soon his website (www.mnftiu.cc) was logging tens of thousands of readers a week.
Though he didn't set out to make a career of his comics, he was soon picked up by Rolling Stone and several other publications, and later four books of his work were published. Last year, his speaking tour brought him to Lawrence, where he packed the Olive Gallery for an engrossing reading and discussion.
The proceeds for Rees' books - roughly $100,000 so far - go a mine-removal group in Afghanistan. This year's engagement is paid for and hosted by the Spencer Museum of Art and free to the public.
lawrence.com: Are you still planning on moving to the Midwest soon? You've talked about relocating to Lawrence...
David Rees: Actually, after long deliberation, my wife and I have just decided to move upstate to Beacon, New York. We want to have kids soon, and Kansas is simply too far removed from our friends and family. It was hard for me to give up on my Lawrence dream, but for now it must remain a dream deferred. I love the midwest and Kansas is especially beautiful. My wife and I drove through Lawrence on our way to get married in Las Vegas so I have very fond associations with it. Also, I bought a fucking GREAT umbrella at the Eddie Bauer store on Massachusetts Street. I have always loved Lawrence for that. It is an amazing umbrella!
Well, had you moved to the Midwest, how would your comic have developed from here?
I would begin a new comic called "Creationist Joe versus the Evolution Monster." It would be intense. But it would also be a comic both Christians and atheists would enjoy, because the characters would be so cute!
The other comic I was gonna make was called "Replay Lounge Tattoo Posse Versus Reverend Phelps." This would have been an action-drama strip, like "The Phantom."
And I also planned a single-panel gag strip called "Senator Roberts is About to Start Work on that Iraq Intelligence Failure Commission Any Day Now." (This strip would be have been hilarious.)
Are you interested in trying to persuade readers with your strips or do you see them more as placards for amusement/release?
Depends on my mood. Usually I just try to make myself laugh or have some other honest emotional reaction to the strip--sadness, dread, etc. Other times (especially with strips about Afghanistan or Darfur) I try to remind people about underreported issues. Those strips usually turn out boring.
A hallmark of most of your strips is profanity - GYWO wouldn't be GYWO without it. Despite the value of your strips' commentary, this certainly limits your audience. Have you considered doing political commentary sans profanity in order to reach a wider audience - like, say, op-ed pages of daily newspapers?
I once wrote a humor op-ed for the NYTimes about the Swift Boat controversy. It was free of profanity. It was rejected. See a fuckin' connection there?
As a widely published cartoonist - including prominent strips in RS and in the Guardian - how does creating strips on deadline affect your material? Do you ever find yourself up against the creative wall, forced to crap out something that you're less than happy with?
Yeah, absolutely that happens. It's one of the reasons I resisted regular publication deadlines for so long, keeping the strip online only. But it has been a good learning experience--forcing the funny, even if I'm not all wound up with inspiration. In a way I'm most proud of the strips that I have to make when my back's against the wall. At least, I'm proud of those that don't come out sounding forced or desperate!
Had Kerry won in '04, you promised to quit GYWO - and in so doing, conceivably jeopardizing a running job in Rolling Stone. What was behind that move?
I was tired of the comic and I thought it would be appropriate to end it with the Bush administration. A Kerry victory seemed as good a reason as any to quit the strip and do something else. Thank God I never had to find out what else!
Now that you're a prominent voice in the public square of political commentary, do you feel obliged to continue to add to the ongoing political discourse? Or would you just assume shift your creative focus to relatively non-political strips like My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable?
- Thursday, September 29, 2005, 7 p.m.
- Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Miss., KU campus, Lawrence
- All ages / Free
At some point I would like to focus on non-political stuff. Maybe write jokes for "The View," that morning show where all the annoying ladies sit around drinking coffee and talking about John Stamos or whatever.
What are the strengths of the comic format? Do they simply reach shorter attention spans or are they able to speak on a level that more extended formats cannot?
The only strength of the comic format is its ease of use. It's like the iPod of political commentary. It's extremely convenient and accessible.
Are we in the midst of a particularly shitty time in American history, or could it be that things have always been this jacked up and we humans just suffer from feeling a little too special about our own lives?
I think about it in a number of different ways. The first I guess is looking back through the country's reaction and my own reaction to 9/11 and the significance of that event, not only as an atrocity but also as an actual event in international politics.
The other thing I think about, as far as my own political impulses, how bad are things under the Bush administration - is it really that bad? There are plenty of signs of protest that say 'Bush is Hitler' or 'Bush is the real terrorist.' I always wonder about that level of hyperbole whether it does more harm than good.
Regardless of your political persuasion, if you're using really strong language in making analogies and metaphors to prove a political point or advance your cause, I think there are a couple risks. One is that you actually do damage to the significance of real events that have happened like the Holocaust - you belittle them by comparing them to contemporary phenomena that are bad, but aren't that bad. It demeans the historical significance. The other thing is that, practically, you risk alienating other people for that reason. If someone comes out and says something really extreme like "Bush is a terrorist," even if you could put down your protest sign and make an argument for that, you run the risk of alienating people because your rhetoric is so extreme. So it's kind of an objective question and also a tactical question.
And then there's obviously the most question of all for me, which is how bad are things right now? How high are the stakes? Are things so bad that I need to drop everything in my life and devote myself full-time to progressive political causes or stymieing the Bush administration?
I wonder about all those things all the time ... it's kind of my professional obligation. Insofar as I'm a political cartoonist that a few people still bother to read, I feel like I have a responsibility to make cartoons that are genuinely important. And if they're not important and I'm just trying to be funny, I don't want to do so by misrepresenting how severe something is.
All those issues are swirling around in my head constantly and it just totally exhausts me, and I wish (laughs) I wish I lived in a world with no newspapers and no televisions.
Like in countries where even though they're living at the threshold of hell, the state-sanctioned media just doesn't tell people about it...
Yeah, yeah. It's all relative, you know. I think about that sometimes in terms of my own lifestyle because I'm constantly worried that I'm too indulgent and too materialistic. I mean, I live in New York City and I like to eat nice cheese, I'm at the point now where I can tell the difference between a crappy piece of clothing from a well-made piece of clothing. I beat myself up about that all the time because obviously none of that stuff really matters. I feel like 'God, I'm such a sell-out, I'm so decadent.'
But then it's like, I am - on the grand scale of things, if you look at New York City - I like a pretty modest lifestyle. The same rule applies to travesty or economic deprivation - it's all relative, the point is to have some baseline below which everyone can agree no human should have to live.
It's the same argument that comes up all the time with the globalization of the free market economy. You know, the argument of whether global trade and the relaxation of tariffs, trade law and regulations is a good thing overall or a bad thing. You start talking about such gigantic populations and such massive shifts of wealth, it's hard to think about in such abstract terms, especially since it's all relative. It's the argument that, you know, those people working in sweatshops should be happy to make a dollar a day because if, whatever, Converse wasn't making their sneakers there then there'd be nothing for them to do and they'd have to go back to poking each other with sticks and chewing their eyes out or something.
If you want to take these issues seriously and live your life according to some principles that spring out of these issues, you have to set some baseline for what is tolerable and was in intolerable... But as a country I think America is kind of self-centered, you know, we famously don't know much about other countries or other ways of life or other languages. Bush is kind of the perfect president for that kind of country...
So people say Sept. 11 is the worst thing in history since, f*ckin', the fall of Adam and Eve or something (laughs) and it was bad, it was really bad. But in a way it was so bad precisely because it happened in America. Everyone expects this shit to happen in Beirut and Lebanon....
Everyone said "We will always remember, we will never forget." But part of me thinks people couldn't wait to forget. Because as soon as you put that incredible, destructive, devastating moment behind you, the sooner you can stop thinking about these really important issues like 'what am I doing with my life', and get back to going to the mall or playing volleyball in the church parking lot or whatever people do.