An Interview with David Rees
There are many things you can say with certainty about David Rees, creator of the famous post-9/11 comic, Get Your War On; he’s tall, angry, passionate, articulate, and knows his way around a computer; but the one thing that really stands out is that you’re always guaranteed to get a compelling and unfiltered viewpoint whether from the profanity-laced office workers in his comic or when Rees dishes out vigorous rants on the state of New York City radio.
I reached him over the phone one recent Tuesday night to talk about his newest release from Riverhead Books, Get Your War on II (sequel to Get Your War On); the 2004 presidential elections; news fatigue; book tours; Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate, a local New York City radio host.
For those people who don’t know, how did Get Your War On start?
I started it on October of 2001, a couple of days after we started Operation Enduring Freedom. And at the time, the cartoons I was making were not political, and I had a little website that only a few people, I imagine, visited it. And so I was going to update my website -- I guess for the first time since the terror attacks. I hadn’t been doing much cartooning since September 11th. I make my comics on the computer using clipart. And so I had all my clipart and I was ready to make some of my apolitical comics, and I felt like it was kind of stupid and absurd, and my heart was really not into it, to keep making comics about karate and office budgets. And so I used all this office clipart and decided instead to make a comic about everything that was going on. You see, Bush just recently announced this war on terrorism, we just started bombing Afghanistan, and the situation in Afghanistan at the time looked pretty dire -- it stills looks pretty dire. But at the time there was this talk about starvation, mass refugee crisis, and stuff. And you know, it was the fall of 2001 and it was a really strange time, and I think everybody was trying to figure out how to react to everything on a personal level, and I guess in pop culture, on a cultural level. And so I was disappointed at the time with the lack of skepticism on this new war on terror, and not just in the editorial sections of newspapers, but also in the comic pages and stuff. And so you know, I decided to make this comic about the war on terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan, and it just took off from there.
I just want to let you know that when I was looking at Get Your War On, I was struck by the odd realism of the comic because I would hear from friends and family about how they would hang around the water cooler right after 9/11, and inevitably there would be people who would be really passionate and talk about how they would love to bomb Afghanistan to the Stone Age. And I thought the banality of the comic and the profane language had a real world counterpart. Was that just an accident or something that just came about?
Well, the very first comic I made, which was the first one, the Operation Enduring Freedom in the House, that’s just a conversation a friend and I had on the phone once in the office. We were just talking in a kind of sarcastic way towards each other. And that was the first comic I made about it, and at the time I didn’t imagine this would become my career, that this would be an on-going thing, but I thought it was an appropriate way to begin these series of comics. And so the reaction I got overwhelmingly when I posted the comics in the fall of 2001 was that people were coming out of the woodwork, and they were saying that these are the type of conversations my friends and I are having -- kind of surreptitiously over the phone -- and we didn’t know anybody else out there was having this kind of conversation as well. Because you know, everybody was really kind of confused and wanted to bomb the shit out of Al Qaeda, but there was also this sick kind of irony in the fact that the United States of America was reduced to bombing Afghanistan, and I can’t imagine any two countries that are so vastly different. They talk about asymmetrical warfare.
Because Afghanistan is basically in the Stone Age?
Yeah, like in the fucking moon age. It’s not up to speed so to say. So I guess it was really realistic. And the best comics, I think, the best comics that came out in the fall were the ones that were confused and emotional. And now I think a lot of people are settled and made up their minds on where they stand on things and the issues and on the war on terrorism, but back then, everything was really raw and unsettled because it was a really disruptive event.
Have you been contacted by other comic artists? Talked to them? Or you’re really not part of that group?
It’s hard for me to tell. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the outside of the comic community, and I feel like I am more identified with the political cartoonists like Tom Tomorrow and Ted Rall than cartoonist-cartoonist, arty cartoonist.
Some people criticize the strip for having so much profanity, and I’ve noticed other cartoonists hate what I do because I’m not drawing; I’m just slapping these pieces of computer art on the page. Sometimes I identify myself as a cartoonist and I feel like I am part of a community; other times I feel like I am outside of that community -- looking in, wishing that I was part of the big cartoonist posse.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from other political cartoonists like Tom Tomorrow and Ted Rall?
Ted Rall and Tom Tomorrow were both kind enough to blurb the first Get Your War On book. Alternative political cartooning, which I guess is what you say these guys do and not just drawing single panels of talking donkeys and elephants and caricature; they appear on alternative weekly newspapers. So that world, the world of alternative political cartoonists is pretty small, and so those two guys were always really supportive, and that was impressive to me because it is a small world, and I thought it was really cool that they were willing to support me when I came onto the scene. So they’ve always had advice about various aspects of the cartooning trade.
How did you latch onto clipart? I read that you used to draw or do you still draw?
I still doodle sometimes, but I started using clipart out of necessity. Being bored at work, I had this computer, printer, and almost no oversight, and so I just started using the clipart on the computer, and once I found out how efficient and easy it was to make comics out of clipart, I guess I decided to never look back in a way.
I noticed on your website that you named your Get Your War On book tour as the “Get Your War On Farewell Tour.” Are you going to end your comic soon or is there too much material for the strip?
Well, you get back to my website tonight, you’ll see I took out the word “farewell.” I’ve been going back and forth like really wondering what I am going to do right after the election one way or the other. My fantasy is that Kerry wins the election, and I stop Get Your War On when he’s sworn in January of next year. For me that’s the best scenario because then the comic would be the comic about the Bush presidency. And it would make a lot of sense structurally and thematically to end it with the Bush Presidency. If the Bush Presidency is going to be eight years instead of four years, I don’t think the comic will be able to sustain itself. There’s only so much I can do with this project. I think I would be more interested in branching out and making other types of pop culture. So I am really not sure.
So you are leaning towards ending it soon.
Well it depends because on the other hand -- if Bush wins, I might be so fucking pissed off about it that I’ll keep Get Your War On around because it’s the only thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out. So that’s why I took down the word “farewell.” And maybe I took it down because Bush is leading in the polls and I am going: “Shit. Kerry isn’t going to win.” So don’t announce your retirement too early. So I am not really sure what I am going to do.
How do you handle your readings? I understand you show a video.
Whenever I do a reading of my comics, I use an overhead projector and I have a bunch of comics on these transparency sheets and throw them down there and read off the comic or read other crazy documents. The video was something I showed a lot for the first Get Your War On tour, which was the fall of 2002, and it was video footage of Afghanistan by a member of Adopt-A-Minefield who went over there and documented the kind of work that the money funds. So I had footage of dogs being trained and footage of a guy just out in the field with a metal detector and then detecting a mine buried in the ground and then digging away at the dirt surrounding the mine. I just like to show the footage to give a sense of how laborious and time consuming and how stressful de-mining is. I used to show the video to audiences to give them a sense of where their money is going to go when they buy the book, and it gives a scale to the problem of land mines.
(Note: Royalties of Get Your War On go to Adopt-A-Minefield, a de-mining organization in Afghanistan.)
So what kind of crowd comes to your readings?
It kind of depends on who organized the readings. So sometimes if it was at a college and sponsored by a student political group, it would be more political people. If it was at a bookstore, it would be more of the alternative bookstore kind of crowd -- hipster, young hipster kind of crowd. So it’s a mix. The first reading I ever did for Get Your War On was at a Unitarian Church on Staten Island, and that was an entirely different crowd -- mostly senior citizens. It was really wild. I was really nervous because it was the first time I ever read from the comic to a group. It was Sunday afternoon, and they had me stand in the front of the church, and they were sitting in pews. They announced there was going to be profanity in the strip. Somebody got really upset and left. But Unitarians are pretty liberal when it comes to organized religion, and they were a surprisingly receptive audience and some of the elderly members of the congregation were really enthusiastic and receptive.
What kind of news outlets do you keep up with?
I have subscriptions to a couple of newspapers and I force myself to read them everyday. And I subscribe to some news magazines and policy journals to try to get a better sense of the issues.
Do you ever get fatigued with the news?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. All the time. It’s a real drag sometimes. Especially since the news is so bad. Sometimes I find it really easy to make comics about stuff that upsets me, and then sometimes when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, people were e-mailing me: “Come on man, make some comics about this, why aren’t you at your computer making comics about the scandal? What’s wrong?” But I was really depressed when I was following the scandal. It was really debilitating and depressing, I thought. So yeah, following the news is a total pain in the ass. It’s like eating your vegetables.
I know you have mixed feelings about New York City. Do you still want to move to the Midwest?
Yeah, our lease is up in November of 2005, and we are going to move to Lawrence, Kansas.
Why Kansas? That’s a red state.
It is a red state. If I get enough of my New York friends to move with me, we’ll slowly change it blue over generations of selective breeding. My wife is from the Midwest, and we met at college in the Midwest, and we really like the Midwest. I’ve been on the East Coast for a very long time and I kind of like how the Midwest feels -- how flat it is. I like how I’m not close to the water. I find it comforting how you’re in the middle of the country. It’s like lying in the middle of a really big bed and no part of your body is hanging off the edge.
What? You like him?
Yeah, but he just seems so inoffensive. But I can see why people don’t like Terry Gross.
I like Terry Gross a lot more than Leonard Lopate -- are you kidding me? Leonard Lopate is just so… he’s the worst -- I don’t know where he lives, but to me -- my wife agrees with me so I know I’m right -- he’s the very personification of the pretentious knee-jerk liberal, uninformed upper west side type of pseudo-intelligentsia; when you listen to him interview somebody, it’s pretty obvious that most of the time he has no idea of what he’s talking about, or he has no way of actually engaging the person in a conversation that becomes more and more robust. It seems like he’s just reading off questions from a note card, and he doesn’t know how to pursue a line of inquiry. He interviewed Pat Buchanan a couple of years ago, and that’s when I realized he was a total hack, but Pat Buchanan, although ideologically I think he’s a maniac, Buchanan is smart and he’s fast and he can put together an argument. And Lopate held Buchanan in such obvious disdain, and he was so condescending towards him as if by just virtue of Buchanan’s ideas that there was no reason to take him seriously. It almost let Lopate assume that he’s smarter then Buchanan because of what he, Lopate, believes. Pat Buchanan walked all over Leonard Lopate, and Lopate almost didn’t even realize it. And I really like Brian Lehrer. Do you know Brian Lehrer?
(Note: Brian Lehrer is a radio host at the same station.)
Yes, he comes on at 10 am.
I’ve become totally obsessed with him. I love him. He’s so great. I wish he was on 24 hours a day. I wish he was the mayor of New York. I love, fucking love that guy. And then I would be energized and jazzed after a great two hours of Brian Lehrer and then Leonard Lopate would come on. He’s so soporific and boring. Terry Gross is like a fucking Metallica concert compared to Leonard Lopate.