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An Interview with David Rees

[CARTOONIST]
“I WAS VERY EXCITABLE WHILE I WAS DOING TEMP WORK.”
Characters in My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable:
Circulatory System Man
Normal Man
Karate Snoopy
Fingerprint Fighter
Ambulance Driver
by Anthony York
Illustration by Gilbert Hernandez
header-image

An Interview with David Rees

[CARTOONIST]
“I WAS VERY EXCITABLE WHILE I WAS DOING TEMP WORK.”
Characters in My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable:
Circulatory System Man
Normal Man
Karate Snoopy
Fingerprint Fighter
Ambulance Driver
by Anthony York
Illustration by Gilbert Hernandez

An Interview with David Rees

Anthony York
18 Snaps

In the days after Sept. 11, amid the flood of absurd emails about Nostradamus predicting the terrorist attacks, and anti-Semitic conspiracies about Israel’s role in the disaster, many of us received a URL from a friend or a co-worker imploring us to click. The Web address was complicated and unfamiliar, and brought us to a page of comics starring mechanical-looking office workers discussing the war in Afghanistan.

From the opening panel, proclaiming “Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!” many of us knew we had stumbled upon something important. In those days, when magazine editors were proclaiming irony dead and TV funnymen were asking whether it would ever be OK to laugh again, these clip-art anti-heroes articulated our collective angst and confusion, and made many of us laugh out loud for the first time in weeks.

The URL circulated quickly, and it wasn’t long before life was imitating clip art. People around my office began to greet each other in the language of the strip. “Hey buddy, how are you enduring your freedom?” It became short hand for the barrage of bad news coming from the morning’s headlines, and the never-ending rattle of cable news.

The style of David Rees’s Get Your War On mimics the message—the mundane clip art juxtaposed with the shocking, over the top language captures the absurdity most of us felt going about our everyday lives. It speaks simultaneously to the quiet rage and anxiety many felt over Sept. 11, the helplessness to stop the trip to hell in a handbasket we seemed to be taking together, and the catharsis that comes with having a laugh in the throes of calamity.

But Rees also manages to maintain perspective. The diffidence of his characters allow them a certain clarity that is so easily lost in the chest-pumping rhetoric that surrounds tragedy and war. His characters proclaim, “Oh my god, this war on terrorism is going to rule. I can’t wait until the war is over and there’s no more terrorism.” And they give us this on the new Bush Doctrine: “If you’re not with us you’re against us, huh? I like it—so nice and simple. When do we start bombing Western Europe?”

The strip felt less urgent as the war in Afghanistan faded. As life returned to normal, Rees’ work reverted to the absurdism of his previous strip, My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable. But as President Bush faced the nation, discussing the virtue in liberating Iraq from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, our foul-mouthed counterparts were there to provide the commentary. “Once this is over, the Iraqi people better be the freest fucking people on the face of the Earth… They better be so free they can fly.”

The humor is dark, but the compassion unmistakable. Rees’ strip illustrates slacker-style indifference, while understanding our need for hope. His characters, if they can be called that, are like cubicle-bound Holden Caulfields, armed with a never-ending arsenal of four-letter words and mock indifference used to protect their vulnerable, human hearts.

The Believer spoke with Rees by phone at his Brooklyn home.

—Anthony York

THE BELIEVER: All of your comics use clip art. Is that because you don’t know how to draw?

DAVID REES: No, I draw. I used to draw little comics, and I still do a lot of doodling.I used to make little water- colors that were kind of comic-y. I just started using clip art out of necessity, I guess. I would put these comics together at work. I was working temp jobs, and would just find this clip art online and it allowed me to make these little comics quickly. Well, once I realized how quick and easy it was, I just decided I would never actually draw a comic again. Too inefficient.

BLVR: And the first one was My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable?

DR: Yeah. I had temp jobs where there wasn’t much to do. So I was just messing around online and I found some karate clip art, clip art about karate fighters. Even Karate Snoopy was clip art. I guess some kid had drawn it, and I found it online.That’s the other good thing about clip art. I would never think to draw something like that on my own. So it was fun to troll around and find images and try to narrate them. I found some clip art of two guys loading a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, so I decided to use that. The story was definitely influenced by the clip art.

BLVR: It seems for Get Your War On that the clip art adds to the feel and the message of the strip. A lot of people were reading that strip online, at work, in the same situations as the characters in the strip. Do you think that helped people identify with the strip?

DR: Yeah, a lot of people who were reading it online were probably reading it in the same type of environment that those characters are in, a professional environment.

BLVR: Office culture seems to be stifling to a lot of people, but you appear to have found some kind of inspiration there. Were these temp jobs a creative environment for you?

DR: I think it was initially. When I used to make these comics, it was always kind of exciting to try to dash them off and print them out on the laser printer. It forced me to think really quickly and not over-think, not go back and try to perfect everything. I was just driving myself into hysteria by making all these little comics that I thought were just so fun and goofy. I was very excitable while I was doing temp work. I always got my work done. There just wasn’t that much to do, so I was just sitting there bored out of my mind, and I couldn’t just take out a magazine or a book and start reading at my desk. So I would just continue typing, and [others in the office] would still hear the reassuring sound of fingers on the keyboard, but I’d just be making these little stories. I’d print them out, stake out the laser printer so nobody else would see I was printing them out. I would just put them away in my backpack, then take them home at night and read them with my friends and we’d just start laughing and laughing.

BLVR: And when did you start putting them online?

DR: I made that website [for My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable] in the spring of 2001. And I did that because I had been selling these stapled books, just locally when I lived in Boston, at comic book stores and I put my email address on the back of it. So people would email me and ask if I had a website. I didn’t, but I just thought, “Okay, I’ll make a website and post new comics.” Then when I made Get Your War On, I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I just decided to put it on the same website.

BLVR: How did Get Your War On come about?

DR: It was kind of a reaction to that whole sentiment that irony was dead. I just found it really offensive and undemocratic in a way. I guess I was just kind of reacting against a lack of skepticism about not only the morality of bombing Afghanistan in order to help end terrorism, but also a lack of skepticism about the rhetoric that was being used. For me, the reason those comics are formatted the way they are in the classic three-panel strip style is that I was just imagining, what if I opened the newspaper comics page, and in between Garfield and Rex Morgan M.D. was this comic? And the schtick about this comic is it’s actually about how I’m feeling about the war on terrorism or life in America in the fall of 2001. So I guess it was almost like a little experiment. Plus, I was working at Maxim magazine at the time. And Maxim was so pro-war. There were lots of jokes around the office about fighting a war against people who have sex with camels—stuff that I thought was funny when I was eleven.

BLVR: But a lot of the strip, in a strange way, seems apolitical—not necessarily coming from a particular political perspective.

DR: Right, well because the point was not to try to convince anybody that the most logical thing was to try to find Osama bin Laden and bring him before an international tribunal. I wasn’t trying to change anybody’s mind.

In a way, the goal was just to state some of these truths that just weren’t being discussed—that Operation: Enduring Freedom, at least initially, was going to mean dropping massive amounts of ordinance on one of the poorest countries on the planet.

BLVR: From the opening panel of the strip, it’s clear that one of the targets is that kind of disconnect between the political rhetoric and the reality of what it meant. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, the impact of language?

DR: Yeah, definitely.When I was a kid, I used to make up words. Later on, I got really into rap music, and a lot of rap is about language and technique with words. Then I studied philosophy in college and got into Wittgenstein. He was one of the philosophers who really made language one of the focuses of his philosophy. So, I’ve always been interested in language. And if you’re interested in language, the government is one of the places where language has an impact on people’s lives. And because the stakes are so high, I think the language that the government uses is so interesting. You feel it a little deeper. So when the United States government is using this almost metaphysical or religious language to discuss this international terror threat and how we’re going to react to it, it stirs up a lot. I don’t know if the rhetoric or the language would have bothered me so much, but it just seemed like they were getting a free pass on it. It was just fascinating to me. It almost seemed like it was just a couple of inches away from the language of wizardry and sorcery. A lot of the strip is about toying with the language, using that language, using that rhetoric and turning it on its head a little. I guess it’s sort of similar to gays using the word queer or blacks using the word nigger, which I have mixed feelings about. But the point, if there is a point, is that one of the reasons they do it is to say,“See, it’s just a word.”

BLVR: And yet the reaction to your dissecting that language in the strip is not intellectual at all. It’s visceral.

DR: Exactly. For instance, that first strip that begins,“Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!” That strip is just a conversation my friend and I had over the phone while we were at work after the bombing of Afghanistan started. I was at Maxim at the time. I don’t know why we chose to talk about it that way, in that sort of urban, street slang. Maybe because it was such an inappropriate way to talk about it. That was the whole reason that I chose the name “Get Your War On.” Because at the time, Missy Elliot had that song “Get Ur Freak On” based on this hip-hop construction of “get your party on” or “get your drink on.” So I called it “Get Your War On” because I felt in a lot of ways, that’s how people were viewing this war.“I can’t wait to get my war on.” And I thought maybe using this very tacky, light-hearted phrase construction might jolt some people and make them think,“Oh right, it is a war. People are going to die.”

BLVR: Has hip-hop been a big influence on your work?

DR: When I started drawing My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable, around the summer of 1999, it was a really fertile time in hip-hop. There were high profile battles going on around then, and it was really exciting. I don’t know how that stuff actually corresponds to characters in the strip or anything like that, but I feel like a lot of that stuff was swirling around in my head around the time I created the strip. You know, people fighting with language and bragging and creating all these weird characters. In hip-hop, people never use their real names, they always have their rapper names. And some rappers—like Kool Keith, for example—even within their one career they take on multiple names and multiple personalities. They create albums that are creations of a character.

BLVR: Garth Brooks did the same thing.

DR:Yeah, Garth Brooks tried it also. I don’t know how that did. But yeah, I love stuff like that.

BLVR: In Get Your War On, in your mind do the individual characters have personalities?

DR: No, no, no. When I was making it, I needed a forum. So I just set them up in panels kind of arbitrarily. I never even thought about any kind of character or story at all until I got the book back. When I got the book back and read them all together, sometimes, over the course of a couple of panels, there would be some consistency from panel to panel, character to character. But I never think, “well, the guy with the notebook is a little more left-leaning, so maybe he shouldn’t say that.” It’s all just kind of like a hodgepodge.

BLVR: Is the strip a regular thing now, or do you still publish when you’re inspired?

DR: The only obligation I have is with Rolling Stone. Our agreement is that they get one strip per issue that won’t appear on the website.

BLVR: Will Get Your War On continue as long as the War on Terrorism?

DR: That’s always the question. My standard answer is, I’ll do it as long as it’s still rewarding to me. But it was not a career goal of mine to be either a professional cartoonist or a professional satirist. The whole cartooning thing has been fun and interesting, but it started as a lark. It just happened to be the thing I did that got the most attention. And then, after Get Your War On, it was that much more high profile. But my dream career would be to write songs, record records in my living room, release them and then once a year travel around the country with my wife and play gigs. Not to have to read the newspaper everyday, figure out what’s going on in the world, and how to fit that into a comic.

I really like doing it when I’m really angry or upset about something, and then I can make a little comic strip about it. Because usually I feel like those are the most powerful strips, and the most useful for me psychologically. Now that I’m doing it professionally, I feel more obligated to keep up with current events, but that’s certainly not my natural strength. Usually, my comics are more absurdist and more divorced from reality. And I’d be perfectly happy just spending much of my life in my living room wrapped up in my own mind. But events have conspired to put me in this position, and if it means I have to read the newspaper every so often, and open my atlas to figure out where the hell Syria is, that’s not the end of the world. If it takes this little strip with all this profanity and all this clip art to make me a better informed citizen, I guess worse things have happened. It’s been a great experience, but honestly it peaked the first night with me. When I made those first strips and looked at them all on the computer screen and just read through them, I genuinely felt catharsis, which is something that’s rare for me. I feel like it really did help me cope with how I was feeling in the fall of 2001 and judging from the response I’ve received, it helped a lot of other people cope. So for me, the bar was set pretty high. And I’ve tried to continue with this on my own terms, with those feelings from that first night in mind. It’s not the kind of thing I want to do indefinitely. If I was still doing it in five years, I would feel like there were some opportunities I had missed.

BLVR: Proceeds from the Get Your War On book go to the Adopt-A-Minefield campaign. Is that something you got involved in learning about the landmine situation in Afghanistan after September 11?

DR:After September 11,there was so much spontaneous generosity and activity in the city here. I always felt like I had fallen short. The terrorist attacks were so horrific and destructive, but in the wake of that destruction, there was this tremendous sense of possibility. You saw that with people literally rushing down to the World Trade Center to help remove debris by hand. Or you saw people lining up to hand out sandwiches they had made in their kitchen to aid workers. Or you saw people sending 4,000 tons of chocolate chip cookies to all the firehouses.

I gave a little money, but I didn’t have much money and I was working at the time, so I always told myself if I wasn’t working I would go help out and do something. Then I got laid off, and began to feel guilty that I personally hadn’t lived up to that promise. Then I began to feel on a national level that this notion of really noble self-sacrifice, this opportunity, was really being squandered. So in doing Get Your War On, I had learned a little bit about the landmine situation in Afghanistan. And one of the first strips is that one about how we’re dropping food aid packages into a country that’s one big minefield. That was always my favorite strip. People ask me, “For you, what sums up this whole project?”—and it’s always that strip. I’ve always been proud of that particular comic. So when it came time to publish a book, I couldn’t find a publisher who would do it the way I wanted to do it. And I had self-published enough books to know what a pain in the butt it is. I thought, well, I don’t really have room in my living room to have 5,000 copies of this book lying around. I’ll just do a limited edition of 1,000 copies. If I do a limited edition, I might as well sign and number each one and have it be a real limited edition. That way, I can charge more money per book. But if I’m going to charge $20 per book, I feel kind of weird keeping the money, and people frankly probably wouldn’t pay it, so I’ll give the money away. And then for me, it was like, oh great, here’s a way to actually help out. So I thought it would be cool to find out if there was a group that worked removing landmines in Afghanistan, because that was one of the things that really bothered me. I didn’t even know if there was such a group. So I just went on Google and typed in “removing landmines” plus “Afghanistan” plus “helping” and I found Adopt-a-Minefield and called them up.I had a funny conversation with them where I reluctantly told them what the book was about, and it turned out they already knew about Get Your War On and there were some fans over there.

BLVR: In Afghanistan?

DR: No, Adopt-A-Minefield is based here in New York. They work in seven or eight countries like Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and also Afghanistan. They have an Afghanistan program which was halted on September 12 because they didn’t want their people on the ground if there were going to be American bombs falling. Of course, immediately, the casualty rate spiked up because there was nobody there to tell people where not to walk, to avoid the minefields. And then we were dropping cluster bombs, which was sort of like dropping a fresh dusting of landmines on the country. They were in a real crisis situation. So for me, it was great. I figured if this strip was popular, I might as well use that popularity to try to help out in that country since, at least initially, that was the whole point of the strip. It wouldn’t satisfy me to rage and complain about the situation and then not try to do something to ameliorate it.

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