Getting His War On
David Rees never wanted to make political statements. He didn't even want to be a political cartoonist. In the days directly following September 11, when he was living in New York City, he just needed to hear an honest rendition of his country's internal dialogue about fear and war. As the media doggedly delivered a highly formalized and polarized debate about revenge, Rees listened to another line of discourse playing out in the white-collar offices where he worked as a temp, in the streets, in the music, and mostly in his own head. There he found horror, misunderstanding, hip-hop slang, and yes, jokes. There he found "Get Your War On."
Laughing at real-life horror like cluster-bombing Afghani children or floating bodies in New Orleans is bound to offend, and Get Your War On spares no one. The strip excoriates the Bush administration, the military, religious extremists of all stripes -- it has the audacity to laugh at death itself -- and exposes the apathy, fatigue, and bafflement experienced by almost every American. It has also become immensely popular, appearing exclusively in every issue of Rolling Stone and getting 25 million hits a year online.
Standing outside a lecture hall on the University of Southern California campus, where he's making an appearance for the Annenberg School for Communications, 33-year-old Rees looks like another junior professor -- grey tweed coat, the first touch of gray at the temples, a clutch of files in one hand. Since the strip spawned a series of three well-received books, Rees has done a lot of this. He knows the students are going to ask him about the global uproar over the Mohammed comics, and he's been thinking about that quite a bit himself.
"Since I became an atheist, I think any kind of restriction on picturing or making fun of or commenting on deities or prophets just rubs me the wrong way," says Rees, talking quickly, and seeming to figure out what he's going to say as he says it. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons he created his comic: to figure out how he felt about things.
He has decided that American newspapers should print the cartoons.
"I don't see why not," he says. "Seeing the cartoons kind of removes a level of mystery. It kinda deflates the issue, at least it did for me. 'Oh, these are just crappy cartoons, like mediocre cartoons.' I don't think you should necessarily publish photographs of victims of Janjawid rape in Sudan, or something. But I do think that to eliminate a layer of uncertainty and anxiety is useful in some way."
He also believes it is a test of our Constitutional civility. His own comic depends on it: Offensive speech is still protected speech in the United States.
"If they publish them in the United States, and you are an American Muslim, and you look at the cartoon and it drives you fucking bananas, you do just have to reconcile yourself: Are you comfortable living in a society where -- it's not like a tactful thing to do, or necessarily a sophisticated political critique -- but this is a country where you are allowed to do things like that."
Rees knows what it's like to get hate mail. He got a bunch of it when he started "Get Your War On," mostly from people enraged by his irreverent response to 9/11 and war, which was then isolated to Afghanistan. But he didn't get as much as he thought he would, and no one ever beat him up for it or burned his effigy, even when he visited small conservative towns on his book tours. Having been raised by very liberal parents in conservative North Carolina, he was prepared for more reaction.
"I was talking with a friend about the whole 'Piss Christ' controversy, that piece by Andres Serrano? My friend was saying, 'Oh, this is just the same thing.' But [former North Carolina Senator] Jesse Helms didn't go out and smash embassies and shit, you know what I'm saying?" Rees laughs.
With Rolling Stone paying what he calls "good money" for the strip, Rees has had a lot of time to grapple with his feelings about all this. But that doesn't mean he's as aggressively political as someone like (his example) left-wing comic artist Ted Rall, nor is he aggressively trying to expand his exposure. Indeed, Rees was so reluctant to profit off the strip, which began as faxes to friends and is only syndicated to a "handful" of alt-weeklies, that he has assigned the royalties from two of his popular books to a non-profit that removes land mines from the war-scarred province of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan.
"One of the reasons I started the comic was this crazy situation we had with the cluster-bombs and the food aid packages dropping at the same time in Afghanistan," he says. "It's a way of using the comic to make some small change, because I didn't feel confident that the comic itself would do that, or even that it would be appropriate. Because I felt like the comic would become less interesting."
And that, after all, is the point. Rees had nothing to lose when he started the comic, being a virtual unknown, and he regards it now as neither a meal ticket nor a political organizing tool. He's only interested in the strip as it continues to work as a comic and as an experiment in language. His clip-art characters let him keep the emphasis on the dialogue -- a super-contemporary mix of hip-hop slang and office shorthand and self-help psychobabble -- that reveals something dark and uncomfortable in all of us, maybe even in our national character. We are all complicit. Remember, it's called "Get Your War On" -- and that includes himself.
"I was going to quit 'Get Your War On' when Kerry was sworn in and Bush left," he says with a sigh, "and Bush won, and I was like, 'Oh god, I've got to do this shit for another four years.' Now it's like running a marathon: Come on, a couple more hills, and then you'll be done when Bush is done! But I think I'll continue it for now, because it is cathartic."