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The Accidental Artist 

Or, how to succeed in comics without really trying

Thursday, Jan 2 2003
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Followers of David Rees’ political cartoon “Get Your War On” know its creation myth by heart: In the middle of the night, October 9, 2001, Rees was “two fingers into a bottle of bourbon whiskey, and tremendously concerned for the good people of Afghanistan,” when he went to his computer and searched the Internet for signs of commiseration. Graydon Carter had just declared the death of irony in Vanity Fair, and Rees had strains of the political art-punk band the Minutemen playing in his head. And he was righteously pissed off.

“I just felt so upset that hundreds and thousands of people were going to die,” he said, “and I was looking for something that could get this knot of pain out of my system. But I couldn‘t find what I wanted, so I said, ’Fuck it, I‘ll just make it myself.’” Because he believes “anyone who takes the time to draw a comic by hand is a maniac,” he downloaded some public-domain clip art depicting office workers in various situations, and scripted for them anhedonic banter about fear (“Operation Enduring Freedom? How about ‘Operation My Ass Enduring Anthrax!”), suspect U.S. military motives (“Will you hurry up and kill Osama bin Laden for fuck’s sake? YOU‘VE BEEN BOMBING FOR TWO FUCKING MONTHS! WHAT THE FUCK SIZE BOMBS DO YOU NEED?”) and our nation’s deteriorating regard for due process (“This dude is standing by my desk in a really fucked-up jacket,” says a woman who‘s just asked someone on the phone for clarification of a civilian’s right to apprehend potential terrorists. “Can I cap him?”).

A few months past a year later, Rees found himself touring the country to promote his book, Get Your War On, a compilation of the strips he published on the Internet as well as some original material, which was released in October by Soft Skull Press. In a nondescript brown a sports jacket he bought for the occasion (over three days of appearances in L.A., I never saw him without it), Rees stood before his audiences -- at Midnight Special, C-Level and the Knitting Factory -- with the attitude of a man who barely had a clue what he‘d done to land the gig, but was happy to entertain all the same. The creator of an earlier comic, “My New Fighting [or Filing] Technique Is Unstoppable,” Rees had simply directed 10 friends to his Web site at www.mnftiu.cc, thinking they’d get a kick out of it. He never predicted that before the year was out he‘d have been profiled in the Sunday New York Times and Newsweek.

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When Rees’ fans first started e-mailing him asking whether he‘d turn the comic into a book, he demurred. “I thought it would be too much work,” he told me over the phone recently. When he finally relented for the sake of the unwired, he couldn’t find a comic book publisher to take it on. “So I decided to do it myself as a limited edition, and charge $20 a book. But I didn‘t want to keep the money,” said Rees, who lives in Brooklyn and occasionally temps as a fact checker to make rent. “I thought, ’That‘ll just keep me from getting a real job, so why don’t I give it all away?‘” He went on the Internet and looked around for charities, and found the number for Adopt-A-Minefield. He called them up. A woman answered the phone. The conversation, he recalled, went something like this:

“Do you people clear land mines from Afghanistan?”

“Yes, we do! In fact, Afghanistan is one of the worst areas right now, where we’re working the hardest.”

“Okay, well, I‘m going to publish this book and give all the proceeds to a charity, and I’d like to give them to you.”

“What kind of book is it?”

“It‘s a comic book actually, based on stuff I’ve published on the Internet.”

“Oh? What‘s it about?”

“Well, it’s basically just about these two guys in an office who talk on the phone all the time about the war on terrorism.”

“Does it have a lot of cussing in it?”

“That‘s the one.”

“We love that strip!”

The initial limited edition of Get Your War On raised $17,000, a few thousand more than it costs to sponsor a de-mining team for a month. Rees expects that sales of the book will eventually enrich Adopt-A-Minefield by $50,000. “I’ve been bitten by the competitive philanthropy bug,” he said. “I started making the strip because I felt frustrated and insignificant and powerless, so it‘s cool to be able to affect the situation. It’s the logical extension of what motivated me.”

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