Get Your Angst On: Comic Art for the New Depression

by David Rees

You may be the type: You’re alternately glum and sad and anxious. You scoff at the flag-decorated cars (“America is my favorite brand of nation-state!”); you sneer at the e-mailed prayer-for-peace rally invites; you’ve become obsessed with WTC cough, the Pakistani education system and locating the most dissident, depressive opinion piece from The Guardian and forwarding it to all your online friends. You’ve been drinking more, you haven’t laughed with real abandon in weeks and nihilism is looking like an attractive personal philosophy. And then, sometime following the premiere of Operation: Enduring Freedom, a generous soul passed along the address for “Get Your War On,” the deeply dark-humored online comic strip. And for those few minutes you perused this piece of ash-black clip-art social commentary, you actually felt better.

“Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!” an office worker announces on the phone to a fellow cubicle denizen. The conversations continue across a series of strips, all rendered in the extremely banal representational style of a corporate employee’s handbook.

The strips’ uniquely despairing tone — an angry, post-Dilbert Power-Point presentation as written by a depressed David Mamet on a rap-music kick — struck an instant chord. Purely through word-of-e-mail, the site’s popularity soared, receiving more than five million hits in the two weeks since the strips were first posted on the net. “Get Your War On”’s creator is a 29-year-old New Yorker named David Rees, whose previous cartooning efforts were two series of strips lifting the lyrical bravado of hip-hop freestyle contests into ridiculous contexts — karate fighting amateurs and office filing clerks. But three weeks ago, he decided to tackle a more serious topic.

“I’ve been feeling a real disappointment with how pop culture was handling this situation, especially humorists,” Rees says, speaking by phone from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his girlfriend. “I know it’s sacrilege to talk bad about The Onion when you’re in your 20s, and they did do some good stuff in the aftermath of September 11 — some of it was funny and kind of moving — but I felt like they still weren’t getting at how bad everything really was. The same with a lot of the ‘funny’ Web sites I was going to. So many people had been rushing to say, ‘Well, that’ll show these fucking 20-somethings! Irony is dead! Now we’re gonna get serious.’ I thought people were really giving up on the power of pop culture to express anguish.

“So I was up late one night updating my site on my girlfriend’s iMac, and I just decided to try to make some comics about the current situation. I wasn’t trying to make something that would support a political agenda. I think one of the frustrating things for a lot of people in this situation is you just don’t even know what to hope for. It’s not like I had this un-ambiguous thing of ‘Oh my god, we must stop bombing and turn it over to the World Court.’ So these were more just personal comics about how I’d been feeling about the whole situation. And I was drinking heavily when I made them, frankly. I’ve gone through a lot of Jim Beam in the evenings, because I’ve been working whole days in a midtown Manhattan office, listening to sirens and re-booting cnn.com, which is like the worst thing you can do to yourself psychologically.”

Rees has mixed feelings about the strips’ popularity and the contract offers he’s been getting from alternative newspapers across the country.

“When the increased traffic first started, I was shocked,” he says. “What had started off for me as a very personal project emailed to 10 friends just kinda skyrocketed. But then I started to get a lot of really supportive e-mails, with a fair amount of people saying that they feel like it’s the first time they’ve seen a cartoon that gets at this cold, despairing confusion they’re feeling. So that made me very happy. But on the other hand I was like, ‘Well, great — I can still be dead in a week.’ And ‘Well, what am I going to do now? Wait for the next atrocity so I can make a comic about it?’

“I don’t want to get on some kind of schedule, where something happens and an editor’s like, ‘Okay, we need a strip about it. Cuz it’s funniest when you make it when you just feel compelled to make it. I feel like this strip will be valuable only if it expresses how bad I’m feeling.”

Conventional Wisdom: Homeland Insecurity

“With this mask and suit you would be completely protected against any chemical or nuclear attack,” says Loren Shertzer as she hikes a pair of clear plastic pants up past her knees and over her skirt. Shertzer, general manager of the Counter Spy Shop of Mayfair, London, usually peddles her wares at the chain’s Beverly Hills store. But at this moment she is encasing herself in plastic at the 25th Annual Home Remodeling and Decorating Show in the middle of the L.A. Convention Center.

 

Typically the show is the exclusive domain of low-end vendors hawking aluminum siding, hot tubs and lifetime-guarantee cookware. This year, though, the two-inch ad in the L.A. Times promised a “Survival Expo” featuring “Everything you need to help keep your family safe!” Shertzer seems to be the Expo’s number one flogger: A sign posted over her table reads, “Your chance of survival could depend on how â little you leave to chance.”

Shertzer’s booth is piled with Mail Room and Home Mail Safety Kits ($39.95 for a one-month supply), consisting of rubber gloves, paper masks and a plastic bag with a Day-Glo orange sticker that reads, “CAUTION SUSPECTED CONTAMINATED MAIL CONTAINER Do Not Touch!”

But the item that excites her the most is the combination hazmat (hazardous materials) suit and NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection mask. “What we are promoting is emergency preparedness for homes and offices,” she says. “We believe everyone deserves to arm themselves with these suits and masks.” Shertzer has two types of gas masks for sale: the Mark II mask with suit, which goes for $500, and the Mark IV mask (a slightly more durable model) with suit, which is $600. “A special promotion,” she emphasizes, “available only at the Home Show.”

But Home Show attendee Arlene Chapelle is skeptical. “I’m just thinking you’re giving people false security,” she tells Shertzer. “If they bomb, this ain’t going to do no good.”

Over at the booth for Canoga Park– based Mediterranean Heating and Air Conditioning (for your “total indoor comfort”), sales engineer Brian O’Donnell explains the virtues of the “Steril-aire” — a device about twice as long as a shoebox that purports to remove anthrax from the air. “This is going to give you the cleanest, purest air you can get,” he says. “It gets rid of everything.”

According to the brochure, “UVC Emitters from Steril-aire use ultraviolet light — not the familiar A and B, but UV-C. It kills all known microorganisms, penetrates their DNA and kills them. No filter or ozone generator or electric air cleaner can make the air that pure. There is no toxic ozone or fumes or secondary pollution.” The Steril-aire retails for about $800, installed.

I point out that in order for the Steril-aire to work, the anthrax already has to exist in the ventilation system, which means everyone in the house has probably already been exposed. O’Donnell concurs. “If you’re infected it’s not going to make you un-infected,” he says. “It’s not like the magic Star Trek thing where you walk through the light and you’re okay.”

CHP officer Rick Miler, manning a booth near the entrance, dismisses the heavy-handed approaches of his fellow conventioneers and suggests a much cheaper alternative — a simple pair of rubber gloves. “This is all you really need, for your basic safety,” he says. “You don’t know who’s touched that mail anyhow, just for basic cleanliness.” As a safety video plays in the background, he continues, “You get a letter with anthrax in it, you’re not going to die. Be cautious, but don’t panic.”

—Sara Catania

Ghost Talk: Unhaunting the Spanish Kitchen

On the night that Laurent and Fabienne Dufourg received the keys to the new salon they were about to open on Beverly Boulevard, Fabienne wanted to be sure to lock the place up right. “I held the handle on the door to keep it shut as I locked it,” she explains. “But I came back the next day and both the handles, inside and out, were gone — they were hanging on the wall inside!” Somewhat spooked, the Dufourgs employed the services of one of the customers from their original salon, La Cienega, who claimed that she could “clear” the rooms of spirits. The client came and identified eight of them residing upstairs.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the Dufourgs are the kind of people who immediately think ghosts are to blame for every odd thing that might happen to them, it should be noted that their new salon, Prive, is in an unusual, even historic, Los Angeles location. Their salon is in the space that was once the Spanish Kitchen, the site of one of Los Angeles’ great and enduring tales of mystery and intrigue.

In its day, the Spanish Kitchen was a great celebrity hangout and margarita joint, an oasis of cool. Then, one night in 1961, Pearl Carreto put a “Closed For Vacation” sign on the door and the place never re-opened. Rumors of mob murders, and tragic love stories, circulated for years. Finally, in the late ’90s, family members explained that Pearl, a onetime silent film actress, closed the restaurant so she could take care of her husband, Johnny, who had Parkinson’s disease. After Johnny died, in 1964, Pearl, who died in 1994, lived in an apartment above the shuttered restaurant, until about 1980. Others tried to open a restaurant and a piano bar in the space, but for various reasons only the occasional pigeon and transient took up residence until the Dufourgs fell in love with the property, bought it and began restoration. “No, it wasn’t filled with the famous furnishings and all,” Fabienne says. “It was empty. Five years ago, someone cleaned everything out. It was four bare walls.”

 

But it wasn’t completely empty. According to the psychic hired by the Dufourgs, the spirit of Pearl Carreto was still inhabiting the space, along with a particularly nasty male poltergeist. And so the Dufourgs turned to Gina Rose, a 43-year-old Arizonan whose specialty is ridding buildings of unwanted energies. Rose counted eight spirits in the place (she hadn’t consulted with the prior psychic), and unlike the standard movie version of how these matters are usually handled, turned down the Dufourgs’ request for a candlelit ceremony and exorcism.

“I don’t do magic or exorcisms,” says Rose. “That gives the spirits more power, and they stick around even longer.” Instead, she merely communicates with the spirits in her mind, as she has since she discovered her gift in early childhood. “All of us have souls, and all of us have spirits inside us, but some of them, after body death, aren’t very nice. I use the simple power of persuasion to get these spirits to leave a room, for them to go to the white light of the creator. Some spirits are afraid of this white light, but when they are dealing with someone who understands them, who tells them, ‘You don’t belong here,’ they go.”

Which they seem to have done. The newest Prive Salon is now open, and apparently clean and clear of both spirit and human troublemakers. (Fabienne says that squatters were living in the space — could they have been the door-handle culprits?) Even the movie stars have returned. Recently, we spotted Ms. Cameron Diaz being styled in the main room. In the back, where the local homeless congregated for years, there is a café modeled after a prayer garden. But the main remnant of the bygone era is the vertical sign that once spelled out “Spanish kitchen” — though it too has been remodeled to simply read “spa.”

—Johnny Angel


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