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.
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.”
It‘s not just that nonchalant generosity and humanitarianism that make Rees something of a wonder. The 30-year-old writer also composes songs and fronts a decent band called the Skeleton Killers. He’s tall and Kennedyesque (and married, sorry), and he at least gives a good impersonation of someone who really doesn‘t think any of that matters. “He’s a super person,” his mother, Peg, couldn‘t resist telling me when I called him at his parents’ North Carolina home, where he was celebrating the holidays. “You know that, don‘t you?” Rees was out delivering Christmas gifts in the rain, while his mom and new bride, Sarah Lariviere, were making gingerbread. It seemed a bucolic scene for the family of such an unrelenting social critic. I told Peg Rees it was my impression that she’d done a good job. “Right,” she agreed. “That‘s because we work him really hard.”
“This is a new thing, the overhead transparency projector,” Rees told his audience at the Knitting Factory, where he shared a lunch bill with jazz musician Les McCann. “It’s not scheduled to debut until MacExpo 2009. I‘m looking forward to getting to know this fella.” With the transparencies loaded and the overhead projecting, Rees proceeded to introduce a new satirical effort, “Get Your Civil War On.”
“What if the death toll reaches 20,000?” says one clip-art character to the next. “Then I say congratulations death toll! You’re one-thirtieth of the way there!”
Rees went on to plumb the depths of his political rage, displaying for his audience‘s grisly amusement an advertisement from Royal Caribbean Cruises locating its post-911 emotions in each compartment of a very big ship, and a letter of sympathy “from the angels” that ran in The New York Times: “Look,” Rees points out, “you can tell it’s from the angels because of the handwriting. But wait! What‘s this in the corner? Here, it says, ’Sincerely, the Phillips Company!‘ That’s when I thought, ‘You know what? The angels didn’t write this shit! This is the work of a multinational petroleum concern!‘”
In an article for The Nation magazine, writer Gene Santoro categorized the singer and songwriter Ani DiFranco with references to Kurt Cobain and David Rees, with whom she “shares [an] ironic-punk sensibility.” The comparison seemed almost artificial, as if Santoro simply wanted an excuse to plug Rees’ book, which he did in the next parenthetical sentence. But it did place Rees in a new pantheon: He is now a bona fide cultural marker, singular enough to be used as a reference point by critics.
I asked Carol Wells, director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, whether she thinks Rees‘ notoriety will endure. “The strip seems like the kind of thing that might be important to historians in the future, if for no other reason than that it shows that we have dissent in this country at this moment,” she told me. “But even if it doesn’t last, it‘s an incredible inspiration right now. He’s pulling together ideas that people have trouble connecting without having to read a whole article in the Op-Ed page.”
Rees has no illusions about the strip‘s importance; in fact, he almost gave it up altogether after the summer, but started again when the Bush administration made the staggeringly vulgar decision to hire Henry Kissinger to investigate the events of September 11. “When that happened,” Rees recalled, “I sat down and said to myself, ’Okay, let‘s see if I’ve still got it.‘”
He did: “Does Bush even know who these motherfuckers are?” asks one of the strip’s generic office workers while talking on the phone. “Didn‘t he get suspicious when he saw Kissinger and John Poindexter licking the blood off each other’s hands?”
As expected, the episode got several million hits. “Get Your War On” has been attracting that kind of traffic since two weeks after Rees started it, a heavy load for the servers at his Web host. Frequent crashes have led some to suspect that Rees has been censored by the FBI, the CIA or the not-yet-extant cultural-control department of the Office of Homeland Security. “I start getting e-mails and phone calls from people saying, ‘Oh my God, they finally got you! Just let me know where you are and what you need and I’ll spring you.‘ And I’d have to tell them, ‘No, I haven’t been censored. It‘s just my fucking Web host.’” And despite rumors of hate mail, Rees says the response to the strip has been almost unanimously encouraging. “The positive outnumbers the negative 30-to-1,” he said. No one has made the slightest move to shut him down. “This is an awesome country!” he exclaimed. It‘s hard to be sure whether he means it.
On the other hand, it’s possible that Capitol Hill has just not yet noticed Rees. “It takes like 400 years for culture to get there,” he observed. Hollywood, television producers, and filmmaking students at NYU, however, have been after him all year. But Rees remains obdurately non-mercenary about his political comic-artist future. “I‘m trying to keep it very personal and to make sure I’m doing it because if I don‘t I’m going to tear my hair out,” he said. “It helps me feel less alone.”
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