Get Your Brain on with Cartoonist David Rees
A profile of cartoonist David Rees, coming to Austin to promote his book Get Your War On
During the past year you may have received one of David Rees' sardonic comic strips in your inbox or spotted one on the door of the office fridge. Rees' Get Your War On features cubicle workers discussing (usually on the telephone) the War on Terrorism, the War on Drugs, the Enron scandal, and other contemporary problems in a profane, often depressed, and very cynical tone. Take this line from a strip in which the two nameless main characters discuss President Bush's infamous "U.S. vs. them" wartime paradigm: "Can't we just build a bomb the size of the earth and cut a hole out of the middle in the shape of the United States? Drop the motherfucker around us and take care of business once and for all?"
"Sometimes I think people think I'm just doing this for shock value," mused Rees last week. "They have this wall up around themselves and don't think about taking life seriously. I want people to laugh at my comics, but not because they think it's funny if we're bombing Afghanistan." When Rees appears at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown on Tuesday, Nov. 12, in support of Get Your War On (Soft Skull Press), a book compiling his very popular online strip (25 million Internet hits and counting), he hopes people will laugh with their consciences.
One of Rees' own favorite GYWO strips features his two main characters discussing the U.S. decision to air-drop food aid packages over Afghanistan, one of the most heavily land-mined countries on earth. ("It turns the relief effort into a fun game for the Afghan people ... called 'see if you have any fucking arms left to eat the food we dropped after you step on a land mine trying to retrieve it!'") Rees is donating the proceeds of his new book to the Adopt-a-Minefield campaign, for which he has raised nearly $20,000; he plans to raise much more by December, when he concludes his national book tour.
A 30-year-old Brooklynite newlywed who makes his living as a temp for such outfits as Maxim magazine and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Rees created two other comic strips prior to GYWO: the karate-centric "My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable," and the work-worldly "My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable," both available at www.mnftiu.cc. He says he didn't "think about giving back" until the beginning of the War on Terrorism -- the American response to Sept. 11, a day he calls "certainly one of the worst in my life." A North Carolina native, he cites his parents as one of his biggest influences -- "fairly liberal, fairly religious" Episcopalians, "too old" to be hippies interested in rallies and the Sixties counterculture. Instead of being instructed in the ways of Abbie Hoffman, Rees learned about "the example of Jesus Christ" as a steward of charity and justice. ("My dad only swore when he was reading about Jesse Helms," he jokes.) Eventually, he developed an interest in rock music and today plays in a band called the Skeleton Killers.
The mass media's failure to convey the many facets of war, coupled with the "gung-ho" pro-war attitude he saw taking hold around him after Sept. 11, prompted Rees to create GYWO last October. "I was reading reports from Oxfam International that thousands of Afghan civilians would starve [that] winter because of bombing, and no one cared," he said. "That ticked me off." He wanted the strip to provide him with a personal cathartic outlet, but not long after sending strips to several friends, he began receiving e-mail messages from strangers -- including a few whose e-mail addresses ended in .mil, the domain suffix for the U.S. military, and some folks who called him a "Commie fag." He also got correspondence from overseas letter-writers, who appeared surprised that not all Americans supported the war on terrorism, he said. "That's a perfect example of what things about the Internet [are] the best -- unfiltered access about someone's opinion."
As for political ideology, Rees follows neither the pacifist left nor the pro-war right -- he's just trying to make sense out of an increasingly frightening and ideologically polarized world. Unlike some Bush opponents, he doesn't believe the president knew that Sept. 11 was going to happen. While acknowledging that the American government "has blood on its hands" from years of warring in Latin America and elsewhere, and that the current American regime is prone to viewing the world "in simple terms," he dismisses the notion that Bush would allow thousands of Americans to die as they did. He wishes the media, the Bush administration, and the American people would admit the truth about the devastating consequences of war -- in both the Middle East and in our own country. He's not opposed to fighting terrorism, he says: "It's okay to be against dictators. What you want is for people to be free."
Now that the focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted from conquering Afghanistan and the Taliban to overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Rees hopes a serious discussion of what war entails will arise, "not just good versus evil." He isn't against getting rid of Saddam, whom he believes fits Bush's "evildoer" label, but says "intellectual honesty" requires Americans to acknowledge parts of our history that have created present realities -- including our once-cozy relationship with Saddam -- as well as the consequences of our military's actions. "It's your tax dollars," he says. "Don't you think you should know who you're killing?"