Drawing Fire

Political cartoonist Ted Rall on war reporting in Afghanistan and the new media battleground

Drawing Fire

Political cartoonist, writer, and author Ted Rall is never out of ideas. "I could do a cartoon about drones every single day of the year," he explains. "No one else might enjoy reading them, but I would love to draw them."

Rall is also never out of opinions, which he airs freely on Twitter and in his syndicated column. His latest book – After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan – will be released in November and chronicles his 2010 trip to Afghanistan, bringing him back to his 2001 Village Voice dispatches from the region, documented in the "graphic travelogue" To Afghanistan and Back. It makes a case, he says, "for America's longest war as a picture-perfect example of why foreign interventionism and adventurism don't ever work out well."

Austin Chronicle: I'm wondering how you've seen social media like Twitter and Facebook change how we report, and whether you think it's for better or worse.

Ted Rall: My father was an aeronautical engineer, and he always used to say that technology was a net neutral, with an equal number of benefits and disadvantages stemming from each change. Generally speaking, I think he was right about that. Social networking is no exception. It's possible to crowdsource, which is an amazing resource for someone like me. It's also possible to reach contacts who used to be more difficult to reach. Just yesterday, I got friended by Chris Matthews of MSNBC. How else would I have been able to send a direct message that I knew he was going to read?

AC: In the transition from print to Web, what has political cartooning gained and lost?

Drawing Fire

TR: In a world of memes and slapdash parody videos, amateur political cartooning is swamping the field. There will come a time when people will be able to tell the difference between what those people do, what amateurs do, and what professional editorial cartoonists do, but we're not there yet. The big takeaway is that the Web makes certain that our work is read by more people than ever before. In the old days, back in the Nineties, if the local newspaper didn't care for your cartoons, they didn't appear in that city, and people who lived there had never heard of you.

The flip side is the same problem that's afflicting music and print in general: the degrading of the financial value of creative work. I've never been as poorly paid since I started drawing cartoons. Web cartoonists have had some luck with merchandising, but those of us who try to do political satire don't have recurring characters that make that possible. It's a difficult transition, but one that I'm determined to make, and I learned a lot while trying to do things like monetize my website.

AC: Bush was a wonderful muse for the political cartoonist. Has it been easy to lampoon Obama?

TR: Any political cartoonist who likes a politician is in trouble. I never really cared for Obama, and I never really cared for any other politician. To me they're all liars and rogues and thieves. I pretty much saw Obama as a giant disappointment-in-waiting before he ever was nominated for the presidency, and I like to think that I've been proven right. So yeah, it's been very easy for me. Not so much for my dogmatic party-line Democratic colleagues, who have a hard time criticizing him. If you show me a positive cartoon that praises the president – any president – I will show you the work of a hack. But I really do miss Bush.

Related Event

Political Cartooning: From Dead Trees to Live Wire

Saturday, March 9, 11:45am

Hilton Austin, Room 615AB

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Ted Rall, political cartoons, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan, To Afghanistan and Back

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