David Rees

Irony: Not Dead Yet: David Rees’ ‘Get Your War On’ strip, started after 9-11, kept (and continues to keep) a singular perspective on the week’s events.

The Third Dimension

With their sharp comments on the world we inhabit, David Rees’ clip-art characters come alive

By Anthony York

In the days after Sept. 11, amid the flood of absurd e-mails about Nostradamus predicting the terrorist attacks and anti-Semitic conspiracies about Israel’s role in the disaster, many of us received a URL from a friend or a co-worker imploring us to click. The web address was complicated and unfamiliar, and brought us to a page of comics starring mechanical-looking office workers discussing the war in Afghanistan.

From the opening panel, proclaiming “Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!” it was clear we had stumbled upon something important. In those days, when magazine editors were proclaiming irony dead and TV funnymen were asking whether it would ever be OK to laugh again, these clip-art antiheroes articulated our collective angst and confusion.

The URL circulated quickly, and it wasn’t long before life was imitating clip art. People around my office began to greet each other in the language of the strip: “Hey buddy, how are you enduring your freedom?” It became shorthand for the barrage of bad news screaming in the morning’s headlines, and the never-ending rattle of cable news.

David Rees’ “Get Your War On” appeared when we needed it most, filling a vacuum left by others who get paid to make us laugh and think. Rees pulled off the magic of a true humorist, allowing us to do both at the same time. The style of the strip mimics the message. The mundane clip art juxtaposed with the shocking, over-the-top language captures the absurdity most of us felt going on in our everyday lives. It speaks simultaneously to the quiet rage and anxiety many felt over Sept. 11, the helplessness to stop the escalation to a destructive war and the catharsis that comes with having a laugh in the throes of calamity.

As the strip continued, Rees managed to maintain perspective. The diffidence of the anonymous office workers allows them a certain clarity that is so easily lost in the chest-pumping rhetoric that surrounds tragedy and war. “Oh my God,” one proclaims, “this war on terrorism is gonna rule. I can’t wait until the war is over and there’s no more terrorism.” And they give us this on the new Bush Doctrine: “If you’re not with us you’re against us, huh? I like it–so nice and simple. When do we start bombing Western Europe?”

The strip felt less urgent as the war in Afghanistan faded. As life returned to normal, Rees’ work reverted to some of the absurdist roots of his previous strip, “My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable.” But as President Bush prepared the nation for war in Iraq in the name of freedom, our foul-mouthed doppelgangers were there to provide the commentary. “Once this is over, the Iraqi people better be the freest fucking people on the face of the Earth. . . . They better be so free they can fly.”

The humor is dark, but the compassion unmistakable. Rees’ strip illustrates slacker-style indifference, while understanding our need for hope. His characters, if they can be called that, are like cubicle-bound Holden Caulfields, armed with a never-ending arsenal of four-letter words and mock indifference used to protect their vulnerable, human hearts.

I spoke with Rees, 30, by phone at his Brooklyn home, about his love of hip-hop, his days at Maxim magazine, and why he will never draw another comic again.

All of your comics use clip art. Is that because you don’t know how to draw?

No, I draw. I used to draw little comics, and I still do a lot of doodling. I used to make little watercolors that were kind of comicy. I just started using clip art out of necessity, I guess. I would put these comics together at work. I was working temp jobs and would just find this clip art online, and it allowed me to make these little comics quickly. Well, once I realized how quick and easy it was, I just decided I would never actually draw a comic again. Too inefficient.

And the first one was “My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable”?

Yeah. I had temp jobs where there wasn’t much to do. So I was just messing around online, and I found some clip art about karate fighters. Even Karate Snoopy was clip art. I guess some kid had drawn it, and I found it online. That’s the other good thing about clip art. I would never think to draw something like that on my own. So it was fun to troll around and find images and try to narrate them. Like, I found some clip art of two guys loading a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, so I decided to use that. The story was definitely influenced by the clip art.

It seems for “Get Your War On” that the clip art adds to the feel and the message of the strip. A lot of people were reading that strip online, at work, in the same situations as the characters in the strip. Do you think that helped people identify with the strip?

Yeah, a lot of people who were reading it online were probably reading it in the same type of environment that those characters are in–a professional environment.

Office culture seems to be stifling to a lot of people, but you seem to have found some kind of inspiration there. Were these temp jobs a creative environment for you?

I think it was, initially. When I used to make these comics, it was always kind of exciting to try to dash them off, print them out on the laser printer, and it forced me to think really quickly and not overthink, not go back and try to perfect everything. I was just driving myself into hysteria by making all these little comics that I thought were just so fun and goofy. I was very excitable while I was doing temp work.

I always got my work done. There just wasn’t that much to do, so I was just sitting there bored out of my mind, and I couldn’t just take out a magazine or a book and start reading at my desk. So I would just continue typing, and [others in the office] would still hear the reassuring sound of fingers on the keyboard, but I’d just be making these little stories. I’d print them out, stake out the laser printer so nobody else would see I was printing them out. I would just put them away in my backpack, then take them home at night and read them with my friend and we’d just start laughing and laughing.

How did “Get Your War On” come about?

It was kind of a reaction to that whole sentiment that irony was dead. I just found it really offensive and undemocratic in a way. I guess I was just kind of reacting against a lack of skepticism about not only the morality of bombing Afghanistan in order to help end terrorism, but also a lack of skepticism about the rhetoric that was being used. For me, the reason those comics are formatted the way they are–in the classic three-panel strip style–is that I was just imagining, what if I opened the newspaper comics page and in between “Garfield” and “Rex Morgan, M.D.,” was this comic? And the schtick about this comic is it’s actually about how I’m feeling about the war on terrorism or life in America in the fall of 2001.

So I guess it was almost like a little experiment. Plus, I was working at Maxim magazine at the time. And Maxim magazine was so pro-war. There were lots of jokes around the office about fighting a war against people who have sex with camels–stuff that I thought was funny when I was 11.

But a lot of the strip, in a strange way, seems apolitical–not necessarily coming from a particular political perspective.

Right, well, because the point was not to try to convince anybody that the most logical thing was to try to find Osama bin Laden and bring him before an international tribunal. I wasn’t trying to change anybody’s mind. In a way, the goal was just to state some of these truths that just weren’t being discussed–that Operation: Enduring Freedom, at least initially, was going to mean dropping massive amounts of ordnance on one of the poorest countries on the planet.

From the opening panel of the strip, it’s clear that one of the targets is that kind of disconnect between the political rhetoric and the reality of what it meant. Is that something you’ve always been interested in, the impact of language?

Yeah, definitely. When I was a kid, I used to make up words. Later on, I got really into rap music, and a lot of rap is about language and technique with words. Then I studied philosophy in college and got into Wittgenstein. He was one of the philosophers who really made language one of the focuses of his philosophy.

So I’ve always been interested in language. And if you’re interested in language, the government is one of the places where language has an impact on people’s lives. And because the stakes are so high, I think the language that the government uses is so interesting. You feel it a little deeper. So when the United States government is using this almost metaphysical or religious language to discuss this international terror threat and how we’re going to react to it, it stirs up a lot.

I don’t know if the rhetoric or the language would have bothered me so much, it just seemed like they were getting a free pass on it. It was just fascinating to me. It almost seemed like it was just a couple of inches away from the language of wizardry and sorcery. A lot of the strip is about toying with language, using that political rhetoric and turning it on its head a little.

I guess it’s sort of similar to gays using the word “queer” or blacks using the word “nigger,” which I have mixed feelings about. But the point, if there is a point, is that one of the reasons they do it is to say, “See, it’s just a word.”

And yet the reaction to your dissecting that language in the strip is not intellectual at all; it’s visceral.

Exactly. For instance, that first strip that begins, “Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!” That strip is just a conversation my friend and I had over the phone while we were at work after the bombing of Afghanistan started. I was at Maxim at the time. I don’t know why we chose to talk about it that way, in that sort of urban, street slang. Maybe because it was such an inappropriate way to talk about it. That was the whole reason that I chose the name “Get Your War On.” Because at the time, Missy Elliot had that song “Get Your Freak On” based on this hip-hop construction of “get your party on” or “get your drink on.”

So I called it “Get Your War On” because I felt, in a lot of ways, that’s how people were viewing this war–“I can’t wait to get my war on.” And I thought maybe using this very tacky, light-hearted phrase construction might jolt some people and make them think, “Oh, right–it is a war. People are going to die.”

In “Get Your War On,” in your mind do the individual characters have personalities?

No, no, no. When I was making it, I needed a forum. So I just set them up in panels kind of arbitrarily. I never even thought about any kind of character or story at all until I got the book back. When I got the book back and read them all together, sometimes, over the course of a couple of panels, there will be some consistency from panel to panel, character to character. But I never think, “Well, the guy with the notebook is a little more left-leaning, so maybe he shouldn’t say that.” It’s all just kind of like a hodgepodge.

Is the strip a regular thing now, or do you still publish when you’re inspired?

The only obligation I have is with Rolling Stone. Our agreement is that they get one strip per issue that won’t appear on the website.

Will “Get Your War On” continue as long as the war on terrorism?

That’s always the question. My standard answer is, I’ll do it as long as it’s still rewarding to me. But it was not a career goal of mine to be either a professional cartoonist or a professional satirist. The whole cartooning thing has been fun and interesting, but it started as a lark. It just happened to be the thing I did that got the most attention. And then, after “Get Your War On,” it was that much more high-profile. But my dream career would be to write songs, record records in my living room, release them, and then once a year travel around the country with my wife and play gigs. Not to have to read the newspaper everyday, figure out what’s going on in the world, and how to fit that into a comic.

I really like doing it when I’m really angry or upset about something, and then I can make a little comic strip about it. Because usually I feel like those are the most powerful strips and the most useful for me psychologically. I feel now, because I’m doing it professionally, I feel more obligated to keep up with current events, but that’s certainly not my natural strength. Usually, my comics are more absurdist and more divorced from reality. And I’d be perfectly happy just spending much of my life in my living room wrapped up in my own mind. But events have conspired to put me in this position, and if it means I have to read the newspaper every so often and open my atlas to figure out where the hell Syria is, that’s not the end of the world. If it takes this little strip with all this profanity and all this clip art to make me a better informed citizen, I guess worse things have happened.

It’s been a great experience, but honestly it peaked the first night with me. When I made those first strips and looked at them all on the computer screen and just read through them, I genuinely felt catharsis, which is something that is rare for me. I feel like it really did help me cope with how I was feeling in the fall of 2001, and, judging from the response I’ve received, it helped a lot of other people cope. So for me, the bar was set pretty high. And I’ve tried to continue with this on my own terms, with those feelings from that first night in mind. It’s not the kind of thing I want to do indefinitely. If I was still doing it in five years, I would feel like there were some opportunities I had missed.

Proceeds from the “Get Your War On” book go to the Adopt-a-Minefield campaign. Is that something you got involved in learning about the land-mine situation in Afghanistan after Sept. 11?

After Sept. 11, there was so much spontaneous generosity and activity in [New York]. I always felt like I had fallen short. The terrorist attacks were so horrific and destructive, but in the wake of that destruction, there was this tremendous sense of possibility. You saw that with people literally rushing down to the World Trade Center to help remove debris by hand. Or you saw people lining up to hand out sandwiches they had made in their kitchen to aid workers. Or you saw people sending 4,000 tons of chocolate chip cookies to all the firehouses.

I gave a little money, but I didn’t have much money and I was working at the time, so I always told myself if I wasn’t working, I would go help out and do something. Then I got laid off and began to feel guilty that I personally hadn’t lived up to that promise. Then I began to feel, on a national level, that this notion of really noble self-sacrifice, this opportunity, was really being squandered. So in doing “Get Your War On,” I had learned a little bit about the land-mine situation in Afghanistan. And one of the first strips is that one about how we’re dropping food aid packages into a country that’s one big minefield. That was always my favorite strip. People ask me, “For you, what sums up this whole project?” and it’s always that strip.

So when it came time to publish a book, I couldn’t find a publisher who would do it the way I wanted to do it. And I had self-published enough books to know what a pain in the butt it is. I thought, well, I don’t really have room in my living room to have 5,000 copies of this book lying around, I’ll just do a limited edition of 1,000 copies. If I do a limited edition, I might as well sign and number each one and have it be a real limited edition. That way, I can charge more money per book. But if I’m going to charge $20 per book, I feel kind of weird keeping the money, and people frankly probably wouldn’t pay it, so I’ll give the money away. And then for me, it was like, oh great, here’s a way to actually help out.

So I thought it would be cool to find out if there was a group that worked removing land mines in Afghanistan, because that was one of the things that really bothered me. I didn’t even know if there was such a group. So I just went on Google and typed in “removing land mines” plus “Afghanistan” plus “helping,” and I found Adopt-a-Minefield and called them up. I had a funny conversation with them where I reluctantly told them what the book was about, and it turned out they already knew about “Get Your War On” and there were some fans over there.

In Afghanistan?

No, Adopt-a-Minefield is based here in New York. They work in seven or eight countries like Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and also Afghanistan. They have an Afghanistan program, which was halted on Sept. 12 because they didn’t want their people on the ground if there were going to be American bombs falling. Of course, immediately the casualty rate spiked up because there was nobody there to tell people where not to walk to avoid the minefields. And then we were dropping cluster bombs, which was sort of like dropping a fresh dusting of land mines on the country. So they were in a real crisis situation.

So for me, it was great. I figured if this strip was popular, I might as well use that popularity to try to help out in that country since, at least initially, that was the whole point of the strip. It wouldn’t satisfy me to rage and complain about the situation and then not try to do something to ameliorate it.

This interview first appeared in ‘The Believer.’ David Rees’ strips and information on land-mine relief projects are online at www.mnftiu.cc. The anthology of ‘Get Your War On’ strips is published by Soft Skull Press, and is available at local bookstores.

From the July 24-30, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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