The news of irony’s death was greatly exaggerated in the wake of 9/11. Forced to pinpoint the moment of its resurrection, many would highlight October 9, 2001, the date David Rees posted the first installment of his Internet comic “Get Your War On.”
Rees is not your average Sunday-paper comic strip artist. First off: He doesn’t draw. Not a lick. He uses downloaded corporate clip art. The same images. Over and over again. Second: The voice- and thought-balloons he attaches to his clip-art cast are chockablock with profanity. Shitloads of it. Fucking tons. Like if Richard Pryor were ghostwriting “Garfield.” Third: He recently published his first compilation, and he’s not making a nickel. All his royalties are going to clear landmines in Afghanistan.
The 30-year-old Rees started his comic in response to “Operation Enduring Freedom.” It began as a personal joke, for him and his friends. But then the Internet got involved. One thing led to another. And soon enough millions of fans were logging onto Getyourwaron.com. Before long, the understated Oberlin grad was named to Rolling Stone‘s “Hot List,” along with Coldplay. And the Matrix sequels. And Jennifer Love Hewitt. One thing led to another. And soon enough Jan Wenner inked Rees to publish “Get Your War On” in Rolling Stone.
Of course, Rees had thoughts of ditching “Get Your War On” after the Afghan war ended. Of dedicating himself to his first love. Goofy comics. About karate. And filing. But in the way that one thing leads to another, the Bush administration is getting another war on. And so the comic continues. And irony lives on.
Rees spoke to Mother Jones from his apartment in Brooklyn.
Mother Jones: How did “Get Your War On” start? I hear there was some bourbon involved.
David Rees: Yeah. It was October 9th, which I believe was two days after we started bombing Afghanistan. I was updating my website with my fighting and filing comics — and it just felt stupid in light of what was going on in the world and how I was feeling.
MJ: What was the inspiration for the first strip?
DR: Just a conversation that my friend and I had on the phone. One of us said, “Operation Enduring Freedom is in the House!” and it just kind of took off from there. When other people started getting into it they would write me and say, “You know this is how my friends and I have been talking — we didn’t think that anyone else was having these conversations.” The strength of the strip wasn’t that it promoted a radical new point of view or anything. It was just that it was one of the first things out of the gate to actually express what thousands of people were thinking and saying. It just wasn’t finding a reflection in the media.
MJ: So much political satire misfires. How do you balance expressing outrage and humor?
DR: I think a lot of political humor is not funny because it wants to be political before it wants to be humorous. I think the strength of those early ones is that I wasn’t trying to promote an ideology or a political angle. I just wanted someone to fucking tell the truth. I wasn’t thinking about anyone reading this strip, and was really doing it almost for therapeutic reasons, like, “If I don’t make this strip, I’m going to tear my hair out.”
MJ: There seem to be multiple layers of irony in “Get Your War On.” Sometimes you have people quoting the party line in a true-believer kind of way. They believe it so strongly that it becomes ridiculous.
DR: That’s one thing that people sometimes find confusing, or disturbing. Sometimes those characters — if taken at face value — are really kind of right-wing, pro-war. And I don’t mind there being ambiguous reaction to those strips, because I just wanted to tell the truth. And you can react to the strip as you’d react to a plain statement of truth — which is that Operation Enduring Freedom involved bombing the hell out of one of the poorest countries on earth.
Initially I didn’t even think of them as characters. It was just kind of this iconography of office workers. And I wasn’t thinking, “Okay, this is the liberal guy and this guy is the naïve guy. I didn’t approach it like that. It was like, “I have to attach the word balloon to something, why not just use the same guys over and over again?”
MJ: Just how did it occur to you to make a comic with clip art?
DR: I started using clip art when I made my first comics about karate fighting, because I was at a job and I couldn’t just draw. But I could sit at my computer, looking busy, but actually be making comics using clip art. I used to draw comics growing up, but I hated it, because it takes a long time and I really didn’t care about that element of it so much. I just liked the jokes and the dialogue. The clip art was so clean and efficient and quick that I just took to it.
MJ: Who are your comic heroes?
DR: People like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, people who made jokes about really dark or serious situations. But I think the biggest influence at least for the early strips was just my friends. We talk about political situations through this filter of humor — sometimes really cynical, dark humor. And we also talk about situations that are upsetting or disturbing using really quote-unquote “inappropriate” language. Because it’s the only way to really express how bad it is. To use this cheesy hip-hop lingo to discuss a bombing campaign. Or to use the phrase “get your war on” instead of “get your party on” or “get your freak on” or something like that.
MJ: I read that you’re in a band called the Skeleton Killers, and I was wondering how the punk-rock sensibility and the hip-hop lingo all feeds in —
DR: First of all, Skeleton Killers — despite our name — we’re not punk rock. Actually, we play really slow, romantic love ballads.
MJ: [Laughs.] Really?
DR: Really. Heart-on-the-sleeves ballad music. But people always assume I play in like a speed-metal band or a punk-rock band.
MJ: Obviously I’m guilty.
DR: I listen to a lot of Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, and Nina Simone — just singers. Although, I did grow up listening to rap and punk rock music. So I guess that’s one of the sensibilities that are at play in the comic.
MJ: The idea that you would name a ballad-singing band the Skeleton Killers suggests that there’s a deeply embedded sense of irony in your life.
DR: I guess. Yeah. It’s so weird. Doing these interviews is interesting because people see connections that I’ve never thought about. I never made any kind of connection between my comics and my band, or between either of those and my political concerns. Everything was so discrete. I deliberately keep all these elements of my life separated. But if you look at it another way, there is this continuity.
MJ: I was talking to my managing editor about your profanity, and he was saying — I’m over 30, I shouldn’t be finding the word “fuck” this funny, but there’s something about the rhythm and the pacing — do you have a logic for it?
DR: It’s just what sounds right, and I’m glad you said that. Because for me it’s just rhythmic. And think that’s why there’s so much cussing in rap music, actually. In addition to the emotional impact, it’s just a good rhythmic placeholder — if you need to fill out the meter or the beat of a line you can just throw in this word. I think that a lot of these words are just phonetically very satisfying. You’re not really going to change the content of the sentence, you’re just going to make it sound better.
MJ: My boss is a bit older — I showed him your strip and he’s started referring to you as “That Potty Mouth Guy.”
DR: My parents raised me well to be well-spoken and to say “excuse me” when I walk in front of people at a party. So hopefully people will realize that I’m not just a coarse idiot.
MJ: I’m using air-quotes liberally here, but how do you feel about “having harnessed the power of the Internet”?
DR: I think it’s great. I was never one of those people who got really excited about how the Internet was going to change life as we know it. But I do think that this is a good example of what the Internet can do. Which is kind of get out an idea that is under the radar of regular media. And also it has a number of advantages. First of all, I didn’t have to go through an editor. So I could just do exactly what I wanted to do. Because in the fall of 2001 there probably weren’t that many people who would have published a cartoon that was not really a political cartoon and wasn’t really drawn and it had all this cussing in it. So it was just perfect. I did exactly what I wanted to do for myself and the Internet was just a really efficient distribution system.
MJ: Tell me about how your book happened, and how you ended up funneling the profits to Adopt a Minefield.
DR: I had shopped it around to some publishers and nobody seemed to be interested or would do it the way I wanted to do it. And so I thought, “Well, I have experience putting books out on my own before and selling them out of my living room.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’ll only make 1,000 copies.” And then I decided, “Well if I’m only going to make 1,000 copies, I might as well charge a lot of money per copy and make it into some sort of special limited edition copy.” And then the thinking was, “Well if I’m making a lot of money per copy I don’t want to keep the money, because that would be kind of tacky.” I should find a charity to give all the money to, and that would help me not feel too guilty about trying to promote this thing. I could clear my conscience by not actually keeping any of the money.
MJ: What a guilty liberal you are.
DR: I guess so, yeah? But there was something very specific to the time after September 11. And I live in New York City, so I was definitely aware of all the work that there was to do. And after I got laid off I thought, “Well, this will be a great time for me to just fucking help out full-time.” But I never really got off my butt and did it, and that bothered me because I already sensed that this great moment of American opportunity — when people were showing their best side — was slipping away.
I thought as long as there’s demand for this comic, I might as well just let this be the way that I help out. Initially, this comic was about what was going on in Afghanistan, so, when it came time to pick a charity, I thought I should find an Afghan charity. And well, as long as it’s about Afghanistan, it should be something about landmines, because my favorite strip has always been the one I made about the people trying to reach the food-aid packages and stepping on the landmines and getting their heads blown off. So it was almost like an aesthetic decision. Wouldn’t it be so awesome to use this comic to raise money to help eliminate something that bothered me so much that it’s the reason I started making this really profane comic about it.
MJ: A lot of your comics probe unexamined facts — like how Halliburton built Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo. That’s not satire really. In a sense, it’s almost journalism.
DR: Sometimes there are just things that are so remarkable and wacky, like Halliburton getting the contract to built these cells, that you don’t really need to add anything. Just let it stand on its own. One of my favorite parts of the whole series was when I read this article about how the State Department had encouraged dismissing a lawsuit that was filed by a human rights organization against ExxonMobil in the Aceh province of Indonesia. They were using paramilitaries to guard their pipeline that were also brutally repressing people in this breakaway province. And the State Department’s reasoning was, “Well, it’s going to compromise Indonesia’s help in the war on terrorism, and also we don’t want to make a bad investment climate in Indonesia, because China’s looking to get its hands on all that delicious Indonesian oil.” Well that just absolutely appalled me — just like newspaper-shaking anger on the subway. For me it was great comfort to make my comics about this.
MJ: Those are some of the darkest that I’ve seen.
MJ: Where does GYWO go from here?
DR: Up until I signed this Rolling Stone deal, I never wanted to commit to a schedule, because, honestly I didn’t know how long I wanted to do it. I don’t how much more I can do with the form. And I don’t want to get into a routine and be doing it for ten years and be hating my life.
MJ: Get into “Garfield” territory?
DR: Exactly. Rolling Stone is every other week and they’ve told me I’ll be able to do whatever I want, and they’re paying me enough money to cover my rent, which is great. To be able to make a cartoon that pays your rent is a real fortunate state of affairs. And the other thing was, I’m always going to have anxiety about making this strip. But is that really the worst thing in the world? To feel duty-fucking-bound to keep up with current events. Part of me just doesn’t want to know what’s going on — obviously — because it’s depressing.
MJ: Believe me, I know what you mean.
DR: Yeah, you must. Anyone who works at a magazine, let alone a lefty magazine — it must be just dreadful. But it’s flattering for them to say that they want to run the comic. And if that means that I’m going to stay informed because I feel like that’s the responsible thing to do — well maybe that’s the responsible thing to do not just as a cartoonist, but as a citizen.
MJ: For you to go from unknown clip-art comic book artist to Rolling Stone‘s “Hot List,” to actually being a contributing cartoonist for the magazine — I imagine it must be kind of a shock.
DR: It feels fine at this point. The big stress came in the fall of 2001, where I made this personal thing and it got spread all over the Internet and suddenly it was like hundreds of thousands of people reading it and e-mailing me their really intensely personal reactions to it.
You adapt and get used to things. But when I step back and look at it it’s just crazy. At the end of the day I still want to sit on my ass on my sofa with my wife and watch old movies and try to keep everything in perspective, because I don’t think I have enough ideas or enough charisma to have much more than my 15 minutes.