AT FIRST, it seems odd that this opinionated, morally strident person should be so equivocal about his own importance. But then Rees has long been subject to bouts of self-doubt ó he was, after all, a philosophy major. In the mid 1990s, upon his graduation from Oberlin College, Rees moved to Boston, where he followed a career path familiar to philosophy majors everywhere: he drifted through a series of menial temp jobs. It was in one of these positions, bored out of his mind, that he created his first strip. "I think it was my girlfriendís birthday, and I wanted to make her a bunch of stupid cartoons," he says. "I decided to focus on finding karate clip art. It suited my interests, people fighting and yelling."
The result of this on-the-clock time-wasting was My Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable (collected in his new book), the strip that first put Rees on the map as a cartoonist. The success of the strip was not, however, due to burning ambition on the part of its creator. As Rees tells it, he wanted to distribute My Fighting Technique among his friends, so he took it to a local copy shop. Soon, unbeknownst to Rees, the shopís employees had started to distribute the strip among their friends, who sent it to their friends, and so on. Eventually, he worked out a barter system with the copy-shop guys, which involved him giving them free beer and them making him free copies.
"I donít want to be disingenuous and say I sat on my butt while the whole world crashed through my door," Rees says. "Once I realized people liked the strip, I started selling them at stores in Allston. I went to Tower Records and picked up every freaky magazine I could find, wrote down the addresses, and sent the strips off. Someone sent it on to a literary agent in Hollywood, and she called me and said, ĎYou need an agent.í Weíve been working together for three years now. Itís worked out okay so far." Quite.
Though not as overtly political, My Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable has a good deal in common with Get Your War On. It, too, is filled with high-octane, obscenity-drenched language. It, too, uses cheesy clip art. It, too, heaves with an underlying anxiety that somehow serves to fuel its comedy. And, as with Get Your War On, much of the humor in My Fighting Technique relies on endless repetition. In this case, rather than office workers freaking out about the war on terror, we have a cast of badly drawn kung fu fighters swapping surreal lines of trash talk:
Badly drawn punching guy: "Someone stole my latest fighting technique! I aim to find out who! Then some ass gets kicked!"
Badly drawn kicking guy: "I know who stole your two-bit technique, motherfucker ó one of those crazed motherfuckers who always wants to fight opponents!"
As the strip draws to a close, despite kicking guyís contention that "My foot has made contact with an idiotic motherfucker," punching guy prevails, and kicking guy ends up being whisked away in a clip-art ambulance. Lots of the characters in My Fighting Technique suffer this fate. Itís hard to say whether there is an actual point to all this. And maybe that is part of the point ó maybe those who see existential dread embedded in the character of Kung Fu Snoopy arenít so far off the mark. Either way, itís hard not to laugh when Circulatory System Man ó apparently lifted from a med-school textbook ó announces, "Does anybody feel like messing with a see-through motherfucker?"
In part, the gleeful anarchy in My Fighting Technique arises from the shoddy way the whole thing is put together. "It looks slapdash because it was," says Rees. "I think one of the appeals of the book is how crummy it looks. I like that you get the sense that the guy who made this doesnít care whether the words are in the balloons, that he just wants to have a joke about the circulatory system or whatever." But crumminess doesnít always come easy. While he was in the process of compiling his strips, Rees discovered he had lost the files containing the original templates. "I had to meticulously reassemble every page," he says. "I had to deliberately make it look just as slapdash. It was very time-consuming and absurd, obviously."
TO SOME EXTENT, Reesís innovative style arises out of necessity rather than invention. Born to a middle-class family in Chapel Hill ó his father was an art librarian at the University of North Carolina, while his mother worked in the schoolís health-services department ó Rees from an early age displayed a rather eccentric creative bent. "I used to make up words and talk backwards, stuff like that," he says. "The big phrase I made up that enraged my parents after two years of its overuse was: ĎSago maray! My mother is deformed like the Mocha Maya man!í I have no idea what compelled me to say it. It used to drive my parents up the wall."
Reesís parents were actually a little more supportive of their sonís artistic endeavors than this story might suggest. When young David hit his teens, for instance, he created a comic strip called Ta-Wog the Ninja Master. "My dad was nice enough to take my little comics into work, photocopy them, then bring them home and buy them back from me for a quarter," Rees says. "I guess they were encouraging my rapacious free-market appetite."
At Oberlin, Rees parlayed his interest in comics into a regular strip for the college newspaper. It was around this time, however, that he began to realize that he had a major drawback as a cartoonist ó weak draftsmanship. "I can draw okay, especially weird, freaky stuff," he says. "But Iím really bad at drawing the same thing over and over, which is what you have to do when youíre doing a comic. And I was never really any good at drawing people. I could do machinery and space ships and guns and aliens, but when it came time to draw an actual Homo sapiens, it was difficult. I used to have all these people talking off screen, word balloons meeting in the middle."
Today, Rees is well aware that the style that made him famous is, as much as anything, an expression of his artistic limitations. "The clip art reinforces the idea of the comic, makes it more effective," he says. "But I understand now, looking back, that I originally did it that way because it was a lot easier to copy and paste a bit of clip art on a computer than it was to draw the same guy sitting at a desk 10 times in a row."
Not everyone, however, sees Reesís use of clip art as a virtue. "Personally ó or rather, as a comic historian and cartoonist myself ó I donít like Reesís work," says Robert Harvey, who runs a cartoon-related Web site. "The pictures in his so-called comic strip are an affront to my cartooning sensibilities." Harvey goes on to add that Reesís strips are, "in effete art-criticism terms, terrible."
But itís not only Reesís penmanship that gets the traditionalists tut-tutting. "You donít want to hit people over the head," says Charles Brooks, who edits the annual anthology Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. "An occasional swear word like Ďdamní is all right, but you donít want vulgar language. As a rule, political cartoons do not use profanity. I donít think they need it. I think you can say what you want to say without using gutter language."
And yet the most damning criticism you hear of Reesís work comes from his own fans, some of whom think that he has gotten a bit bland, a bit repetitive, since becoming a "professional" cartoonist. Rees himself is all too aware that he may one day wear out his welcome. "Iím especially worried now because I have a paycheck riding on it," he says. "Iím terrified itíll become one of those things ó and believe me, judging from the e-mail I get sometimes, a lot of people think this already ó that just gets stale and old and just starts to suck. I know for myself that the emotional release I got from making Get Your War On two years ago is something Iíll probably never get again. For me, I peaked right out of the gate."
But then, Reesís success has not been the life-changing event he once imagined it might be. "You know, Newsweek magazine wrote a full-page story on Get Your War On, and that was fine, it was interesting," he says. "But then I think that, God, if my friend Joe had a full-page article in Newsweek, I would imagine that he would be flying everywhere in helicopters and be able to walk through walls and go to fancy restaurants. But in the end, of course, nothing really changes. I still worry about money. Iím still depressed half the time because I donít know what Iím doing with my life. I still live in Brooklyn, and I still have all my old friends. Itís just been this weird, crazy thing."
Rees may not fly around in helicopters, but there are some perks to his fame. Recently, for instance, Rees ó who plays guitar in a band called the Skeleton Killers ó got to meet one of his childhood heroes, Mike Watt of punk legends the Minutemen. "We ate sandwiches and watched the sunset over the ocean," he says. "It was totally awesome." And he does get to stay in rather nice hotels like the San Pedro Hilton, in a room overlooking the marina. Sometimes. "To stay in a hotel is really unusual for me," he says. "Iím not the guy who wrote Who Moved My Cheese?, I donít write submarine murder mysteries." What heís promoting right now, he adds, is a "fucking insane karate book."
As Rees says this, it occurs to me that this may be the first time Iíve heard him swear ó strange for a man who manages to use the word "motherfucker" two, three, or sometimes four times on a single page. "You know, I always try to be pretty well-spoken," he says. "Then I read these articles and I see these cuss words and I just feel like I sound like such an idiot. Sometimes I get paranoid that theyíre inserting swear words into the interview, because Iíll read a phrase and it just doesnít sound right to me, so I canít imagine that I said it. There was one interview where I used the phrase Ďduty boundí and it wound up in the piece as Ďduty fucking bound.í So I try to keep things antiseptic, so I know that people donít dump a bunch of extra Ďmotherfuckersí into it."
With this, Rees gets up and walks over to the hotel window. Outside, dozens of yachts are bobbing on the marina, their hulls tinted orange by the setting sun. A seagull swoops by, its plaintive cry growing increasingly faint as it recedes into the thickening sky. "Thatís some fucking beautiful shit," Rees says, picking his tooth with the corner of a Gideon Bible. "Un-shitting-believable."
Ha ha. Write a letter to the editor about that, motherfucker.
David Rees reads at Newtonville Books, in Newton, on December 3, at 7:30 p.m.; at Million Year Picnic, in Cambridge, on December 4, at 5 p.m.; and at 108 Gallery, in Boston, on December 5, at 8 p.m. His Web address is www.mnftiu.cc. Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]phx.com