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Reesís pieces
Whether writing angry letters to the editor or creating hard-hitting cartoons, David Rees is always a little bit disturbing
BY CHRIS WRIGHT


IF YOUíRE GOING to have someone come up to you on the street and punch you in the face, you donít necessarily want that person to be Mike Tyson. Similarly, if youíre going to have someone denigrate you in a public arena, youíd probably rather have it be someone other than David Rees. I should know. A few years ago, the Boston Phoenix published a letter by Rees about an article Iíd written about prison life (News and Features, April 20, 2000). " ĎThe Inside Storyí is certainly a thought-provoking piece of journalism," the letter began. "The thought it provoked in me was: ĎWhat the fuck kind of idiot is Chris Wright?í "

Damn him.

IF YOUíRE OF a certain age ó between, say, 25 and 40 ó and if you have friends given to sending out e-mails with subject heads like "Ha ha," chances are youíve known about David Rees for a while now. A 31-year-old New York resident, Rees first came to light in the weeks following September 11, 2001, when his online cartoon strip Get Your War On became the inspiration for countless LOL-laden e-mails. Everyone, it seemed, was passing the thing around. Meanwhile, the Web site upon which Reesís strip appeared quickly became a server-crippling sensation ó receiving, at its peak, something like a half million hits a week.

Reesís rise to fame has not been unmerited. In the harrowing weeks after 9/11, Get Your War On achieved the remarkable feat of prompting us to laugh at our grave new world. More to the point, his strip was unlike anything weíd seen before, even as it expressed feelings ó anger, terror, incomprehension ó we all shared. The technique Rees pioneered was actually simple: he dug up some hokey public-domain clip art depicting bland-looking office workers, and added speech balloons that popped with profanity, irony, and delirious panic. In a three-frame strip published almost exactly a month after the terrorist attacks, Rees shows us two straight-faced guys talking to each other on the phone:

First guy: "Holy fuck ó anthrax in New York City! Weíre getting our fucking ass kicked!"

Second guy: "Seriously! Who the fuck are we fighting, fucking Lex Luther? When is the Death Star gonna shoot that big-ass laser at us?"

First guy: "I know! Whatís next ó George W. Bush is gonna hold a press conference and rip his face off and itís gonna be Ming the Merciless up under there? Jesus!"

While other humorists were pussyfooting around the subject of 9/11 and its aftermath, Rees went right for the throat. People loved it. Today, the dissemination of Reesís work has moved beyond word of mouth. Heís been profiled in Newsweek, the New York Times, and a slew of other publications. His Get Your War On has been made into a successful book and now appears regularly in Rolling Stone. Next week, as part of a nationwide tour to promote his latest collection, My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable, comprising comics that preceded his postĖ9/11 work, Rees will be coming to Boston. Certainly this wonít be the only article heralding his arrival. In the two years since he first came to our attention, Rees has gone from letter-writing obscurity to, perhaps, Americaís most celebrated Angry Young Man.

"Every now and then a cartoonist comes along who does what, deep down, readers expect a cartoonist to do: upset the apple cart," says cartoonist Ted Rall. "That willingness to express in public, in print, what other people are saying in private, especially when the mainstream media is so restrained and bland, is incredibly refreshing. Itís real, and people will always ó despite what editors think ó respond well to what seems real and authentic."

In fact, editors seem to be every bit as enamored of Reesís work as Rall is. "He has a voice that is unmistakable," says Will Dana, Rolling Stoneís deputy managing editor. "Thereís always something complicated and a little disturbing going on. I want to get him involved in the magazine in other ways. Iíd like to see how he does in writing without the strip." Actually, Iíve had firsthand experience of David Reesís writing without the strip ó it, too, is a little disturbing: "I should think that prison is not just another quirky phenomenon to be analyzed by a wanna-be gonzo journalist whose vocabulary far outshines his judgment."

Damn him.

AS SOON AS my editor told me you were calling, I got chills up and down my spine."

David Rees is saying this from a room at the Hilton in San Pedro, California. Despite what he calls the "sordid history" between us, I ask Rees to do me a favor. "Um, okay." Since this is a phone interview, I need visual color. Silence. What heís wearing, stuff like that. "T-shirt and trousers." Trousers? "I dunno, the kind of pants you buy that come with a belt." He has his feet up on a desk, he says. Above the bed is a hotel-quality painting depicting what appears to be a scene from the Pacific Northwest: "It has a road going off into the distance." Pause. "Some big trees." Pause. "A big body of water and some mountains in the background."

As to the appearance of Rees himself, he has been described as "Kennedy-esque." "I think itís because Iím tall and have dark hair," he says. "Which describes some but not all of the Kennedys." Rees is indeed tall ó a gangly six-foot-three. When he was a teenager, people used to tell him he looked like the friend in Ferris Buellerís Day Off, "the one who drives his fatherís car backwards out of the garage." In the picture Iím looking at now, from a profile in LA Weekly, Rees is sitting rather awkwardly, looking too big for his chair, hands clasped in his lap. The expression on his face does not seem to be that of a man entirely at ease. And neither, for that matter, does the voice at the other end of the line.

"Ha ha. Iíd forgotten about that," Rees says when reminded of the "what the fuck kind of idiot" line from his letter to the editor. The "ha ha," in particular, jangles with discomfort. "Iíve always been extremely judgmental," he explains later. "When Iím upset about something, Iím usually convinced that Iím right and the other person is wrong. This has been true from when I was a middle-school bully until now when Iím reading the paper. I get this raging feeling, why canít they see that what theyíre doing is totally insane and unjust? I think it has to do with coming from a religious family. So much of the language of the church, in regards to morality, is coming from the perspective of absolute right or wrong."

Whatever the source of Reesís penchant for moralistic tub-thumping, thereís no doubt that he has put this tendency to good use. Get Your War On, certainly, was one of the more innovative and courageous, not to mention haunting, works of satire to emerge from the rubble of September 11. "I canít believe Jesus and Allah are fighting again!" says one character. "Someoneís gonna get their eye poked out!" On the surface, this glib, absurd statement is a throwaway gag, good for little more than a chuckle. Yet the fact that lines like these are put into the mouths of Reesís ho-hum office workers lends the whole thing a surreal, unsettling air. Somehow, "Oh my God, this War on Terrorism is gonna rule!" makes you shudder as well as laugh.

Much has been made of the incongruities of the language and imagery in Reesís work. As Will Dana puts it: "The banality of the artwork combined with the outrage of the writing is powerful and surprising." Rees, for his part, insists that the juxtaposition was more intuitive than intentional. "I wasnít thinking, ĎOh my God, the more static I make this look, the more powerful the language will be,í " he says. "I wanted the strip to look really quiet, then it wouldnít be until you were invested in reading it that there would be this aggression and rage that was boiling under the surface, which I think is how a lot of people felt after the terror attacks of September 11."

Rees did indeed hit on a strange truth of postĖSeptember 11 life. For many of us, one of the more difficult things to come to terms with in the days following the attacks was the idea that we were supposed to go about our daily lives ó to "Go shopping!", as Bush put it with his characteristic flair for inanity. The sterile office environment in Get Your War On, coupled with its manic, discordant dialogue, spoke to the inherent weirdness of trying to return to normalcy when the world seemed to be coming to an end.

"We had to go back to work. Everyone had to keep going in the face of this disruptive and horrific event," says Rees, who was working as a fact checker at Maxim magazine at the time of the attacks. "We had a meeting on September 13, 2001, to buck everyone up and remind ourselves that there was no more important time in history to put out a stupid guy magazine because if we buckled to the terrorists then they would have you-know-what."

Such is the cult status Rees has achieved over the last couple of years, that there is now a "creation myth" surrounding Get Your War Onís early days. Apparently, Rees sat in his Brooklyn apartment shortly after September 11, distraught, half in the bag, cutting and pasting clip art, hammering out the dialogue, trying to get things straight in his own head, to find an outlet for his own raging anxiety. "Maybe thatís what makes the characters sympathetic," Rees says. "Despite all their bravado, theyíre really just insecure, like I am. This really was cathartic for me. This was the most cathartic creative thing Iíve ever done."

You get the sense that David Rees isnít completely comfortable with the media attention he gets ó particularly when his work is described with words like "Chomsky-esque" and "existential." "I think, um," he says, "you know, we have a tendency, when we find art we like, to justify that by bringing out the big 50-cent words." Not that Rees would call himself an artist. In fact, he doesnít even like to call himself a cartoonist. "I do, because thatís what my accountant put on my tax return," he says, "but I feel to call myself a cartoonist kind of denigrates the art of cartooning." His decision to donate the royalties for Get Your War On to a mine-clearing group in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has led some to liken him to a foul-mouthed Mother Teresa. But itís the frequent comparisons between himself and comedic pioneers like Lenny Bruce that really get Rees cringing. "Itís very flattering," he says, "but I donít deserve that."

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Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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