The Rall World

Ted Rall, the cartoonist laureate of bitterness, talks about class, baby boomers, "soft liberals" and why editorial cartoons really, really suck.

Published May 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The first thing I noticed about Ted Rall, meeting him at Yaffa Cafe in the East Village, was not his height (about 6-foot-2), his general countenance (he denies this, but there's a slight resemblance to Bill Bradley when he arches his brow) or his attire (default New York black, top to bottom): It was that his eyes, surprisingly, are almost perfectly lined up with one another. The syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist (his work appears in over 100 dailies and weeklies, plus Time and Fortune magazines) draws distinctively blockheaded characters whose eyes are as misaligned with each other as their expectations are with their realities. Overworked, insecure, morally numb, given to blasi violence and beset with a vague sense of dread, his characters reflect the abiding and intensely personal bitterness he describes in his recent prose/cartoon manifesto, "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids."

In "Latchkey," the 35-year-old Rall recounts a typical post-baby boom story: abandonment by his father, sans child support; paying for school amid the Reagan education cuts; working under sanctimonious, rich boomers at crappy jobs -- computer programming, taxi driving, disposing of poisoned wharf rats -- through the '80s and early '90s (he recalled graduating from Columbia in 1991, after flunking out and going on hiatus, into a job market so bad the school canceled its job fair). Rall's work, in a word, is about getting screwed, which is to say, it's about class, an unfashionable subject among empowerment-oriented conservatives and identity-politics liberals alike.

"It's really funny to me how the left speaks the language of the right without even knowing it," he said. "Dividing people by race and sexual orientation and all these other factors are mere distractions from class. If you're a straight white male, you have a lot more in common with a gay black woman if you're both of the same economic class than with another straight white male who's a lot richer than you."

Over this decade -- with the generous appropriation of office equipment from unwitting employers -- Rall channeled his bitterness to become one of the best political cartoonists in America. That's my description, not his, but what he does happily admit is that he's one of the only political cartoonists in America, by his definition: someone who draws opinionated cartoons as opposed to "gags about the news." At last month's Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colo., Rall spoke about "the pitiful state of editorial cartooning," a view he elaborated on for me: Editors "are a bunch of chickenshit pussies."

Well, there's much more than that, he said -- there's consolidation of newspaper ownership, a lack of staff positions, alternative papers hewing to a slate of a half-dozen or so standard fixtures (like Rall and his friends Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling). But you really can't get past the chickenshit pussy thing. Even as animation and even graphic novels are getting greater attention, in the home of Thomas Nast, Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant, editorial cartoonists are afterthoughts at best, liabilities at worst -- an attitude crystallized for Rall in a staff-cartoonist interview he once had.

"We were in the executive editor's corner office, which overlooks the parking lot. Toward the end of the interview, which has gone really well, he motions over his shoulder and says, 'All right, last question, Ted. Can you assure me that I will never look out that window and see people picketing something that you've drawn'? I said, 'No, I can't' ... If I'm doing my job, there will be [picketers]."

Owing in part to such pressure, editorial cartoons today aren't political cartoons but comic relief -- riffs on stained dresses, what have you, with as much political heat as a Jay Leno monologue. He himself does fewer topical, torn-from-the-headlines cartoons, focusing on mores and economic trends, especially in the workplace: a typical Rall cartoon, from 1994, depicts the life of "the last person left with a job" after downsizing ("Andy herded sheep, traded stock, cooked, performed surgery, built refrigerators ... Andy did everything").

Rall is, unabashedly, "a communist on economic issues. I don't see any reason why anyone should make more money than someone else for working." (He volunteered, however, that he's also "a hypocrite" -- a lefty with a well-above-proletarian income.) He's pro-choice but detests rich couples who have abortions for lifestyle reasons ("to me, abortion is for high school girls who get knocked up and need to move on"); he supports gun regulations but believes in gun ownership as a hedge against tyranny ("the right to free expression -- that could change overnight"); he'd rather see the political system rot away than bother with campaign-finance reform.

And while he disparages Republicans, he contended he was the only pro-impeachment cartoonist on the left. (Rall lampoons Clinton, who he calls a Republican, as "Clintonman," an ineffectual superhero: "Defends the Innocent! Upholds Truth and Justice! Triumphs over Evil! All When Feasible!") "He was proven to be a liar, he was proven to be a perjurer, he abused his office, he obstructed justice. The Democrats should have voted against him to a man ... We should have impeached Reagan and Bush too," Rall said, but Clinton's "the one who got caught. That's life."

Rall conceded that was unpopular among mainstream, or "soft" liberals, for whom he has little patience. "When the left gets in power, they're a bunch of total, unadulterated wusses," he said. "America is a very socialist country and just doesn't know it ... Huey Long was able to tap into that, [but] people who read the Nation and listen to NPR are elitists. They don't want to reach out to ordinary people ... One day the clampdown'll come, and it'll be all the asshole right-wingers out in Idaho who've been stocking up guns [who will resist], and nothing on the left."

Talk about soft liberals, of course, and pretty soon you're talking baby boomers, whose self-indulgent proclivities still steam the cartoonist, born on the cusp of Generation X. ("Latchkey" was originally titled "Kill Your Parents Before They Kill You.") Recently, Rall recalled, a mid-40s writer at the Boulder conference claimed ("without a touch of irony -- baby boomers have no sense of humor") that he was a "survivor" of both the Holocaust and the Depression because he was Jewish and could have been born a generation earlier. "I was like, Were you also a survivor of slavery? The burning of Samarkand by Genghis Khan in 1250? All you boomers have is victim envy! You're not saying, 'I am also a survivor of incredible wealth because I might have been born a Rockefeller'!"

Materially, Rall has less to be pissed off about nowadays. Besides cartoon and column gigs (writing, he said, pays better -- a "pretty pathetic" statement about cartooning), Rall, like any good child of recession, has been diversifying like a madman. He hosts a weekly, three-hour radio talk show on KFI-AM in Los Angeles (also Webcast); he's preparing a prime-time animated series for 2000 on UPN about an extended family in Newark (to air with "Dilbert"); and there's talk about a movie adaptation of "My War with Brian," his 1998 graphic-novelized memoir of being bullied in high school (Rall downplayed its chances, but the vogue for high-school-hell pics and the Littleton aftermath can't hurt).

But there's a sober, pragmatic reason for this multimedia blitz: "I don't know if I'll always be able to do cartoons." Ironically, Rall said, in the era of Howard Stern und Drang, when the secret to so many media successes is whipping up controversy, editorial page editors may be defanging one of their best means of inflaming and engaging what readers they have left. "What are they thinking?" Rall asked, getting heated up. "'Year after year, our circulation is plummeting, our average subscriber's age goes up by one year. We'd better not change a thing!' ... The best thing that could ever happen to a paper as boring as the Sacramento Bee would be to hire a guy out of the alt weeklies. It'd make a huge statement: 'We actually want readers under 90.'"

Rall may not have newspaper outlets forever, but the sweet thing about generational resentment is that it lasts a lifetime -- yours or theirs. Entering the latter half of his 30s, he's trying to make the transition to older-farthood gracefully. "The producer of my radio show is 23," he said. "She asks me what it was like to go to clubs in the '80s.

"I don't say, 'Back in the day, when I saw Flipper ...' I tell her, 'You didn't miss a thing. Don't worry about it.'"

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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