Sometimes the undisciplined anger of David Rees' comic "Get Your War On" can really rub me the wrong way. Not today, though -- the hours since early Wednesday morning have seemed like the most necessary time for Rees' clip-art tirades against, as he might put it, every fucking stupid thing in the whole fucking universe.
Rees' aesthetic goes beyond minimalism or reductionism -- the phrase I'd use, in fact, is "intentionally ugly." If you've seen one cartoon from "Get Your War On" or "My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable," you've basically seen them all. He takes crude line drawings of office drones or karate students from textbooks or training manuals, manipulates them minimally, and fills in the empty space with text in an especially unattractive sans-serif font. You can't call the effect subtle, but it can be surprisingly powerful: These bland, multiculti figures from office-park America have been chucked into a post-Kafka world of outrageous lies and goony mythologies.
Here's a cartoon from last April that I've found especially helpful in the last few days. It's a conversation between two of the middle-management types who are Rees' staples, one an African-American man with glasses, sitting at an especially poorly drawn desktop computer, and the other a white man with graying hair and boxy, pleated trousers.
Desktop Man: You watched President Bush's press conference, right?
Pleated-Trouser Man: Oh -- you mean the first time he bothered to answer reporters' questions on prime time television since BEFORE THE START OF THE IRAQ WAR? Yeah, I watched that shit. It felt like rubbernecking a highway accident made entirely of words.
DM: What's your problem? You don't even sound grateful.
PTM: OK, really. What am I supposed to say? "Thank you, President Bush, for holding a prime-time press conference? Your crumbs are so delicious? It means so much to us that you took precious time away from your stupid fuckin' hole-in-the-wall, dusty backasswards fake-ass ranch down in dipshit CRAWFORD, TEXAS to speak to us about the crappy war in Iraq that you and your staff completely fucked up because you're a bunch of FUCKING EGOMANIACAL RETARDS?"
DM: No you DIDN'T! No you didn't make fun of the ranch in Crawford, Texas! Typical East Coast elitist!
PTM [driven to the extreme bottom of the frame by all the type]: "East Coast elitist?" Fuck it, sure -- is that what you call it? Fine. All I know is I'm from New York City, I can think on my feet, I can actually string two fuckin' sentences together without notes, and I could answer some motherfuckers' questions about a war without just spitting out eleven different permutations of the same goddamn "goo-gah boogaloo freedom" phrase! So sue me -- that makes me elitist? Good! If "elitist" just means "not the dumbest motherfucker in the room," I'll be an elitist!
Every era produces the art forms it deserves, and I guess our era of flattened public discourse and red vs. blue finds its absurd echo in Rees. What makes "Get Your War On" and Rees' other comics work -- if, that is, you think they do -- is the peculiar combination of scabrous, profane anger (as in referring to the president's advisors as "FUCKING EGOMANIACAL RETARDS") with an absurdist sarcasm that seems gentle by comparison ("your crumbs are so delicious").
In the months of sycophantic flag-waving after 9/11, when Art Spiegelman was frozen out of the New Yorker for insufficient patriotism, Rees' early "Get Your War On" cartoons provided an invaluable public service by openly questioning, even mocking, the moral authority of the so-called War on Terror. The culture has caught up with him since then, but the startling events of the last few days reminded me that the hostile, pseudo-Darwinian universe of Rees' tormented office drones may be closer to reality than the comfortable bubble of bicoastal media opinion.
My favorite of Rees' comic strips is actually the profoundly mysterious "Adventures of Confessions of St. Augustine Bear," a series of enigmatic encounters between a hunter with a loaded gun (and a crisis of faith) and a grizzly bear who, yes, quotes from St. Augustine in every cartoon. This strip leans more toward absurdism -- and perhaps transcendent meaning, of all things -- than toward anger. (I haven't figured out what the guy troweling bricks onto a wall is doing there yet -- and then there's the completely inscrutable Dada-inspired "Nissan ad" that interrupts the proceedings.) "St. Augustine" represents Rees reaching for, and sometimes grasping, something bigger than "Get Your War On," but it lacks the same cocaine-like kick.
It might seem unnecessary to own "Get Your War On" in book form when you can read most of Rees' work on his Web site, but hard copy has its advantages (and Rees, putting his money where his mouth is, donates all royalties to a United Nations campaign to clear land mines in Afghanistan). I've been grateful to have his new collection "Get Your War On II," including cartoons from late 2002 through July 2004, available over the past couple of days -- in bathrooms and hallways, on the subway, while "working" at my desk -- as a way to ventilate juvenile, nihilistic anger that might otherwise have been inflicted on friends, spouse and co-workers.
Besides, this new book includes some unexpected bonuses. There are crudely drawn strips featuring early versions of Desktop Man and Pleated-Trouser Man that Rees claims he drew in the '80s and recently found in his attic. In the first of these, PTM asks a pertinent question: "It's so weird that U.S.A. is friends with Saddam Hussien!!!! WHat's his prob? He looks so angery!!!! What is Ronald Reagan doing with that guy?" DM responds: "Duh, U.S.A. plus Saddam = B.F.F. Best-Friends Forever! We are helping him against IRAN in a WAR to keep us safe! It's O.K. Now shut up."
Like I said before, nobody would claim this strip is subtle. But it sure is cathartic. ("Fuck! FUCK!!" says Desktop Man in a December 2003 cartoon. "Motherfuckin' fuckers fucking up every fuckin' thing they can get their fuckin' hands on! Fuckin' FUCKITY FUCK!!! ... Whew ... that's better.") Even at Rees' moments of maximum hectoring -- such as the presence of Uzbekikitty, a cartoon cat designed to remind us of our alliance with the torture regime in Uzbekistan -- what carries his work beyond political rant and into a territory I might hesitantly call art is its essential strangeness and loneliness. We see ourselves in his anonymous figures, wrestling not just with tragedy and falsehood but with the empty space around them.
Rees' cartoon for Aug. 11, 2003, is among his most naked. There is no profanity, no capital letters, no enraged italic type. Desktop Man has vanished from his cubicle, leaving a blank space before his monitor and keyboard. A voice comes from outside the frame: "Hello? Anybody there?" it says. "Hellooo?" And then, in the last frame, "I'm looking for someone to lie to me ..." At some level, as we found out this week, we all are.