A subversive online comic strip

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 21 08:48:46 MDT 2002


NY Times, April 21, 2002

Like 'Dilbert,' but Subversive and Online
By JOHN LELAND
 
AT a cheap Peruvian restaurant in Brooklyn, David Rees was telling a 
story, and it involved: a 1980's punk band called the Minutemen, 
America, Lenny Bruce, Vanity Fair magazine, Osama bin Laden and Mr. 
Rees's very funny, very profane online comic strip, "Get Your War 
On."

It's true.

He had just introduced himself and ordered a chicken sandwich, and 
next thing you know he was rolling. The story, straightened into 
diagrammable form, was this: He once read an article about the 
Minutemen, who mixed politics with fierce irony (in the manner of 
Lenny Bruce), which Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, pronounced 
dead after Sept. 11, which remark (along with the Minutemen) inspired 
Mr. Rees, a temp worker, to create his harshly satiric comic strip — 
just to prove such prognosticators wrong. Along the way, he suggested 
that the resilience of pop culture, its ability to make humor out of 
pain, was one source of America's strength.

Mr. Rees, who also plays guitar in an underground band called the 
Skeleton Killers, is 29, angular, with the downscale undergraduate 
look popular among heady rock musicians. Fans of his online comic 
strip may be interested to learn that he did not curse during this 
amiable spree. The comic, by contrast, is a gusher of unprintable 
participles.

The chicken sandwiches were excellent.

Since he posted the first installment on Oct. 9 at www.mnftiu.cc, the 
strip has been a textbook illustration of the viral reach of the Web, 
spreading by word of e-mail alone, so that in its first two weeks it 
received five million hits from Web crawlers around the world. "A 
friend sent it to me," said the gadfly commentator Arianna 
Huffington, whose taste in language usually runs to more polite 
combat. She added: "Profanity is often a part of biting political 
commentary, including what `The Osbournes' is doing right now." 

Executives from MTV and several film production companies contacted 
Mr. Rees about doing larger projects. His computer in-box filled with 
angry e-mail messages calling him callous and anti-American. In 
January, he started soliciting donations on the site. So far 
strangers have given him about $2,000. 

The strip, which he updates sporadically, follows the phone 
conversations of a multiracial group of cubicle workers during the 
war on terrorism: anonymous, middle-management types translating 
current events into an absurd hip-hop brio. It reads as an 
alternative history of the last eight months.

As the nation put forward its higher virtues, Mr. Rees's characters 
flaunted baser instincts: cynicism, blood lust, pettiness, fear and 
very bad work habits. In one strip, a man uncharacteristically 
praises Attorney General John Ashcroft, then two panels later 
clarifies: "Good God, these are some powerful antidepressants I'm 
taking." In another, an old man ponders: "Maybe I should write a poem 
about my feelings since September 11; that might help. What rhymes 
with `alcohol-saturated dread?' " 

He also lampoons easy idealism. A young child, looking at a newscast 
from Afghanistan, cries, "Mommeeee! Why is this little boy all blown 
up and mutilated with no arms? Didn't he get the dollar I sent 
him???" (A common expletive has been deleted from his plaint.)

Mr. Rees said he wanted the torrents of offhand swearing to play off 
the characters' feelings of helplessness, adding that the crudeness 
was also "a response to other commentators pussyfooting around the 
horror."

He was not prepared for the response. "It was just something I did 
for myself, and I e-mailed the link to 10 friends that I didn't think 
would get offended," he said. "It took off." He plans to have a book 
out by summer; several publishers are interested; he said he would 
donate his royalties to a group that helps remove land mines in 
Afghanistan, so that he won't profit from the war. 

The fruits of his popularity have thus far eluded him. In his narrow 
Park Slope walk-up, where he lives with his girlfriend, Sarah 
Lariviere, a graduate student, a table stood piled with low stacks of 
pennies. "This is what you do when you're a cartoonist," he said. 
"You count and roll pennies so you can buy coffee." He has barely 
worked since fall. The donations, he estimates, add up to four 
months' rent. He also gets royalties from a comic book, "My New 
Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable," which he published in January.

Mr. Rees, a graduate of Oberlin College, is a bystander to the rat 
race and, for all his intended political commentary, the strip is 
most incisive about the sinkhole of cubicle culture. The office 
settings are blandly generic; the characters are a few pieces of clip 
art that Mr. Rees uses over and over. Some of the dialogue comes 
verbatim from his old temp job as a Maxim magazine fact checker, 
which ended shortly after Sept. 11. 

The strip is something like "Dilbert" for people who drink and 
download pornography on the job, or at least bluster about it. 
Against their dismally blank surroundings, the characters feel 
compelled to act out. After President Bush urged Americans to be on 
the lookout for possible terrorists, one character spied a colleague 
in a particularly ugly jacket. "Can I cap him?" she asked. 

After seven months, Mr. Rees has come to something of a creative 
impasse. By now, he said, anyone can do a "Get Your War On" strip. 
"Just have two guys talk, and run it through a Cuss-O-Meter," he 
said. He has considered how to bring the strip to a conclusion — or, 
more aptly, let it peter out.

"The whole point is to show the perpetual state of anxiety and 
change" that came after Sept. 11, he said. "And that doesn't seem 
like it'll come to a neat end. We hope." 
 
-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 04/21/2002

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