Get Your War On II
by David Rees
Get Your Post-election Rage On
A review by Andrew O'Hehir
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
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
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
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
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.