David Rees Talks "Get Your War On"

American cartoonist David Rees had been writing and drawing comics for years but only achieved recognition in late 2001 when he debuted the new strip, "Get Your War On." It was a hilarious and profane perspective on George W. Bush's War on Terror, and more specifically, a parsing of the language used to describe, defend and attack the war. The strip has expanded its already considerable popularity with a stage production, as well as a series of animated video adaptations.

In 2004, Rees announced that the strip would end with the Bush administration, and with Barack Obama assuming the U.S. Presidency on January 20, the cartoonist is doing just that.

With the final collection, "Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror 2001-2008," in stores now, CBR News spoke with the venerable cartoonist about the strip and what fans can look forward to next.

CBR: How did you end up creating "Get Your War On?" The early ones, especially, really have a lot of pent up feelings in them.

David Rees: I started "Get Your War On" a couple days after we began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001. It was the means I used to figure out how I felt about the War on Terror -- bombing Afghanistan, fighting a battle of good vs. evil, looking to Bush for leadership. All that stuff was emotionally fraught for me, so I tried expressing my feelings through the comic.

Why did you go from drawing cartoons to using clip art?

I grew up drawing cartoons, but eventually I got tired of the penciling and inking and smudging and white-outing, etc. I was more interested in dialogue and jokes. When I realized you could make comics with computer clip art, I never looked back.

During those years you were drawing, was cartooning just a hobby or were you serious about it?

It was a hobby. I promised myself once I would never let cartooning become a job, but ... oh well.

What were your influences for "Get Your War On?"

The Minutemen (band); Richard Pryor; conversations I had with my friends after 9/11; "Apartment 3G" (boring comic strip, which is what I was going for stylistically).

Who are the political cartoonists you enjoy?

Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Matt Bors, Tom Toles, Jeff Danziger, Bil Keane, Jim Davis, the grumpy old man who draws Mallard Fillmore... I got love for everyone.

Has it become harder to write "Get Your War On?" It would seem that the first time you tell a joke about how the rebuilding of Iraq or Afghanistan is going to hell, that can be a cathartic moment. But the three-hundredth joke would be a bit depressing, no?

Yes, I find it very depressing -- mostly because the subject matter is depressing. It's like, "Who cares if I really stuck it to Bush in this comic strip? Afghanistan and Iraq are totally fucked." Sometimes it can still be cathartic, and I think it's important to make jokes about the botched reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, but overall it's a real downer.

You don't have characters in the strip and it makes what they say more shocking as a result, because it's not about people's individual perspectives, it's about being mouthpieces for these bigger ideas they're parroting, or regurgitating phrases they don't understand. Was that part of the idea from the beginning?

I never thought about the clip art people as actual characters with back-stories or consistent viewpoints or anything. I just wanted the clip art to serve as empty images I could peg jokes to.

There tend to be two voices in the strip. One extreme and one more moderate. Is the moderate voice you?

I see myself as moderate, because I think I'm a reasonably well-informed, sane citizen. (I use "moderate" as shorthand for "not totally insane.") Somebody else, though, might see me as extreme: "What kind of extremist nut-job would think American hero Rudy Giuliani is an idiotic thug?" "What kind of whack-a-doodle maniac thinks we shouldn't invade Iran tomorrow morning?"

How hard is it to write the extreme voice, or is it disturbingly easy?

It's disturbingly fun!

It's fascinating to listen or read to people discuss your work because people talk about how funny it is, and the profanity is almost always mentioned, but no one mentions how emotionally fraught so much of it is.

I don't want people to think I'm using bad words just to piss them off or shock them or come across as a rebel or something like that. One of the reasons I decided to allow the Rude Mechs Theatre Company to adapt "GYWO" for the stage was because they seemed to understand that the profanity was masking feelings of despair and vulnerability -- it wasn't just about the shock value of the language. I think people often use profanity when they've run up against the limits of language. When they don't know how to express their emotions within the framework of acceptable language, they turn to profanity, which doesn't usually convey semantic information -- only information about the speaker's emotional state.

But also, I gotta say one of the reasons I put so much profanity in those early strips was because I thought the discourse/language after 9/11 was really weird and neutered and I wanted to cut through that. Profanity seemed efficient in that regard.

The profanity stands in extreme contrast to the very measured calm statements that used to issue from the Bush administration about mushroom clouds and weapons of mass destruction. Was that conscious or was it just a question of listening to that and not being able to avoid swearing?

The use of profanity in "GYWO" came out of my love of profanity -- I had already been making comics with absurd amounts of cursing ("My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable"). But also I wanted to cut through all the weird language we were hearing post-9/11. Everything seemed either very neutered and infantile ("The day America lost her innocence,") or witless and belligerent ("We will bring justice to the evildoers," or whatever Bush used to say to get everyone riled up). So I thought profanity was a simple way to cut through all the bullshit.

You made a comment earlier about how many people resort to profanity when they've run up against the limits of language. For many, the Bush administration was an example of that in the sense that no matter what the polls said, no matter how many people protested, no matter what happened in the rest of the world, it was made clear we were going to war. Was profanity and stunned silence the only logical response to that?

Yes. I guess flying to the moon and founding your own parallel America would have also been a logical response, but I couldn't afford to do it.

The Bush years are almost over and so is "Get Your War On." Is it a relief? Is it sad?

It's bittersweet. I fantasize about Bush and me going into business together, maybe starting a record label? I think that could be really fun. He probably knows a lot of people in the record industry, which would help. (I assume he knows people in the record industry because he was President and the President knows everybody.)

What were you doing on election night, 2008?

Hiding under my sofa. After they called it for Obama, I went to a party.

How did you hook up with the people at 236.com and end up producing videos based on the strip?

236.com approached me about animating the comics. The producers were people I knew from the New York City comedy scene, so I thought it would be really fun to work with them. They had the idea of rotoscoping the comics, rather than animating them. We hired actors who looked like the "GYWO" clip art and filmed them talking on the phone -- that's the footage we rotoscoped. Then we hired other actors -- Jon Glaser and Anthony Laurent -- to record scripts every week. I should mention that Jon and Anthony look nothing like clip art. They look like 3-dimensional human beings.

How involved are you in the videos and how is it different from writing the strip?

I wrote and directed all the "GYWO "videos for 236. The videos are on hiatus for the time being. The process was different from making the weekly comic. It was collaborative -- involving the actors, the producers, the editor -- whereas the comic is just me in my office screaming at my computer and weeping into my coffee.

There's the old line, tragedy plus time equals comedy, but you and a few others have been mocking and savaging the war as it was being fought. Do you think that old adage is just wrong or is it the result of our access to information in practically real time that's altered our relationship to world events? Or do we just have a really short attention span?

I think it's a combination of all those factors. The 24-hour media-saturated news cycle seems to compress time, so that events feel dated after two days of coverage. But also I think people responded to "GYWO" in the fall of 2001 not because it was incredibly funny, but because it expressed what lots of people were thinking at that time, in that historical moment. It was popular precisely because of its immediacy. Sometimes particular moments are so crazy and insane (like immediate post-9/11 America) that jokes are going to be funniest right then and there, not years later.

What's next for David Rees?

I have no idea. Fortunately, the entire economy is collapsing, so it should be really easy to find a job....

"Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror, 2001-2008" is on sale now from Soft Skull Press.

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