David Rees Gets
His (Bleep) On
Off-color comic is all the rage
by Sara Marcus '99
photo by Todd France
Comics reprinted coutesy of David Rees
after midnight on October 9, 2001two days after the United
States began its military strikes in AfghanistanNew York temp
worker David Rees '94 sat down at his girlfriend's computer to create
a comic. He unwittingly embarked on a journey to fame.
At first, Rees planned to update his existing absurdist
Internet comic strip about office drones and karate pros. But times
had changed since its last publication; the September 11 attacks
had drastically altered the physical and emotional landscape of
New York City. George W. Bush had become, for the first time in
his presidency, wildly popular. And the language emanating from
all corners of societyfrom the ubiquitous warblings of "God
Bless America" to the Phillips 66 newspaper ad in which heavenly
angels purportedly offered New Yorkers their condolenceshad become
for Rees far more absurd than anything he could have conjured for
his clip-art characters.
"I had this feeling of disgust at what I was
doing," Rees says of that fateful night. "What was the
point? It felt so ridiculous to do the comic. I had been carrying
around anxiety and anger and frustration for weeksnot only because
of September 11, but because it looked like we were about to start
bombing Afghanistan, and nobody cared that there was a potential
humanitarian catastrophe right around the corner. I remember thinking,
'Well, I've never made a political comic strip, but if there was
ever a point in my life when I should, it's now.'"
The four-letter words that exploded out of Rees' droll,
cubicle-bound workers that October evening were singular and groundbreaking.
"Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the
house!" exclaims a nameless office worker to his colleague
in the first-ever frame of the new strip.
Two frames later, the man elaborates on his initial
proclamation, turning the government doublespeak on its head: "Yes!
Operation: Enduring Our Freedom To Bomb The Living F- Out Of
You is in the house!!!"
A few strips later: "This war on terrorism is
gonna rule! I can't wait until the war is over and there's no more
terrorism!" the man says.
"I know!" his coworker replies. "Remember
when the U.S. had a drug problem, and then we declared a War on
Drugs, and now you can't buy drugs anymore? It'll be just like that!"
The comics were crass, irreverent, even inappropriate.
They were also exactly what many people had been hungering for.
Rees posted the strips, which assumed the title Get Your War
On, and forwarded the link to a few friends. Within two weeks,
his web site had received a staggering five million hits.
"A lot of people e-mailed me to say it was the
first time they'd laughed since September 11," Rees says. "Others
wrote that it made them feel less isolated. The comics said what
many people were feeling but hadn't been able to express."
The early GYWO comics were dominated by grief,
dread, overindulgence in alcohol, insomnia, anthrax anxiety, and
a desire to see the United States vanquish the Taliban and Osama
bin Laden. But as the months passed and the initial shock of the
September attacks wore off, the comic's focus began to change. In
a strip dated January 17, 2002, a man asks his coworker, "Is
al-Qaeda obsessed with ruining American lives, or is Enron? Who
am I supposed to want to bomb?"
Subsequent strips touched on the IsraelPalestine
conflict, John Ashcroft's proposals for domestic spying, and the
nomination of Henry Kissinger to lead the 9/11 investigation. "I'm
sure [Kissinger] has already drafted his final report," one
character says archly. "'Over the past few years, there has
been an unfortunate lapse in the number of innocent people being
slaughtered as a direct result of my foreign policy initiatives!
Can we please get back on track?'"
Granted, GYWO makes an art out of going too
far, and at least one letter writer has called Rees a communist.
But fans say the strips, based on true events and actual rhetoric,
demonstrate that political reality has itself gone too far.
In one strip, a character notes that a CNN.com poll asks web surfers
to vote on whether "al-Qaeda [is] sending coded messages to
followers via video statements." The punch linethat an
"astonishing" 100,000 people bothered to respond to the
pollis the unembellished truth and, for Rees, a comic's dream.
Within weeks of his first GYWO comic, Rees
was profiled in The New York Times ("Like Dilbert but
Subversive and Online," read the headline), secured a book
deal with the Brooklyn-based publisher Soft Skull Press (the Get
Your War On collection was published last October with an introduction
by author Colson Whitehead), and had become the nation's most well-known
and biting humorist on the changed political scene. He has posted
strips every few weeks since, netting some 25 million hits in 2002,
and his success has only mounted: Rolling Stone magazine
just hired him as a regular political cartoonist, and Marvel Comics
included his work in its new series featuring nonviolent solutions
"It was never my goal to make an antiwar comic
that would convince people that a bombing campaign was misguided,"
Rees says. "Rather it was to get this off my chest, to overcome
the sameness and lack of skepticism by the media. If I had wanted
the strip to reach as many people as possible, I probably wouldn't
have included the profanity. But it felt really right to me when
I made it. I was angry. One way to pack as much rage as possible
into those three little panels was to drop the f-bomb."
Even if the comic is more catharsis than propaganda,
Rees has found another way to promote change: He is donating all
the author royalties from his book to the Adopt-A-Minefield campaign.
He has already contributed $40,000 to a team of de-miners in Afghanistan;
his gift will fund nearly three months of mine removal by 24 Afghan
men and four German shepherds.
Donating the money "was one of the best
things I did all year," says Rees, who married Obie Sarah LaRiviere
'97 last summer. "It made me feel less helpless. It reminded
me that I actually can effect some kind of change on this earth."
Sara Marcus '99 is the social justice
editor of Heeb Magazine, a rock critic, and a musician. She
lives in Brooklyn and is currently editing a book about the labor