Wartime Correspondent Cartoonist David Rees Chronicles a Year of Terror
Published Feb 01, 2003"At some point I felt like life in America had reached such a level of absurdity. And it wasn't removed from me - I felt like I was living in this absurd time, which was kind of scary, but also just so crazy." David Rees wasn't really intending to start a new comic when he posted the first "Get Your War On" panels to his web site (www.mnftiu.cc) in October 2001. "I thought, this is just so ridiculous - why continue with business as usual? I should try to actually express something real for once." He began to transcribe a phone conversation with a friend into comic strip form with the aid of clip art - generic images of office workers pointing out the illogic of dropping food aid packages into the most heavily mined country in the world.
The appearance of those first panels was a welcome, if jarring, reaction to the numbing patriotism that characterised the weeks following the terror attacks in New York. In particular, his characters drew attention to the abuse of language in the service of war. "Why does Bush always sound like he's addressing a goddamn Dungeons and Dragons convention?" quips one clip art clerical worker.
"I thought, 'I'll make a joke about it, because if I don't, I'm gonna go crazy," Rees explains. "One of the only ways was to express the facts in as inappropriate a tone as possible." The bleak humour of those first panels was chilling, and immediately struck a chord. "Once I was done I thought, 'I probably know eight or ten people who would appreciate this.' I posted it on my site so that I could email them the link, and they'd be able take a look."
The strip became an internet phenomenon, endlessly circulated via email. His obvious sense of outrage, and his keen ear for sound bites resonated far wider than his initial intended audience. Not unlike the renegade comedy of fellow New Yorker David Cross, Rees seemed to understand the need to jolt readers out of their moral paralysis. "Obviously the hours and weeks and months after September 11 were heartbreaking and really horrifying," he acknowledges. "It was this sense of fear coupled with this really dark giddiness: 'What - now anthrax? What the hell is going on?' And you know everyone just had feelings like that, of greater or less intensity, all the time."
Using clip art was a familiar technique from his two existing series' My New Fighting Technique and My New Filing Technique. "I used to draw comics when I was a little kid, and off and on all the way through college. But I stopped doing it because it was just so time consuming, and messy. Then I realised you could make them using clip art, it would take a fraction of the time and you wouldn't get ink on your hands."
In the last year, Get Your War On has evolved to comment on the broader political climate, morphing briefly into Get Your Enron, and even for a time into Get Your Voltron. "Some people were really confused and upset that I was corrupting this anti-war resource with this magic realism," says Rees. But the appearance of '80s cartoon character Voltron underscored the sense of unreality that pervaded the nightly news. "I wasn't really thinking of it at the time, but it makes sense - Voltron is this incredible thing that fights evil and is really powerful and yet vaguely menacing. Even though it's supposed to be benevolent."
The first year of the strip has just been collected in book form by Soft Skull Press, and Rees is donating his royalties to the Adopt-A-Minefield campaign for landmine removal (www.landmines.org). While he originally sourced most of the images from the web, he had to track down all the original clip art when it came time to publish Get Your War On as a book. "I had to recreate every strip because the dimensions of the book are different than the dimensions online." He also took the opportunity to crop some images more closely, and reverse others, giving the published comics a filmic quality. "I did want it to be very dull and monotonous and kind of banal-looking, but I didn't want every page to be absolutely identical."
In retrospect, it becomes evident that the overt hysteria of this time is merely simmering underground. "That's one of the reasons I decided to go ahead with the book. I thought it would be good to show to my kids or grandkids when they ask, 'What was life like during wartime?' and to treat it more or less as a journal. Obviously, my hope is that everything is rendered totally irrelevant, and that people will look back on it and think, 'This guy was just hysterical over a bunch of nonsense.' But we'll see."