The Comixpedia Community Interview with Ted Rall

You asked some tough questions and Ted Rall provided the answers. Read on for an interesting dialogue with one of the most controversial editorial cartoonists working today.

How’s the lawsuit going? –boraxo

I’m not at liberty to comment on every aspect of the lawsuit that I filed against Danny Hellman for impersonation in 1999, or the counterclaim he filed against me. That said, my side has been ready for trial for several years. There are no facts in dispute and very little discovery remaining to be done. The case has already been before judges on several occasions, for procedural issues, and those judges have confirmed that I have the right to have my complaint heard in court. In New York State, the system–I think correctly–is set up to allow defendants a lot more latitude than plaintiffs. Unfortunately, that also means that a defendant determined to delay a trial can keep filing one petition after another to avoid the inevitable. Hellman’s side has made clear from their actions as well as their statements that this is exactly what they are doing. Although this adds to the already vast legal expenses incurred by me–Hellman’s attorney is working for free–I actually find it encouraging that Hellman does not believe he can prevail at trial, which is why he is working so hard to delay a trial.

It would be preferable for both sides if we could put this thing behind us, but despite misleading statements he has issued to the public he has never actually proffered formal settlement terms. Simply dropping the case after all these years is out of the question because I believe that he would resume his impersonation and similar libelous attacks if I did so. Furthermore, the legal fees are quite high and I cannot afford to absorb an expense that I occured because someone I had never met decided they didn’t like me.

At this point I look forward to seeing the case resolved by a jury so that an impartial panel of our fellow citizens can decide whether identity theft is wrong.

At various times in the past (including a cartoon for The Comic Journal‘s 200th anniversary issue, as I recall) you talked about a difference between what are considered fine art cartoonists and what you see as the really significant cartoonists. Do you still feel that way, and can you elaborate on the subject? –Zabel

I wouldn’t call one side "really significant" cartoonists. But there are a number of schisms among fans and cartoonists over what constitutes a good cartoon and which factors matter most in determining that. For example, fans of Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, etc. tend to go for "art comics," where the emphasis is more on the drawing and linework than the plot or the writing. There is another group of cartoonists, like Gary Larson, James Thurber, Ruben Bolling, Tom Tomorrow, etc. where the artwork may be acceptable but the real pleasure of reading their work derives from the idea and the writing. Obviously I’m trying to be one of the latter, and the artists I’ve included in the ATTITUDE and ATTITUDE 2 anthologies also tend to fall into the "word cartoonist" category.

There are many great cartoons with lousy drawing, but there are no great cartoons with bad writing/plot/ideas. Anyone can learn to become a great draughtsman but knowing how to write well, to present interesting novel ideas in an engaging way, is a rare gift. Chris Ware obviously draws better–a thousand times better–than David Rees, who uses clip art to create "Get Your War On”. If you’re looking for something pretty, for eye candy, you should look at Ware. But I find Rees more interesting over the course of dozens or even hundreds of pages. There’s just more there.

In the long run, I don’t believe that eye candy will carry the day among historians of the cartoon form. Ideas matter more than pretty pictures. Of course, I could be wrong. It’s just an opinion. But hey, that’s what annoys me about the art comix crowd–they don’t discuss their opinions for what they are–just opinions. They posit that anyone who doesn’t worship pretty lines over smart writing is a philistine. They’re smug, arrogant, and mostly wrong to boot.

You have a very distinctive art style. How did you develop it? What influences did you have for inking, character design, etc? –Th’_Mole

It’s a classic case of the medium affecting the message. I started out apeing mainstream editorial cartoonists like Mike Peters and Wayne Stayskal but ultimately decided that I couldn’t draw as well as them so there was no point using that style: far better to brand one’s self with a distinctive individual look than to do a half-assed version of superior artists. When I was developing my stuff during the 1980s, political cartooning was very influenced by Pat Oliphant and Jeff MacNelly. Their styles were very fussy–a lot of crosshatching and detailed caricature. I decided to move to a highly abstract style, which I got just by playing around doodling.

The medium-message thing started when I met Peter Kuper, the cartoonist and illustrator who co-founded World War 3 Illustrated, He showed me scratchboard, a claycoated board that allows you to sratch away the India ink drawing, and suggested that I try it out. When I did, the difficulty of using the paper made my round abstract style more herky jerky. I liked the look. It was different, anti-caricature, and seemed to reflect the tense, alienated times we were living in.

I drew on Jules Feiffer as a major influence, but the heavy use of blacks comes from Mike Peters. I love Socialist Realist art and early Soviet propaganda posters and always strive for their angular, jagged genius.

I’ve also done some personal adjusting; for example, I dissect my Rapidograph pens to make them flow unevenly.

Are you creating your work solely for US consumption, or do you feel that non-US readers would also enjoy it (I’m not sure if it appears in any places outside the US – does it)? –russ

My work does appear in a number of foreign newspapers in Asia and elsewhere. Probably for stylistic reasons–some might say politics–I’m pretty well disseminated in Cuba and Latin America. There are German and Spanish versions of "The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done!" and a French translation of "To Afghanistan and Back." I really do love the idea that people overseas might read my stuff. However, I really do have American readers in mind when I create cartoons. I use a lot of words and a lot of very American colloqualisms, which makes it tough for papers that might want to run it in, say, Urdu. I certainly enjoy a lot of foreign cartoons as windows on their cultures and societies, and I hope that foreigners view my stuff as a way to look at the United States that they might not see elsewhere.

Do you think your political cartoons can actually enlighten people and cause them to change their views, or do they only serve to further energize people who already share your views? –russ

I know for a fact that some of my cartoons have changed readers’ opinions on issues and even their votes for the presidency. I don’t believe that they can make big changes, or at least bigger changes than you can do just by arguing with your friends. I just do that in my own way.

Cartoons help frame complicated issues in an easy to digest way. They’re especially effective at exposing internal contradictions and logical fallacies that otherwise slip between the cracks of the mainstream media.

Do cartoons matter? Sure, but for a lot of little reasons.

Some of your comics on the web are colored; do you color them or does someone else, and do they appear in color anywhere besides the web? -—russ

I color all of my own cartoons using Photoshop. I draw one of the three cartoons I do each week for syndication in color in anticipation of the day that newspapers finally start adding color to their opinion sections. For now that doesn’t seem to be happening much. Very few of my papers, most of them alternative weeklies, use the color versions, which run mainly on the Web. Now that you mention it, I have no idea why I even bother. I’m stopping now! No, just kidding. Though I don’t know why.

Will there ever be another book of The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done stories? I enjoyed that collection as well as your ongoing political strips, but now it’s hard to imagine you doing any non-political comics. –russ

NBM Publishing would love a "Worst Thing 2" and I would do another one in a heartbeat, but frankly the work involved in collecting and compiling the stories was so overwhelming that I’m not sure I could handle it without getting paid more than would make the project worthwhile for an independent publisher.

A lot of readers may not recall, but pre-Bush I used to do a lot of social commentary, nonpolitical cartoons. I really miss them and hope that the voters toss Bush out in favor of an ineffective John Kerry–who will be stymied by a Republican Congress–so I can get back to doing work that’s funny without being political. Actually, I’d love nothing more than to write for some TV comedy show. But I probably won’t get that chance.

The Pat Tillman comic seemed edgier than others and frankly unfair because of the first panel’s "Will I get to kill Arabs" snipe. Although I totally agree that it is foolish to think Bush’s wars are nobly motivated by a desire to protect us from terrorism, I wasn’t aware of Tillman having expressed anti-arab views (as opposed to naive faith in Bush). Did he actually express anti-arab views, or were you taking liberties?

I’ve heard plenty of anti-arab bigotry from some soldiers interviewed, so it seems fair to have a comic with a generic soldier saying it, but certainly plenty of other soldiers don’t share those views… if Tillman himself didn’t say such crap, do you think it’s truly fair to have him saying it in the comic? (If he did in fact say such stuff, I am sincerely curious to learn more info about it if you can supply any links to more info.) –russ

Well, of course it’s unfair. The guy is dead and I’m stuffing words in his mouth. Of course, cartoonists do this all the time. Half the time you see "Bush" saying something in a cartoon, it’s something he never actually said. On a broader level, however, I think the Tillman cartoon was fair. He had a history of personal violence–he did time in prison for administring an unprovoked beating–and signed up after 9/11, not to go to Afghanistan but to go to Iraq. It was the spring of 2002, when Afghanistan was thought to be winding down, and everyone knew we were next going to Iraq. In fact, Tillman first fought in Iraq, was rotated out and then went to Afghanistan, where he was killed by "friendly fire," i.e., his fellow soldiers. Tillman couldn’t have believed that Iraq was behind 9/11; like too many troops, he just wanted to kill someone–anyone Arab–in vengeance.

The point of the cartoon wasn’t to trash Tillman, but to pop the bubble of the myth that had been created by the Bushite Right around him. These chickenhawks, guys who ran away when Vietnam broke out, promoted his death as a glorious example to emulate. Give up your career and your life and go fight in some stupid oil war. It’s too late to save Pat Tillman. But if one kid considering enlistment reads my cartoon about him and reconsiders whether or not fighting for Bush is a good idea, I feel pretty good about it.

Is your opinion "anyone but Bush" or will you vote for the person you actually want to be president as opposed to the candidate that is more likely to beat Bush? –GiantPanda

The two-party system doesn’t seem capable of producing a candidate to my liking.

Anybody But Bush, that’s me. John Kerry favors the war against Afghanistan and would continue the war against Iraq. He probably won’t eliminate Bush’s absurd budget cuts. But under Kerry, things won’t get worse. He won’t invade Iran, or build more concentration camps, or sign Patriot Act 2. The priority is to get rid of that monster Bush who has murdered nearly 100,000 innocent Afghans, Iraqis and American soldiers. Next we’ll lean on Kerry to do the right thing, and if he doesn’t, to replace him in the next election.

How did you get involved in MoCCA? How is the fund drive coming along? –Zabel

Lawrence Klein asked me to get involved. When I saw his energy and commitment, I knew that he had what it takes to get the museum built where others have failed. And he has really pulled together disparate elements of the cartooning community to make things happen. Any organization that can have Art Spiegelman and I working under the same roof is a unifying force.

From what I understand, MoCCA is doing great. But we still need your help! The amount of money needed to make this happen will be substantial.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

One Comment

  1. I appreciate Ted answering my question. I have to respond to his comment, “For example, fans of Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, etc. tend to go for “art comics,” where the emphasis is more on the drawing and linework than the plot or the writing. ” I think Rall greatly misunderstands the sentiments of Fantagraphics and D&Q fans.

    Artists like Chris Ware are not respected for their ability to create “eye candy.” They’re respected because the entirety of their work, both art and script, conveys an artistic statement which their admirers consider to be of transcendent importance. Rall may feel that Acme Novelty Library does not “present interesting novel ideas in an engaging way,” but those who admire Ware’s work think that it certainly does.

    There is of course a huge faction of comics fandom who are primarily interested in eye candy and who have little interest in intelligent writing. But those fans are far more interested in artists like Alex Ross and Dave McKean (as well as a pack of artists whose work is painfully stupid) than they are in Fantagraphics and D&Q artists.

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