In the weeks after Sept. 11, when anthrax was flying through the postal system like AOL free samplers, and flags suddenly sprouted from every crack in the ground, pop culture balled into a foetal position and rolled under a table. You were there, too, so you canâ€™t deny you saw it. American pop culture briefly became nothing less than a 24-hour, instantly-updated funeral service with occasional breaks for scary news stories about "dirty bombs."
Every comedian had a somber speech about being unable to make jokes. Talking heads debated the patriotism of disagreeing with the President. The editor of Vanity Fair, stretching that magazine’s authority just a bit, officially declared irony "dead."
That’s when David Rees started tearing it all apart with the caustic sarcasm of Get Your War On.
Rees’ webcomic is crude by any standard. It’s clip art that looks as if it was pasted together in Microsoft Paint, and that’s obviously an intentional effect. The style serves the theme of the comic well: at that time, the country seemed to be swerving into the ’50s-style repression that is hinted in the rigid clip art smiles and poses, and that stiff illustration style is also the international symbol for irony and subversion on millions of punk band T-shirts, ‘zines, etc. Tom Tomorrow plays on the same associations in the way he draws his subversive comic, This Modern World.
The comics are colored entirely in red (except for one page of green comics, probably a mocking nod to complaints about the red), which sticks out as an odd choice. Red can be hard to read against white, and sometimes it makes the dense word balloons look like they run together. In theory, red evokes anger or discomfort, so that might be the underlying motivation… but that may be delving into overanalysis.
The strip’s humor consists of the kind of sardonic one-liners that a co-worker usually sneers over a cubicle wall, only more acidic. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes just shrill, and usually tosses around gratuitous obscenities as a sort of punctuation. Admittedly, there’s some humor in showing innocent-looking business people spewing a string of profanity and describing atrocities, though nowadays itâ€™s been done so often by so many that the well is getting dry.
The jokes assume a left-leaning political bent and a childhood full of ’80s ephemera. Voltron makes a guest appearance, and pop culture references to the ’70s and ’80s abound. Rees grinds the traditional liberal axes against war and corporate greed, and the bile is mostly aimed at conservatives. Those who hate George W. Bush tend to find Get Your War On endlessly hilarious. Those who take "The O’Reilly Factor" seriously will be less amused.
At any other time, this webcomic might not have gained more than a few die-hard fans. During the winter after Sept. 11, though, it went off like a bomb. The strips were emailed around the world at least a dozen times. It was highly praised in the media. Later, Rolling Stone, panning for cred, started printing it as its only comic feature (incidentally, the magazine version drops the red of the webcomic and appears in glorious black and white).
Like any phenomenon, though, it’s partially rooted in its time. When most others were treading lightly, Get Your War On stomped down with both feet. It blasted a taboo, and a lot of people wanted and needed someone to say the things that Get Your War On said the way Rees said them, to express their anger, fear and depression.
All of this may sound like eulogizing, and perhaps it is, a bit. Like it or not, Rees’ moment seems over. There are still several wars on, if you count by the number of American troops who are dying on foreign soil. The Patriot Act is still on the books, and Bush is still in office. His strip still offers the same bite for the same targets, but that episode of crippling fear in American pop culture seems to be over, or is now repressed. A quick glance at the New York Times Best Seller list proves that angry liberal screeds against the wars are no longer rare. Get Your War On was better appreciated when it had the benefit of being shocking.
For that moment, being angry, being sarcastic, and slaughtering sacred cows was enough; Rees should be recognized for having the guts to be a smart ass when smart asses seemed to be an endangered breed. Now that the moment is over, though, clip art and sarcasm seems too thin to fill out a comic alone. Get Your War On hasn’t let up at all, but it’s still losing its punch now that the fear and paranoia of post 9-11 America has faded into the background, and the chorus of ironic jerks has picked up the tune again, drowning it out.