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In Print: clip-art characters speak the motherfucking truth!

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It's a half-assed Internet comic someone whipped off at his temp job. Two karate fighters--static, fake-looking clip-art figures--ponder the insane idea that they themselves could make up imaginary fighters to practice battle techniques that aren't even real yet. "But dude, what if they turned real on your ass? Would they battle you?" On David Rees's My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable (mnftiu.cc) Web site, begun in April 2001 and updated sporadically, the blustering fighters repeatedly get their asses kicked by shifts in the very fabric of their cartoon reality. While enduring a pounding cut and pasted from the second panel, the first pixelated fighter laments, "This shit is too deep for me to think about with your foot in my face."

Rees's karate fighters exist in a constant state of agitation over who has the best fighting style and persona--an idea he got from reading Internet hip-hop sites, with their joyous, psychotic obsession with verbal technique. Yet in one strip the blowhards are thrown into total disarray by a dude whose fighting style is simply that he's a see-through human circulatory system. When the fighters contemplate this ridiculously out-of-place image, they collapse in hysterical self-doubt. "I found that piece of clip art and it looked so tough," says Rees, a New York temp worker who plays guitar in a band called the Skeleton Killers. "But I had the characters' reaction be as normal as possible, like 'What the fuck, I can't believe this guy is just a circulatory system!' I just sympathize with those guys so much, because if you were one of them you wouldn't be clever or try to be hipper than it, you'd just be like 'What the fuck!'--a lot of the reactions are totally heartfelt, like confusion and intimidation."

On October 9 Rees started a new series of cartoons using generic 80s office drones. By then the Onion had managed the astounding feat of producing a tasteful, even comforting response to disaster: there were funny statistics about hugs, assurances that the terrorists were in hell, and some gentle ribbing of Bush's father for his role in arming the terrorists. By contrast Rees's first Get Your War On comic read like a battle rhyme. "Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the house!" rant two affectless clip-art dudes, call-and-response style. "Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Our Freedom is in the motherfucking house!" "Yes! Operation: Enduring Our Freedom To Bomb The Living Fuck Out Of You is in the house!!!"

Still confused and intimidated, the characters freak out, drink too much, cuss incessantly, and wonder what the hell is going on and to whom they can surrender to make it stop. "Who the fuck are we fighting?" says one. "Fucking Lex Luthor? When is the Death Star going to shoot that big-ass laser at us?" The comic took the almost obscene step of depicting citizens who not only felt things they shouldn't, but shouted them into the phone. It dripped with sentiments that had practically been banned: it was ironic, alienated, and full of bile.

By forgoing the dubious certainty of a commentator or political cartoonist, Rees managed to produce one of the few public responses that didn't ring hollow: an urgent, nonstop conversation in which the generic but outspoken characters seemed genuinely worried about themselves and each other. He got something like five million hits the first week, and the comics were E-mailed around the world. People told him it was the first time they'd laughed since the attacks. Rees says that "since October, gradually the culture's been opening up and you're seeing more points of view, but one reason it got forwarded so much then was a lot of people didn't know anyone else felt that way. People told me, 'It makes me feel less alone and less afraid--it's helping me get through this experience.'"

Much like al Qaeda or the INS, Rees has continued to impose bizarre limitations and incomprehensible experiences on his characters: in one recent strip, a middle manager found the giant battle robot Voltron standing in his office. As a coworker implores him to grill Voltron on foreign policy, the manager passively admires the battle-bot's firepower, until it busts out a psychopathic hymn to bombing. The manager tries to get Voltron "detained," but he won't leave, and by the next strip Voltron has become a fact of life, "occupying" the territory of his cubicle. With all the weirdness it condenses, Rees's clip-art world is at least as authentic as our own.

At 7:30 on June 6 at Quimby's (1854 W. North, 773-342-0910), Rees will be signing books and selling a limited edition of the Get Your War On comics. All author proceeds go to the Mine Detection and Dog Center's Team Five, which is working in western Afghanistan around Herat; Rees hopes to raise enough to sponsor the team for a month. If you order the book from his Web site you get a thank-you letter telling you about the team members and what they were doing before they got into demining.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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