By David Rees' own accounting, he had an idyllic childhood. Growing up in Chapel Hill in the '70s and '80s, he played Rainbow Soccer, helped his parents tend a vegetable garden, attended theater and the N.C. Symphony, went to Chapel Hill High School, and hung out with close friends, who encouraged him in his artistic endeavors. In conversation today, the polite 29-year-old artist sounds for all the world like someone who in youth always ate his vegetables and never had any overdue fines at the library. Like someone your mother might describe as "a nice boy."
That makes it all the more difficult to account for the wall-to-wall expletives, drug references, world-weariness and free-floating angst of his popular online comic strip "Get Your War On," which tackles current events with the kind of insouciant vengeance that would have made Rees' high school history teacher blanch. Rees says the strips were inspired in part by Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, who prematurely pronounced irony dead after Sept. 11. The cartoonist wanted to prove Carter wrong.
Rees' scatological strips have achieved a kind of cult status of late. Members of the band Fugazi are fans. Television commentator and political firebrand Arianna Huffington (whom Rees politely refers to as "Ms. Huffington") has e-mailed him with praise. Rees has even been featured on NPR, and in April, the paper of record in his new hometown of New York City (that would be The New York Times) ran a lengthy profile of Rees on Page One of its "SundayStyles" section.
The strips that have brought him such attention (available online at www.mnftiu.cc) are crudely assembled from public domain online clip art, and follow the conversations of a group of disaffected office workers as they weigh in on the war on terrorism and the Enron scandal. The officeworkers' profanity-laced repartee has more than forbidden four-letter words to recommend it, however. Often the commentary includes spot-on satire, going places where popular comedians have yet to venture.
"Oh my God, this War on Terrorism is gonna rule! I can't wait until the war is over and there's no more terrorism!" says one male office worker in an early panel from from "Get Your War On."
"I know!" responds his co-worker. "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!"
In another strip, workers on a coffee break discuss the president's motivations for launching a war. "How psyched is George W. Bush to defeat Saddam Hussein for his dad?" a male worker asks.
A female co-worker, brandishing a donut, responds: "I wish I could do something like that for my dad! George H.W. Bush is gonna be SO damn proud of his son! He'll probably put Saddam's death certificate on the fridge! I was a C student!"
After Sept. 11, as the news became grimmer, readers may have noticed Rees' officeworkers growing progressively more erratic. Allusions to alcohol and drug consumption peppered the strip, limning the depressed, ennui-drenched state of a "nation in crisis." When one officeworker asks another how he's "enduring his freedom," his friend responds: "OK, I guess. I drink myself into a stupor every night. I can't get out of bed because I'm afraid of what I'll hear on the radio. My daughter is still wetting her bed. And I'm supposed to fly to Chicago for a meeting on Thursday."
"That's what I like to hear!" responds his interlocutor, in a Prozac-induced haze.
Rees says he started "Get Your War On" when he became agitated by current events and, in the country's criticism-is-unpatriotic climate, he couldn't find anyone willing to joke about how bad the situation was getting.
"I always liked people and artists who combined political content with their creative content--political punk bands, comedians and filmmakers," Rees said recently from his apartment in New York. Rees had produced other comic strips, including "My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable" (the book version of which is available in Triangle bookstores), and "My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable"--an early use of the office worker clip art--but he had never tried topical humor. "But I figured, if there's ever been a time in my life when I should give it a shot, it's now," Rees said.
"When I made a strip about people getting blown up trying to retrieve food aid packages, it felt like a wave of relief just swept through me, like I was finally looking at the comic I had been searching for, or like I had summed up all the pain and absurdity I had been feeling using these three little stupid cartoon panels," Rees said. "It was a powerful moment."
In one anti-landmine strip, a young boy who's reading the news on the Web asks his mother why an Afghani boy pictured on the screen is mutilated and armless.
"Didn't he get the dollar I sent him???" the child wails.
It was Rees' antipathy for landmines that prompted the communication from Arianna Huffington, who's also working for landmine relief. Author proceeds from a signed limited edition of "Get Your War On" in book form and a larger editon to be published by New York's Soft Skull Press will go to the "Adopt-A-Team" landmine removal efforts of the United Nations Association of the United States (http: //www.landmines.org).
Rees' criticism has been a little too sharp for some, however. Most of his e-mails these days are from fans, but he does receive the occasional bit of hate-mail.
"You people make me sick and I hope all of you are beaten in the street like the hippies you are," begins one such missive. "If you people have such a big problem with President Bush and the war, than [sic] move somewhere like France where being a pussy is welcomed," the writer continues, before finishing with a flourish: "Take a shower and cut your dreads off, fag."
Rees, who for the record lives in New York with his fiancée, Sarah Lariviere, and whose hair is generally lightly tousled, finds this sort of communiqué ironic, since he too got swept up in the patriotic fervor after Sept. 11.
"The attacks made me think a lot about America, the things I like and dislike about it," he said. "I got a copy of the U.S. Constitution and read it through a few times. I do think America is a remarkable nation in many ways, and our founding documents are incredible.
"I'm not one of those people who looks at the flag and automatically starts thinking of our tyrannical history of oppression and enslavement," Rees said. "I don't mind people flying the American flag when there's a national crisis, and I don't mind people putting candles in their windows."
Until recently, Rees was working as a part-time fact checker for Maxim magazine. After the terrorist attacks, ad sales fell, the publication began to lay off staff, and Rees suddenly found himself jobless in one of the world's toughest cities.
Today when the Oberlin College graduate isn't out looking for work, he passes his time playing with his band the Skeleton Killers--a name that itself could be an in-joke referring to the United States' saturation bombing of Afghanistan (and a band which The Boston Globe said was "so cool and creepy you'll be amazed David Lynch hasn't tapped them for his next project"). Maintenance of his Web site is paid for by online donations, which so far have totaled over $2,000.
The cartoonist's job prospects are brightening, however. Various producers and writers have approached him about turning "Get Your War On" into a performance piece, offers of screenwriting gigs have been proffered, and MTV has come calling.
But with all the attention, from Arianna Huffington to MTV, Rees is still most concerned about the reaction of one critic in particular: his mother. While Rees' mother, who still lives in Chapel Hill, isn't crazy about some of the language in the strip and its criticism of organized religion, Rees says both of his parents understand that the comics have been cathartic for some.
"When I first made the strips, I didn't tell my parents, because I thought they would be concerned about my psychological well-being, what with all the jokes about drinking, pornography, and the general dark tone," Rees said. "But my parents know that the strips have been helpful for a lot of people, and they appreciate that."
Rees' mother, in fact, long ago gave her son's work the ultimate endorsement: "She said I should send my comics to The Independent," Rees said.