In October, 2001, irony was supposedly dead and nothing was funny anymore. Just one month after the September 11th attacks in New York, the country was still reeling. Even David Letterman, long considered the statesman of ironic detachment, was barely joking. There was no guidebook on how to act, on what was considered fair game for humor. We were an earnest nation. We were supposed to watch what we said.
Or so we were told. With the War on Terror less than a month old, David Rees sat up in his Brooklyn apartment one night and wrote eight comic strips about the world’s newest (and vaguest) war. His frustrations were on full display. His method: a conversational comic about the state of the world, laden with profanity, passionate as a comic strip has ever been. The art, Rees says—public domain clip art—was beside the point. The two guys talking on the phone could’ve been anybody. They were both Rees. It was a conversation with himself, fueled by world affairs and a bottle of whiskey.
Here’s the thing about that conversation: it was hilarious and cathartic and, even though Rees only e-mailed the page to a handful of his friends, within a couple of weeks the comics had been forwarded countless times. Nobody knows the exact number of page views, but it was immense. As Rees points out, it was before Facebook and Twitter, before we could count “Likes” and retweets. Rees knew his comics had struck a nerve based on a.) how often his website was crashing, and b.) eventual phone calls from media outlets.
I remember standing in my college newspaper office that fall when my editor told me I had to check out this hilarious and insane new comic strip. Then, he watched me as I read it and laughed. Other people gathered around our screen, reading along, a scene that was surely unfolding in office settings across the country. I wanted to know who was behind the comics, but they were unsigned. No name on the entire website, in fact. Also, the URL was complicated, a series of letters, not immediately decipherable.
And that was the unlikely beginning of Get Your War On, which basically started with the War on Terror and ended on January 20, 2009, the day President Obama was inaugurated. (Rees announced early on that the comic would last as long as the Bush administration.) In the interim, Rees became a professional cartoonist, wrote 80 more full pages of comics, and was signed by Rolling Stone magazine to produce an original strip for them each week. The comics were republished in two bestselling book-collections by Soft Skull Press. Rees donated all of his book royalties—more than $100,000—to Adopt-a-Minefield, an organization removing land-mines in Afghanistan. Not the moves of your typical struggling artist.
Rees had been using clip art since he worked temp jobs, banging out absurdist comics like My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable, which he sold at comic shops in New York. He’d never had the goal of becoming a cartoonist, though; it was always just something he did to alleviate his boredom, stuck in gigs with no creative outlet. Recently married and transplanted to New York, Get Your War On set him off in an unexpected direction. There was never an overarching career plan.
When Rees retired the comic eight years later, he was essentially broke. He’d given most of his money away, then given up his livelihood. To make matters much worse, his marriage ended in divorce. He ended up working for the United States Census in 2010, just to pay the bills. Early on, he was instructed by a fellow employee about proper pencil-sharpening techniques. This next part is going to sound like a joke, but it isn’t: something clicked for Rees and he decided to investigate pencil-sharpening further, to learn everything he could learn about it, to master numerous pencil-sharpening techniques. He researched the history of the pencil. He talked to experts in the industry. He collected books on it. And then, just like that, Rees decided that he would start a pencil-sharpening business. People would send him pencils, Rees decided, and he would charge them $15, in exchange for a sharpened pencil mailed in a protective tube, along with the shavings and a certificate of authenticity. To date, Rees has sharpened more than 750 pencils for paying customers. In April, he released the book How To Sharpen Pencils, which he intended more as a how-to book than humor, he says. It has become a real-life business, something for Rees to focus on after his phenomenal cartooning career and marriage ended in short order. Sharpening pencils, some might successfully argue, is the anti-digital comic.
There have been plenty of other projects for Rees in the last eleven years, some of which we touch on in the wide-ranging conversation, below. But we’ll start with Rees’s most famous creation, Get Your War On.
The Rumpus: Do you have vivid memories of creating the original page of Get Your War On comics that night in October, 2001? I’ve wondered about that, because I’ve heard the story of you sitting in the dark in the middle of the night, drinking whiskey and making those first strips and then e-mailing them to a handful of friends. And then, within days, they were being read by millions of people. Did you know what you were on to?
David Rees: I have some memory of that night. It’s like really specific stuff. I didn’t have my own computer back then. I was using my girlfriend’s iMac. It was like those bulbous blue-colored iMacs, in our weird apartment in Brooklyn. And I remember I was listening to slow jams really loud on headphones, like Jodeci or something. I used to really be into ‘90s R&B slow jams, R. Kelly and Jodeci and stuff. And I was listening to it as loud as I could. I listened to slow jams throughout making Get Your War On, at least for the first six months. That was the soundtrack to it. And I remember drinking…Jim Beam was what we were buying. And then I do remember a catharsis. Like, I didn’t cry or anything. But the feeling I remember was like—and I haven’t felt this too many times—but it’s kind of like the feeling I felt when I made the comic My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable, which was just completely silly. That was the feeling I had with Get Your War On. Like, this is expressing me perfectly in this moment. This is exactly what I wanted to read. And so I had to make it. It’s like this weird loop. Do you know what I mean? I made what I wanted to be able to read.
Rumpus: Right. And everything was gelling, too, because you had the comic background and you also had all this stuff that was bubbling up, that you needed to say. It seems like it was such a perfect example of all things coming together.
Rees: Yeah, I agree. I mean, it was a great experience and I was lucky to have it, and I do think that it was a situation where I took this form that I was already really comfortable with, which is clip-art cartoons and a lot of bad language. And it’s that same idea of being really limited and being in a box. And it was like, “OK, use this stuff to make a super personal cartoon about all these feelings that are churning around in you after 9/11.” And I only sent it to friends. I sent it to like, I don’t know, 15 friends, 20 friends, a.) because I didn’t want to offend anybody, but b.) I felt like they were the only people who’d even understand what I was doing, because they were friends who knew my background, making clip-art cartoons. It was like sharing your diary with 15 friends. You know what I mean? It was like the same impulse on my part. Like, pretend you’re obsessed with Daniel Day-Lewis and all your friends know you’re obsessed with Daniel Day-Lewis, and then there’s a huge terror atrocity and you make this painting about Daniel Day-Lewis crying or something. Well, you’re not going to share that with the world, because the world’s going to think you’re crazy. But you’ll show it to your close friends and be like, “You guys will get this,” and that was kind of like what it was with Get Your War On. And then it just so happened that other people responded to that…people responded to the contrast between the boring clip art and the boring outer façade and the crazy, over-the-top language that was just below the surface.
Rumpus: So did you actually go from angry to relieved that first night? You must have had some sort of anger while you were writing those comics? They’re so passionate.
Rees: Maybe it was anger. I don’t really know who I would be angry at. At the time, I wasn’t really angry at Bush. I thought his first speech after 9/11 was actually a pretty strong speech. I remember watching it with a bunch of people and being pretty surprised at how impressed we all were. I was just disturbed. I think “disturbed” is the word. I was disturbed that we were gonna bomb the shit out of Afghanistan and, at the time, I think there was a drought concern, or a famine concern, and we were cutting off food-supply routes. It just seemed disturbing. I’m gonna say something controversial right now: you can print it or not, but the days after 9/11 were disturbing. Boom! Exclusive! Rumpus exclusive.
Rumpus: And what was your reaction when it hit? When did you realize that Get Your War On was a phenomenon? Was it really the next morning?
Rees: No, I mean, the only way we knew how to tell how popular it was back then was how often my website was crashing and looking at those statistics from the web server. And my friend was very web-savvy, he was an Internet guy, and he was like, “This is a lot of traffic. You need to pay more money per month to keep your site up.” And then I really knew when it hit was—it was maybe two weeks out—things were kind of going crazy, but the media hadn’t really got hold of it yet. I hadn’t done any interviews. And then what happened was: I had flown to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for my dad’s 70th birthday. It was a surprise birthday party. And I hadn’t told my parents about Get Your War On, because they were already worried about us living in New York. And those first editions were pretty dark. They’re about getting drunk, thinking about killing yourself and just masturbating to porn all day. And, you know, I didn’t want them to have to worry anymore than they were already worrying. My girlfriend, now my ex-wife, but my girlfriend at the time had stayed back in Brooklyn and called me in Wisconsin and said, “Listen, I hate to bother you and I know you don’t want to talk about this with your parents, but I’ve been getting calls from all the stores that sell your Fighting Technique comic, because they’re getting calls from newspapers asking, ‘Who are you?’” At the time on my website, I had no personal information, there was nothing about me, I don’t even think my name was on my website, or anything. And the only telephone numbers and the only real-world stuff was: on my website back then, I had a page of stores where you could go and buy my stapled, photocopied comics. And journalists had started calling these stores, saying, “Who makes this comic? We want to know, because he’s made this online comic and there’s no way to get in touch with him.” So these stores were calling [Rees’s then-wife] Sarah and saying, “Hey, the Village Voice called me looking for David. He should get in touch with them. It might be good for his career.” I think it was the Village Voice or the LA Weekly…alt weeklies were really into it. And my mom was like, “Why did Sarah call? Everything OK?” And then I had to be like, “Guys, I have to tell you about this crazy comic I made. Don’t look at it, it’s gonna freak you out, it has a lot of bad language, but I have to make some phone calls.” So, it was a couple weeks out.
Rumpus: Get Your War On is easily some of the most well-written, elegant cussing I’ve ever read. Do you just have a knack for that? I mean, the meter is so perfect. It’s really impressively written.
Rees: Oh, thank you.
Rumpus: Was that something that just came easily to you?
Rees: Well…that all came out of Fighting Technique. I mean, that was the first thing I made where the profanity was part of the humor. And that was just influenced by all the rap music I was listening to back then. Yeah, the language in that —obviously, there’s not much thought given to the images, but the language, I gave it more thought, probably, than people would think. I was taking the writing of it pretty seriously. You know? I wanted the language to be very strong, obviously, because there was nothing else for the reader to respond to. It was all just about the writing.
Rumpus: You’ve said Richard Pryor was an influence.
Rees: I’ve always liked Richard Pryor. That was probably just about the profanity. I’ve always responded to rhythmic profanity. The big influence was the Minutemen. I mean, that was the biggest influence in Get Your War On.
Rumpus: Their stances?
Rees: Politically, I guess. But really structurally. Coming back to that idea of structure. The Minutemen’s best songs, to me, are very concise songs, like 90 seconds long, no chorus, super compressed, super political and didactic, the lyrics don’t rhyme, you’re just in and out. And they are my favorite band and that was kind of what I was going for with Get Your War On. Like—I want to make a Minutemen song in a comic form. Super concise, super quick, a lot of times no punchline. So I feel like that was the single biggest influence.
Rumpus: And hip-hop was an influence?
Rees: Well, I mean I was using a lot of slang that was contemporary at the time and there was a lot of hip-hop influence just in the vernacular, that’s how people were talking back in the early 2000s. And the big hip-hop influence, I think, was Fighting Technique, because I would literally be listening to the MP3 downloads of freestyle battles while I would make Fighting Technique at this temp job I had. And Fighting Technique was all about using hyper-masculine language to mask your insecurity about your status as a man. So it felt like, thematically, Fighting Technique was really influenced by hip-hop, as well as the profanity and whatever weird poetry is in that comic.
Rumpus: So, it was already there. It was just a matter of transferring it to politics. Like, “I’ve already got the language. I’ve already got the approach. I’m just going to use it in relation to what’s going on in the world.”
Rees: Yeah, I think so. Basically. It’s like a musician. “Yeah, I got my guitar and usually I write about my starry-eyed love. But I’m really upset by healthcare, so now I’m going to write songs about healthcare.” It’s the equivalent. Like, I had my tool. I was like, “I’m going to use it for this, now, instead of that.”
Rumpus: And did you immediately know what you were going to call the strip? It was based on a song, right?
Rees: Well, at the time, Missy Elliott had this famous song, “Get Ur Freak On.” And I don’t remember if I titled it that first night. I think I did. I just liked how jarring it was: Get Your War On. Because, we were going to war, but it was this weird kind of war and people didn’t know how to feel about it and some people were really excited about it. I don’t know. To me, I was just really into Missy Elliott and I was really into that song and yeah, I just thought it made sense. Like, in a way, it kind of was like the message of the comic, conveyed in the title. Like, this is a mishmash of wildly inappropriate juxtapositions. I mean, it’s four words, you can’t over-think it too much, but still, that was very deliberate, that title.
Rumpus: And it has a sort of flippancy to it, even though the comic is serious. There are tons of variations of that expression that get thrown around, so it’s immediately catchy.
Rees: Yeah, right. Get your drink on. Get your PowerBar on. Get your single-serve ice cream on. Yeah, that was part of it, because I was kind of freaked out. People were so excited [we were] starting a never-ending war on terror. Like, really? I don’t know—I was skeptical of it.
Rumpus: And were you deliberating whether to make a second page of comics? Did you think about just keeping it as one page, or did you know it was something you had to do at that point?
Rees: No, the first page was just like this one-off thing and I put it on my website and you couldn’t even get to it from my website. I think I just hosted it on a page on my website and then sent that link to my friends. I guess it was like the equivalent of a private link. But then, eventually, I made it more accessible. I’ve never been good at self-promotion. And my URL is really obscure. And for years and years, there was nothing about me on my website.
Rumpus: So, did that second page of Get Your War On comics come easily to you? I imagine there was some pressure to try to top yourself.
Rees: The second page is about the anthrax attacks. I bet if there hadn’t been the anthrax attacks, it would’ve just been that one page. But I feel like that’s when that happened. That’s when I was like, “OK, this is getting bananas.” And the second page, even more than the first page, was when people were like, “Yeah. I’m feelin’ this. This is crazy.” But, I mean I feel like those first pages— stuff kept happening. I don’t know if I was having a good time, but I felt like I was doing something good for myself. Like, in a weird way, it felt really healthy. Even though I was half drunk when I was making them all in the middle of the night, listening to Jodeci and hurting my eardrums, it felt healthy.
Rumpus: And in a way your comic kind of seemed like it was a response to everybody’s fear getting out of hand at that point. Granted, anthrax was being mailed around, so I guess some of the fear was warranted.
Rees: Yeah, totally. I don’t know if I was expressing my fear, or making fun of my fear.
Rumpus: At one point, you said that you weren’t trying to change anybody’s mind with Get Your War On. Was that pretty consistent throughout? Were you mostly doing it to vent?
Rees: I feel like I went through different stages with that comic, based on whatever I was responding to. Sometimes it was to vent. Put it this way: sometimes it was just like yelling into the wind, because I was upset and I wanted to yell. And then sometimes [it was] yelling at people. I mean, it’s an absurd fantasy, but a lot of cartoonists have it: yelling at people. Like, “You’re an asshole. You should be in jail.” That kind of stuff. A lot of political cartoonists, they’ll do a cartoon about the politician that’s supposed to be mean, and the politician will write and say, “Hey, can I buy the original?” That happens. And cartoonists hate that. Because it’s like, well, the fact that you’re comfortable with having this in your office means you don’t take my criticism seriously. Like, really enervating, if you’re into cartooning for any reason other than just the vast financial rewards that come with political cartoons.
Rumpus: You’ve also said that you felt a responsibility to make cartoons that were generally important.
Rees: Yeah, maybe. I got too into this idea with Get Your War On that I have to provide a public service and be a responsible cartoonist and convey information and be accurate and not just say shit to be provocative, but be able to back up anything that I say.
Rumpus: And you’ve said that it peaked for you that first night.
Rees: Yeah, I mean, any working cartoonist will tell you this, anybody who’s working in a creative field: at some point, it’s a job. You have deadlines. I think, for over a year, I refused to make them for publications, because I only wanted to make them when I wanted to make them. But at some point, I was like, “This is crazy, you have an opportunity to be a professional cartoonist. This is something that your eight-year-old self would never forgive you for not trying, at least.” And then I got the contract with Rolling Stone and I would make stuff for other publications. But yeah, it becomes a job. I mean, you can still have amazing, fun experiences where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I got so lucky this week, I’m so proud of this one.” But other times, you’re like, “Yeah, that’s not that great.”
Rumpus: And how did Rolling Stone come about? Did they just call you up and ask you to do a weekly comic?
Rees: Rolling Stone had this issue every year called the Hot Issue, which you’ve got to buy if you want to know what’s hot in the world of arts and entertainment and politics. And I guess that year, maybe 2002, they had “Hot Comic Strip” and it was Get Your War On. And then I think the publisher was like, “Why don’t we just see if he’ll make it for us.” And then they called me. I also heard from [Minutemen co-founder] Mike Watt once, [who] said, “I put in a good word for you with Rolling Stone.” So that was nice.
Rumpus: I’ve read that Rolling Stone was supposedly serializing it. But weren’t you making new comics for them?
Rees: Yeah, they had an exclusive. The ones I gave Rolling Stone, no one else could run. So, for a while, the model was: I would make a comic for Rolling Stone every two weeks, because they’re biweekly. And then I would make weekly comics for my weekly papers. It was on two parallel tracks. And then they all got collected in a book.
Rumpus: And so, did they ever have to water anything down? Or were you just allowed to do what you wanted?
Rees: Man, Rolling Stone was the best. I mean, you know, it was so interesting. On the first tour I went on, it was in the fall of 2002, when Soft Skull published the book—because after I self-published it, Soft Skull published it—I went on this tour in the fall of 2002, and the question people would most ask me was like, “Has the FBI contacted you or anything?” I’d be like, “No, man. Why would they? It is America. Everything I’m doing is perfectly legal.” And then when I went out on the next book tour, after I did Get Your War On for a couple years, people were like, “Hey man, is Rolling Stone censoring you because they’re so corporate?” And I’d be like, “No! Rolling Stone is actually not corporate. It’s still a privately held magazine by the guy who started it.” Listen, a lot of their music coverage might trend towards the corporate, but structurally—actually as a physical entity—it is not corporate. And also, when I met with the editors, I was like, “Listen, I would love to be in Rolling Stone, but I would really love to just keep doing what I’m doing.” And they were like, “Yeah! That’s why we want it. Do what you do.” They never toned anything down. One time, I think I had a bad word in a font that was too big and their sales rep said, “If this goes to print, Walmart won’t carry it.” Or something. Or they would be like, “This one isn’t funny.” Or, “Change this.” But it was never like, “We can’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.” It was never like that.
Rumpus: So, you had to start reading the daily newspapers to stay informed, right?
Rees: Yeah, I hated that part of it. I mean, I really felt this obligation to stay informed and I think at one time, I was probably subscribing to, like…I think especially after I got the Rolling Stone gig, I think I was getting the daily New York Times, the daily Financial Times, Foreign Affairs Magazine, some policy journal called International Law and Ethics, Current History magazine. I can’t remember if I was still subscribing to National Review and Z Magazine, The Nation, Harper’s, and it was nuts. At the time, I did not like reading all that shit.
Rumpus: And technically, what was your process like in terms of creating the comic?
Rees: I was using Quark. Running on Mac OS 9. And I just did everything in Quark. I made the dialogue balloons in Quark as text balloons, and just typed in the dialogue directly. Obviously, I never had to sketch anything out. To me, that was the appeal of working with clip art, working digitally. You make it and it’s done.
Rumpus: The clip art was already red, right?
Rees: No, the clip art was black.
Rumpus: Oh, it was?
Rees: Yeah. I made it red just to distinguish it visually from the other stuff on my site, so people would realize—because it was the same clip art that I was using for My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable—I just made this decision to make it red so that people would realize, “These worlds do not intersect. This is its own separate project.” I just wanted a really simple, dramatic way so that fans, people who were reading my comic, would be like, “This is something different.” Just to flag it, almost.
Rumpus: And when did you decide that you were going to donate all of your royalties from the Get Your War On books that you sold? I know that you gave away a considerable amount of money. Wasn’t it more than $100,000?
Rees: It was around $100,000 by the time it was all said and done, yeah.
Rumpus: That’s really impressive.
Rees: Oh, thank you. I felt good about it at the time, but now that I look back on it and part of me’s like, “That was the beginning of my career. I could’ve held on to that $100,000. It would’ve been useful.” No, it was great. I mean, what happened was people were asking if I would turn it into a book, and I think we might’ve reached out to publishers, or publishers had reached out to us. But I didn’t like how they wanted to do it. Like, one publisher wanted to do it, but they also wanted to include Filing Technique comics. And I was like, “No way!” Like I said to you, “This is the red comic. The red comic does not exist in the same book as the black comic.” You know what I mean? I’m talking about the clip art. At that point, I was self-publishing Fighting Technique and Filing Technique. I knew how to do it. And I had good relationships with stores. And I was like, “All right, I’ll self-publish it. But I’m only going to do 1,000.” This was my thought process. But I hate self-publishing; it’s a real drag and it takes up a lot of space. And then I thought, “Well, if I’m only doing 1,000, I should sign ‘em. And if there’s only 1,000, you can charge a lot of money because now, all of a sudden, it’s this limited thing. And then, as long as we can charge a lot of money, we can raise a lot of money, give the money away.”
At that point, I still felt really conflicted about making money off stuff that’s creatively satisfying. I have that Protestant thing where it’s like, “The way you make money is to do something you don’t like to do. And that’s how you know you’re a virtuous person.” Which is why I’ve never had any money. I felt bad, like, “I’m making this comic, it’s super rewarding and I’m going to make money from it that I’m going to use to buy groceries? Hmmm. I’m not a war–profiteer.” So I was like, “Well, we’ll give the money away.” And then I was just thinking about charities and then I remembered that Afghanistan land mine comic. I was like, “Oh, perfect. Now it becomes this little project. I use the money that I make from the comic to help resolve the issue that made me so upset I started the comic.” Like, the comic is going to eat its own tail. You know? To me, that just felt super efficient and super cool.
Rumpus: Speaking of the land mine comic, I’d imagine that picking your favorite strips from the eight years of Get Your War On is a challenge, but I remember you saying that the comic about the land mines was a personal favorite. Does that still stand out to you?
Rees: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that was one of the darkest things I’d ever made at that point in my life, you know? It was dark, but it was really heartfelt, really profane, really sincere. And kind of funny, but kind of not funny. Kind of like anti-joke humor. And to me, I think when that cartoon was at its strongest, those were the buttons it was pushing, or that was the language it was using.
Rumpus: Did you ever hear from a politician or anybody that you went after?
Rees: No. But I did hear from a guy who wrote for the Pentagon that Get Your War On was one of the cartoons that they would circulate every morning to—I can’t remember who it was, like Joint Chiefs. They would put together, along with articles and stuff, recent cartoons that people were writing about the War on Terror. And I guess, every so often, my stuff would be in there. That was kind of cool.
Rumpus: Was that one of the crazier responses you got to your comic? Or, do any e-mails really stick out where you were taken aback?
Rees: Probably fifty percent of the e-mails I received about that comic over eight years of its life came within the first two weeks of it. People were just going crazy, e-mailing me. And most of those were supportive. Like, “I didn’t know anybody else felt the way I did. Thanks for making this comic. Who are you? Keep up the good work.” Or it would be, “Fuck you, I wished you had died on 9/11,” that kind of stuff. Which is a pretty harsh thing to say when you think about it. Because, what you’re really saying is, “I wish the terrorists had actually been more efficient in murdering Americans.”
Rumpus: That’s so crazy. I can’t believe somebody would send something like that. It’s insane. So, would you respond to any of these people, or would you just be like, “Oh, this is not a good thing to get myself into.”
Rees: Back then, I would literally respond to everybody, no matter what, because it was really important to me that people realized that I was a sincere person who was not trying to offend anybody, I was trying to express how I was feeling. And also, this was in the months after 9/11—we’re all supposed to band together, and I felt like if someone’s going to write me about this thing that I made, I think it’s my responsibility to have a dialogue with them. So eventually I would get to the point where it’s like, “I’m not writing this person back because it’s just gonna be bad.” But initially I wrote to everybody.
Rumpus: It was a longstanding decision that you were going to give up the comic at the end of the Bush administration. You announced that in 2004.
Rees: Yeah, I like projects that have a definite duration and I didn’t want it to be my job. I decided that that would be a good endpoint. Like, this is a cartoon that this guy made while Bush was president, fighting the War on Terror.
Rumpus: It must be a blur for you at this point. It seems like a lot happened for you in a very short amount of time.
Rees: I don’t know. In a way it felt very static and I would get very frustrated. I mean, frankly, I think the Get Your War On experience, overall, from a professional standpoint was unhealthy because it fell in my lap and I got so much out of something that I made for myself, and then the world—or, not the world, but tastemakers—got into it, and I was really spoiled for a while, I never had to pitch anything. Editors would come to me. And when I retired it, I realized I did not have the skill-set to function as a freelancer. I don’t know how to pitch, I’m too scared of rejection, the Rolling Stone money stopped, obviously, and that’s why I went to work for the census. I had no fucking money! I didn’t know what to do. I got essentially—not to disparage people who work for the census, but kind of like an entry-level job. I took an aptitude test and I didn’t have a criminal background, so they hired me. You know? But that’s something I still really struggle with. Sometimes I feel like, “Why hasn’t something else amazing landed in my lap while I sleep ‘till 1pm? What’s wrong with the world?”
Rumpus: And what about the Get Your War On play that was based on your work? What was that experience like?
Rees: Oh, that was really cool. It was just this theatre company that asked if they could do it. The best thing about it was when I would do my live show, I would use overhead transparency projectors; I didn’t like doing it digitally, so I did it with overhead projectors for years. I just had the comics on transparencies. And they had four projectors going simultaneously. And they were doing amazing shit with overhead transparency projectors. And then I feel like—at some point late in the run—they were like, “Do you want to know something interesting about these overhead transparency projectors? We bought them from an office liquidator. These are Enron’s overhead transparency projectors.”
Rumpus: What? That’s amazing.
Rees: Yeah. Isn’t that cool? And it makes sense. They were a theatre company in Austin called the Rude Mechanicals. And Enron was Texas-based, of course, so they were the late Ken Lay’s overhead transparency projectors. I think they were supposed to give me one, but they never did. I should look into that.
Rumpus: And when you saw the play, did it live up to what you had hoped for?
Rees: Yeah, it was good. I didn’t know what to expect. I just really didn’t know how they were going to adapt it. And they did do a lot of A/V stuff that I thought was really cool and was kind of like the stuff that I was trying to do in my live shows when I would read the comics. But it’s very difficult—and this is something I realized when we were making the animations—when you go through the comic, those guys never had personalities or names or even fixed political identities. And the theatre company made that same decision with the live show. And we realized, when we were making the animations, that you really do have to attach, if you’re dealing with voices and physical moving people, the audience is really going to want consistency from moment to moment. They can’t be character-less ciphers like they are on the printed page. So when we started the animations, I was like, “It doesn’t matter who says what. Whatever.” And then, within a day, we were like, “These guys need identities. They don’t have to have names, but at least you have to know what to expect.” Like, there has to be some consistency. Especially since it’s serialized. And then I got super into it.
Rumpus: So the animations are written by you, right?
Rees: Yeah, I wrote ‘em and I guess you could say I directed the recording sessions, although it was pretty collaborative. That was really fun. I’m really looking forward to doing it again because I had a good time working with those people and it was really fun to, like, they would ad-lib stuff…it was good.
Rumpus: So you have actors and you’re rotoscoping it, correct?
Rees: Yeah, we hired actors who looked like the clip art, we rotoscoped them, and then we hired two different voice actors who do the dialogue.
Rumpus: I love that there’s looseness to it. There’s room for people to talk over each other.
Rees: Yeah, they did great. Those guys are super-talented and the editors did a great job. We wanted it to sound really kind of realistic, even though it’s absurd, what they’re saying…like, mumbling under each other. I feel like a lot of animation is very shouty. And I didn’t want it to just, like, obviously you could just have everybody—if you’re transferring that comic to video—you could just have everybody yell in all caps. But we kind of wanted it to be a little more naturalistic. And I feel like the editors and the actors were very talented at doing that.
Rumpus: And do you have any sort of impulse to just start political cartooning on your website again?
Rees: No, I mean, if something new and crazy happened, something as disruptive and traumatic as 9/11, who knows, I might do it. But at this point, I think of cartooning…I mean, that particular comic, Get Your War On, I truly feel, at least with the static comic, that I basically did as much as you can do with it. Like, I think very formally in a way. I’m interested in the structure of art and how it works. And the content is also interesting, but I don’t want to keep the same structure and just plug in new content every week. To me, I feel like there are people who can just do that better. I like to do things that are new, where I feel the sense of discovery. That’s what I like: I like feeling like I’m discovering something new. That’s really a special feeling and also, you don’t have it that often. At least, I don’t. Maybe I’m not creative enough.
Rumpus: Speaking of new things, I hear that you have to continually convince people that your pencil-sharpening book is the real thing. Is there something in the specificity of the project that you like? It’s a funny idea, but you really intended for it to be a how-to book, yeah?
Rees: Yeah, I mean, it’s the same with the business. The best way it’s been put is [when] a friend of mine said, “The joke is there’s no joke.” I wanted to get paid to sharpen pencils originally just because I thought it would be fun. I liked sharpening pencils and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I could get paid to do it.” And I figured it out and I did it. And the business is kind of whimsical and it’s not like I make a living off of it. It’s just a way to get paid to do something and to learn more about something I was interested in: sharpening pencils. And then the book was kind of an extension of that. Like, first and foremost, artisanalpencilsharpening.com literally is a pencil-sharpening business. And I wanted to have the same spirit with the book. Like, this book is actually going to be a working, functional how-to manual about pencil-sharpening techniques. I just thought that was a good way to structure the book. It made it a lot easier for me to write it and think about it. And then also, I just thought it would be actually genuinely interesting to talk about how different devices produce different types of pencil points, and how a machine or a tool or a technique that you might use in one context may be inappropriate in another context. And I felt like, if I just really went deep on that stuff, hopefully first it would be genuinely interesting, and then second, the specificity and the detail would be kind of interesting or jarring or…the word I always use is “defamiliarizing.” Like, I really wanted sharpening pencils to kind of make people think about it again. Because pencils are really cool.
Rumpus: Do you feel like they’re archaic? Or are pencils just as in use as they’ve ever been?
Rees: Well, I assumed that the pencil market was collapsing, but then it turns out that from 2010 to 2011 in the United States, pencil consumption went up by over six percent. I mean, those are all foreign-made pencils. Those are probably Chinese pencils, mostly, and Mexican pencils. I mean, it is an archaic communication technology, but it is still ubiquitous. It’s not yet at the point of, you know, the telegraph or something. Everyone has pencils in their house, no matter how hip and contemporary they are.
Rumpus: And you said you really wanted this to be a serious celebration of pencils, right?
Rees: Yeah, I mean, the book does a lot of things, hopefully. But yeah, it’s like a celebration of pencils and, by extension, it’s a celebration of over-thinking anything that’s really common in your life.
Rumpus: And there’s a little hint of a memoir in there, details about your now ex-wife, among other things.
Rees: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I had submitted an introduction to the publisher that was literally just about how I started sharpening pencils at the census and how that was a difficult time in my life because my marriage was ending and I had quit cartooning and I didn’t know what to do with myself. And then it talked about the initial media-response to the business. And the publisher, to their credit, they’re like, “We don’t need this. This is all in the book. It’s just subtext. Why foreground it and give it away? Because frankly, yeah, the pencil-sharpening project or business, it did come out of a time when I was searching for what to do next. I felt that my identity was in flux, professionally and personally, because I was no longer making cartoons and I wasn’t really a husband anymore. And those had been the two big, defining identities of the last 10 years for me. You know? Basically, my 30’s. I was making Get Your War On and I was married. And so the pencil-sharpening thing, I felt like if I was going to talk about pencil sharpening and talk about my business a little, I should at least allude to some of this stuff. Because it came out of that time. And I also did like the idea of having some kind of different emotional tones that are associated with different layers of the book. Does that sound pretentious? Do you know what I mean?
Rumpus: I definitely noticed a melancholy tone.
Rees: Yeah, the melancholy tone was partly because it was kind of about my marriage. And the melancholy tone was also because I was inspired by all these old technical manuals that I used to collect. And I find old books really melancholy, in a way, and I wanted to have that—I don’t know why—but I also wanted to have that vibe in this book, because those old technical manuals inspired How To Sharpen Pencils, in terms of the format and in terms of the language and the mood. The most important thing in this whole publishing project for me was: I don’t want people to think this is one of those quick turnaround Internet-meme-into-crappy-paperback-books you buy and then leave on your toilet for five years, collecting dust. I really wanted it to have as much depth as a pencil-sharpening how-to manual is capable of sustaining.
Rumpus: And it seems like you really do know what you’re doing. It’s very clear as a reader that you’ve done your research.
Rees: Yeah, I mean I had the business going for a long time before I wrote the book. And I learned a lot, doing my business. I did a lot of research, I read Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil [The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance] which is, like, a 500-page book about pencils. This is the thing that Henry Petroski proved with his book about pencils: his book was the first book to do that thing where you take one banal item and then explain everything in the world through the lens of that item. And pencils are great for that, because they are an old writing technology but they’re also—because they are something you buy—a perfect test-case for examining so many issues of production, efficiency, capitalism, pricing, all that stuff. I mean, it’s all there in that one little object. I talked to people in the pencil industry and I talked to people as I was sharpening their pencils about the frustrations they have with pencils, so I really did do my research and I do know more about pencils than most people, I would say, at this point.
Rumpus: Can you give me an example of somebody’s frustrations with the pencil?
Rees: The thing I hear about a lot is when people over-sharpen their pencil with a single-blade pocket-sharpener and then when they put the pencil to the page, their tip breaks and pencil points always break irregularly. It always gets all jagged and you have to refresh the point. That’s a common complaint. But these days, especially if people are thinking about school supplies, a complaint I hear is that it’s just really hard to find well-made, reliable pencils.
Rumpus: I hear you were a little bit worried upfront about having enough to say and then you had to cut, what? Fifty or sixty pages from the manuscript?
Rees: Yeah, I mean, we cut a substantial amount of text. Because once I went down the rabbit hole, it was just like, why would you stop? There is a lot to say. I didn’t even touch on the last hundred years of pencil-manufacturing and how it’s been affected by tariffs and trade restrictions and wars. I had written, actually, an entire chapter about mechanical pencils and then we just cut it in favor of just that really quick one-sentence chapter. Which is a lot of people’s favorite chapter.
Rumpus: When did you realize that there would be enough interest to make this an actual business?
Rees: Well there were a couple stages. The first was when I cracked the nut of how I was going to ship pencils without breaking them, because that was obviously the big concern. And the moment when I put the rubber sheath around the pencil point and then put the pencil in the tube and threw it against the wall and it didn’t break, that’s when I was like, “OK, I’m onto something here. This is cool. This is gonna work.” And then it was, my friend made this nice poster that we sold to promote the business and that kind of took off. I mean, my initial concern was just like, I don’t want to lose money on this. I was broke. I thought that this [would] be a great project, but I don’t want this to be another thing that I do where I’m just shelling out money for an idea and not actually making money. To me, it was crucial to this project that it functions as a business, even if that just means I don’t lose money on it. At the time, I didn’t dare to dream of making money. But now of course, I’ve made many thousands of dollars sharpening pencils.
Rumpus: Have you been keeping track of the number of pencils you’ve done?
Rees: Yeah, I’m at like seven-hundred-and-seventy-something. And I raised my prices a few weeks ago to slow down demand. Because I realized that when I was getting orders, I wasn’t happy about, like, “Oh, look at this money I just made.” It was like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I had charged more money because now I have 20 orders. That’s like many, many hours for me to work. So I raised my prices to the point where now I’m happy about the money I get, per order. And again, that just comes down to actually treating it as a business. Like, I want to be satisfied creatively with this project and I also want to be satisfied financially with it.
Rumpus: And when people are placing orders, do they get to specify the type of sharpening that they want to get?
Rees: They usually don’t. They can make a request and when I ship the pencil and the shavings I document the tool that I used. I circle a series of abbreviations. Sometimes they’ll write me and say, “Hey, I noticed that you circled ‘PL’ and then you also circled ‘K’; what does that mean?” And I say, “Oh, that means I started the pencil with a pocket-long-point sharpening and then I finished it using a knife.”
Rumpus: Are you bouncing around between favorite techniques or have you picked a favorite at this point?
Rees: I cycle through techniques, just to keep myself engaged in it, or if the person has made a request, or if I have a new device that I want to try out. You know, I really go through a bunch of different phases. Sometimes people are really interested in having those old-school shavings, the ribbon shavings. You can’t achieve that with a hand-crank sharpener. So for those, I would just use a pocket sharpener.
Rumpus: To go back to the specificity of the idea for a second, I remember you said that you sort of feel overwhelmed if there are no rules and endless possibility in your projects. Do you feel like that ties into setting up very specific parameters and boxing yourself in? It’s kind of like what you were doing with the comic strip, in that it’s a very specific pursuit.
Rees: You know, you’re the second person to make that point and I think that’s a really great point that I’d never thought about. Because in my mind, one of the appeals of this project was that there’s no political subtext, it’s not satirical, it’s nothing like Get Your War On. And that’s true, insofar as the content goes, but structurally, I agree with you—it is kind of the same thing. You work in a really limited box and you just do as much as you can within that box. So, when I was a cartoonist, I didn’t want the responsibility of drawing, a.) because it’s a pain in the butt, and b.) I felt intimidated knowing that I could just put anything in the universe on the page. For me, it was like, all right, just work with six images, or whatever, and just have as much fun as you can with those images. And that fueled my cartooning career for, like, eight years. And I never made that connection with pencils, but this is the first prose book I’ve ever written. I’d always been really intimidated by prose writing. But I think it was a good introduction to that art, because I did just focus on one very particular thing and that was a thing I knew very well: sharpening pencils. And then by the end of the book, when everything’s gone completely bananas, it’s just because I’m having fun with it. You know? So I feel like those constraints are really helpful to me.
Rumpus: Get Your War On served as a big catharsis for you. Is there any sort of catharsis with pencil sharpening?
Rees: You know, this is going to sound crazy, but my pencil-sharpening business is kind of like a job. It’s like any other job. There are some days when I’m really stoked about it and I’m really excited and I’m having fun and other days where…you know, when I was on tour, I came back home and I had like 68 pencils backed up, and then it was just like, “Jeez, another day of sharpening pencils? How am I going to make this interesting?” So, it’s just like anything else. I mean, the Get Your War On thing—the catharsis there was just the first couple nights when I made those first comics. That was probably the most cathartic artistic thing I’ve ever done. Pencil-sharpening has never really had that catharsis. I mean, it’s been really fun and satisfying, it’s been great to meet people and sharpen pencils for them, and learn about pencils and actually become…not to toot my own horn, but become a bit of an authority in the pencil world. I’ve met with people in the pencil industry and talked about pencils with them. And writing the book was cathartic, I guess, because it was about this weird time in my life and I wanted to write a good book. And I’m proud of the book. I feel like I did a good job expressing what I wanted to express about my business and by extension, I guess about my sensibility or just about my interests.
Rumpus: And do you feel like this has broadened your audience in any sense? I know that you had a preexisting audience with Get Your War On, but have you heard from folks you might not have heard from when you were doing the comic?
Rees: I don’t know. I’ve always been a bad judge of how popular Get Your War On was. I was uploading that shit to a website that I was just coding in HTML. It was before Facebook “Likes” or retweets or anything. I mean, I know it was kind of a big deal because a lot of newspapers would call me, and we sold a ton of books and raised a lot of money for land mines. That was probably bigger than pencils. It’s funny because I got a lot of hate mail when I made Get Your War On, especially in the early days, pretty soon after 9/11. But I’ve been really surprised about a lot of the negative comments about artisanal pencil sharpening. Like, it really rubs some people the wrong way.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Rees: I think people are worried that it’s a huge joke and they’re not in on the joke and I’m kind of denying them access to the joke. And then other people completely misinterpret it and they think, “Wow, people in America have so much money, they’re sending hundreds of pencils to this guy.” I don’t think those people realize that most people who are buying these pencils are buying them as art objects or conversation pieces.
Rumpus: And do you do much writing in pencil, yourself?
Rees: No, I hardly ever use pencils.
Rees: Well, I’m left-handed and it’s really messy if you’re left-handed because of the graphite smudging. I use them more now than I used to because there’s, like, 15,000 pencils all over my house.
Rumpus: Why did you choose John Hodgman to write the foreword?
Rees: He had been an early adopter of my business and he had ordered pencils for friends and he was really enthusiastic about it, and he knows me pretty well. And I just felt like it would be good to have somebody who could write with a lot of humor, but who could write very sincerely. I think John is a super funny guy, but the writing of his that really gets me so excited is when he’s just writing sincerely about stuff. People like him and think he’s really funny, but I think as a writer, he’s really underrated because he became a celebrity and you don’t expect a celebrity to actually be able to write. But he was a writer before he was a famous guy. So I just thought—on so many levels—he was the perfect guy to write a foreword to the book and kind of put it in this context. And then, once his foreword was over, it would be time to go deep, get to work.
Rumpus: He had a post-9/11 piece that’s really poignant that the McSweeney’s site republishes every year on the anniversary of the attacks.
Rees: Oh yeah, yeah, I remember that. He used to do this reading series called Little Gray Books in Brooklyn. And he did one right after 9/11. He read that at the beginning of the night and then I played a couple songs and then we did a big karaoke sing-along to New York, New York and then some other people read stuff. That was a really special, fun night during a really weird time. And then actually I think I went home that night and started Get Your War On, but I could be mistaking the chronology, somewhat.
Rumpus: I find it very interesting, by the way, that it wasn’t a goal to be a professional cartoonist, but it was a goal to become a professional pencil-sharpener.
Rees: Well, I don’t think I would’ve ever dared dreaming of becoming a professional cartoonist. I wouldn’t set myself up for that disappointment. And it probably was that thing I said, like, “Nobody could be a professional cartoonist, because you have to do something you don’t like to do in order to be a responsible adult and pay the rent.” With pencil-sharpening…I never thought I would make a living as a pencil-sharpener. Like I said, the first goal was: I don’t want to lose money. And then the goal was: I want to see if 100 people buy my pencils. I just kept upping the benchmarks. It was like a lot of projects. It was like the fundraising for Afghanistan. At first, we were like, “I wonder if we can make $20,000?” And then, “I wonder if we can make $30,000?” All the way up, until we made $100,000. And then pencil-sharpening, I guess, was kind of the same thing. I had a real crisis when I hit 500 pencils. Because I was like, “Well, the next obvious benchmark is 1,000. And it would be amazing to tell my grandchildren, like, ‘Yeah, I was paid to sharpen 1,000 pencils.'” You know? But part of me was like, “I don’t know, another 500 pencils? I wonder if I can get away with a benchmark of 750 pencils?” But then I passed that benchmark. So now it’s like, “Well I’ll do 1,000 of them, then. And then I’ll probably do 10,000.”
Rumpus: It seems like you launch various projects all the time, or you have over the years and you just really strike me as an idea man. Do you ever think of yourself as a person who just wants to see how far you can take a particular idea?
Rees: Oh yeah, totally. I have very limited craftsmanship. And a lot of the stuff I make plays on that. And even my comics were pretty rudimentary. I’m talking about the clip-art comics. That was part of the appeal to me. It looks slapdash because it is slapdash. Because who has time to connect the word balloon to the little line that connects it to the character’s mouth. I got really into this comic Relationshapes, just because I had never made anything like it and I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. I didn’t understand why some strips appealed to me and other ones didn’t. I didn’t understand what type of humor it was. I didn’t understand if it was offensive or not. I mean, it was just a complete mystery to me on every level. And so, for a while, that’s what I would do. Even though it didn’t pay any money.
Rumpus: It was something different, another type of humor that’s one-panel thing, as opposed to a strip. And it didn’t have to be political. Was that some of the appeal?
Rees: Yeah, it was one panel. I got to draw shapes. I really like to draw funky, geometric shapes. And I got to use just different fonts and make a joke of how feminine it was, but it didn’t even have people in it. To me, it was so exciting and interesting to do that for a while.
Rumpus: It really struck me as anti-humor in the best sense of the term. I love anti-humor. And the comic seemed packed with it. It was just like overhearing somebody’s arguments. There were no jokes.
Rees: Yeah! And sometimes they would get wacky. They weren’t real arguments from my life—people always ask me that. I feel like, looking back on it, that comic is about how fucking boring relationship tension is to everybody except who’s experiencing the tension. Nobody gives a shit about your argument. You’re arguing about dishwater detergent and I know it’s really deep, more on some deeper level it’s about how his mom doesn’t respect you and coddles him, whatever. It’s like, no one gives a shit, man. You know? I feel like that was one of the things maybe that I was exploring. Those banal, boring arguments and then you have these fat, bulbous shapes just sitting there and then put a gold frame on it and be like, “I’ve made the perfect cartoon for the modern woman!” Like, it was crazy. I didn’t understand what was funny about it, but sometimes it would just really crack me up.
Rumpus: I love the idea, too, that there is a part of you that doesn’t totally get what the funniness is, yet you’re the one executing it.
Rees: Yeah, I mean, that’s very exciting. The thing that was interesting to me about Relationshapes—as opposed to most of the other cartoons I’ve ever made—was I knew when one worked and when one didn’t work, but I couldn’t really explain it. And I want to say that I have a really analytical approach to art. And the whole idea that you can’t analyze what makes a joke funny…I do not agree with that at all. I feel like really thinking about art and really appreciating it and learning the language of it just makes you more of a connoisseur. I believe that. So I don’t want to be one of these people who’s like, “Man, I don’t know where my ideas come from and I don’t know why this works.” Most of the time, I can tell you. I think about that stuff, you know? I studied philosophy. I get off on thinking about it. But Relationshapes is one thing where, a lot of times, it’s like, “I don’t know, man, I’m really feeling this comic about a trapezoid talking about toothpaste.” I don’t know. It’s just weird. It was really fun to kind of be in over my own head. It was a fun feeling.
Rumpus: So it sounds like you have a lot of projects going on, but do you know what’s next for you? Do you have one idea that you’ve latched on to for your next big thing?
Rees: Well, we’re going to start making new Get Your War On animations on Tuesday morning, so that’s the immediate thing.
Rumpus: And what is the agreement now with Rolling Stone? They asked you back to do comics about the election, right?
Rees: They asked me back and I did five comics and then they dropped it. They were like, “The election is boring and these aren’t as funny as they used to be.” I felt bad. But I got it, you know. Whatever. They said we’ll revisit it if the election gets interesting again.
Rumpus: And how often do you look back on your old strips?
Rees: I looked back recently because it’s gonna be included in this art exhibit about political cartooning. They asked me to send five strips, so I went through a bunch of them on my hard drive and I was looking at them. But [usually] I don’t. The time that I would spend revisiting my old Get Your War On strips is more profitably spent Googling myself and reading comments about how people hate my pencil-sharpening business. There’s a new way for people to be disgusted and disappointed with me. So, I’d rather focus on that.
Rumpus: What about that whole mess with Jamba Juice? [In 2009, Jamba Juice ran ads using the same clip art/conversational style as Rees, claiming they had never seen his comic.] Did you feel happy with the outcome?
Rees: They pulled the campaign off the webpage. They just took it down. And then they issued a statement that said, “We’re sorry if anyone confused our campaign with this cartoon. We didn’t know about it.” It was fine. I got a lot of e-mails from lawyers being like, “I think you have a case and if you want to sue them, they’ll settle. They don’t want to deal with this.” But, I mean, I don’t want to deal with that. You know? To me, I just wanted to make fun of them [although] I did take a little bit of umbrage. My tongue wasn’t only in my cheek. I felt like someone must have seen my comics. And I know people would say, “How could you, as a guy who uses public domain clip art, complain when somebody else uses the same public-domain clip art?” And I get that argument. And I’m usually, generally, like, “Yeah, just take whatever you want and make a mash-up or sell knockoff t-shirts of Mickey Mouse snorting cocaine, or whatever.” I think trademark law is just completely fucked and restrictive and stifling and regressive. But in this situation, I was just worried that someone was gonna think that I had been commissioned by Jamba Juice to make cartoons about Jamba Juice. And the big thing for me was—if I’m not getting paid to sell out, I don’t want people to think that I’m selling out. You know what I mean? So for me to make a stink about it was my way of being like, “Guys, I had nothing to do with this. This is not me.”
Rumpus: Looking back, I know that you were labeled “a voice of a generation,” every once in a while. Did you ever feel like you needed to live up to that?
Rees: No, I don’t think I ever felt that way. I mean, I think we read that once in a review or something, or an article about me, and then I would say it to my girlfriend as a joke. Like, “You’re really going to ask the voice of a generation to do the dishes?” It was just like this running joke. No, that’s crazy.
Rumpus: Something I noticed through reading numerous interviews with you is that you make very accurate predictions. For instance, in 2008, you said that if Palin loses, she definitely wouldn’t run in 2012. You said you were positive about that. Or you predicted that McCain was getting ready to run before anybody was talking about him. How do you do that?
Rees: I did my research! I subscribed to policy journals. I read daily newspapers. I mean, I’m really glad that you say that and I did get some things wrong, but yeah that was very important to me. I did not want to make a comic, one week, that would just rile people up and then not have to answer for it a year later. And to me, what I’m most proud of about Get Your War On, and I hate to sound like [former New York Times reporter] Judith Miller, [but] I was fucking right, man. The War on Terror was a fundamentally flawed model for prosecuting the people who planned and sustained 9/11. And invading Iraq was a fucking dumb idea. You know what I mean? And I took that stuff really seriously. I’m being real right now. It was very important to me to take that stuff seriously. And I did mess stuff up. You know what I mean? I mean, absolutely. Yeah, I feel like you could put—and this is going to sound really grandiose—but take my comics, and put them up against any elite pundit who was pontificating about the wisdom of a War on Terror and the wisdom of invading Iraq, like I think my shit stands up. You know? Because I didn’t have any institutional pressure to say anything other than what I believed, I felt completely alienated—maybe because of my age or my background—I felt completely alienated from the grand narrative of, like, “America will not fuck this up.” I grew completely skeptical of Bush, his character, even if he was in charge of the aftermath of 9/11. I’m kind of ranting right now, but that’s kind of important to me, because I don’t want people to think, “Oh yeah, he was an angry guy and he was upset when I was upset.” It’s like, “Yeah, and then you know what I did? I fucking read the Financial Times for seven years, from cover-to-cover, to really understand what the fuck was going on, to inform my comics and I feel proud of that.” You know? I mean, I feel really proud about that.
Rumpus: You made it look much easier than it clearly was. It just seemed like you were really prescient in a lot of your predictions and completely on top of things.
Rees: Well, even before I got the Rolling Stone gig it was like, you know, people are reading my shit and it’s really important to me, just as a citizen. I’m paying for it! I’ve got to understand it, you know? It was affecting my ex-wife. She has a lot of family in the military. It was affecting their lives. It was a really big deal. Whatever. But you wanna know something else? I’m going to make another pretentious connection. It’s the same thing with pencils, bro. Because I was like, “If I’m going to write this book about pencils, you know I’m going to learn a shit-ton of facts about pencils.” This is not a joke. I mean, it has an element of whimsy to it, but I want to be able to—if someone starts chipping away at the surface, looking for when the joke gives way and there’s nothing but a gaping void—they’re never going to get there. I’m going to know more about pencils, all the way down to the hot molten core. You know? It’s the same thing. That kind of shit is important to me.
Rumpus: I love it, because it makes it so much better. Because you do know all this stuff and it is such a serious thing to you. And it makes it a real pursuit. And it works on a couple different levels where you can approach it and assume that it’s a humor book, but when you really start reading it, you realize that it’s a real honest-to-goodness how-to book. You’ve obviously done a ton of research.
Rees: Well, I appreciate that. To me, fundamentally, and I think I learned this from punk rock and TV shows like Roseanne—I take pop culture really seriously, I think it’s really important, and the stuff that I make…I don’t want it to be insubstantial, even if it’s about something wacky, like sharpening pencils. I feel like I owe it to myself and I owe it to people who are really interested in pencils and I owe it to anybody to do my due diligence and give them something real. You know? And not just make a stupid one-off Internet joke book that no one’s going to look at in 10 years. Do you know what I mean? The type of pop culture that is honestly very moving and powerful to me is [when artists] do their homework. They make it real. To me, if you’re lucky enough to make stuff that people will pay money for, do a good job. Really do a good job. Especially if you’re talking about real stuff, like terror atrocities and human rights abuses and pencil-sharpening techniques. Like: do it. You know what I mean? Be the authority that you are presuming to be.
Rumpus: So do you look back on the years of Get Your War On as a fertile creative time, or are you just glad to have moved on at this point?
Rees: The things I’m grateful for are: I had the one thing that I feel really lucky about, which is that I made something, I made art, that truly—in a weird way—truly comforted me and comforted a lot of people. And I’m really grateful that I got to have that experience. And at the time even, because I had been making stuff for a long time and people liked Fighting Technique, or people liked my band. But that experience was just like…I knew that I was lucky to have that experience. And then I loved going out on that book tour. That was such an adventure. I’d never been on a book tour before and I met so many people and had so many crazy experiences. And people were so sweet and supportive and I was young enough that I would couch-surf with no problem and wouldn’t fuck up my back, or whatever. And yeah, I met a lot of people through that project. A lot of people in the political world and a lot of people in the publishing world, and I got to meet some of my heroes, like Mike Watt. Yeah, I think it was good. I feel happy about Get Your War On. Yeah, I feel good about that. And also, it was exciting…we had moved to New York City only a year before, and so for me, I mean it’s weird, my experience of the War on Terror was completely entwined with my experience of making comics about the War on Terror. And being invited to be on a panel with, like, [punk rocker] Ted Leo, or something. Just like all these great experiences that I felt really grateful for. And it was all tied up with the excitement of getting married and feeling like I had a really strong identity as an adult and maybe I was going to be a professional creative person and maybe I was going to make it in the city. You know?
And then in contrast to that, when all that left, I feel like the pencil-sharpening was like this really inward, kind of weird, personal, obsessive thing. Like, “OK, you’re starting over. And everything is going to be radically different.” In so many ways, even when you think about the whole thing. Like, Get Your War On was completely digital. I hadn’t held a pencil in years and years. And it was like, now I’m going back to this really old-school thing that I haven’t encountered since basically I was a kid. You know? So, to me the Get Your War On era has like a certain…like, the memories of that time in my life—and I’m thinking about this a lot because I literally, just finally, filed the divorce paperwork yesterday at the County Clerk’s office and called my ex to be like, “OK, it’s all set. I’ll let you know when we’re divorced.” You know? So I feel like I’ve just been reflecting on that era of my life and how I’m in this really different place. And it’s like: we’re no longer married. We decided we’d be better friends than spouses. We had our ups and we had our downs, like every other boring thing that I addressed in Relationshapes. But I do have a fondness for that whole time. It was my 30’s essentially. You know? It was my 30’s. It was very interesting. It was exciting.