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Cartoonist counterattacks

David Rees draws sly, uncomfortable laughs from the war machine

Did you spend fall 2001 sweating in your cube, eating antidepressants, drinking to oblivion and surfing the Web for news of the terrorist attack with your name on it?

Plenty of Americans did, judging by the masses who visited the Web site of cartoonist David Rees to read 'Get Your War On.'

It began when he had a phone conversation with a friend about the beginnings of the war on terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan. That conversation went verbatim into the first strip, which consisted of two office drones on the phone saying things like 'Operation Enduring Freedom is in the house!' Rees stayed up late that night producing eight other strips, which he posted on a private part of his Web site, then circulated the link to friends by e-mail.

The cartoons were a hit because they seemed to say what a lot of people were thinking: that bombing Afghanistan might not thwart another attack on America, that mail-order anthrax was unbeatable, that the Middle East was out of control and that the U.S. government had changed beyond recognition.

Rees stresses that although the media now portrays him as a scared office temp who did the cartoons to exorcise his demons, he was in fact more angry, more antiwar.

'I was just so frustrated that I made the comic I wished I could have read in the newspaper,' Rees told the Tribune from his road trip supporting the 'Get Your War On' book.

The media was not talking about the aftermath of Sept. 11 the way he and his friends were: 'I know this is sacrilegious to say for someone in my demographic, but The Onion's response to Sept. 11 ÉÊit was OK, but I felt it was a little too sweet. I wanted something that had a little more pain in it.'

The text balloons are full of cussing Ñ this is Dilbert on the dark side. Rees also uses hip-hop language Ñ expressions such as 'Get your X on,' and 'In the house' Ñ which is far more common in real life than in the media.

'How else are you going to express something that's so serious and dark, except to use the most inappropriate language you can?' he says. 'I wanted to play up the fact that people were so excited about this new thing that was actually a war.'

He says he went online and chose royalty-free clip art from Dover publications that was 'as bland and as banal as possible, this iconography that I could dump whatever I wanted into.' He works in QuarkXPress and saves the strips in Photoshop to post on the Internet.

After six years in Boston he has spent the last two years in New York, where he honed his cube skills as a freelance fact checker at Maxim and Martha Stewart Living magazines. He's currently touring the country in support of Soft Skull Press' book of the best of his cartoons, which is a surprise stocking stuffer for Middle America.

'I'm at a mixture of art galleries, colleges, indie bookstores and punk spaces Ñ you know, people with a lot of paint on their clothes,' he says. 'Every once in a while if my mom knows someone in a town I'm going to, I see a gray-haired woman of, like, 65 or 75, who's there to see Peg Rees' son.'

He shows the strips using overhead transparency projectors: 'When it's young kids they don't even know what one is, but it's much more reliable than my laptop,' followed by a video about a mine-clearing charity to which he is donating the author royalties.

Rees is not sure whether to carry on with the strip. He plays guitar and sings his own 'off-kilter ballads,' influenced by the music of his hometown Chapel Hill, N.C. He also lifts weights (he's benching 120 at various Y's around the country).

'The strip was basically my journal,' he says. 'I was thinking of keeping a tour journal on my Web site but haven't got around to it.'

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