Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

Get Your Forward On

Instant activism and American hegemony

In early April Maisonneuve proudly presented the Get Your War On Canadian Tour. For further details, please see the official media release.

In early October 2001, as the mourning and anger around the September 11 disaster gave way to paranoia, propaganda and violence, David Rees was compiling the early panels of his massively popular Get Your War On (GYWO) comic. He posted the first eight strips on an unlinked page at his website (http://www.mnftiu.cc) and emailed the URL to some friends. They forwarded it to others, and so on and so on. Suddenly it was the biggest political cartoon in years and the most visible voice of humour and dissent in a climate obsessed with war and fear.
    
When GYWO went up and the first wave of forwarding emails went out, I didn't see them because I was at home. I had been forced out of work by the disaster and was still waiting for my workplace - located within the Frozen Zone, a two-block radius around the World Trade Center - to reopen. I spent a lot of time watching CNN, pacing, planning foot-friendly escape routes from the city. Afghanistan was being pounded with bombs; people were talking about smallpox. I went and got a flu shot so I would know whether any coughs and fevers should be treated as suspected anthrax. The lady across the hall used gloves to get her mail out of the box. Bush's face was on television like a cheap sponge, soaking up approval ratings from angry, mob-minded people, his rhetoric a combination of pulp western and spooky McCarthyism. A senior poet friend of mine said that cynicism was dead. All the intellectual, self-indulgent lines being penned by young writers, she claimed, would disappear in a revival of poetry with meaning and heart. People were hugging in the streets, holding doors open for one another, giving blood as though they could write it off at tax time. The cynical, satirical humour I had fallen back on all my life was taboo. People had died here, man. This was no laughing matter.

Rees and I, and apparently thousands of others, were suffering from the same cocktail of inarticulate rage and shell-shocked disbelief. Isolated as much by the complacent evening news as by the broken geography of our suddenly unsafe cities, we were bloodthirsty one minute, overly compassionate the next, then disgusted with ourselves a moment later. Everyone wanted to say something, but no one knew what was appropriate. For that matter, we didn't even know when "appropriate" became part of our consideration.
      
When finally let back into my building at the end of October, I had at least ten emails at work from friends forwarding the link to Rees' website. I sat hunched in my cubicle, reading the comics and laughing guiltily to myself. I felt like I was looking at porn in public. I felt like a traitor. I felt like a rebel. I clicked "forward," sending the message on, and felt like I was doing something. It was an enormous relief.

Rees' strips are each comprised of three panels of white-collar, clip-art characters - unidentifiable yet wholly familiar cubicle-creatures whose expressions and positions remain static from frame to frame. They seem subtly out of date (as most royalty-free graphics tend to be) with apparel and hairstyles that could be from any of the last three decades. They speak to one another almost exclusively on the phone-only the text of their speech bubbles changing-and their language ranges wildly and unpredictably, from corporate buzzwords to MTV lingo to the profanity-laced slang of hardcore hip hop. Physically they resemble the kinds of characters you might see in public health pamphlets. They look like your average colleagues: a lightly greying management type; a bespectacled Bryant Gumble-esque black man; an afro-wearing black woman; a smiling Asian woman; Voltron ... Emotionally, however, they are all fucked up.

When we think of political cartoons, we think buffoonery-caricatures of political figures. Bush with his idiot's lip and confused brows, Clinton with a leering eye and frat boy swagger, Al Gore looking like a know-it-all Vulcan at a Star Trek convention. The clip-art Everymen Rees uses were originally designed to be as inclusive and inoffensive as possible, yet in GYWO they give voice to the most profane, tortured anguish of the muzzled American citizen. The humour has a Seinfeld edge to it-you love that the characters are as bad as your worst thoughts-but there is also a struggle with the great issues of today and our cynical society's inability to express outrage.

The appearance of Rees' work was a watershed moment for the revival of humour and satire in the US. Other outlets like The Onion and Saturday Night Live were already "laughing again" but GYWO represented a different kind of subversion. It was darker, much more real and insidious, a solitary voice crying out from the wilderness of the Net, mad cackle and sorrowful howl rolled into one. Satire is always best when it makes you cringe and wonder whether you've crossed a line just reading it, and GYWO did exactly that. People instantly identified with the cookie-cutter characters and their "inappropriate" conversations, saying what we couldn't yet say around the water cooler ourselves, and saying it loudly. The strips played a cathartic role in everyday existence-an assurance that some things continued unchanged, that other people felt the same confusion as you. They also allowed readers to feel as though they were voicing disapproval and dissent with the click of a button. Click "forward." Select some names from your address book. Click "send." Instant activism.

Yet, I somehow can't help but wonder whether this kind of Internet phenomenon (as comes along every so often) doesn't promote action so much as it works to pacify. Some would argue that it raises awareness, but so does the evening news. Shouldn't an alternative media outlet play a more significant role in actually mobilizing dissent? Is forwarding a saucy comic strip or e-petition really an activist act? Don't the powers that be take this kind of dissent into account? In fact, doesn't hegemony rely on this kind of quasi-action to keep people chuckling endorphins into their bloodstream at home instead of assembling on the Mall in Washington? Is this the e-version of the soda-pop urban myths that surface every few years-collect the tabs from your Coke cans and buy little Timmy a wheelchair? Is the cathartic release provided by deeply alternative media outlets such as GYWO so powerful that it can simultaneously release us from the grip of depression, anger and impotence, as well as responsibility? I have no answer. Like everyone else, I forwarded the message with a mighty, but internal, "Fight the power, dude."

Of course, Rees wasn't thinking about this when he first wrote GYWO. When I spoke to him in Brooklyn by phone, he said, "I never thought about the comic in terms of it being an activist tool. I just made it for myself. It was just about my own anger and anxiety and frustrations. I couldn't find my own thoughts in the media." He didn't link to the GYWO pages from his website. He created them for his friends and only linked to them later when the word was out.

It was a genius move. The combination of the clip art, the angry, hilarious commentary and the basic white Internet page lent the strips a set of Hermes' sandals and a low-rent legitimacy that couldn't be beat. Now collected and published in book form by the New York punk publisher Soft Skull Press, GYWO is selling quite well. It's past its first printings and on to cult status. A real thing that can be held in the hands.

In my mind, walking out to a bookstore and laying down cold hard cash for a book seems to be inherently more active than clicking "forward," yet unfortunately, that doesn't allow us to "wideband" it to a hundred friends at once. We can always hope the book receives as many "hits" as the website did, but GYWO the book will likely never earn as wide a readership as the strips on the Internet. Does this kind of dilemma signal a change for alternative media? Does it empower the media or rob it of activist potential? I did buy several copies to give away at Christmas. Is that inherently more subversive and activist than clicking "forward"? I hope so.