The New War Comix
by Andrew D. Arnold
May 28, 2002
The first book about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is also my first work of comics journalism, a mixed-media “instant book” comprising a 50-page “graphic novella,” photos and essays.
When bombs began falling on the Taliban in the fall of 2001, I traveled to northern Afghanistan, where I spent three weeks covering the U.S. bombing campaign for The Village Voice and KFI, a Los Angeles radio station. In daily dispatches that reviewers from The Washington Post and The Nation called “excellent” and “the best war reporting from Afghanistan by an American journalist,” I portrayed the horrors of war, the dangerous direction of U.S. intervention and the hazards faced by war correspondents in a conflict that became the most lethal in modern history. I entered Afghanistan in a convoy of 45 journalists, of whom three were killed.
I had been writing and reporting extensively from Central Asia and Afghanistan since 1997 – my 2001 voyage to Afghanistan was my fifth trip to the region – and I was one of the first American journalists to note the importance of the Central Asia to American corporate and political interests. “To Afghanistan and Back” is a look at the U.S. bombing campaign, its effects on ordinary people, the politics of the region and how the war and its aftermath affect Americans. The book incorporates both new and reprinted war reports for The Village Voice and international syndication, as well as editorial cartoons and photos from the front never published anywhere else. To Afghanistan was called “an important work” by the Library Journal. This title was been updated and revised in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, so bear that in mind if you order a used copy.
“Rall (2024) is a talented comics artist and a contrarian journalist who has challenged what he perceives to be sacred cows by calling Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist Art Spiegelman overrated and labeling some September 11 widows as golddiggers. A longtime visitor to and commentator on Central Asia, Rall knows his way around war-torn nations. His book joins Joe Sacco’s accounts of life in Palestine and Bosnia as a tremendous contribution to comics war journalism.”
Let it be known that one of the first books about the war in Afghanistan came from a cartoonist. Rall, a syndicated political cartoonist whose weekly ‘Search and Destroy’ appears in alterna-papers, felt the only way to discover the truth of the conflict in Afghanistan was to go there himself. Made up of both text and comix, ‘Afghanistan’ treats us to an inside look at the life the Afghan people and the journos living among them. Fast and crude, Rall’s drawing style perfectly matches the urgency and tone of the book. Boxy, flat characters with both eyes on the sides of their head inhabit environs with only the barest of detail. The cartoons function strictly as a way to efficiently set the place and action. ‘To Afghanistan and Back’ makes a fascinating contribution as both comix and journalism.” —Time Magazine
Read more: http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,250097,00.html#ixzz2i06hFy2h
Essays and Cartoons, 2002
NBM Hardback, 6″x9″, 128 pp., $15.95
NBM Paperback, 6″x9″, 129 pp., $9.95
A collection of 150 of my political cartoons published between 1995 and 2000. These pieces tackle the disappointments of the Clinton years, popular music, the dot-com boom to screwed-up relationships. I added commentary below most of the cartoons to place them into historical context.
Search and Destroy includes cartoons from my transition from obscure alternative publications to big national media. The cartoons here appeared in The New York Times, where I was the most published cartoonist of the 1990s, Time, Fortune, Rolling Stone, Esquire, P.O.V. and numerous other magazines and newspapers.
The introduction was written by word.com/”Gig” author John Bowe.
Cartoon Collection, 2001
Andrews & McMeel Paperback, 8″x8″, 160 pp., $16.95
To order: Amazon
One of my personal favorites, but also my worst-selling book, this graphic novel is a homage to/parody of/updating of George Orwell’s novel of totalitarian oppression 1984. I faithfully attempted to follow the structure of Orwell’s classic with a new take on twisted take on dystopia. The threat to our freedom isn’t some totalitarian tyrant — it’s our own, lazy, easily-distracted selves, wallowing in technological gadgetry while the world falls apart around us. Taking on postmodernism, nihilism, the Internet and free trade all at once, this is one of my most ambitious attempts to satirize contemporary American politics.
“Combining the most depressing aspects of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, Ted Rall’s 2024 shows us where turn-of-the-century corporate America is heading if we don’t collectively wake up. Yet, like most of Rall’s work, it’s not a downer. Even when the reader sees a not-so-twisted reflection of his or her own life in Winston and Julia’s horrifying misadventures in neopostmodern “Canamexicusa,” it’s usually more of a belly laugh than a gut punch. Tearing away at the shrouds of irony that keep us from experiencing our lives more directly for all their faults, Rall captures the essence of our reactions to soft oppression by having his characters repeat the mantra “Yes. No. Whatever.” If the best criticism is satire, then 2024 is as good as it gets.” —Amazon.com, naming 2024 a Top Book of the Year
Surf the net and you’ll be relentlessly buffeted by ideas from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s an important and still relevant book because it gives you a handy dictionary of how the state or any big institution perpetuates lies and falsehoods. Yet how would the Orwellian icons of Ingsoc, Big Brother and the Two Minute Hate look when reinterpreted by today’s reality of the consumer society, the networked world and multinationals more powerful than nations? Acerbic, brilliant and just plain mean-spirited cartoonist Ted Rall dares to answer that question in his new book 2024. This isn’t so much a sequel to 1984 as a director’s cut that reinterprets the original material. The book features a kind of pop culture overlay, or “updating” as one critic referred to it, placed upon the now familiar Orwellian conceits. Where we once had the evils of the state and a kind of programmed fascistic path, Rall gives us the consumer society and mega corps and an individual who never really questions the machine to begin with. —Locus Magazine
Graphic Novel, 2001
NBM Hardback, 6″x9″, 96 pp., $16.95
NBM Paperback, 6″x9″, 96 pp., $9.95
“It’ll be temporary.” They’re the three most frightening words in the English language. Still, what did I know? My on-again, off-again girlfriend looked at me like she really meant it. So I went along while never believing a single word she said. Which is how I ended up managing the skeeviest hot-sheets motel in America for what turned out to be the longest year of my life.
My alleged friends asserted that my first mistake was cheating on my girlfriend, but they were wrong. Actually, that indiscretion turned out to be tons of high-energy fun. No, the error occurred when I opted to assuage my guilt by confessing to my girlfriend. Then, to make things worse, I decided to do whatever it took to get her back, to perform whatever ludicrous act was necessary, to accede to her every request.
Julie asked me to move back into her parents’ California home with her. I did.
I knew I’d fucked up the second day after we pulled up to the overpriced corner ranch home on Palo Verdes Road in a Ryder truck piled to the ceiling with our belongings. We were snorting down Julie’s mom’s food when her dad got off the phone and entered the kitchen. A real-estate speculator, he owned houses all throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, which he rented out after chopping them up into tiny apartments with incomprehensible layouts.
Julie’s dad had recently purchased a 48-room motel to supplement the rental properties on Interstate 80 in Vallejo, a former state capital and sprawling, ethnically-diverse slum situated near the refineries halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.
He wore a plaintive look that morning – the kind that warns you that you’re about to get screwed. One of the motel’s long-term guests had called to inform him that the live-in manager he’d hired had abandoned her post and split with the week’s receipts, leaving the door to the office wide open. “You don’t have jobs yet,” Julie’s father said, eyeing the two of us. “I need help and you need money. Why don’t the two of you run the motel? Until, of course, you find permanent jobs.” I hadn’t the foggiest where to find a real job on the West Coast. Maybe I can lifeguard or something, I thought.
“I can pay you each $100 a day.”
I perked up. “Off the books?”
“Cash. The same day.”
I looked at Julie. After all, she knew her father. I was in her hands – in fact, I still wasn’t used to the harsh glare of the sun outside.
She shrugged. “It’ll be temporary,” she said.
There’s an incredible variety of motels in the American hospitality industry. The range runs from your Best Westerns and Ramadas on the high end, which offer clean rooms and amenities like room service, to your Holiday Inn Expresses and Knights Inns, which are perfectly suitable for an afternoon roll in the sheets with a coworker, to your basic Motel 6 and Super 8 chain outfits, which offer you shelter, free local calls and a malodorous mixture of sweat, nicotine and Freon for around $35 to $50 a night, single-occupancy. For those who haven’t yet eaten of all of the fruits of free-market capitalism, there are individually-owned motels. Although some are better than others, an absence of regular visits from an outside corporate honcho results in an unfortunate tendency toward quality that matches their low rates. Among these bottom-tier institutions, there are still further distinctions. Julie’s dad’s motel was by any measure the fungus beneath the rotted planks under the bottom of the barrel – a motel whose patrons were evenly divided between welfare recipients and gang members in the northern half, and low-level drug dealers, recently-released felons and street hookers to the south.
The fanciful tropical motif of the Islander Motel was strictly limited to the jaunty Polynesian-rip-off lettering on the sign. The decrepit two-story structure had clearly seen better days – at one point there had been a pool for guests with children (Sea World was about five miles away), but it was entombed in cement to save on insurance payments. It was hard to imagine that the surrounding neighborhood had ever been more than a pothole-ridden jumble of weeds, stripped-down cars on cinder blocks and nocturnal roving thugs. Whenever we called the Vallejo Police (and this was typically twice a day), there would always be a long, heavy sigh after we told the dispatcher our location. “Have some respect,” I snapped at the cops one time. “If it wasn’t for all the crime we generate, you guys would be out of work.”
Julie and I lived and worked four days and three nights a week in the motel’s office, occasionally venturing out into the overly bright sunshine to deal with troublesome guests. Most of the time, though, we were stuck in the airless red-shag-carpeted office, watching television between interruptions. We hired a maid to clean the rooms, so we didn’t usually need to go outside. We worked from the first asshole checked out at 6 am until the last asshole checked in at 3 am – and I didn’t even dare sleep those three hours because I constantly had to chase off people who were trying to break into the office with a metal bat.
You’d think that the little one-bedroom set-up would have been nicely arranged, considering all the time the manager had to spend in there, but this hell-hole was an esthetic atrocity of mid-1970s beige and brass. Julie’s parents would relieve us the fourth day, and we’d emerge like hostages after being blindfolded for months, feeling woozy and wincing from the light. The next three days would be lost to a weird walking daze as our bodies recovered from Burger King and Denny’s. Then, just when we were beginning to feel sane again, we’d trek the hour back across the Dumbarton Bridge, up I-880 through the Maze to I-80’s Benicia Bridge for another four days and three nights of checking in guests, directing incoming calls to the rooms, folding sheets (the local laundry service was exorbitantly expensive, so we washed the motel’s linens ourselves), and switching the pirated porn tapes on the VCR.
A third of the rooms were constantly occupied by “the monthlies,” welfare moms living at county expense on a monthly basis. This left us with roughly 30 rooms to fill each night. We got $33 a night for rooms with leaky faucets held together with duct tape, flea-infested rugs and air-conditioning that sounded like a jet breaking the sound barrier. The reason: We offered an exquisite selection of hardcore porn tapes. They played 24 hours a day and were equally accessible on Channel 6 to unfaithful truck drivers boning hookers in the two $75-a-night hot-tub rooms and the welfare moms’ kids.
Every week I’d use one of my evenings off to hit Tower Video in Mountain View because it possessed one of the nation’s finest collections of recorded sex acts. I’d rent a dozen with high ticket prices (the $89.99 videos tended to offer better acting than the $19.99 ones) and dub them three films to one VHS to create a six-hour-long collection of vice. I watched hundreds of X-rated tapes a month in order to find the most titillating films, which gave me a bizarre expertise among my intellectual friends whenever we discussed what movies we’d recently seen.
I quickly learned that these tapes were absolutely essential to our success. “You still have those movies, right?” some gangly tattooed guy would leer through the bulletproof glass at the counter, using a California prison system parole card as ID. (The Islander was many inmates’ first stop on the outside.) Most of our customers were locals – people with Vallejo addresses – bringing their wives for “a treat,” the same way bourgeois types might spend a weekend snuggling at the Saint Francis – except that we had more intriguing cinematography. Whenever a tape would run out, the switchboard would light up with patrons caught empty-handed in the middle of some unspeakable act.
Although I had always associated myself with liberal politics, working at the Islander was enough to turn Che Guevara himself into a Republican. The spectacle of institutionalized poverty would greet you the second you pulled into the parking lot from the northbound freeway exit. There’d usually be a few miscellanous addicts and alchies passed out under the trash-filled shrubs, and maybe someone trying to steal the engine out of an abandoned car. The welfare moms would loll in their grotesquely tight pants on the second-floor balcony, coming down to the office every so often to offer some excuse for delaying paying for the next night’s room fee. “This guy, he’s gonna come by later and I’m gonna suck him off for $35…I’ll have the $33 then, so can you wait until I’m done?” Naturally I demanded collateral for this sort of credit, and soon collected an impressive array of Swatches, imitation Rolexes, cameras and firearms from people who’d overstay a night and take off, normally after pulling the phone out of the wall and stealing the TV. If we were lucky, there might be feces to clean off the wall or a kitten to send to the animal shelter.
All of these women looked forward to seeing their psychotic criminal boyfriends, who’d come around late at night to beat them up, throw them through windows at great inconvenience to me (I had to replace the glass) and steal whatever money theyÕd scrounged together from selling their food stamps. They’d weep in a clichéed daytime-soap kind of way and pick the shards out of their torsos and get all made up in time for the next evening’s for the next round of abuse. They never looked for work, but I could never determine why they were at the Islander in the first place. The county paid us $600 a month to house them, but you could rent a decent two-bedroom house for far less than that. The truth was, they liked being around their fellow losers.
Check-out time was 11 am. At noon I’d start calling around to rouse the human refuse recovering from the previous night’s whoring. It was like bobbing for dung apples; every noon there would be some horrific surprise. One time this guy refused to open the door when I knocked, but I could hear a woman’s muffled voice inside so I called Vallejo’s Finest. It turned out that the guy had been repeatedly raping a hooker all night in there. She left in an ambulance, barely alive. Another time I used my key to open a reticent guest’s door and he answered the door in his BVDs, holding a pistol.
“I hope you’re satisfied, man,” the guy said with a hollow-eyed, Cobain-like stare. “I had to shoot myself. No choice.”
There was a smaller-than-you’d-think hole in his upper thigh. Blood trickled down his leg. I closed the door.
When the cops brought him out in cuffs – he was wanted for jumping bail – he yelled at me: “Why’d you go and call the cops, man? I was gonna pay for the fucking room!” This lunacy was typical; there was a constant parade of demented souls with incomprehensible demands on the other side of the thick glass.
I became rapidly disenchanted with the job, but it did have its advantages. Many guests would come in for a quick screw and leave after an hour or two, which allowed me to go in quickly when the maid wasn’t around. I’d tidy up the sheets (forget changing them!) and dump the empty whiskey bottles (most people need a drink to get into the mood) so I could rent the sucker back out again so and pocket the extra $33. I turned over some rooms as often as three times in a single day – including the $75 “spa” rooms; this provided me with vital extra income that I was saving for my eventual return back east, as Californians say. People also forgot a lot of things in their rooms after checking out. I sold this stuff, including a twelve-gauge shotgun and shells, vibrators and a rooster which had evidently been used in cockfights. Most of the time, however, they just left garbage.
On one occasion we had to change the locks when one of the monthlies failed to turn over her check. She didn’t come back, so we went into her room. Everything she and her kids owned was in that room, but there wasn’t anything worth selling or keeping. It was all crap – dirty plastic shit, fast-food wrappers, broken toys, nasty thrift-store clothing. Although throwing away a human being’s possessions was weird – I still remember the kids’ homework fluttering out of the dumpster – in a way I felt like I was doing her a favor. After all, she owned nothing worth having.
After a few months, I’d started to settle into the motel routine. So Julie decided to leave for Taiwan, to tutor English and study Chinese. I was stuck in motel hell, running this squalid cesspool all by my lonesome.
It’s not that there weren’t offers of sexual companionship to distract me from the loss of my beloved. The welfare women were constantly trying to lure me into their rooms for a quick bang (in exchange for a free night), but any temptation in that arena was squashed by the knowledge that they were all dating Crips or Bloods – and some were seeing both. And there was the sweet bridesmaid from Nebraska who got stuck at The Islander because every other motel in the area was full.
Her call came in at 4:30 am. “Why don’t you come over and play with me?” the girl with red hair and entirely too much cleavage for someone that short asked an hour after checking in. She was cute, but it was the motel’s 3-to-6 witching hour, and I knew that my customers were circling the parking lot like hyenas, waiting for just such an opportunity. Undoubtedly I would have returned to the office the following morning to find it robbed and trashed.
After spending years working jobs that required me to be polite, there was something amazingly gratifying about treating people like shit for a living.
“What the fuck do you want?” I’d yell at people who’d just asked me for an extra towel or change for a dollar or to put on a better video. I became more irritable after Julie left for the Far East; it wasn’t easy remaining celibate while even inbred trailer-park types were getting laid all around me.
The job also allowed me incredible insight into the psyche of the human animal. Occasionally several guests would call to complain about the porn vids. “There’s not enough – you know,” they’d say.
“Enough what?” I’d ask.
“You know, action. Stuff going on. Fucking.”
“Yes, I see. You mean, you’re unsatisfied with the plot progression? Or do you find the screenplay trite and banal? Perhaps you should await the denouement, Mr. Siskel!” And I’d hang up.
The VCR in the office/apartment was the only way I could watch a video. That meant the whole motel had to view whatever I felt like seeing. The film “Manon of the Spring” nearly caused a riot when it cut into the middle of a Savannah girl-girl scene. A huge employee of a nearby Navy facility appeared at the front desk in a stained white tank-top that didn’t go all the way down to his navel, pounding and screaming. “What the fuck is this shit?”
“It’s fucking culture, you fat bastard!” I barked through the safety of the glass. “It’s fucking sensitive romantic French shit, you fuck!”
I tried compromising between white-trash and white-collar tastes with a series of Russ Meyer films, but to my surprise “Mudhoney” and “Faster, Faster Pussycat…Kill! Kill!” turned out to be even less popular than “Repo Man” and “Total Recall.” “Turn off this old shit,” a woman from room 114 yelped. “We want real sex!”
In my most bizarre cinematic experiment ever, I exposed an entire motel full of horny Marines and crack whores to “The Battle of Algiers,” a critically-acclaimed black-and-white French-language pseudo-documentary depicting resistance to France during the Algerian War. There’s absolutely no sex whatsoever, but Islander customers gave two-thumbs-up to the graphic torture scenes.
The calls came in as the credits ran. “That was really cool,” one guy said. I couldn’t believe they stabbed that thing into that guy’s ass!” Not a single complaint was lodged.
Like the Morgan Freeman character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” I soon became accustomed to life at the Islander – and became more and more like my guests. I didn’t blink twice when the same customer used driver’s licenses with three completely different names to cash a government check (I charged 10 percent of the proceeds), or when a teenager got his hand trapped in the Coke machine while trying to steal its coins. (I threatened to tip it over on him.) I had deadbeats’ cars towed away to force them to cough up the back rent, and started to consider a addled Vietnam vet named Lee (Room 101) one of the more normal people in my life whenever he wasn’t screaming about “the copters, the copters” in the parking lot.
Nearly a year of my life had passed this way before I realized that I had finally saved enough money to return to New York. I said goodbye to Julie’s dad and mom and flew back, leaving them to fend for themselves against the onslaught of scumbags seven days a week. Unfortunately, they never found someone as reliable as I was, and the motel fell further into ruin. They sold it to a guy from Thailand who decided to do away with the porn vids, thus eliminating the motel’s raison d’être. Soon the once-thriving business was mostly empty and within months, the Thai guy defaulted on the Islander’s mortgage and property taxes . He disappeared and abandoned the place to bank receivership, and now the ghosts of welfare moms and pushers and white college boys from New York walk amid graffitied walls and broken glass and shitty furniture that nobody found worth stealing.
(C) 1998 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved
Time for Democrats to Get Mean
“All of us feel it. There is a sickness in the American political system, a withering of the public faith in government that is so essential to our democracy. This has always been a country of rough political rhetoric. But the personal viciousness, the haste, the ideological shrillness are worse now than for many years.”
—Anthony Lewis, New York Times, 1-29-96
Anthony Lewis obviously lives in a different world from the rest of us. Where I live, the main problem with the two-party system is a general absence of personal viciousness. Forget posturing on trivial matters like the budget impasse. On issues that really affect Americans on a day-to-day basis, Democrats and Republicans are in complete agreement.
Both parties agree that at least 6 percent of American workers should be kept systematically unemployed in order to keep inflation down. The parties of Jackson and Lincoln both favor tax cuts for the rich, a less-progressive tax structure and unregulated free trade.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans favor restoring the college direct-grant system. Neither favors improving mass transit. Neither really accepts the existence of global warming, much less feels the need to do anything about it .
This evil spirit of bipartisanship poorly serves citizens who disagree with the Uniparty’s mad rush to an illusive center.
Citizens of European-style parliamentary democracies have dozens of distinct political party platforms to choose from, ranging from extreme left to extreme right. In France or Italy, for example, Socialists don’t do lunch with Christian Democrats. They don’t sleep together either, à la Matlin and Carville. Ideology is serious business there, and voters are better represented.
Accepting for the moment that our wretched nation is limited to two parties, we have the right to at least expect two distinct stances on most issues.
The wimp-owned and -operated Democrats are particularly responsible for the current one-party system. As demonstrated by Clinton’s pathetic groveling for common ground with the Republicans in his State of the Union address, Democrats parrot pro-business Republicans on virtually every issue. Perhaps most unforgivably in a country that worships macho posturists, they never fight back when the GOP slanders them. All of the most outrageous televised attack ads of recent decades have been Republican ones–Nixon comparing McGovern’s national health care plan to socialism and Bush’s overtly racist Willie Horton ad come to mind first.
Even if the Democrats aren’t interested in rescuing themselves from their string of one-term presidencies, they owe the country some seriously aggressive ideological shrillness. In the interest of public service, here’s what I’m talking about:
ATTACK AD 1: “They Hate You” (30 seconds)
Show cameras sweeping across sea of white faces at Republican National Convention, interspersed with Ku Klux Klan rallies, Nazis goose-stepping, blacks being attacked by dogs in the South, cross-burnings, piles of bodies at Auschwitz, and then panning across Republicans in Congress, especially Jesse Helms.
VOICE-OVER: America’s Republican Party. They’ve come a long way since Lincoln, haven’t they?”
TEXT: Anti-welfare. No funding for AIDS research. Anti-affirmative action. Against raising the minimum wage.
VOICE-OVER: “Republicans hate ordinary people. They hate blacks. They hate gays. They hate women. They hate people who work for a living. The odds are, they hate you. And why shouldn’t they? You’re not like them. They’re rich. Powerful. Mean.”
Show George Bush golfing and Bob Dole at a black-tie dinner. Cut to exclusive estates in wealthy suburb.
VOICE-OVER: “If you don’t live like them, don’t vote like them. This message sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.”
ATTACK AD 2: “Domestic Violence” (30 seconds)
Show shots of O.J. Simpson being tried for murder, photos of Nicole Simpson with bruises on her face. Cut to shots of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Then show all four men’s faces together, “Brady Bunch”-style.
VOICE-OVER: “What do these four men have in common? They treat women like crap.”
First, zero in on Reagan.
VOICE-OVER: “Ronald Reagan was accused of showing up drunk at a young starlet’s home back in the 1950s and raping her. Later, when he got married, he abandoned his first wife, Jane Wyman, and let his son Ron, Jr. live on food stamps rather than help him through college.”
Next, show Gingrich.
VOICE-OVER: “Newt Gingrich served his faithful first wife with divorce papers in the hospital while she was recovering from a cancer operation. Why? Because she wasn’t flashy enough for him to be seen with in Washington after he became a big-shot. Then she had to take him to court to force him to pay child support.”
Then show Dole.
VOICE-OVER: “Bob Dole? He dumped his first wife too. So the next time some Republican starts talking about family values, remember what kind of family values he’s talking about. America’s Republicans: Anti-woman. Anti-child. Anti-family. Paid for by Democrats to Re-elect President Clinton.”
Now there’s some ideological shrillness to make American politics exciting again.
(Ted Rall, author of Waking Up In America (St. Martin’s Press, 1992) and All The Rules Have Changed (Rip Off Press, 1995), is a syndicated editorial cartoonist and freelance writer.)
© 1996 Ted Rall All Rights Reserved