Collection Mixes the Good with Too Many Bad Jokes

Columbia Free Times | June 9, 2004
TITLE: **Attitude 2** — 20,000 Leagues Below **Guernica**

A review of **Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists**, edited by Ted Rall. New York: NBM Publishing, 127 pages, $13.95 (Paperback).

By Arik Berglund

In the foreword of **Attitude 2**, editor Ted Rall tries to shatter the slacker stereotype of the market for underground cartoons and instead sell the public on the 22 alternative cartoonists featured in the book. “[T]hese are the most exciting cartoons in the country,” Rall writes. “It’s time that more people started paying attention.” Rall’s editorial miasma should have stopped there. Many of the cartoons are bad enough without his further boyish bashing of **The New Yorker** and the present administration.

Few would disagree with Rall’s assessments that “the world is falling apart” or “politics have become unbearably hip.” (Wasn’t this obvious 12 years ago when Bill Clinton blew some bluesy notes on **The Arsenio Hall Show**?) But Rall is hardly doing the future revolution — or Sen. John Kerry — any political favors with his final mantra: “All you can do is laugh.” Somewhere Trotsky rolls in his grave: **If only I had done stand-up**!

In truth, cartooning **can** be a revolutionary force. Referring to Herb Block, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the **Washington Post**, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington once said, “The sign of a great cartoonist is the ability to effect change.” Block not only coined the term “McCarthyism,” but his sardonic brush was an effective political pin that poked fun at corruption in Washington and beyond for more than 50 years. Not only did Block pop bureaucratic balloons with the best of them, but the man could flat-out draw. There is no doubt Block was a master artist.

Even a cursory glance at **Attitude 2**, however, makes it clear that most contemporary alternative cartoonists wish to distance themselves from the things that made Block’s artwork grand. The true subversion of **Attitude 2** cartoonists such as Keith Knight, Emily Flake and David Rees is to combine drawing, text and humor in a way that doesn’t even remotely resemble what the average person needs a political cartoon to be. To quote Knight: “People say I’m too wordy. And I’m lazy … I wouldn’t dispute any of that. It has taken years to perfect my trademark poorly-rendered, barely thought-out, last-minute cartooning style.”

Ooh, the mind of an underground revolutionary. Chutzpah, baby! Locked and loaded! Viva la crap!

Each cartoonist portfolio in **Attitude 2** features a brief bio, a short interview with the artist (a term graciously applied to many) and about a dozen strips supposedly representative of an artist’s best work. At least a quarter of these are so blindingly boring that this reviewer literally fell asleep on his living room sofa while studying them.

Justin Jones brings an interesting, id-like simplicity to the drawing table, but clouds his cells with so much text that one ultimately feels stuck in James Joyce’s superego. And the Max Cannon and David Rees school of clip-art cartooning feels like laziness masquerading as art. Economy is one thing, but Duchamps’ **Fountain** is a one-time, unrepeatable gag.

The cartoons that work best are the ones that begrudgingly align themselves with the traditional form Herb Block immortalized. In these, the artwork is clean and much is said without saying much at all. Of my two favorites, Mikhaela B. Reid’s is the most poignant. In the first cell, an Iraqi family stares at a boarded window, with a distant fighter jet visible through a small hole. Family members wonder whether they have enough food or water and whether their ramshackle neighborhood will soon be carpet-bombed. Meanwhile, in cell two, an American family watches **Showdown with Saddam** on television, wonders whether they have enough soda and popcorn, and expresses deep concern that **American Idol** might be preempted.

My other favorite is by **Baltimore City Paper** cartoonist Tim Kreider. It is a single-cell affair: Alien mother ships are suspended in midair over a large metropolitan city, with hundreds of citizens gazing on high and pointing, certain of the worst. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a caricature of the cartoonist stares at the visible cheek-line of a beautiful woman wearing a short tube skirt. Who knows how Rall qualifies this as subversive political humor, but students of human nature should be amused.

Reviewing cartoons that do **not** work, on the other hand, is not an easy affair: No one wants to witness the dissection of a bad joke. That said, most of **Attitude 2** belongs in a soup kitchen line. Thus it is hard not to feel embarrassed for the few truly good artists chained to this anthology, like Aaron McGruder, Barry Deutsch, Kevin Moore, Shannon Wheeler and Jason Yungbluth. This reviewer recommends office-cubicle web searches of these folks. They actually **deserve** public attention — but not your hard-earned money by way of **Attitude 2**.

Finally, Oregonian Kevin Moore captures the Platonic essence of the political cartoon. In his strip “In Contempt,” Moore revamps Picasso’s **Guernica** to represent the plight of the Afghan people. His only major addition is that of a U.S. fighter jet unleashing bombs, with a single word emerging from the cockpit: “Ooops.”

Moore’s instinct is right — whether or not one agrees with his politics. Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece is the granddaddy of 20th-century political cartoons. Herb Block would most assuredly agree. I just hope the lazy, wordy Keith Knight is listening.

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