James Gillray. Thomas Rowlandson. William Hogarth. Goya and Nast. Mauldin and Minor. Conrad.
Political cartooning is a completely unique form of expression because what you say and how you say it matter in equal parts, and you have to be eloquent in a very tight space. These legendary cartoonists are the greatest of all time because their achievements in all areas are unmatched. Few others have even come close.
So am I saying that Mr. Fish belongs in this sacred pantheon? Well, no I’m not. And after reading his cartoon philosophy, I’m not sure he’d want me to.
But here’s what I am saying: keep an eye on him. This brilliant mugwump is still young. Watch him as he develops his art. I believe that in twenty years, critics will fall over each other to install him in that sacred pantheon. And knowing Mr. Fish, he’ll have something pretty biting and ungrateful to say about it.
That is precisely why we will mention him in the same breath as Goya and Nast, Minor and the others.
Mr. Fish is a prodigiously talented artist who doesn’t sacrifice at the altar of Art. He is a uniquely independent observer of political life and culture. He doesn’t think anyone with power deserves it. His satire is completely catholic, aimed at Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. Nor does he spare the public, and its odd obsessions and unrealistic expectations.
The cartoons of Mr. Fish are unpredictable and aggressive. He employs a wide range of artistic styles. Whether it is photorealism, collage, sophisticated cartooning, child-like scrawls, even manga, he uses the style most likely to make his point hurt. He can be cruel, savage, lewd, and rude. And sometimes, he can weep.
In the contest between word and image, he mixes it up without restraint. Sometimes his intentions are cryptic, and other times, brutally clear. He makes you stare, even if you wish could look away. Pay attention when he makes you squeamish. That’s when he’s found your truth, amputated it, and made you unwillingly regard it as a stupid joke.
Frankly, in his mastery of the form, he makes most of his contemporaries look like they are phoning it in. It’s hard to believe that he even gets published. Aren’t these the truths that society would rather not face? Yet he regularly appears in prominent publications: Truthdig.com and Harpers.org.
Mr. Fish is our constant reminder that the First Amendment belongs to us, the people, and we should use it with all we’ve got. For this simple reason, his work is breathtaking. It confirms him as the cartoonist most worth reading, and most worth watching to see what he’ll say next, and how.
Mr. Fish, a.k.a. Dwayne Booth (for those who read the fine print), is also a pretty awesome guy, a real mensch to a would-be interviewer like me, because he was so very generous in his answers to our questions. Here’s your chance to get to know a bit about the man behind the best political cartoons in America.
What was your first comic strip/cartoon/comic?
Trying to pinpoint my first cartoon is a little bit like trying to pinpoint the first time I used a joke to get underneath somebody else’s skin. There was a series of comic books that I drew while I was in middle school about a fat classmate of mine called The Magnificiently Meaningless Misadventures of Ms. Suey Pig, which was usually rendered in pencil and starred me and all my friends.
Then there was the first piece of art that I did specifically for publication in the school newspaper, which I did when I was eleven. These were a pair of strips (mis)using the Peanuts characters, one that saw the death of our school principal and the other one making a remarkably tasteless joke about rape, referencing a well-known news story about a 500-pound sex offender named Jo-Jo Giorgianni. (Both were rejected by the school paper.) Then there was the first cartoon that I drew, in 1982, that directly addressed the grotesque hybrid produced by the marrying together of rightwing Christianity and modern Republicanism. Then there was the first cartoon done for publication in a zine (remember those?!) that depicted Santa Claus giving birth to Jesus Christ in a bathroom. Then there was the first cartoon published by an international magazine, Anarchy, that was about post-modern environmentalism.
What are you reading right now?
Just finishing up Donald Hall’s Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry, while simultaneously beginning Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, having recently abandoned Jules Feiffer’s remarkably mediocre memoir, Backing Into Forward, while cheering the factual content and abhorring the style of David Bianculli’s book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.’ I am always re-reading Vonnegut and Mailer, mostly their non-fiction work, recent examples being Kurt’s Fates Worse Than Death and Norman’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. Unable to read while I’m drawing, I also consume massive amounts of spoken word recordings, specifically the work of Lenny Bruce, Noam Chomsky, David Sedaris and Jack Benny.
What is your guilty pleasure?
My experience of pleasure is that it doesn’t have to be guilt-inducing. It is lovely. What’s lovely? Eating ridiculously expensive cheeses and cured meats and red grapes and crisp apples and artisan breads and drinking wine in front of an old movie, anything by Hawks or Hitchcock or Nichols or Allen, usually starring Bogart, Grant, Kelly, Stewart or Konigsberg, with my wife, who I’ve known since I was 18.
Who was the first cartoonist/animator you met?
Daryl Cagle, I guess, and a handful of his cohorts, none of whom I remember at all beyond their extraordinary kindness and benign joviality. I later interviewed Paul Conrad for the LA Weekly and accompanied him to a number of venues in and around Los Angeles. (Not surprisingly, I find that I don’t have a whole lot in common with other cartoonists.)
Which dead cartoonist/animator would you most like to meet?
What would you say?
I loved your books, In His Own Write, A Spaniard in the Works and Skywriting by Word of Mouth – found your lines as carefree as Picasso’s and as witty in their brevity as Thurber’s. I also understand that you did music?
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Having my Can I Have a Grant… go viral before there was a viable Internet. Ever since first appearing in Harper’s Magazine in 1992, I’ve seen it taped up and tacked up and pasted to dozens of walls, bulletin boards and, perhaps most often, in espresso bars (where most artists work for at least a little while, usually until their rage and discontent dissipates along with their personal optimism and career prospects and they return to school to become underpaid English teachers), some as far away as the Czech Republic, a snapshot of which I received in the mail in the late 90s from a friend backpacking through Prague.
Please tell us a little about your latest project.
I currently have a half-hour animated pilot, called A Dog Goes Into a Bar, circulating around Hollywood. I also have a graphic memoir, that includes interviews with a number of counterculture heroes (like Mort Sahl, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Graham Nash, and others), called One Complete Revolution, being shopped around. I also have a Mr. Fish cartoon collection scheduled to come out next year in conjunction with a pair of major art exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Which old-time cartoon character do you most identify with?
Bugs Bunny, without a doubt.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
An unflinching confidence while wearing a leotard.
Unflinching confidence, indeed! The best way to read Mr. Fish is at his website. He understands better than anyone that sacred cows make the best hamburgers. You’ll fill your belly by going straight to the source.
And as always, thank you Dwayne!