Interview with Ted Rall. New York City, June 17, June 24, and July 10, 1997.
by Kent Worcester
KW: Why don't you start by saying something about where you grew up, what your early interests were, and whether they led you in the direction of cartoons and comics.
TR: I grew up in a town called Kettering, Ohio, which is a suburb of Dayton. It's a very, very lily- white middle-class kind of place. I was always a fan of cartooning, because I learned how to read English by reading the newspaper. My mother is French, and my parents are divorced, and I didn't really speak any English when I first went to kindergarten. My mom was like, 'oh shit', we better teach this guy some English, so she encouraged me to read the newspaper, which was filled with news about Robert Kennedy's assassination, the Tet Offensive, and so on. Editorial cartoons were always one of the real bright spots in the paper. At that time Dayton was very fortunate to have one of the young Turks of editorial cartooning, Mike Peters, working at the local paper. He was a huge influence on me and I suspect on any cartoonist who came out of Dayton at the time. Mike Peters had a wild, outrageous style. He was brutal and vicious and skewered things, and I was really interested in that.
As a child I drew a lot of cartoons for myself, fantasizing about them being in the paper. But I didn't do anything with them until I was in high school, when I was on the newspaper staff. It occurred to me that my cartoons were too good for the high school paper, so I took them to the local paper, and they started running them. By the time I graduated from high school I had eight local papers running my cartoons in the Dayton area -- papers like the Kettering-Oakwood Times, things like that. The Kettering-Oakwood Times is a very small paper, published biweekly, with a circulation of 18,000.
KW: Did they pay you?
TR: Yeah, they paid better than the Washington Post pays today! They paid $25 a cartoon, which was not bad. The Post pays $10 per cartoon, and from that the syndicate takes $5, so I keep $5.
KW: People must think you get rich from cartooning.
TR: Only stupid people. Cartooning is not a way to get rich. That's why in the last couple of years I've started to do a lot of writing to supplement my income. Only in the world of cartooning would freelance writing be considered a gravy train. In any event, one of the big moments for me was during my junior year in high school, when the Ohio State Cartoonists Association, which probably doesn't exist anymore, ran a state-wide contest for high school cartoonists, and I won the top award. Mike Peters himself came to my local high school and gave a little spiel about cartooning. He gave a slide show, and made everyone laugh in his hyper-kinetic way. He was really at the top of his form at that time. It must have been 1979. He gave me the award and said 'I really think you have some talent, why don't you come down to my office and watch me draw?' So I did that. I used to go down every week or every other week, for two years, and talk to him about cartooning. It struck me that here was this guy, he's in this ink-stained office, wearing hip-hugger jeans, and this wild '70s shirt, and he's got this really cute wife helping him stuff envelopes for the syndicate, and there's a sportswriter passed out drunk on the couch, and I was like 'this rules!' All the other fathers in Dayton were engineers, or they worked at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and the idea of working at some soul-deadening job absolutely didn't appeal to me at all. And I thought if, jeez, I can ever make a living drawing political cartoons then this is definitely what I want to do.
Mike told me to go to Ohio State, because they had a great paper, or to a graphic arts school, but I didn't follow his advice -- I went to Columbia in New York instead, and I drew cartoons for the Columbia paper, the Daily Spectator. But I had a falling out with them, because they kept running my cartoons in smaller and smaller spaces, and putting me in the back, and then hardly running me at all, and I was like 'fuck you guys' and I took my cartoons across the street to the Barnard Bulletin. I was like the first guy to ever draw for the Barnard Bulletin. Barnard is an all-female school. Then I got tired of the girls, and worked on something called the Sundial, which was an alternative weekly on campus. That was a cool gig.
KW: What year did you start college?
TR: I started in 1981. I was in college from '81 to '84, and then in '84 I got expelled for disciplinary and academic and a variety of other reasons, they couldn't really decide which. I got caught throwing stuff out of the 10th floor dorm onto passing taxis; I rewired a dorm's phone system. I had 3 'F's, a 'D' and a 'C' during my last semester. I was pretty much hell on wheels. I was a real problem, and they threw me out.
At that time I sent out a bunch of letters to newspapers -- I was so naive! -- looking for staff jobs. Looking back, obviously I don't think my work was so good. No comparison to what it is now, certainly in artistic terms. I hadn't found a unique voice, and I was still trying hard to do the Mike Peters thing. I remember getting one rejection letter where they said 'it'll be a cold day in hell before we hire a lame Mike Peters wannabe', and I was like 'oh shit'. And the thing is, they were right. I got so discouraged I just quit drawing cartoons. I had gotten thrown out of school, fired from my job, my girlfriend dumped me; I got so depressed I fell into a funk. For three and a half years I didn't draw any cartoons at all. Somehow I got a job on Wall Street, working at Bear Stearns and later at the Industrial Bank of Japan. It was while I was at IBJ that my new girlfriend said, 'you're so depressed, have you ever had a job you liked?' I've had a million jobs: I've worked on the docks, driven a taxi, tutored calculus, worked as a DJ. I've had 43 different jobs. So I had a lot of choices. And the only thing that ever really appealed to me was cartooning. And she said 'well, that's what you have to do'. That very night she made me sit down and draw.
Again, after that, I did a mailing to newspapers and got nothing but rejection letters. I didn't know what to do. I decided I had to draw for myself and pretend like I was drawing on a deadline. But that got to be very depressing. You want people to see what you're doing. Anyway, in late 1987 I ran into the artist Keith Haring in the subway -- I met him several years before -- who said, 'here's the way to go, take your stuff to the people'. As a result I'd bring in my cartoons to work on Monday morning, xerox several hundred copies, and at night my girlfriend and I would walk down Broadway from Columbia to 86th Street, cross over to Columbus Avenue, rejoin Broadway, walk to Times Square, to the front of the New York Times building, cross over 42nd Street to the Daily News building, putting up copies of my cartoons. We did that every Monday, rain or shine, through blizzards, heat waves, you name it, for two and half years.
KW: What did you put up exactly?
TR: Normally it was just a cartoon and my P.O. box, so people could contact me. We'd put them on lampposts, bus stops, subway entrances, construction sites, and so on. People would write me and say 'hey, you might send your work to this or that magazine', and through that I made contacts at about twelve magazines. No dailies, just alternative-y things. The biggest thing I had at that time was an alternative weekly called the New York Perspectives, which later went out of business. That was really great exposure, they treated me really well, it was great. Then I got arrested by the New York City poster police, because they have an ordinance which says that you can't put anything up on public property.
KW: Is that a separate branch of the police department?
TR: It's a division of the Sanitation Department, but they have police powers. They can break down your door, they can search your apartment. Basically what they do is go around, pull down posters, and track phone numbers and hit people with fines. The charge is $150 for the first poster, plus $75 for each additional poster. So let's say they find 100 posters -- you're talking about serious money, over $7,500, which is not atypical. I got fined $5,050.
KW: How did they track you down?
TR: A regular cop stopped me. He was like 'I just sit here like a spider waiting for the fly, and you're my fly'. And I was like 'ah, you're truly defending democracy'. What a dip-shit. The thing is that I got this fine, but my lawyer went to court and said that it was a [Mayor Ed] Koch administration plot to squelch dissent, because I had done anti-Koch cartoons. It wasn't true but it worked and that's the point.
KW: Let's go back to talk about other influences on your work. Doonesbury?
TR: Not really. Mike Peters. Peanuts. Huge influence. And Feiffer. He was a major influence on me as well. His work didn't appear in the paper in Dayton but when I was in seventh grade I had an English teacher who was an old New York liberal and she had a bunch of her books at home and I read all those. Here were political cartoons that weren't about like what Gerald Ford is saying, or Agnew, but they were about politics as it affects ordinary people. Anyone who has half a brain can see that I've been influenced by Feiffer. I couldn't do what I do without him. Of course I have my own quirky sensibility, and so does he...
KW: I think of you as somewhat more sarcastic.
TR: I'm not as earnest.
KW: And you don't have the equivalent of his dancer. So you were reading Feiffer. Did you ever try to get published in the Village Voice?
TR: Of course. How many times? But the Voice has no interest in good cartoons. The fact that they had Feiffer was a total fluke. They had Stan Mack and Feiffer. But they went through a litany of poor cartoonists.
KW: What do you think of Lynda Barry?
TR: I don't like her work at all. I find it purposefully messy, not in a way that makes any point. But she's a competent cartoonist, which puts her in the top five per cent. Most cartoonists don't even know which words to bold-face, or where commas go. They're stupid. Lynda Barry is totally competent. But her whole viewpoint is something I will never be able to relate to. It's very rich girl. It's all she does every week. How many times do we have to read about her first period? I don't care about her first period.
KW: I don't know whether to shut the tape recorder off or to egg you on.
KW: What about Matt Groening?
TR: I think Matt Groening is a god. I could do without the Abe cartoons, the kid cartoons. Maybe it's because I don't have kids. But Life in Hell is one of the most brilliant things I have ever encountered. He's self-syndicated, and he's a genius. And the Simpsons is the best damn thing on television. Period. Ever. Nothing else has ever been that good. It's so subversive, and the humor is great, and some of the stuff is totally off the wall. And that's great. I just love that. Just throw in something that shouldn't really be there. Why? Because that's what life is like.
KW: Do you think of yourself as part of a generation? Is there a 'new wave' generation? Are there a bunch of cartoonists sitting around with Buzzcocks LP's?
TR: I don't know about their taste in music. Certainly there's a genre that I'm part of, very realistic, winsome, sardonic. My kindred souls are people like Nina Paley, Ruben Bolling, who does 'Tom the Dancing Bug', Carol Lay, Chris Kelly. Nina Paley now has a strip called Fluff that should be in, like, four thousand newspapers. She used to do a great comic strip called Nina's Adventures.
KW: What about Tom Tomorrow?
TR: Tom Tomorrow [Dan Perkins] and I often appear in the same publications, and we're often compared. Probably neither one of us really likes it. There are differences. He's more vested in the system than I am, maybe. He probably has more faith in the Democratic Party than I do. But Dan's got his heart in the right place, and I respect what he's doing. Sure, it's preachy. That's not what I do. There are people who need that. But we don't have the same aesthetic, and our audience isn't really the same, either. He's preaching to the choir. He's got a lot more weeklies than I have, and I have a lot more dailies. There's a yin and yang thing between us. We probably look at each other as a bad penny. He turns up wherever I fucking want to be. I'm like, 'oh yeah, I should be in that magazine' and I'll open it up and say 'goddammit he's already in there'. Editors will say 'we can't use your work, we already have Tom Tomorrow'. What does that have to do with anything? And I think he gets the same response. You can have both. It's o.k.
KW: Getting back to your early influences, it's surprising to me how many cartoonists refer back to Peanuts. What is it about Peanuts?
TR: It's impossible to explain. It's the fact that it had so much soul, especially at the time that I was reading it. This was in the early and middle 1970s. It was a great strip. It's still a great strip. If it came out today it would appear in an edgy alternative weekly. It couldn't appear in a daily. It would be this wild thing. And it took him eight years to get off the ground, so it was true at the time as well.
KW: What about Mad Magazine?
TR: Of course I read Mad Magazine, and politically I was definitely very influenced by them, but I never liked the art. The big exception to that is Al Jaffe. I loved Al Jaffe's fold-overs. I felt that the other guys were hacks and then there was Al Jaffe.
KW: Were you searching out old comic strips?
TR: I have to admit that a lot of my peers, say someone like Carol Lay, know a lot more about comic strip history. She'll say, 'that's totally Herriman' but that stuff doesn't mean anything to me. I never saw any of Crumb's work, for example, until the movie came out. You have to understand that I grew up in Kettering, Ohio. There wasn't a comics shop in the entire town. The only access to comics was in the local daily newspaper. At that time Garfield was a very big deal.
KW: Did you feel there was a strong divide between the cartoons on the editorial page, and the comics strips?
TR: I was very schizo about it, and I still am today, and I've tried to resolve it by incorporating elements of the strip into the editorial cartoon. I like four frames. I like that aspect of the strip, the set-up, the exposition, and then the punch-line. You can't do that in one panel. I look at cartoons in the New Yorker and I think that they're crap, unadulterated crap.
KW: I'm a big fan of Roz Chast.
TR: She's o.k. I like Charles Addams. Thurber is a god. As far as I'm concerned he's the master.
KW: When would you have first seen his work?
TR: In books I found at garage sales in Ohio. But it was hit or miss. You couldn't get the New Yorker. There's a kind of southern, Kentucky thing going on in my town. I had neighbors growing corn on their front lawn, even though it was a suburb. It's not wannabe New York. It's a different dynamic. And so I'm very weak on the classics. I'm only now starting to check out things like Little Nemo, Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat is beautiful but meaningless. A lot of these so-called classic strips are extremely overrated.
KW: What about comic books? Did you know about the Silver Age, Kirby, Marvel, undergrounds?
TR: I really dug war comics. I loved Sargent Rock, Weird War. Of course when I was a little kid I read all kinds of tacky superhero crap like Spiderman, and Batman, and all that stuff.
KW: And even though you were drawing you didn't want to do anything that looked like that?
TR: I just thought it all looked the same. And it _does_ all look the same. And it did then. There's something about that hyper-realistic style that I find really dehumanizing and unappealing. I was always more interested in abstract art. Even as a kid my mother had a lot of art books around and I would say to myself that comics should look more like this stuff. I always loved the form of comics, but I was always frustrated with what was being done with them. As a kid, I was much more influenced by what was going on with album covers. I discovered punk when I was fourteen years old, in 1977. I'll never forget. I went to the local record store, and the first Clash album was a cut-out. When you're a kid you are always trying to save a few bucks. I bought the album for $3.99 and I thought 'look at that cover -- God, they look great! -- this is the way things ought to look'. I really love the aesthetics of that period. Later on, when I was a freshman, I discovered American hardcore like the Dead Kennedys, and that stuff was even more exciting to me. I didn't like the way comics looked, and I wasn't crazy about most cartoon strips either.
KW: Was there anything else on the comics page or editorial page that you particularly liked?
TR: There were a lot of things I read.
KW: What about Oliphant?
TR: You could say I'm a distinct reaction against Oliphant. I respect what he does, and recognize that he's a brilliant cartoonist. He can draw circles around me anytime. Nonetheless, I hate his work. There's something very cavalier, distant, cold and mean about what he does. He doesn't really seem to care about the issues he's drawing about. He's not invested emotionally in what he's doing. The Dayton paper used to run his stuff all the time and I remember hating it. I was like 'this is exactly what editorial cartoons should not be'. I still admire the quality of his work, but for me personally I never want to do what he does. The person who came closest to the ideal were early Mike Peters.
KW: Do you read Peter Bagge? Dan Clowes?
TR: I've read a couple of Peter Bagge's books. He's very accessible. Very funny.
KW: Chris Ware? Has the whole Chris Ware phenomena passed you by?
TR: Totally passed me by. To me, comic shops are icky. I don't like to go to them. Comic shops are full of fat white boys. And comic shops are polluted by all that superhero crap. I don't think that stuff should even be allowed to be sold. It's like, enough is enough. This is why we need a state-run economy, like in the former Soviet Union. There ought to be a cultural czar, who would say, 'we have issued enough of dees superhero crap, vee will have no more' and there would be no more. It's like clear dish washing liquid -- it's an excess of capitalism.
KW: When you were growing up did you look at National Lampoon?
TR: Never saw it, not until college. Moving to New York was what really opened things up for me.
KW: Columbia College at that time was still a New York school, much more than it is now.
TR: I was the only other kid from Ohio in the entire school.
KW: The neighborhood was low rent. There were a lot more bars in the neighborhood.
TR: Like five times as many.
KW: Why did you pick Columbia?
TR: I had a lot of choices but I was constrained by finances. Basically I had to figure out who would give me the best package of financial aid. My dad had left my mom when I was two, so there wasn't any help coming from there. Columbia gave me the best combination. The fact that it was in New York was a bonus. I was like 'it's New York City. It's the city in the United States'. And when you're growing up in Ohio you're only thinking about the East Coast. It's funny, because I lived in California for a couple of years and people there were like 'oh yeah, the whole country is paying attention to us'. _No one's_ paying any attention to California! People in Denver are thinking about California, but that's about it. Nobody lives in the Rockies. The vast majority of the country looks to New York, maybe Washington, DC and Boston. And I would have been just happy to go to anyone one of those three cities. In fact, Georgetown was my first choice, but they didn't offer me any money.
KW: Columbia at that time was all-male.
TR: They didn't say that too much in their brochures. [laughter] You show up and it's like, 'dude, there's no chicks, what's going on?!?' I recently ran into somebody who was at Columbia at the same time, and he said that Columbia was about walking down the street, in the rain, not having shaved, or bathed, not having any money for breakfast, totally grunged out, bottom of the barrel, pissed-off, it's freezing cold -- you just love it! And that's what Columbia was like at the time. Reveling in the sheer angst of it. And it was super angst-ridden. I loved the whole aesthetic of New York City. Everything about it. The way the signs looked, the dirt on the subway walls. Everything about it was just right. I still love it. I felt at home the day I arrived. My style is an attempt to create that atmosphere on paper.
KW: You mean to push the reader, like the way you get jostled on the subway?
TR: A swift kick in the ass. Also to make things a little dirty-looking, kinda scrungy. And that's an effort.
KW: You're this political kid, you come to New York, how come you didn't join a sectarian group, like the Sparticist League?
TR: I did join the Democratic Socialists. I went to a bunch of protests, I went to the big Solidarity Day protest in Washington, DC in 1981. I protested at the New York Hilton in 1982 against Reagan's visit to New York. I was very much a political activist. The Reagan years were an interesting period. They were so fucking depressing.
KW: There were some good things about the Reagan years.
TR: Name one.
KW: The Terminator. Robocop. Wes Craven.
TR: [Laughs] I'm not talking about pop culture. Pop culture was cool. But politically, it still baffles the mind that people could be so insane as to elect this guy to public office. And to support his policies. I still can't get over it. But certainly politics were very polarized. Left was left, and right was right, not like now, where's there no political spectrum at all. Anyway, I was involved in a number of lefty causes at Columbia. I was the New York City coordinator for the Mondale campaign in 1984.
TR: What finally drove me out of mainstream politics was the divestment protest at Columbia in 1985. I had been expelled but I was still hanging out on campus. I was on the steering committee for the first protest. We were trying to get the university to divest themselves from all their financial ties to South Africa as a protest against apartheid. I didn't really agree with this because there were so many local issues to deal with. This country is a disaster. I never thought it was our business, even though I think apartheid was evil and that racism is evil. I just thought 'first things first, let's deal with homelessness, let's deal with systematic poverty'. Whatever. The point is that most of the protesters said that the group should block the doors of the administration building and sit outside during the middle of winter, to which I brought up the rather obvious point, 'it's fucking January, it's freezing cold (this was before global warming), why don't we sit inside and lock the doors and take the building?' They said, 'oh no, then we'll be arrested for trespassing'. I was like: (a) you people are going to be arrested anyway, for violating the fire code, and (b) getting arrested is what you are supposed to want. Are you militant or not?
The bottom line is that all these mainstream political groups are populated by a bunch of wimps. It's not like the sixties. They're not willing to put their asses on the line and really make things happen. If I'd been around in the '60s I would have joined the Weathermen, you know? They were the ones.
KW: Too many cops.
TR: In the Weathermen? Well, you know what I'm saying. I've always believed this about anything. If you're going to do it, do it. If you're going to eat, eat a big meal, and if you're going to drink, get really _drunk_, and if you're going to be political, be _radical_. Otherwise, don't bother. Compromise is the worst thing in the world.
KW: How did you end up coordinating the Mondale campaign in New York given that you had this perspective?
TR: Well, I had experience. I had been a delegate to the 1980 Democratic convention, for Ted Kennedy, from Ohio. And because no one else wanted to do it. In 1984 I had been the New York coordinator for the McGovern campaign. His campaign was on a shoe-string. He obviously didn't take it very seriously. But he was the best person running that year. Obviously Mondale won the nomination. I inherited the Mondale job just because they knew I'd done a kick-ass job for McGovern. My budget was $600 for the McGovern campaign, and I had posters all over town, I had tons of volunteers. They knew I was good and energetic. But then Mondale lost too.
KW: So, were you active with a campaign in 1988?
TR: No. This business with the divestment thing was enough for me. It seemed obvious that the Dukakis people were determined to lose, so there was no reason to get involved.
KW: And do you now think of yourself as doing politics through your cartoons, and writing?
TR: Yeah. Party politics in this country are totally dead. Voting is an exercise in futility. These days, if you want to make a political point you have to do it outside of the system. I make my political points every week, three times a week, in cartoons. I wish there was a better way, and I'm waiting, but for now there just isn't.
KW: Why did you move to California?
TR: I was waiting for my wife to graduate from grad school. The west coast is where you go to be stupid. I lived in Berkeley. Berkeley is a living hell. It is the worse place I have lived in my life. It has great bookstores, it has great record stores. The Bay Area is gorgeous. It just needs to be neutron bombed, because the people are all assholes. It's the kind of place where people think it's o.k. to take their dog to the beach. Hello? Or you stop at a traffic light and the person doesn't go when the light is green, and you give a little toot on your horn -- and the people around you start giving you the finger! Because you broke up their calm. I saw people reading in the fast lane of the interstate. Everyone should read but this _not_ the place. [Laughter] I saw people smoking three-foot bongs while driving up University Avenue. None of this is cool. It's like the worst aspects of the '60s with none of the idealism. It's all about decadence.
KW: Are you against drugs?
TR: When I was in high school a lot of my friends smoked pot. They drank, they did coke and shit. I was a voyeur and I noticed that they'd act like dipshits when they were high. These were people who were intelligent who I otherwise respected. This was a turnoff. Then when I got into the punk scene it was very anti-drug, anti-hippie. I was very influenced by that. Looking back on that the punks were right. I'm not embarrassed by that at all. These people were damn right. The thing that really solidified matters for me was after college when I was living with a roommate who was the smartest guy I've ever met. He was a stoner, he did crack, he did coke, he did everything. He was so fucking stupid after a year of doing drugs that you could literally go up to him and say 'hey, where's the twenty dollars you owe me' and he'd be like, 'ok' and give me the twenty dollars. And he didn't owe you any money. Why would anyone do this to themselves? I think it's obscene. If you have no respect for yourself then I don't want to be around you. If you can't be trusted with your own body then you can't be trusted with my friendship, because that's a lower priority.
I'm not a teetotaler. I do go out drinking, I like to have a good time. I'm not bummed out if someone lights up a joint around me. It's fine. But I've never tried a cigarette. Am I judgemental? Yeah. I don't hang out a lot with people who are total stoners. If someone says, 'yeah, I like to smoke a joint once a week' I don't have a problem with that. But drugs really are imported into this country and distributed by the government in order to make young people stupid. Oliver North testified that they did it during Iran-Contra, and I know this is going to make me sound like some militia paranoid type but I don't care, I really believe it. This is a country where you can't score a Cuban cigar to save your life, but you can get any kind of narcotic that you want. Explain that. It's all a matter of border restrictions. If low-income communities weren't all fucked up by drugs and alcohol they'd be burning down banks, like they should.
KW: When did your break come? By the end of the 1980s your work was being run in a dozen relatively obscure publications. How did you go from there to making a career of it?
TR: My big break came around 1990, when I went back to Columbia. Obviously they had lost my disciplinary records, because they let me back in. I was there from '90 to '91. I was a twenty-eight year old senior. I did the whole college thing. I even drew cartoons again for the Spectator. The Spectator is an exercise in entropy -- every time you think it's hit rock bottom it gets worse. So I became the art director of the campus paper, and every month or so I'd do a big mailing to the newspapers and syndicates. Fortunately, Chronicle Features expressed some interest in my work. Stan Arnold had been sending me letters saying that he was interested in my stuff, but he was worried that it wouldn't sell.
KW: How many people send their cartoons to the syndicates?
TR: You hear different stories. You hear that there's 5,000 - 10,000 submissions a year per syndicate.
KW: And how many new cartoonists does a syndicate take on per year?
TR: Typically two or three.
KW: And how many of those do they keep after a year?
KW: How many would they have in their stable?
TR: It depends on the syndicate. At the time Chronicle Features had four cartoonists.
KW: How many syndicates are there?
TR: There are nine major syndicates. Universal Press, which is where I am now, United Media, King Features, Creators, Chronicle Features, Washington Post Writers Group, and so on.
KW: Do they all target the same newspapers? Are there discernable differences among them?
TR: Oh sure. They all have their own cultures. King and United are known for generic daily comics. They don't push the envelope. Creators is more eclectic. Chronicle at that time was on the cutting edge. They were the first to sign The Far Side, and, later, Bizarro. Chronicle Features was interested in my work. They had seen a cartoon I did that was actually rather atypical, called the Cliche Testing Institute, which was just guys in lab coats testing various cliches. Very stupid. But they just went crazy over it. They were like, 'we want you to do a daily cartoon for us where you would do a joke about some cliche' -- 'what goes around comes around', 'a rolling stone gathers no moss', 'Republicans are scum'. It was a really frightening thought, and needless to say I was not into this. But at the same time picture my position. I'm unemployed. I'm like, I could do a terrible strip for a living. People have suffered worse fates. It would be a job. I even talked to them about using a pseudonym.
Stuart Dodds was the CEO at Chronicle. One night he had a dinner with John McMee, who was the president of Universal, and they started to talk about what they were working on. When McMee saw my work he said 'don't you dare squander this guy's talent on this lame cliche thing. If you want to hire him as a political cartoonist, fine. You found him first, he's yours. But if you don't I'm going to offer him a contract myself. And so Chronicle called me. I thought I'd never be syndicated. They called up and said they wanted to syndicate my work. I returned the call from a payphone, in the snow. I started crying, I was so amazed. I thought I'd never make it. That was my big, big break. My launch was in 1991.
KW: What does it mean to be syndicated? Do they pay your health care?
TR: You are a contract worker. You receive no benefits. No 401k, no health care, no dental, no life insurance, no retirement. It's a bad state of affairs.
KW: And what do they take as their percentage?
TR: Fifty per cent. That's business-wide.
KW: Why do creators put up with this?
TR: Because they have to. It's a buyers' market.
KW: The alternative for some cartoonists is to be on the payroll of a daily paper.
TR: But those jobs are being eliminated. Political cartoons are deceased, and it comes down to this whole staff job thing. This is a form of comics that's uniquely American, it's as uniquely American as jazz, and it's under siege. There may not be any political cartoons at all in twenty years. It's insane. And it's ironic, because there may never have been a time when there were better cartoonists. Basically, the daily newspaper editors have figured out that they can buy five syndicated cartoons for $15-$20 a week. They're under pressure to cut their budgets. And so they use syndicated work and they figure they can fire some guy they've been paying $80,000 a year to. The big joke is that syndication fees are based on the premise that it's beer money, extra money. You were supposed to be getting a salary, and benefits. In 1980 there were 280 full-time cartoonists on staff. Now there are fewer than seventy. The fees haven't changed, but the newspapers don't want to subsidize the system. They're looking at the short-term view. They don't realize that you have to be in 200 papers to make a living at this.
KW: How many political cartoonists appear in over 200 papers?
TR: If it's twenty-five I would be shocked. There's no way to make a living in this business. Then there's the fact that newspapers are running fewer and fewer editorial cartoons at all, because the newspapers are becoming more and more subject to corporate chain ownership, and they don't like cartoons, because cartoons make strident political statements. They stir up controversy. You can't _have_ controversy. I went for a staff job at the Ashbury Park Press a few years ago, and the editor pointed over his shoulder at the parking lot and asked me 'how can you assure me that I'll never look out that window and see protesters out there holding up signs about one of your cartoons?' And I just looked at him and said 'well, if I do my job, hopefully it'll happen pretty often'. Obviously I didn't get the job. The other problem is that the readers don't care. They don't notice if you're missing and if they do notice they don't write to complain about it. A newspaper can't cancel Henry...
KW: Or Mary Worth...
TR: But they can get rid of Tom Toles, no problem, even though they guy's one of the best cartoonists in the country. The newspapers don't have any respect for editorial cartooning.
KW: Let me ask you about your readers. What kind of letters do you get, how many, and so on?
TR: I get a lot of letters from kids. Teenagers, college students, etc. And a lot of older people. I get a lot of letters from retired people, old trade unionists in the Midwest who are glad to see that there are still some people who care about the working class. Old people write letters because they're retired and have plenty of time to write cranky letters. The mail varies tremendously. I can go a week without a single letter and then get twenty letters in one day.
I try to be accessible to people who are interested in my work. I get much more contact from e-mail. In an average day I get about sixty e-mails from fans. I have a big internet presence. And I always write back. In general, cartoonists are very friendly and responsive.
KW: What kinds of things do people have to say? Are they asking for advice about how to break into the business?
TR: There's the struggling cartoonist thing. There's the 'I just love your work' letters. There is also hate mail. I got a whole pile of them about a month ago for a cartoon that appeared in the LA Times that was misconstrued as a racist cartoon when in fact it was a strident attack on racism. It was two panels. On the top it said 'It's never too early to plan ahead'. On the left side was a white father with his daughter, and he's asking her, 'so, which will it be, Harvard or Columbia?' And on the right there's a black woman with her son, and she's asking him 'so, which will it be, lethal injection or drive-by shooting?' The Congress of Racial Equality chapter in southern California tried to score some cheap political points by claiming that this was wishful thinking on my part, when of course it was a brutal attack on complacency and on the backlash against affirmative action. I mean, come on, be serious, no one in the right minds could think that the cartoon was racist, except that there are a lot of people out there who aren't in their right minds.
KW: What's the nastiest thing anybody's ever said to you?
TR: There were death threats last year. I was getting letters and phone calls. I can't imagine it getting much nastier than that. People were saying that I was a commie scum faggot. It was ridiculous.
KW: Have you done book tours?
TR: Oh yes, for all my books. It's all hit and miss. I've had signings with 200 people, and signings with three people, but very few with twenty-five or thirty. They're either a huge success or a total failure. The people who come often don't really know your work, they're just people who are into cartoons. In a way I respect that. They're willing to try new things. And they will buy the book. This happens especially in the Midwest. People in the Midwest are far more intellectually adventurous than people on the coasts.
KW: The first book was 'Waking Up in America' and it came out in 1992. Could you say a little about how it came together?
TR: St. Martin's Press published my first book. I'd been in syndication for only about six months when the book deal came up. I was at a party, and I'd met a woman who turned out to be an editor, and I did the usual 'oh, I'll send you my stuff', and surprisingly she actually liked it! Her name is Alex Kuczynski, and she got me this deal. They put out me and Tom Tomorrow's first book simultaneously. This was probably the beginning of the whole Ted Rall - Tom Tomorrow analogy problem. [Laughter] They did a reasonably decent job. But they didn't really promote the book. They just threw it at the wall to see if it would stick. The first year it came out it was a disaster. They printed 3500 copies, and all but 1200 were returned. Now they're all gone.
The book showcases my pre-syndicated cartoons. I love the ideas but I'd love to redraw almost all of them, because I think I've improved a lot artistically. Also, there's a big problem because they didn't reproduce them right. About a third of the cartoons are not statted at the proper resolution, so there's dropout in the shading. The intro is not the intro I wanted them to run. They never let me see the blues. Basically they lied and said 'don't worry, you'll see the blues' and then one day I got a call in which they said 'oh, come on down, your book is here'. I'm happy not to be with St. Martin's anymore. They do a lot of cutting-edge books but at the same time they don't do much with them. You go to the store and you don't see them on the shelf. I had to do my own promotion for that book.
KW: Your next book was 'All the Rules Have Changed: More Cartoons by Ted Rall', which came out in 1995 from Rip Off Press.
TR: I worked with Kathe and Fred Todd on that book. They were great, even though they only paid a one hundred dollar advance. I thought they would get me into the comic shops. They were a pleasure to work for, they're really funny people, and they let me see the blues, but they never got the book properly distributed. The book has never seen the light of day. The copies that have sold were to people who contacted me on the internet. What I'd like to do is get the rights back and have my new publisher, Workman, reissue the book in a revamped format. Workman has great distribution. It's not a question of 'build it and they will come'. That's the sad story about the book. The problem is that the book came out during the shake-out period with Marvel, which pretty much torpedoed the book.
KW: The book that has gotten the most distribution is 'Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I Have Ever Done'.
TR: Clearly. That one accomplished what I set out to do. It's 64 pages, in a graphic novel format, published by NBM. I was inspired by this book called Sabotage in the American Workplace that collects people's real-life confessions about getting back at bosses. As an ice-breaker at parties I would ask people 'what's the worst thing you've ever done?' and collected a lot of stories that way.
KW: Is there going to be a 'Worst Thing I've Ever Done' part two?
TR: Oh, yeah, probably. NBM wants one, and I'd like to do it. But the first one was a monumental project. I tried to get a broad cross-section of people to tell me about the worst things they'd done. I tried to get prisoners, stock-brokers, doctors, teachers, cab drivers, little kids, old people. I ended up with 630 stories. I'd tell people to write their story down and send it in. I then winnowed it down to 23 stories that I thought were cool, that were the most interesting and yet the most representative. For every story in the book there are ten more like it in my files. I also wanted to make sure that every story was true, so when I narrowed it down to a final list I called each person and tried to trip them up. So I want to take a break before the next one.
KW: How many of these stories are by friends of yours?
TR: Three or four.
KW: A number of the stories revolve around animals.
TR: If anything, I under represented the cruelty to animals. There were so many animal abuse stories that it was not funny. It's truly frightening. But I had to put some in.
KW: Any animal reading this should just stay away from humans.
TR: [Laughs] Humans under eighteen, especially males, are particularly lethal to furry animals. I heard some truly terrible stories. One has to be insane not to like animals. But there is something hilarious about the idea that some guy thinks there's a specific cat that is out to get them.
NBM did an amazing job. There's a German edition, for example. It looks beautiful! And the U.S. edition has been reviewed in a lot of places, you name it. There was a big article about the book that went out on the AP wire, which talked about what the book said about society. I also did some TV, ABC News, Good Day Philadelphia, but mostly radio, All Things Considered. I can't say enough about NBM. They did a phenomenal job publicizing the book.
KW: Some of the other stories in the book are about drugs. There are a lot of acid stories.
TR: Obviously acid has bad connotations. Nobody can really dose themselves properly. And each person reacts to it in their own individual way. And for some reason people have a habit of slipping it to other people who don't know it. So acid has this random quality; it's not like pot. The point is that the work that went into that book was a real gamble. And if I do another one it'll be in a couple of years.
KW: Did you feel like you were hearing the same stories over and over?
TR: Oh yeah. If I were a graduate student I could write a thesis about evil and about how it falls into categories. Everyone has the same ideas.
KW: Did you hear some new stories when you were doing publicity for the book?
TR: I did get some new stories. My favorite one was about this guy in Oklahoma City. When he was a teenager he and his buddies made this dummy, and threw it off an overpass over the railway tracks in front of an oncoming train, so that the conductor would think that someone had jumped onto the tracks. The train derailed, and caused several million dollars of damage, took out some buildings. The weird thing is that the guy's father was driving the train. That's the most kick-ass story. It would be worth doing another book just to tell that story.
KW: Did you hear any stories that were just too offensive to print?
TR: No. Well, I'm not saying I wasn't disturbed by these stories, but you detach yourself. You're there as a journalist, not to judge. I let other people make up their own minds.
KW: Say something about the next Ted Rall item: Is There Life Before Death? A 1998 Cartoon Calendar. This is a page-a-day calendar. People are supposed to use this calendar at work, at their cubicle. Are the cartoons all original to this project?
TR: No, I would have died. There are 320 cartoons! They're syndicated cartoons from the last six years. It'll be released in August 1997, although it won't be in most stores until October.
KW: Is this something you want to do every year?
TR: They have an option for a second one. Presumably if this one does well there will be a 1999 cartoon calendar as well. I can do them until the year 2002 without running out of cartoons. It gets iffy after that.
KW: Tell me about your other upcoming projects.
TR: After the calendar comes out there's a new book that was going to be called 'Kill Your Parents Before They Kill You'. The publishers found out that the buyers for the big stores, particularly in the Midwest, refused to stock the book simply because of that title. For this reason it'll come out in February, rather than October. Workman is the publisher, and the new title is 'Revenge of the Latchkey Kids'. Announcements have gone out, but copies have not been printed. It's a big pain. The book was supposed to come out at the same time as the calendar. What it says is that even in 1997 there are still sacred cows.
Nevertheless, Workman are planning to give the book a major promotion, with a twenty-city tour. It's made up of 50% cartoons and 50% writing, looking at various aspects of American society, from politics to sports, and about how each aspect is moribund and corrupt and how we have to move on and make a new society. This is a really important book for me. I know this book is going to kick major butt. It could die a horrible death, but even if it does _I_ know it'll be great.
KW: Some of the articles in this new book have appeared in print before. Where do you write for?
TR: I was a contributing editor to Might Magazine, which just went out of business. Without a doubt it was the most interesting magazine published in America today. I'm also a staff writer for POV magazine, and they give me a lot of leeway to do whatever I want. They're sending me and another guy on the Silk Road to drive from western China to Istanbul -- the ultimate road trip. I have a syndicated weekly column from Universal Press Syndicate that appears in a few dozen newspapers. Writing pays infinitely better than cartoons. The first piece I wrote that received attention was published in Might Magazine. It was called 'A Sprocket in Satan's Bulldozer: Confessions of an Investment Banker', which was a memoir of my days working as a loan officer at the Industrial Bank of Japan in the late 1980s. That piece was reprinted in Harpers, in Australian publications, in Israel. It's really cool to see your work in Hebrew.
KW: Do the cartoons get more of a response from readers, or the articles?
TR: I'd say it's about equal. But for me they're not the same thing. Writing for me is punching at the keyboard. It's not fun. Drawing cartoons is fun. Cartooning is a zen experience, probably the way musicians feel when they're in a groove. I love the physical act of cartooning. I can't understand someone like Garry Trudeau who pencils and then hires an inker. It's not a question of whether he's really a cartoonist. It's a question of why would he leave all the fun to someone else? And of course the inker doesn't get to have any fun either. So it just sucks.
KW: So your wife won't be doing your cartoons after you die?
TR: Oh, no. The cartoons die with me, for sure. The problem is that my field of cartooning is taking a nose dive. Realistically speaking, I don't think I'll be drawing political cartoons in twenty years, not because I don't want to, but because there won't be any market for them. That's why I'm trying to rev up my writing career, so I'll have some place to land when political cartooning finally dies.
KW: Let me challenge you about that. Obviously editorial cartoons in newspapers are facing problems. But you've been active in finding new markets, through books, calendars, the internet -- other ways of doing political cartooning.
TR: But the way that things are currently structured works against this. Books, calendars, and these kinds of merchandise are subsidiary products to the main product, which is what appears in the newspapers. I can only get book deals by showing people the list of newspapers that I had. Every time you go to a publisher they ask for a client list. Newspapers are worthless except as a base. They don't pay for shit, they never really treat you right, but they're a place where people see your work on a day to day basis. That makes you part of people's lives, so when they go to the store, and they see your book, they go, 'hey, there's that guy'. As newspapers decline, there won't be any way of capturing people's interests. Some people talk about the internet as a possible successor to newspapers, but that's utter bullshit. You have to actively seek out something on the internet. You have to know where things are.
KW: There's a distinction between what might happen to the next generation and what might happen to you. It seems to me that it's a reasonable bet that in ten, five years, even now you would have a big enough audience that you wouldn't actually need the exposure that newspapers afford.
TR: I don't know. I'd like to think that you're right. Maybe I've gotten in right before the gate closes.
KW: Ted Rall may be the last one. You and Tom Tomorrow. [Laughs]
TR: We may be it.
KW: You've haven't talked about your upcoming graphic novel.
TR: It's coming out in the spring of 1998 from NBM, and it's called My War With Brian. It's a sixty-four page memoir of my three-year battle with this kid in junior high school who's name is not really Brian. He beat me up almost every single day. He was much bigger and faster than me. I was the shortest kid in my class. It was a bad, bad scene.
KW: Was the fact that you had a semi-French background a factor?
TR: You know, I never understood what he had against me. We never talked. I may have had a little accent. But I looked and dressed like everyone else. Jeans and collared shirts. Nothing unusual. My only oddity was that I preferred straight-legged jeans to the bell bottoms that everyone else wore.
But things got really serious. Blood was spilled on a number of occasions. I don't want to give away the whole book, but I'll describe one vignette. At one point he caught me in the boy's locker room in the gym, and I was fending him off with a bench. This friend of mine came up behind him silently and opened up his arm with a box cutter, all the way from the wrist to the shoulder. He didn't even realize it at first, and when it registered I clocked him with the bench. And then my friend and I were kicking him in the head. We were trying to kill him. And then we ran off.
KW: O.k., So this is the worst thing that _you've_ ever done.
TR: Not at all. It was fully justified, not a bad thing to do at all. Somebody beats you up, throws you down stairs, and they make your life a living hell, you have the right to kill them. That's what I say. In fact, you probably should.
KW: Perry Farrell has a lyric where he says 'some people should die, that's just unconscious knowledge'.
TR: Yeah. I agree with that. Although Jane's Addiction is not my favorite. All Farrell's songs have great lyrics, but the way he fucking sings! Anyway, I agree. I'm not a bleeding heart here. There are a lot of people who need to die. Like, Timothy McVey. If anyone deserves to die he does. I just don't think that the state should kill him.
KW: Or even that the government is very good at telling which people should die and which people shouldn't.
TR: I wouldn't have any problem with one of the survivors killing him. It's like, 'you killed my wife, I'm going to kill you'.
KW: You're in favor of vigilantism but against the death penalty.
TR: I'm not in favor of vigilantism but if it happens...
KW: So if a crowd kills a pickpocket?
TR: Well, I've been pickpocketed. It happened in the Times Square station, back in 1985. The guy was really inept. I literally thought he was trying to grab my butt. I didn't realize he was only trying to pickpocket me. I reached over and grabbed his hand, and there's my wallet in it. And then I grabbed him and threw him to the floor and my thought was that I would hold him there and wait for the police. In the meanwhile a crowd began to form and people began to kick at him, and in the end I was protecting him from the crowd.
KW: But you did get your wallet back.
TR: He wouldn't give up my wallet! I was on top of him, and saying 'give me the wallet and I'll let you go'. And he wouldn't give it to me! Eventually, the cops showed up and took him away. Actually, they bet the shit out of him in the tunnel between the IND and the IRT. [Laughs] They usually don't file charges in these situations.
KW: Back to the War with Brian. You clearly had allies.
TR: I had a few allies. Not enough. Most people didn't really care one way or another. To them it was entertainment. Junior high school students are insane. I was sane, because I was still prepubescent. But basically it was one of those kill or be killed scenarios, and that's the way I lived it, and that's the way I wrote about it. Anyway, it's all written out but I haven't drawn it all.
KW: Do you feel that this is a very different kind of project for you?
TR: It's a totally new direction for me. This is one big story. It's a narrative, a true graphic novel.
KW: How realistic will your drawing be?
TR: The same as usual. But I'm trying to make it prettier than my other work. I'm using scratchboard and trying to give it more dimension. I'm trying to be really careful with the shading. Basically I'm trying to make it a more 'important' kind of book. It's not going to make any commercial concessions at all. It just is what it is. I'm going to make it beautiful, and fun to read. But I doubt it will be a huge seller, but the point is that it's near and dear to my heart. After that, my next project will be an adaptation of a Sartre play, 'The Die is Cast'. It's not widely available in the U.S. There's also plans for a third collection of cartoons.
KW: Are you trying to work something out with My War With Brian? Are you trying to put this episode behind you? Are you trying to settle the score with Brian?
TR: No. I guess I'm trying to settle the score with societal indifference to this incredible violence that takes place everyday, all across America, in thousands of schools. Hundreds of thousands of kids are being terrorized by bullies, and adults laugh it off, and say 'boys will be boys' and 'shit happens' but the truth is that we let bullying happen. And it's a uniquely American thing. If you go to a school in France this sort of behavior isn't tolerated. It's not o.k. But in America, bullies are heroes. Bullyism is a microcosm of the general trend of violence that runs through American society. We're only one hundred years removed from the wild west. Our grandparents and great grandparents ripped the land away from the Indians at gunpoint, and we have to get over this shit. We're a modern, industrialized society and we have to act civilized even if we're not.
KW: So the book is really about violence.
TR: It's about violence, and also the hope that a lot of junior high school students will read it, and that they will stop and think.
KW: And you're not worried that some people will read it and think, 'this is cool, I have to start my own war and get the jump on the other guy'?
TR: There's _always_ people who don't get the point. And you can't do anything about that, short of not doing anything. I don't live for those people.
KW: Can you say anything about the television project that you mentioned earlier?
TR: I've been working in a highly preliminary basis with HBO. To be honest, I don't have any respect for television as a medium. In the pantheon of cartooning I put alternative cartooning at the top, then below that is alternative comic books, and below that is daily comics, and below that, in the gutter, is superhero comics, and then at the bottom are television and movie animation. That's the worst, like Disney animation. It's there to sell toys and make money. Television is not quite as bad, you can make some points. I want to do something that has a pop sensibility.
KW: You wouldn't want to see actors reading your words on stage?
TR: No. I want to see animation. It's much more fun. And American theater has been dead for fifty years.
KW: Would the cartooning be shipped to Hungary, or China?
TR: That's the thing, I just can't do that. I have a strong anti-NAFTA, anti-free trade stance. I'm opposed to this business of shipping off work. We should use Americans. Americans probably do this kind of thing better than anyone else, and, dammit, they should be paid. If that means I can't get a series off the ground then, fuck it, I won't do it.
KW: How has HBO responded to your position on this?
TR: They don't like it. The way I talk to them about it is in terms of numbers and money. I said 'you'd be killing the goose that laid the golden egg because you'd be destroying my reputation as someone who is politically conscious, which is of course part of the reason why some people would want to watch it. If it comes out that I'm a fucking hypocrite then you won't make any money'. They have to make the investment. It's a non-negotiable deal. I've turned down really good work for this kind of reason. I'm not the most moralistic person in the world, and there are a lot of people who are more principled than I am, but I choose my battles and stick to my guns when it really matters. I don't need to do a television series to eat. My wife is not going to starve in the gutter. Now, my family comes first, and I'll do whatever stupid shit I need to do to keep my family eating. But like they say in 'Hollywood Shuffle', there's always work at the post office. Selling out is rarely a necessity. It's a function of greed.
KW: What's the spin on a Ted Rall project on television. Is it comedy, politics?
TR: It's politics. The humor is secondary. But it won't be about art. You can't do art on television. Anyway, it would be a show about young people in Washington, DC. The jokes and the plot are an excuse for making political commentary. That's the meat on the skeleton. The characters are window dressing.
KW: What magazines and newspapers do you read? Do you read the New York Times?
TR: Yeah, I read the Times everyday, and usually the New York Post. The Daily News kinda died after the strike. I like to read local papers that people send me. It's always interesting to read a newspaper from another city. And I read the Nation, Monthly Review, and Against the Current. I like French magazines, Liberation, and so on. I love business sections. I sometimes read the [Wall Street] Journal. I like gen-x writing. I did invent the term 'twenty-something'. One of my "street" cartoons, back in 1987, used the term after I saw a blurb for a new TV show called 'thirty-something'. That cartoon was huge, it was the first one to get reprinted in different places. The term only appeared in the mainstream media a year and a half later.
KW: Do you read the New Yorker?
TR: I hate the New Yorker. I think it's a piece of shit. The New Yorker is about a New York that never was and is even less now.
KW: So who are these gen-x writers?
TR: The guys who write for 'Might' magazine. Hypno, Bikini, not the fake stuff like Swing.
KW: Have you ever seen the Baffler?
TR: I'm not crazy about the Baffler. It's very snotty, but not in a funny way.
KW: So you consider yourself a populist. You're on that side of the line.
TR: Absolutely. Here's what I'm about as an artist in a nutshell. I want to reach as many people as possible, period. I want to do television and movies, I want to appear in a thousand newspapers, in a hundred books, all over the net, everywhere -- the next Scott Adams. That being said, I don't want to change what I _do_. I want the audience and the editors to come to _me_. I'm not going to change what do. And it wouldn't work anyway. Trying to sell out is pointless. It's always an exercise in futility.
KW: There are some people who have a kind of conspiracy reading of Scott Adams. They say that the people at the top adore him because he bashes middle management but leaves the CEOs alone.
TR: My impression of Scott Adams is that the strip is fairly subversive. From a Marxist standpoint, the first step toward killing the boss is to dis the boss. And in order to dis the boss you have to think the boss is an asshole. You have to lose respect before you can kill him. Dilbert contributes toward disrespecting the boss. You can say 'well, that's no big deal', but it _is_ a big deal, because no other cultural phenomena that has appeared since 1980 says that someone like Bill Gates is an asshole, and Dilbert does. Except of course the Simpsons. While you can critique Dilbert for being a little too micro I think that's bullshit. He does the strip everyday. Of course he has to go micro or he'll run out of ideas. My only advice to Scott Adams is that he's releasing too much merchandise. His syndicate is flooding the marketplace with all sorts of low quality crap.
I'm just starting the merchandising drill right now. There are a line of t-shirts that will be coming out, and there's a TV studio that's interested in my work. The key here is that you have to retain control over your work. You can't let anything go out without your specific approval. With the t-shirts they were like, we can cut and paste art based on your work, and I was like 'no, no, I will do the drawing, _I'll_ pick the colors, I will determine the quality of the shirts, what sizes they'll be available in, I will control _everything_. You have to be that way. The thing is, one artist's vision, no matter how stupid that artist is, is going to be infinitely more intelligent than the decision of a committee of fifty brilliant people. A committee is death. When you're a cartoonist you're running your own business, and you have to know what you're doing.
KW: What kind of pressures do you come up against? Do you get editors who tell you 'I like the look of your cartoons, but I want the politics toned down'?
TR: I don't get leaned on half as much as someone who is at a daily paper. I hear these stories from people who are at big city dailies and they catch all sorts of shit because every cartoon has to be approved by the editorial page editor before it goes into the paper. It's not like that for me at all. The only pressure I ever experienced was when I was first negotiating with Chronicle Features. They said my lines were too thick and so on. The thing is, I'm open to criticism. If someone makes a good point then I'll change. I was with Chronicle Features from August 1, 1991 to August 1, 1996. During that time I was censored only maybe half a dozen times.
KW: And what do you mean by 'censored'?
TR: In other words, when they refused to send a cartoon out. But it was rarely about politics, but about conforming to the style guidelines of particular newspapers. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has strict guidelines. The only person I'm beholden to is my editor at Universal Press Syndicate. She's only really editing for libel, spelling, grammar, and taste. Nine times out of ten when I send in my cartoons I don't hear anything. When I do hear from her it's because a certain word seems awkward or something like that, nothing serious. I heard from her one time because I used the word 'pussy'. She was like, 'come on Ted, you know can't use pussy'. I was like, 'yeah, o.k.'
KW: What are some of the other words you can't use?
TR: 'Booger', as in nose picking. Too close to bugger. 'Wuss' I snuck into the Times, which I was very proud of.
KW: 'Bastard'? 'Scum'?
TR: Bastard's fine. I use it all the time. Scum is fine. Scumbag is iffy. Obviously I can't use shit, ass, asshole, all that stuff. The seven George Carlin words. Douchebag is an iffy one, I don't know if that one would fly or not. And I use 'wanker' all the time. No problem. I've also used 'jerk-off'.
KW: So we're improving as a country.
TR: Oh, we are. [Laughs] We're becoming a more vulgar nation everyday. The whole notion that there are things you can't talk about is ridiculous. So censorship is not a major issue. The kind of thing that does come up sometimes is that an editor will put in a request after hearing from a paper. For example, the Des Moines Register called my syndicate a few years ago and said, 'you know, Ted's always doing these cartoons where somebody's on the subway and they get shot, or they're in a skyscraper -- we're out here in Des Moines, where we see nothing but corn! We want to see some rural cartoons, about agrarian issues!' I knew immediately that the guy was right. Look, I'm doing cartoons for the entire country.
KW: This is your populist side. You're not trying to be Mister New York.
TR: I only draw that New York stuff because I love New York and because I'm here. But I'm very populist. They're _cartoons_. They're meant for mass consumption. You pick up a weekly like the New York Press, which has a lot of very strange, edgy, meaningless cartoons about alcoholic cacti, and you're like 'this doesn't mean anything', you know? Moreover, if you show this to someone in Fort Wayne, Indiana, they would be like 'what the fuck is this?' and you know what -- they'd be right! People from the Midwest are not stupid. They may be boring, but they're not dumb. In terms of humor, they're actually more sophisticated than easterners, as demonstrated by the fact that good comics start from the Midwest.
KW: There's somebody at the New York Times who likes you.
TR: Yes, I have a good relationship with the New York Times.
KW: And when you live in New York, and when you read the New York Times everyday, the Times is like the most important paper in the history of humanity. Has appearing in the Times, in the Sunday Week In Review section, opened certain doors? Or does it have less influence than you would imagine?
TR: Both. The New York Times was a big break for me. I first appeared in the Times in 1992, after a year of syndication. There are basically three roundups for political cartoons. There's the USA Today on Friday, Newsweek's perspectives section, and then there's the New York Times. Of the three, only the Times ever runs anything that's any good. For whatever reason, they liked my stuff. Once my cartoons appeared in the Times I expected to get phone calls from all over the country. But it doesn't work like that at all. You get a cartoon in the Times and you don't hear from anybody. But those tear sheets mean a lot to editors. Editors read the Times. If you're out in Salt Lake City you read it. It makes you a player. And as someone without a staff job, I desperately need to be taken seriously. You have to have one of the round-ups, otherwise you're dead in the water.
KW: You send three cartoons a week to your syndicate.
TR: Right. And they distribute them to about 120 newspapers. I send them to the syndicate by e-mail. I post them to a BBS on-line. I scan them in, and send them in. I made the syndicate buy me a scanner. They were very cool about that.
KW: Why do your characters have slanted eyes?
TR: They're not slanted, they're skewed. In 1991 and 1992 my girlfriend and I had two cockatiel birds. They're really nasty and annoying. They're bigger than a parakeet but smaller than a parrot.
KW: I don't see any around here now.
TR: They are long gone. At one point somebody accidently let them fly outside. All gone. I used to spend hours and hours staring at these birds. They were really interesting. Animals are so damned different. And their eyes are unusual, they can't use both of their eyes simultaneously, so they don't have depth perception, so they move their faces sideways. That's the genesis of the skewed-eyes thing. What I like about it is that it's a very quizzical, confused look. And I myself felt confused about things that people take for granted. I feel like the country is run by aliens, like in 'They Live'. I don't understand 99% of the people I meet. That's what my work is about. It's like, 'what are you thinking?' Hello?
KW: Is it affectionate?
TR: No, it's contemptuous. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe everyone else is right, and I'm the one who is wrong.
KW: But we've already agreed that you're a populist. And yet you say that 99% of the public is insane.
TR: Or stupid.
KW: I'm still sensing a tension in this.
TR: Of course there is a tension. But I don't see it as unresolvable. I'm a snob and a populist at the same time. My populism stems from the idea that everyone has rights by virtue of being alive. To be treated decently, to be paid decently, not to starve to death, a right to be housed, schooled. The point is that _everyone_ has the ability to be great, to be divine. I don't really believe in god, but ordinary individuals can be truly great. The paradox is that they usually don't choose to be. They usually choose to be mediocre, and lazy, and passive, and dumb. I'm a snob because I recognize that most people choose not to fulfill their potential. And that includes me! At the same time, I know that everyone has it in them to do it. You just have to give them chance after chance after chance.
KW: There's a geographic spin on this, too, which is to say you get a lot of New Yorkers who think that everyone else is dumb and they're smart. And that's not your premise at all. You assume that there are going to be people living out in the most obscure towns, the most wretched places, who are brilliant.
TR: And I know it, because I was one of those people. Not brilliant, but certainly I didn't deserve to be stuck in Kettering, Ohio. And neither did any of my friends. Those people are out there. I did a cartoon recently called 'Happy, Shiny People You Don't Know'. And it was about the gas station attendant who could have been a great poet, and the 7-Eleven clerk who could have been a great playwright but his English teachers didn't think he was any good. There's a lot of squandered potential. My mother's like that. She's a brilliant poet, but she's been told that she's worthless so she's afraid. I have a friend who is great singer-songwriter but he doesn't have the confidence to promote himself. The truth is that very few people are worthless. I have the highest standards for everybody. Unfortunately, I'm constantly disappointed. But we have the choice. It's like global warming. We _could_ get our act together. There's no reason why we couldn't do the right thing. We just have to decide. We have to make the effort. People need a swift kick in the butt.
KW: Why don't we talk about craft. Could you say something about the pens you use, and the inks?
TR: When I started syndication I was doing all my work exclusively on scratchboard. It comes in a pre-inked all-black format or a white board. I use the white board and draw with India ink. It has a transparent clay coating on top, which allows me to go back with a pointy tool, a scratch nib, which allows me to scratch away the parts I don't want. People who use this technique include Eric Drooker and Peter Kuper, but there's no one else in editorial cartooning who uses it. It's mostly used by illustrators. In fact, Peter Kuper first recommended scratchboard to me. It took me about three years to get it to do what I wanted it to do. It's not easy to use. What it gives me is an edgy, nervous look. It also allows me to create a woodcut type of look. And because my work is so flat, so two-dimensional I rely on the scratchboard to give my work some kind of depth. And to give it a nervous tension.
The reason you need a clay coating so that you don't rip the paper when you scratch. It's imported from France or from England and it's becoming more and more difficult to find. It's very expensive -- $22 a sheet. I originally used it to distinguish my work from other people's. It adds another level to the work. Nina Paley once told me that the type of paper you use influences how you're going to draw, and of course that's true.
KW: So what, you want to dominate the scratch board, to make some real impression?
TR: I see other people who use scratch board and who use a feathery style, like Eric Drooker, and I can't stand it. 'What are you doing? It's like having a Porsche and driving forty. It doesn't make any sense. This baby's here to rock -- use it!' It's just a natural thing. I've always held my pens too tight. To a certain extent, you're not really in charge of these things. You draw the way you draw. It's not entirely a conscious decision.
Nina Paley also turned me onto a much cheaper paper called Lettramax 2000, which is a very smooth paper. You don't get the scratchboard effect, in fact, you get exactly the opposite. You get a really clean reproduction. It has no tension in it at all. It's fluid and soft.
KW: And why are you going use scratchboard for My War With Brian?
TR: I did The Worst Thing I've Ever Done in Lettramax -- frankly, because I was worried about the deadline, and it takes nearly twice as long to work with scratchboard. My War With Brian is such a personal project that I really want it to be beautiful. Scratchboard stuff is prettier. With a few of the cartoons I do I still use Duoshade, which I wouldn't want to recommend to anybody. It used to be good but the quality has declined dramatically in the last few years. I use it when I want something that will look really nasty and dirty. The other thing is that it's really fast. You can do a cartoon in an hour and a half using Duoshade, which for me is quite fast. When I use scratchboard it takes me anywhere from four to six hours. Of course, single panels are the fastest. The other thing is that I only use a brush for the borders. And I have a set of Rapidograph pens, which are standard architectural pens, which most people use for lettering. I took the pens apart and they have a little piston inside. What I did is cut off the tip of the piston, which lets the ink flow unevenly, and gives it more of a brush type quality. I generally don't like standard-issue brushes, because I often end up smearing ink all over the cartoon. I admire people who work entirely in brush; they must have a steadier hand than me.
KW: Do you want to say something about your lettering?
TR: Just that there is some asshole who stole my lettering for a font. [Laughs] If anyone out there comes across a CD-Rom called 'Thousands of Fonts' they should not buy it, because they ripped off my font for the CD. In any event, my lettering has evolved but not through a conscious decision. I just try different things. Originally I lettered the way Mike Peters did in the late 1970s and I've moved on from there. Now I have four or five distinct lettering styles that I use. Mostly I go by what looks right for the cartoon. It's a visceral process. There's no ideology to this. I know I letter well.
KW: Could you say something about this issue of the two-dimensionality of your work? To what extent are you using two-dimensionality to make a statement about American society?
TR: I started out drawing more rounder, more three-dimensional figures, and I didn't like the way it looked. I never liked the Marvin aesthetic, or the Garfield aesthetic, to begin with. Mort Walker once said that everything in a comic strip should be circles and curves, because that's what people like to look at. And that's what his work looks like. Maybe I don't care what people like to look at -- because I hate the way that looks! To me it looks soft and wimpy. I tend to see people as being pretty two-dimensional anyway, both physically and of course psychologically. If you think about the way in which the human body is constructed, except in the case of truly obese people, most people are much, much wider than they are deep. There's a lot of height, and a lot of width, but very little depth. A real person might have six or eight inches of depth, whereas they have six feet of height and maybe two feet of width. Do you really need to address that six inches? Not much. The other thing is that it's a _cartoon_. Intrinsically it's a two-dimensional medium. To try to fake a three-d effect is tacky or stupid. In my work I do throw three-dimensionality into buildings, or streetscapes, but people are blocky and squared off. Some of it's abstraction, some of it's commentary, but it mostly has to do with the way people look.
I tend to draw people the same. Basically, all my men have the same nose, all my women have the same pointy nose, all men have the same hands, all women have the same pointy hands. What varies is the height, size, hair, that sort of thing. The reason I came up with a generic style is because I actually think people look a lot more alike than they look different. Maybe it's from feeling like an outsider. I've always looked at the world the way a Martian would look if he was reporting back to the home world. Well, what do these people look like? Basically they're all five to six feet tall, they all have two eyes, a nose in the middle, lips underneath, two ears, two arms and two legs. I doubt that a Martian would even bother to report on minor differences in skin pigmentation, or whether some have curly hair and some have straight hair, or wavy hair. Human beings are crazy to be obsessed with these minute differences. It's just so arbitrary. And I think it makes a strong political statement to draw people pretty much the same. And that's why I hate caricature. Caricature is totally moribund. It's the product of a bankrupt culture.
KW: But caricature is at the heart of editorial cartooning.
TR: Not intrinsically. I think it's a cheap tactic. So Newt Gingrich is fat and looks like a pig. So what? Or Nixon has a sloped nose. Or Bill Clinton is obviously a drunk because he has all those veins in his nose. Or he has a lantern jaw. George Bush has a funny little indentation above his right eye.
KW: So you are paying attention.
TR: Oh, I do pay attention. Definitely in my drawings of Clinton I make a concession to his weird hair problems and also to the empty vacuousness to his eyes. He's the only character I draw with Little Orphan Annie eyes, those o's, because he has that deer caught in the headlights demeanor. But I think it's cheap. The bottom line is that Newt is a pig because of what he says, and what he proposes. Clinton is a wanker because he hasn't done anything decent for the American public. The fact that he looks like an alcoholic is really not that interesting to me. It's time to get rid of caricature. There are still cartoonists out there who draw black people like minstrels, with enormous lips and big eyes. It's insane! Even 'liberal' cartoonists draw Asians with squinty eyes and thick Coke-bottle glasses and buck teeth. I always think of World War Two racist propaganda art. 'This is what a Japanese person looks like. Japanese people are bad people'.
KW: Does the fact that everyone is two-dimensional in your cartoons makes it easier to handle issues of race?
TR: The two-dimensionality has nothing to do with the race issue. What it does make easier is the fact that everyone pretty much looks the same. The one thing I'm still struggling with is that I don't like having to identify black people with some kind of zipatone. That implies that white people, or Asians, don't have skin color. I'd like to eliminate it somehow.
KW: When you start a cartoon do you think 'this is going to have a certain mix'? What's the dynamic? Have you ever gone back and changed someone's race?
TR: That's a really interesting question. I've always had this feeling that in American cartooning you only see black people in cartoons about poverty, or violence, or crime. You never see them just interacting with white people normally. So one of the things I try to do is show black people in ordinary situations, even sometimes as evil corporate henchmen. Why not have a conversation where a black person and a white person are talking about something that has nothing to do with race? That's real life. The culture is more segregated than real life. Sometimes you run into problems, though. I did this cartoon about the fact that bankruptcies were at a record high. I had two business guys in an office complaining about deadbeat debtors, and in the background there are all these employees walking around with t-shirts indicating their salaries. There's a clerk earning eight dollars an hour, and someone at the fax machine earning six dollars an hour, and then there's the mailroom guy, and his salary is the lowest, it's like four dollars and fifty cents an hour. I received a lot of letters of complaint about the cartoon because the mailroom guy was black. When I originally drew the cartoon I hadn't given it much thought. Having worked in offices I found that most of the mail guys _are_ black. It would just seem cheesy to not show that. But on the other hand it's true that it's feeding into a paradigm. The complaints probably had no validity, because the cartoon was an implicit attack on racism, but at the same time they hit a nerve with me because I hadn't thought it through.
The trade secret here is that for me the words are the main point. The graphics come second. The cartoon is an excuse to present a conversation. There are probably any number of cartoonists who probably fit in this category -- Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow -- I'm pretty convinced that they're writers first and artists second, like I am. In the last year or so I've resolved to focus more on the art. I still feel like my art has a long way to go. I realized this a few years ago when I was trying to do a strip about animals and I couldn't really draw them.
KW: I like your animals. They're always so hapless.
TR: [Laughs] They're weird-looking. I like my animals too.
KW: They're often victims of terrible events.
TR: That's right.
KW: Let me push you on this issue of the two-dimensionality of your work. It works well in the context of editorial cartooning. It's very immediate, and it makes it obvious to the reader that this is about commentary, it's not about prettiness, or caricature. It's a Statement with a capital S. And it works extremely well in the context of The Worst Thing I've Ever Done, because, again, these are Stories with a capital S. But I'm wondering whether the two-dimensionality is an issue with My War With Brian, where you're trying to involve the reader over a long stretch.
TR: This is an experiment. It could fail miserably. Neither Terry at NBM or I expect big sales out of this book. It's much more for the hard core fans. It's important that not every project have an eye toward the market. It's also important to have a chance to try something different.
KW: Do you think of your two-dimensionality as somewhat strident?
TR: I like to think of all of my work as strident.
KW: Does stridency make sense when you're trying to do a sixty-plus page graphic novel where the characters presumably evolve, where there's emotional resonance?
TR: This would be more of an issue for readers who are not familiar with my work. And it still might be. There are still critics who complain about my 'post-modern drawing style'. Well, fuck 'em. It's just the way that Ted Rall draws. And if you think about it there are a lot of artists who we now take for granted who draw strangely. Fred Laswell -- Snuffy Smith is a weird looking strip. The shapes of the people, the dialogue, it's odd. Krazy Kat was a strange looking strip. It took me some getting used to. Bloom County was a strange looking strip. Dick Tracy. That strip is very two-d.
KW: Part of it has the quality of the writing. That has to be what pulls people in.
TR: And I know my writing is good. Most cartoonists can't write for squat. Even most good cartoonists. Now, Crumb is a great writer. Top-notch. The writing is first and foremost. The art isn't important at all! You don't need to have good art, as proven by Thurber, Larson, Callaghan...and still have good cartoons. Good art will not save bad ideas. There are any number of cartoonists who can draw incredibly well, but they have nothing to say. Art is craft. To be able to express yourself in words, in America, is virtually a lost art.
KW: And to have the confidence to keep pushing the reader, rather than the pander to whatever we assume is what they want.
TR: It's really funny. I was walking in a parking lot with Joel Pett, who is the cartoonist for the Lexington, Kentucky paper, and we were with his dorky son in law. And the son in law saw some flashy Corvette and said 'that car rules! I wanna have that car!' And Joel just looked at him and said 'that car is just a fancy piece of shit, just an expensive piece of shit. Grow up.' And I thought 'how harsh' but of course later I realized that of course he's right. You've got to be willing to say that the emperor has no clothes. That's the job of a cartoonist. And that's something you do with words. Of course, it's great if you can draw well. There are people out there who offer neither good art nor good writing. It amazes me that those people get to eat. [Laughs]
You wouldn't believe how long it took editors to get used to my drawings. When I was first syndicated we had to show my work to editors over and over and over again. They kept saying 'I don't like the way it looks, it doesn't look like everybody else'. Eventually they got used to it.
KW: Let's talk about politics. Who do you like in the political world?
TR: Maybe Ralph Nader. I nearly didn't vote at all, and I wouldn't have voted if he hadn't been on the ballot. But in a way I really admire Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan, Ted Kennedy...people who remain true to their ideas, who know what they're about. Pat Buchanan certainly played the race card in an untoward way, and he would have problems with my politics. But at least on some of the key issues -- free trade in particular -- he was much better than the others. His stance on NAFTA guaranteed that no newspaper would endorse his candidacy, because all of the newspapers are in bed with the pro-NAFTA mafia. He just doesn't give a shit, he takes his case directly to the people. I admire that. I wouldn't vote for the guy, but then I would never vote for a Republican.
The thing about Democrats is that they are horribly wimpy, misguided people. But to be a Republican is to be beyond the pale. There's a difference between being misguided and being actively evil. Democrats are reformable, but Republicans...
KW: Did you ever have any hopes for Clinton?
TR: You know, I did. Not _great_ hopes. But I did one cartoon that I later heard from the grapevine that he really liked, which came out the week after he was elected. It was about people talking about their hopes for the future, 'I hope he balances the budget', 'I hope he gives us national health care', 'I hope he raises the minimum wage', and then finally the last line has someone saying 'I bet he can raise the dead, too'. It was about the expectation that many people had after twelve long years of Reagan and Bush. There were a lot of changes that were long overdue. I realized his task was monumental. But within six months I was incredibly disillusioned. It became immediately obvious that he was another politician who was obsessed with the bond market, with the Wall Street assholes.
There's a Sartre play called 'l'Engrenage' which is loosely translated as 'Another Day, Another Dollar', and it's about a country that has a revolution. The leader of the revolution becomes a tyrant, and he's put on trial, and the play is his trial. In the course of the trial he says, 'look, I had to capitulate to the foreign interests, because our country is very small and some of the countries around us are very big'. At the end of the trial he's executed, and the guy who led the trial becomes the new leader of the new revolution. And by the end of the play the same shit is starting to happen again. And that's what happened with Clinton. He capitulated. But you know what? Clinton's the president of the United States. Reagan understood it to some extent, and Nixon really understood the nature of the presidency, which is you're in charge. Not Bill Gates, not Lee Iacocca, not Ted Turner. You're the Man. And if you want to make things happen you can. In fact, you can take Ted Turner's company away from him, if you want. I saw immediately that Clinton was a sell-out. The guy didn't even try. He didn't even propose a real national health insurance plan. He put together a plan that was designed to protect the insurance companies. So neither the left nor the right could get behind him. The gays in the military controversy was a total fiasco, a total squandering of political capital.
The truth is that Bill Clinton was never a political progressive. Hillary was a progressive, and it would have been interesting to see what she would have done. But they're both compromisers. The American political system is in a dreadful state. The best and the brightest do not go into politics.
KW: Where do they go?
TR: Wall Street [he says sadly]. Or they start their own companies, or they start zines, or bands. Or they become cartoonists. Politics was probably always like this, but the two parties are now completely moribund. The two parties are so similar to each other it's scary. The only things that separate the two major parties are symbolic, as in the appointment of female judges. Who cares? I don't think women give a shit, either. The important thing is, let's level out salaries, let's take care of global warming, let's pull out of these ridiculous free trade agreements, let's protect workers' rights, let's clean up the environment, let's cut the defense budget. And there are so many foreign policy things we need to be taking care of, too. It's amazing to me.
The people I admire are those who are able to work within the system and yet resist the lure of the three martini lunch.
KW: Do you think the right's doing a better job than the left right now?
TR: The right's _always_ done a better job than the left. Every aspect of the right is better organized. They're better organized in terms of fundraising and in terms of keeping focused on a few key issues. They run better campaigns. They're no holds barred. There's no pretense of fairness. They go for the jugular, they do these vicious ads -- which is what the Democrats ought to be doing -- and they just go crazy. And they stay focused. And that's how they win. Because people don't have tremendous attention spans. Everyone's working, like, one hundred hours a week. Who has time to memorize platform planks? And the militia types are armed to the teeth, they're preparing for the crunch. And when the shit hits the fan, those people are going to take over. It's going to be like the Handmaid's Tale, the Margaret Atwood novel. The left is so...wimpy, and soppy, and we're not ready for dick. I'm totally disgusted with the state of the left in this country. There's always this ridiculous sense of fairness on the part of the left. When Clinton became president, he appointed Republicans to his cabinet! Has a Republican ever appointed a Democrat? And Carter did the same thing. The Democrats always say, 'we have to be bipartisan'. _Republicans_ aren't bipartisan. I didn't notice Ronald Reagan appointing any environmentalists to the cabinet. You've got to be fierce and harsh. The mainstream left in this country is a distraction. They're like a safety valve, to keep a revolution from happening. It's all a lie.
And the American people aren't that stupid. Eventually, they know what's going on. The fact that nobody votes is a pretty good indicator of that.
KW: Does the incompetence of the left alienate some people who might otherwise be attracted?
TR: It alienated me. I used to go to rallies, and worked for presidential campaigns. But where does someone sign up if they want to see income redistribution, for example? That's not such a radical idea. Where do you sign up if you're interested in nationalizing corporations? Which party is into that? Where do you go if you want socialized medicine? Or which party is totally opposed to the death penalty? There's nowhere to go. Eventually, a group will emerge that recognizes that there's a market for progressive politics and that's willing to do something about it.
KW: Have your cartoons appeared in labor union publications?
TR: My work appears in a lot of places like that, such as Labor Notes in Detroit, and Against the Current.
KW: It seems as if 80-90% of your cartoons are about work, job insecurity, the global economy, and so forth.
TR: That's mainly what I do. Those are my concerns. I'm moving away from the downsizing cartoons, however. I was ahead of the curve on that stuff, and now all of the other mainstream cartoonists are doing that. So I'm moving on to the next thing. I'm currently much more concerned about the deterioration of family and personal relationships, the sense that the center is gone. The question is: what makes us Americans? I don't think that anyone really knows anymore. There's no American thing. What do we all have in common? I think a lot, or that we should have a lot in common. But we're spending all of our time tearing each other apart based on the way we all look, the way that we worship, the way that we think. There's also a lot of psychic wreckage from the '60s. Certainly nobody gave a lot of thought to how the quest for individual happiness would result in massive piles of kids without parents. These are the issues that I'm trying to address.
KW: Some people on the right would say we're Americans because we have the right to bear arms, because we have constitutional liberties, the right to start our own businesses...
TR: The right to start your own business? They have that in China. What's the difference? That's not even unique to capitalism. But I agree with the right about certain things. I do think the right to own guns is an important freedom. But I believe in gun control in that not just anyone should be able to walk into a store and buy a gun. Obviously there should be stringent licensing requirements. You're required to have a license to own a dog, and dogs aren't quite as lethal as guns. But when the crunch comes people need to have guns. If they're all in the hands of the government authorities then only the government has any power. But I don't think those right-wing ideas about what makes us Americans are what makes us Americans. What makes us Americans is a certain way of thinking. We're still a young country. But there's more to being American than that. We obviously aren't totally an individualistic society. What makes us Americans more than anything else is our skepticism, a dislike of class boundaries. We like to think of ourselves as a classless society -- so why don't we just become one?
But nothing works itself out. Human nature is to think, 'well, things work themselves out'. Nazism didn't just happen. It came along like a freight train moving at about half a mile an hour. There were plenty of opportunities to derail the train. Hitler wrote a political memoir in early 1945, right before he died, and he talked about all the bluffs he pulled to get to where he was. Even as late as Munich he was still bluffing. If the French army had marched into Berlin they would have been there in twenty-four hours, and Hitler would have been killed. And he knew that. At Munich he was drugging himself to get over his nerves. He was counting on the fact that Allies didn't know what they were supposed to do. In life, it's often like that. Global warming is like this now. There's no political will to solve the problem. But we could. It's way solvable. We could solve this problem now and not have to build enormous levies in fifty years. As any doctor will tell you, preventive medicine is a lot cheaper than treating the illness.
KW: Are the militias a danger?
TR: They're opportunists. They're waiting for the crunch. A lot of those guys are pretty smart. They see a system that nobody's vested in. They see a country that has no political center, no religious center, no cultural center. People are searching for answers, and the militia people are thinking 'if this thing falls apart we'll be here to pick up the pieces'. Very few of them are like Tim McVey, trying to push the system off the cliff. But think about Tim McVey. If there had been five bombs just like it going off at the same time in this country, that would have produced sheer chaos, with people seeing that the government couldn't do anything to protect us. I don't think there's much holding this country together. But the main danger isn't the militia movement, it's what could lead to them picking up the pieces, and that's the total lack of leadership in this country. We turn a blind eye to the fact that Wall Street is running the show in Washington. The real problem is that the government should be controlling the economy, not the other way around. Capitalism is voracious. It feeds on itself like a snake eating its own tail. It has to be controlled for its own good. Nineteen-fifties liberals knew that. This is something that Clinton doesn't understand.
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