My Interview with Ted

Ted Rall interviewed by Alan David Doane

Alan David Doane: Ted, I'm going to come right out and admit that, up until a couple of weeks ago, I was not that familiar with your work. I know I had seen it before, and had seen mention of your lawsuit against Danny Hellman in the Comics Journal, but on a whim I picked up MY WAR WITH BRIAN not long ago, and then Legal Action Comics, and suddenly, my life seems to be filled with Ted Rall-related comics.

Ted Rall: That's understandable...I don't appear everywhere.

ADD: Tell me how long you've been cartooning.

TR: Like most cartoonists (I suspect), since I was a kid. I was first published for real in the pages of the Kettering-Oakwood (OH) Times when I was 16 years old and did a lot of work for college papers at Columbia during the early '80s. But I only became serious about cartooning as a profession in 1987, when I began the three-cartoon-a-week schedule that I maintain today. That's when I realized that I would be a cartoonist whether or not anyone was interested in running them.

ADD: What was the subject matter of those early cartoons? 16 seems early to start getting paid work.

TR: I was a pretty standard-issue political cartoonist, cross-hatching and labels, all that stuff. I modeled my work on the infinitely more-talented Mike Peters at first.

ADD: How many papers is your current strip syndicated in?

TR: I currently appear in 140 newspapers and magazines.

ADD: Three strips a week might not seem like many to some readers, but when you have to get down to it, I imagine it's a lot of work. How do you keep yourself energized and interested?

TR: It's like anything--you have to love it to be properly motivated. I also draw freelance cartoons for Time and other places so it's really more like five a week...I could draw more if I didn't have to spend so much energy concentrating on administrative matters like sending out invoices and that kind of thing. If you have a paucity of ideas, this is a very difficult job.

ADD: So you have no assistants helping you, either with office matters, spotting blacks, it's all you?

TR: (Laughs) Definitely, it's all me. If I hired someone to help me with the art, my drawing would be a hell of a lot better! My wife does help me by dealing with editors, as well as coloring some of my color stuff. But the cartoons most people see are done top-to-bottom by yours truly. It also helps that I'm really angry about a lot of things and that cartooning is the best way I know how to express that anger.

ADD: Now, it's funny you should mention anger. My partner in Comic Book Galaxy often comments that I do my best work when I am enraged, and while it's not a state of mind I enjoy being in, looking back over the last few years, it seems he's right. I think the truth and rage are a potent combination.

TR: Well, the truth often stimulates rage--so much of life is filled with stupid, petty people doing stupid, petty things that's it's impossible to ignore it unless you're a self-alienated moron.

ADD: Do you find the anger ever wears at you?

TR: Sometimes I wish I could just smoke pot or whatever it is that most people do to be okay with the way things are, but I've given up trying to be someone I'm not a while back. I think it's important to know who your enemies are and cast appropriate blame and demands for retribution at them. That way you don't become a victim, but rather an example. Too many people let wrongdoers off the hook, and I think that wears at THEM.

ADD: Rage certainly seemed to fuel MY WAR WITH BRIAN. Tell me how you decided to turn your miserable high school experiences into a graphic novel.

TR: First of all, it's junior-high, with a little high-school thrown in at the end. It evolved out of an article I wrote for the New York Press when they were still publishing a lot of first-person narrative stuff. After that ran I got lots of e-mail from the former victims of bullies, and it occurred to me that my experience was far from uncommon. Quite to the contrary, everyone either bullied or was bullied back then, and it's a perfect training ground of brutality for the dog-eat-dog world of adults. If kids were forced to act more civilly, it would probably have a hugely positive impact on society overall. Anyway, I thought that doing a graphic novel, a single story, would allow me to explore aspects of bullying that prose--at least my prose--didn't permit.

ADD: Has "Brian" ever seen the book, that you know of?

TR: I have no idea, but I may find out Saturday. I'm going to my high school's 20th reunion then.

ADD: You should take copies to hand out to your old classmates. Although the last page might get you in some hot water.

TR: Some friends suggested that, but I've decided not to. I don't like it when artists or anyone tries to promote their business at social occasions. This must be a residue of my polite Midwestern upbringing.

ADD: Now, if we can, let's talk about your lawsuit against Danny Hellman. I'll give you what I understand of the case, and you correct me if I am wrong. You wrote an article that was critical or negative in regard to art spiegelman, and Hellman decided to pull a "prank" (his word for it, I believe) by creating a mass e-mail that he attributed to you and that you contend was libelous. Is that correct?

TR: That's part of it.

ADD: Okay, and I'm sure you're legally restricted to what you can say, but can you fill in the gaps for me? From reading Hellman's side of things, by his own admission in LEGAL ACTION COMICS, it strikes me that at the very least he is guilty of identity theft. If he had sent out those mailings through the US Mail, in my opinion I suspect he'd have been busted for mail fraud, as well.

TR: I can't speak to the mail-fraud analogy, but what he did was clearly illegal under New York State law. Two judges have already told him that in open court. It's also profoundly immoral and disgusting. In a nutshell, Hellman launched a carefully-coordinated campaign of intimidation and harassment against me for one reason: He didn't agree with my opinion of his idol Art Spiegelman as expressed in my article in the Village Voice. He's a fanboy. First he posted the entire article to the Comics Journal website, a clear violation of my copyright. Then he asked readers of that website to "vomit" on me in exchange for a $500 cash bounty. More seriously and believably, he engaged in a sober-toned discussion with LA resident Tony Millionaire whether I lived in LA or New York in order to find and vandalize my car. Anyone who read their exchange would agree that they were serious.

ADD: How did you come to read this exchange between Hellman and Millionaire? Was this publicly posted?

TR: The exchange between Millionaire and Hellman WAS publicly posted.

TR: The e-mail spam which went to at least 36 people twice for a total of at least 72 e-mails (the list keeps growing as recipients disgusted with Danny Hellman step forward) was signed by "Ted Rall" and went to my fellow cartoonists, editors and other people involved with comics. If you read it, Hellman carefully copied my writing style. And when I attempted to notify the recipients of this listserv that they were the victims of a hoax, he copied the trailer information at the bottom of my e-mail and sent out a SECOND impersonation spam to "confirm" that it was legit. That's when I realized that this person would not stop.

ADD: Here's what I don't understand. Hellman's legion of defenders claims the e-mail only went out to his friends, and that they were in on the gag. So I fail to understand how the entire thing was ever made public? If there were true, would they not have protected Danny by not making it public?

TR: Danny's defenders are lying about the "friend" thing. Only a tiny portion of the recipients were Danny's friends--many, like TCJ editor Kim Thompson, despise Danny. Also, the listserv he used, onelist.com, had the list on its publically-available website, so the whole world could read it. At one point typing the words "Ted Rall" into a search engine yielded his "private" prank. Danny claims that he had created a "private" listserv, but this is patently not true. And even many of the Danny "friends" who'd received it didn't know that I hadn't actually authored it.

It took more than 24 hours to track him down, but ultimately a little detective work did the trick. My lawyer served him with two sets of cease-and-desist letters. He responded by promising to take the listserv down immediately and sending out a retraction. But when the "retraction," which was incredibly snotty and unrepentant, didn't go to the most important recipient, the op-ed editor of the New York Times, I knew that he was scum. And when he failed to take down the listserv more than three days later, I knew that he wasn't going to undo what he'd done. Nonetheless, I gave him TWO WEEKS to undo the mess he made and go away--at that point, all I wanted was a few hundred bucks to cover my legal fees--and he ignored me and kept right on going. Other people familiar with Hellman told me he would never, ever stop. So I did what I'd told him I was going to do--I sued him to defend myself from his hostile, aggressive assaults.

ADD: How has this matter affected your cartooning career?

TR: More than anything else, this proved to be an immense distraction, followed by an immense expense. I turned in my last graphic novel, 2024, more than five months late because of Danny Hellman's shenanigans. A big part of this is that Danny Hellman continues to slander me with his crack-jack PR campaign; if not for that I could simply let my lawyer do the heavy lifting while I concentrated on cartooning. Hellman has given me an awful choice--get bogged down in endless arguments about this, or let him set the tone with his repeated lies. This is time-consuming and exhausting, but it beats the alternative. On the other hand, it has provided me with endless additional material about betrayal, spin and evil on a firsthand basis, which does help my cartooning.

ADD: I mentioned LEGAL ACTION COMICS in my column this week, and stated simply my opinion that Hellman did something wrong, and that rather than seeing dozens of cartoonists pile on one of their own, it might be nice to just let the courts decide the case. I woke up to an e-mail from a cartoonist I otherwise admire calling me a "fucking idiot," so it seems like in the industry, you may be fighting an uphill battle. I've been under assault for days now because of my brief statement of opinion.

TR: Well, the important thing to understand is that there is no such thing as "the cartooning community." People who do and read daily comics, magazine gag cartoons, editorial cartoons, Marvel Comics and underground comics have little if anything in common. Danny Hellman's allies are all in that last group, and they're loud, but most cartoonists don't know, much less care, about this case. That being said, most people in editorial cartoons and comic strips consider Hellman's behavior reprehensible. If this were a popularity contest, I'd win, but it's not a popularity contest, it's a court battle.

Also, Hellman's allies are really people who worship Art Spiegelman, and they're defending Hellman's attacks as payback against me for questioning their God. And of course there are plenty of morons who would be furious at Hellman had he done the same thing to them but don't care because it happened to someone they're not friends with. It's misplaced loyalty, selfishness and old-fashioned stupidity all mixed up in one icky bundle. I mean, imagine if I had sent out a spam to Art Spiegelman's editors and colleagues under his name, trying to make him look bad? Imagine which side those assholes would be on then!

ADD: The other factor, it seems to me, is that it was done over the internet. Somehow these things that would be actionable and reprehensible in the real world seem to get a pass from many people because they are carried out with a new technology that we haven't quite acclimated ourselves to. Does that make any sense to you?

TR: It does, absolutely. It's been noted that people say things to each other in "flame wars" that they wouldn't dare say in person because they feel cozy and safe typing at home in their underwear. I think some of these people feel that anything goes online--though most people take what goes on on the Internet very literally and seriously. In Hellman's deposition he was asked whether he'd take an e-mail seriously, or as seriously as a written letter, and he basically said he wouldn't. But most people DO take it seriously. When I get an e-mail from "alandaviddoane," I expect it to be from you. And you know what? It is. Hellman is my first exposure on online identity theft.

ADD: Sure, and as far as I am concerned, a threat is a threat. I fail, honestly, to see how this has dragged out so long in the courts.

TR: And you're right--who cares if someone threatens to kill you online or by phone or in person? (Hellman did that online, at TCJ, as well.) It's equally scary, all the more so because the thug in question is hidden and you can't gauge what they're really all about. [It's drawn out so long] because New York state's court system is overburdened -- there are 60,000 cases pending in my courthouse--and because Hellman keeps filing motions whose sole purpose is to stave off the inevitable. It'll come to trial within 6 months, probably, or 2-1/2 years after the fact, which is about average.

ADD: As you noted, a lot of alternative and underground cartoonists took part in Legal Action Comics...have you gotten much support from your peers?

TR: I don't want to give anything away at this point; suffice it to say that I am more than pleased with the way my friends and colleagues have come to my aid.

ADD: All right, then. Let's talk about something a little more upbeat -- tell me about your recent projects.

TR: Whew! Okay -- well, as I mentioned, I have a new graphic novel out, 2024, which is coming out in paperback now. It's a parody and updating of Orwell's 1984, with a heavy emphasis on the dumbing-down of America. I also have a new cartoon collection, SEARCH AND DESTROY, which collects 150 cartoons from the last five years. And I just finished editing a really cool anthology of 21 alternative cartoonists that's coming out in the spring of 2002. I'm going on book tour now--leaving tonight, actually--and when I get back I'm starting on a (prose) novel. Oh, and, there's talk of doing a REAL AMERICANS ADMIT: THE WORST THING I'VE EVER DONE! PART 2...though I haven't decided whether or not to do that yet.

ADD: What made you want to tackle the themes of 2024?

TR: 2024 was something I'd started and given up on several times over the course of the last 15 years. I always thought Orwell provided an excellent template for a futuristic dystopian vision of the world but that totalitarianism wasn't the big threat right now. Finally, after lots of false starts, it occurred to me that everything is the OPPOSITE of 1984--the problem isn't an evil government trying to keep free-thinking folks down but rather stultified media-fed drones dragging down society and by extension government down to a lowest common denominator from hell. That's really the basis of 2024--it's all about empty consumerism substituting for actual living.

ADD: Do you offer any solutions for this problem, short of knocking stupid people upside the head?

TR: I don't think there IS any other possible solution...do you?

ADD: Speaking as someone who has been a broadcast journalist for 15 years, no, probably not. The media in general does try to encourage stupidity and conformity, and people are all too willing to be patted on the head for "going along to get along."

TR: And the irony is that editors and producers justify their LCD dross by claiming that, while they would happily put out intelligent, challenging stuff, they don't because their audience is too stupid to understand it. It's perfect!

ADD: What topics do we see covered in SEARCH AND DESTROY? Is it mainly political in nature? Who are you searching for, and who are you destroying?

TR: It's a collection of my syndicated newspaper cartoons, so the topics are all over the place--Clinton, Gore, Bush, globalization, friendship, terrorism, you name it. There are consistent themes, but I'm too close to the material to objectively discern them.

ADD: How are you enjoying the governmental coup d'etat, while I have your ear?

TR: Well, I enjoy it as a cartoonist, but as an American I am repulsed by the fact not only that Bush and his Supreme Court suck-ups pulled off this illegal coup but that we're all sitting still for it. Gore is the president. Bush should be behind bars, awaiting trial. If anything demonstrates the exquisite apathy and resignation of the average American, it's the willingness of the public to let this go.

ADD: I'd have to agree with you there. I see the media (the left-wing media myth is exploded by this, by the way) as utterly complicit with the illegal overthrow of the lawful government every time they refer to Bush as "President."

TR: Yes, that's true. The more you repeat a lie, the truer it becomes. Not to mention the assumption, almost from day one of the post-election crisis, that Bush would become President--it was only a matter of figuring out how he'd pull it off.

ADD: Actually, I saw the assumption in the media a year before the election. I can remember discussing it with Barry Windsor-Smith during the primary, and telling him "I told you so," after the election. Bush had obviously been anointed a year before the election was ever held, and it was just assumed (or more accurately, telegraphed) by the media that he was the guy.

TR: I did sometimes get that feeling but attributed it to leftie paranoia. But the message was clear and uniform after November 7th, that's for sure.

ADD: Now, this prose novel you mention. Have you done much prose writing? Where did this come from? Was it your idea, or was it suggested to you?

TR: I write a weekly column, as well as longer feature pieces (see my, er, piece on Art Spiegelman, for example!) now and then, whenever some publication will condescend to running my stuff. Also, "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids," my Gen X manifesto, is mostly prose. The new novel is still secret--don't want to embarrass myself in case it turns out to suck and I trash it--but it's my idea, with the notion of doing a novel encouraged by my beloved agent.

ADD: Any last thoughts as we wrap up the interview, Ted?

TR: Just one, vis-a-vis the Hellman case: What disappoints me more than anything else is that people think it's reasonable to accept one point of view without checking out the opposition. Danny would have no allies whatsoever if they bothered to check out the other side in detail, but the facts are inconvenient. I've learned from this; now I refuse to take sides until I've given the opposition a chance to speak in detail. I recommend that kind of objectivity to those too busy or lazy to do the same.

ADD: Well, I recommend people check out your side on your web site and Hellman's on his, and to both of you, I give you my profound hope that justice is done when the case is resolved.

TR: I am certain that it will be. It's terribly unfortunate that the two of us have had to spend so much time and energy on this--well, in Hellman's case it's a choice, but whatever.

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