Get Your War On, by David Rees, introduction by Colson Whitehead. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press. 100 pages. $11. BUY NOW

Reviewed by CECILY MARCUS

     
 

Bright red and clearly rendered, David Rees's online comic Get Your War On (www.mnftiu.cc/mnftiu.cc/war.html) is the perfect insomnia companion for the politically distraught. Even though it's available for browsing 24/7, Get Your War On seems like it was written by someone listening to Nirvana on the radio at 3 amˇwhich is appropriate. For if Kurt Cobain were alive and aware of current events, he'd probably be a lot like one of the comic's charactersˇthe one trying come up with a rhyme for "alcohol-saturated dread."

First posted on October 9, 2001, Get Your War On is built around New York office workers talking on the phone. The characters are claims adjusters and secretaries, and while they resemble ordinary middle-aged cubicle-dwellers, they speak like hip-hop MCs. "Oh yeah! Operation: Enduring Freedom is in the motherfucking house!" is the comic's opening salvo, turning workplace decorum inside out. "Hey, are you on CNN.com?" one asks. "They've got a really interesting poll. . . . 'Is al-Qaeda sending coded messages to followers via video statements?'" In the next panel, his workmate replies, "What about 'How the fuck would I know?' Who's qualified to answer a goddamn poll about coded video statements?" But, as it happens, a hundred thousand people have already responded.

Between the hermetic cubicle setting and the fact that Rees uses the same clip-art pictures over and over again, GYWO superficially appears to be the most staid, airless comic strip ever drawn. But as in the word-balloon dÚtournement of the Situationist International, Rees forces benign images to speak jarring truths through dissonant juxtapositionˇmaking a conventional-looking white office worker talk like Ice Cube, curse like Terrance and Phillip from South Park, and deliver devastating political analysis, all at the same time. GYWO derives its momentum from the breaking news the comic documents in rapid, relentless succession: the destruction of the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan, the threat of mailborn anthrax, our eroding civil rights, an invisible Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's transformation into an overwhelmingly powerful president, the discovery of John Walker Lindh among the Taliban, Enron's criminal accounting, the dangerous and deteriorating situation in the Middle East, the collapsing US economy, the impending war in Iraq . . . Rees mercilessly distills it all, panel after panel.

GYWO's bleak humor resides in its characters' rueful attempts to process all the bad news thrown at them. "Holy fuckˇanthrax in New York City! We're getting our fucking ass kicked," says one. To which his colleague replies, sensibly, "Fuck Operation: Enduring Freedom. I want some Operation: My Ass Enduring Without Anthrax!" GYWO's office workers invert and pervert Bush administration slogans and media buzzwords, transforming them into cryptic political critique. "Operation: Enduring Freedom" becomes "How are you enduring your freedom?"ˇreminding us that freedom is a burden and a responsibility, something that can't be taken for granted. When John Ashcroft puts America on "Heightened Awareness," one office worker trains his attention on our own military, becoming "'Highly Aware' that our bombs aren't cutting the mustard!"

By adding the phrase "under God" to the end of every sentence (as in "Did you have a good vacation, under God?") at one point in the strip, Rees playfully references the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on the unconstitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. But in GYWO "under God" has a more sinister resonance than its conflicts with the First Amendment imply, as in, "Are you ready to have a nice war with Iraq under God?" Ultimately, "under God" becomes shorthand for the Bush administration and America itself, summed up by the depressingly true statement, "Do we really have a choice under God?" Having taken the phrase from cheeky wordplay to political irony to existential despair, Rees pushes on, finally rendering "under God" as absurd expletive: "I totally forgot we were waging war in Afghanistan until we bombed the 'Under God' out of some innocent locals!"

GYWO has been attacked for being unpatriotic and profane, but Rees's delight in swear words pales in comparison with the profanity of the situations he traces. And it is a deeply patriotic text, full of serious regard for America's history, its power, and its vulnerability. Rees is committed to speaking the truth as he sees it, unburdened by the soft censorship of piety, euphemism, or the business interests of the news media. The result is the kind of unflinching political dialogue we're not hearing anywhere else:

"Man! I like a good stiff Operation: Enduring Freedom as much as the next guy, but I have reached my limits of understanding! All of a sudden my fucking mailman is a Hero on the Front Lines of the War Against Terror? My daughter wants to sell cookies to help the people my nephew's been sent to fucking bomb? I'm supposed to help the FBI find clues and solve crimes? I'M A CLAIMS ADJUSTER NOT FUCKING ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN! Who's in charge of this shit?"

"Agreed! This is totally Loony Toons. . . . The 'Office of Homeland Security' makes the DMV look like fucking Delta Force! And look, I understand why bin Laden sounds crazyˇhe's an eleven-foot tall motherfucker who lives in a cave! But why does Bush sound like he's addressing a fucking Dungeons & Dragons convention?"

Rees isn't the only one making brave, dissenting statements. "I don't trust this president or his advisors," Representative Pete Stark of California said during the congressional debate over the Iraq war resolution. Week after week in the New York Times, Paul Krugman painstakingly explains what is really behind the policies of the Bush administration. But of the three, only Reesˇemerging on the Internet with nothing to prove and even less to loseˇis possessed by the imp of the perverse: Edgar Allan Poe's term for the instinct that compels us to throw ourselves gleefully over the ledge of propriety. "What security level comes after 'Totally Apeshit'?" Rees is one of the few public voices perversely courageous enough to ask such a question. One hopes that its answerˇas well as the real name for "Operation: Whatever The Fuck Crazy-Ass Name They Come Up With For The Iraq War"ˇdoesn't get in the house.

Cecily Marcus is a writer living in Buenos Aires.