Drawn to Battle

Brawling Cartoonists Danny Hellman and Ted Rall each look for the last laugh in a libel suit

Ted Rall can be a scary guy. He's clever and charming and hilariously astute. He's a brilliant satirist, and his conver-sation bristles with the same trenchant, unforgiving honesty that fuels his cartoons and editorial columns. But Rall—a well-known editorial cartoonist for Time, The New York Times, and the Voice, among others—also collects enemies the way a record collector assembles vinyl: with enthusiasm.

So it comes as no surprise that Rall is currently embroiled in a widely reviled lawsuit with Danny Hellman, another New York City graphic artist. After Rall penned a controversial attack on cartoonist Art Spiegelman in the Voice last summer, Hellman, responding to the attack, posed as Rall in an embarrassing e-mail missive that made its way to at least one of Rall's employers. An understandably disturbed Rall identified Hellman as the prankster and demanded he cease and desist under pain of litigation. Hellman called his bluff, and Rall answered with a $1.5 million lawsuit. Activity in the case picks up over the next few weeks, which will see a settlement meeting, a benefit for Hellman, and the suit's first deposition. Despite a public consensus that views Rall's lawsuit as simply a vindictive reprisal, it's a case he just might win.

"I've always had the philosophy," Rall says, "that if someone fucks with you, you fuck with them back 10 times harder." This ethos of retribution is evident in much of Rall's work, as anyone with even a glancing familiarity with his cartoons might tell you (disclosure: while editing Link magazine, I commissioned Rall for both cartoons and articles). Unsurprisingly, given Rall's penchant for pissing people off, the current controversy has its origins in another one. In the August 3 Voice, Rall wrote a critique of Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize?winning Maus and an editor at The New Yorker. Rall portrayed Spiegelman as a cartooning kingmaker, capable of making and breaking careers according to his merest whim. The piece was considered courageous by a few and poorly substantiated by most. Rall was accused of professional jealousy and paranoia and the cartooning community reacted with rare unanimity by lambasting Rall.

After Hellman (left, in protest clown suit) sent out a prank e-mail slamming Rall (right, with furry cat), Rall answered with a $1.5 million lawsuit.
Ted Rall: Sandra-Lee Phipps; Danny Hellman: Linda Payson
After Hellman (left, in protest clown suit) sent out a prank e-mail slamming Rall (right, with furry cat), Rall answered with a $1.5 million lawsuit.

Among Rall's most vocal critics was Hellman. Within 24 hours of the story's publication, Hellman had started a thread on the Comic Journal's message board—the virtual town hall of cartooning—posting both Rall's article and his own letter to the Voice editor. The thread was a hit. For Hellman, who through previous pranks had made his own share of enemies on the board and within the industry, this constituted redemption. But Hellman's posts quickly got ugly. According to Rall, Hellman offered $500 to anyone who could prove they had "puked" on Rall. Then he went even further.

On August 4, about one week after the publication of the Spiegelman piece, Hellman composed an e-mail to Rall and 30 recipients, mostly Hellman's friends. The e-mail trumpeted the creation of an online forum, TedRallsBalls: "a place where the disenfranchised underdogs of the comics scene can take a meat cleaver to all the comics industry's sacred cows, a rowdy punk free-for-all where courageous cartoonists with balls can boldly tear down all those imperious golden idols of yesterday." Hellman signed Rall's name to the bottom, then followed the first post with fake e-mails from both real (S.I. Newhouse) and invented (Jim Deeds of Forbes) players in the publishing industry, expressing outrage at the phony Rall and his, well, balls.

"I thought my career was self-destructing right before my eyes," says Rall, who believes the e-mail damaged him by making him look like a pompous ass. Rall was in L.A. at the time, pitching sitcom ideas, and says that due to the distress caused him by Hellman, he flubbed his meetings. The next day Rall had his lawyer, Paul Levenson, track Hellman down, and serve him a cease and desist letter.

What happened next depends on who you listen to. Hellman insists he thought the cease and desist letter was a response in kind—a prank reply to a prank. But his postings to the TCJ message board belie this assertion: "The mission of this 'insipid prank' as Ted Rall has called it, was to create the ILLUSION that scores of publishing biz types were up in arms and horrified at having received e-mails about Ted Rall's Balls, WITHOUT ACTUALLY ENDANGERING RALL'S FINE REPUTATION IN THE SLIGHTEST! I hope Ted Rall and his 'lawyer' figure this out before they attempt to go any further with their 'case.' " In other words, Hellman wanted to mess with Ted's head. Rall says he succeeded.

For instance, Rall soon discovered that one "publishing biz type," New York Times op-ed editor Nicholas Blechman, had received the RallsBalls e-mails. Hellman downplays this as a simple mistake. "I had [Blechman's] address on previous lists, and I forgot to take him off the list before I hit send." But as Emily Bass, a First Amendment lawyer who's also advised on libel matters, points out, "Because Blechman received that e-mail, Hellman can't very well go into court and say it's a prank." In other words, once Blechman received the phony e-mail, Hellman crossed the line from prankster to potential saboteur.

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