Drawn to Battle

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

Hellman did comply with Rall's demand to send an apology and admission of authorship to the recipients of the prank. In what has become a highly significant legal detail, the contents of the e-mail were also available to the public on the Web site Onelist.com, a collection of forums. Rall demanded the site be removed immediately. Hellman says he did so; Rall says he didn't. Further piquing Rall's anger, Hellman's apology seemed more petulant than penitent: "If Rall has failed to understand my sense of humor to the point where he thought it was necessary to begin legal action, then I am sorry." Rall says that "Hellman has never in the course of this made any genuine show of remorse."

Hellman fucked with Rall, and worse, he did so in public. And in what has become delectable fodder for columnists and Gotham gossip-mongers alike, Rall fucked with Hellman back. On August 19, Rall filed his $1.5 million lawsuit against Hellman for failing to redress Rall's demands. Hellman says the suit is frivolous. The court of public opinion quickly concurred, awarding Hellman the judgment that Rall is a vindictive, humorless bully who doesn't deserve a cent. Judge Jane S. Solomon for the New York state supreme court, however, didn't agree. On October 25 she denied Hellman's motion to dismiss any of the six counts against him. The two sides will meet on Monday to discuss a settlement, but Hellman says he refuses to compensate Rall for more than "his first two days of legal fees," making settlement unlikely.

"It's a shakedown," Hellman says. "He's asking for protection money and I'm not paying it." Rall's reply? "I don't have to negotiate with this asshole. I can go to court and destroy him if I want to. There's no way I'm going to settle for less than my attorney fees—I'm not going to be out of pocket for a mess he created." Both cartoonists point out their paucity. Rall says he's already tapped out his bank account, and Hellman's lawyers have scheduled a "Free Dirty Danny" benefit concert, to be held December 4 at the Bowery Ballroom with Soul Coughing headlining.

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.

Kim Thompson, copublisher of Seattle's Fantagraphics Books and an adminstrator of the Comics Journal message board, has sat in the front row for the entire affair. Thompson has long been involved in contretemps with Hellman over the content of the latter's posts to the Comics Journal site (www.tcj.com), but he was also highly critical of Rall's piece on Spiegelman. "It's hard to tell which is the bigger asshole," he says.

Thompson doesn't believe Hellman's line that his pranks are all in good fun. "Hellman is clearly interested in causing people pain and anger and annoyance. He just picked the wrong guy this time." But Thompson also has an interesting interpretation of Rall's demonstrated enmity toward both Spiegelman and Hellman. "If you look at [Rall's graphic novel] Revenge of the Latchkey Kids, it's preoccupied with two figures—the bully and the neglectful father. It's a pretty easy jump to see Hellman as the bully and Spiegelman as the neglectful father."

Ironically, a bully is exactly how Hellman and his supporters have portrayed Rall on the Comics Journal board and the "Free Dirty Danny" Web site (www.sper-anza.com/freedirtydanny/). In another odd case of mirror imaging, both sides applied for help from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which supports cases of First Amendment infringement.

Attorney Bass points out a similarity to the lawsuit the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson filed against journalist Janet Malcolm. Masson contended that Malcolm had libeled him by attributing quotes to him that he had never uttered. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld false attribution as libel, and the two spent the next decade in court. "Given the decision in Masonv. Malcolm," Bass says. "These two parties could be locked in battle for years to come."

If there's any cautionary tale here, it's probably karmic: People on the lookout for enemies—like Rall and Hellman—are sure to find them. "They're now locked into each other's arms, and there's no way out for either one of them," Thompson says. "Maybe they deserve each other."

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