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 Linkmagazine, 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.

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.

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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