Art

Mr. Fish’s Blowtorch Polemics Burn Trump, God, and Everything in Between

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It can be dicey to read Dwayne Booth’s new book, And Then The World Blew Up (Fantagraphics, $29.99), over a cup of coffee. Chances are you’ll spit out your brew laughing at a particularly hilarious cartoon or choke on a “Did he really just say that?” bit of prose—or your beverage will go cold as he deftly skewers your most comfortably held beliefs.

Booth (born 1966) is a graphics chameleon who writes and draws under both his own name and the pseudonym Mr. Fish. (He told an interviewer that he adopted his sometime pen name early in his career to avoid being confused with the well-known New Yorker cartoonist George Booth.) One of the first images in this new collection of cartoons (which have appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, and numerous other publications) is a grisaille drawing of Donald Trump, all squinty eyes and carapace of hair, puckered lips blowing on a dandelion that disintegrates into teensy skulls and crossbones. Later, in a completely different style, Booth cribs the galumphing body language of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” newspaper comics for his cartoon of a youth traipsing across water accompanied by the caption “Jesus as a kid annoying his mother all afternoon with his cheesy pool antics.” Elsewhere, Booth brings a slick Hollywood treatment to another scene of Christ walking on water, this time carrying a boy wearing a rainbow flag shirt as the Pope’s peaked miter—bristling with teeth—rises up from the depths like the shark in the iconic Jaws poster.

Booth’s best images set fireworks to bursting in your brain faster than it takes to read the previous sentence. But then comes the parsing of his visions: Is Jesus actually a champion of the LGBT community, and is it only the machinations of institutional religion that have substituted power for compassion in his name? In one double-page spread, Booth mashes up Emanuel Leutze’s grand painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) with Théodore Géricault’s massive canvas The Raft of the Medusa (1819). The French painter’s Romantic behemoth illustrated official malfeasance under Louis XVIII in the form of a shipwreck that, as one recent author observed, led the survivors “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.” Hmmm … so is Booth comparing a pivotal military maneuver in the American Revolution to a criminal orgy of cannibalism, murder, and mayhem? Perhaps he had the colonists’ practices of chattel slavery and genocide in mind.

If you find yourself slowly nodding your head, check out the panel in which Booth has appropriated a photo of John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, smiling from the backseat of an open limousine. Booth, however, portrays the 35th president wearing a hooded jacket; the caption reads, “Jack Kennedy moments before making Lee Harvey Oswald feel threatened.” You’ll probably LOL at first, but laughter will wither as your brain leaps to Trayvon Martin’s murder by a thug whose defenders blamed the killing partially on the victim’s hoodie.

The second panel on that same page illustrates how at times Booth’s anger outpaces his wit. A junked car filled with Klansmen is captioned,“How is this fucking piece of shit gaining on us in the 21st century?” An apt question in our era of white supremacists being described as “fine people,” so maybe the joke is in the derelict clunker, which symbolizes the bleak ideology of racism, an insight Philip Guston nailed in visions of pathetic hoods driving jalopies in his balefully beautiful cartoon paintings.

Mr. Fish references another seminal American painter more directly when he replaces the face in Norman Rockwell’s famous self-portrait with a Klan hood. Because he celebrated the cracker-barrel folksiness of a swath of America too often proud of its clannish insularity, Rockwell was accused of whitewashing racism. And yet, in a later spread, Booth appropriates the prolific illustrator’s powerful painting of a young black girl surrounded by federal marshals as she enters an all-white elementary school, changing the focus of hate to a little Islamic girl caught up in America’s current anti-immigrant hysteria. Is it cricket to portray America’s most beloved cover artist as an enabler of intolerance on one page and give him props on another for pointing out The Problem We All Live With, as Rockwell’s original antisegregation picture was titled?

Of course it is. As Emerson once warned us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” And indeed, Mr. Fish has long struggled with the idea of the soul and the wildly inconsistent god who oversees it. Threaded throughout Booth’s copious texts are tales of human beings vaporized by forces beyond their control, whether it’s his great-uncle disintegrated by a Nazi mortar, leaving only one still-standing boot, or a doctor the nine-year-old Booth read about in Fate magazine who left behind nothing but a foot in a charred slipper, which the magazine designated as a case of spontaneous combustion. The youthful Booth puzzled over this ambiguous bolt from the blue: “It seemed cruel to insist that we all be made to endure such a high stakes game of Russian roulette, with each tick of the clock being just another torturous click made from one more empty chamber. The whole scenario seemed irksomely Biblical….”

A born contrarian, Booth decided at that tender age to tempt God’s capricious wrath by “imagining Jesus Christ crawling on all fours through my backyard and eating the dog shit that I was tasked with picking up every day after school. Again, nothing happened. It was as if I were throwing rocks at the moon.”

Here we have the budding conscience of the heedless satirist—unafraid to call bullshit on who- or whatever the powers may be. Booth writes in the book that throughout his childhood, his mother instilled in him and his siblings “a disdain for genteel acquiescence to the dominant culture.” He also notes that when he was eleven, he had his political consciousness raised upon seeing a picture of the actress Susan Dey, topless: “My politics aligned in an instant with those espoused by the character [Laurie of The Partridge Family] that Dey portrayed on TV.” In the four decades since, a more mature Booth has moved beyond Laurie Partridge’s “corny pacifism and unconvincing feminism and cheerful dedication to social justice” to become a polemicist in the tradition of such troublemakers as John Heartfield, a Berliner who anglicized his name from Helmut Herzfeld in 1916 to protest German nationalism and the stoking of war fervor against Britain. Heartfield (1891–1968) went hammer and tongs after Hitler and his rising Nazi party in the 1930s, crafting photomontages that ridiculed the movement, including one of Hitler as a puppet controlled by industrialists. Heartfield’s mockery infuriated the Nazis, and earned him the number-five spot on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list. In 1933, when the National Socialists took power, Stormtroopers burst into Heartfield’s Berlin apartment; he survived by hiding in a garbage bin before fleeing to Czechoslovakia and, eventually, Britain.

In our own country, Booth’s unrestrained graphics follow a path blazed in the late 1950s by The Realist magazine, which included cartoons that were “considered in bad taste or too controversial for mainstream media,” as the magazine’s founding editor, Paul Krassner, recently wrote. One example, by a cartoonist known as Ludwig—published in 1962, when sit-in protests were national news—featured three African-Americans crowding into a “Whites’ Only” men’s room and declaring, “I’m afraid that we’ll have to refuse to leave; we’re staging a shit-in.”

Such cartoons of yore and Booth’s today may indeed rile those in power, but, unlike Heartfield, American cartoonists are not (as yet, anyway) taking their lives into their hands. “I was well aware that I probably couldn’t publish The Realist in any other country,” Krassner wrote in an essay about the early days of his magazine. “This was the paradox of America.”

Times have changed, of course, and the Internet has engendered an onslaught of crass and vulgar mockery in which invective trumps wit. However, like the wake-up pill in The Matrix, Mr. Fish’s graphic broadsides can jolt viewers out of complacency. For instance, do you think Barack Obama was a pretty good president? Do you excuse his paucity of accomplishments after the Affordable Care Act because he was hamstrung for six years by a Congress whose subservience to the 1 percent has only become more overweening since November 9, 2016? You might rethink your admiration for our 44th president once you’ve spent some time immersed in the Mr. Fish-bowl. One two-panel strip features realistic portraits of Obama speechifying: “Ask not what your country can do for you / Thank you and goodnight!,” which begs the questions many fans of the former president—a cautious politician respectful of his office even as it was being savaged by the opposition—might now ask. My own query, once I got on Mr. Fish’s wavelength, was, “WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T OBAMA DO A RECESS APPOINTMENT OF MERRICK GARLAND?” If nothing else, that would have gummed up the works as Republicans maneuvered to remove the new justice from the Supreme Court, thereby delaying their unrelenting attacks on the poor and middle class through attempts to repeal Obamacare and ram through a mendacious tax giveaway to the rich.

Booth lives in Philadelphia, and with a wife and twin daughters he has skin in the middle-class game. Like all revolutionaries who live beyond their formative battles, he can at times grow weary of the physical struggle. During the Occupy May Day protests in New York City some years back, he observed a protestor in a grubby Santa Claus suit who was irritating others in the crowd by poking a dirty cardboard sign reading “not me” in their faces—“his glee as bullying as a Bull Connor fire hose,” as Booth describes it. After that reference to the brutal police tactics used against peaceful civil-rights marchers in Alabama in the 1960s—which also included the use of vicious attack dogs—Mr. Fish then cops to his own annoyance with the filthy Santa: “Without a doubt, I would be the first to look away and rock back and forth on my heels if any of the riot police crowded around Union Square decided to draw their batons and make a running tackle.”

But if Fish is at times contradictory—and if such prose as “driving with two friends in the direction of the D.C. Metro through a January drizzle as tinny and panicked as joyous baby spiders” proves a bit gnarly—his quest to artfully break through the average citizen’s civic torpor shines through. One sterling example is his cartoon of President Trump goose-stepping along a row of flags at half-mast, sawing them off halfway so that the deaths of citizens and their democracy can be hidden in plain sight. Too often when looking at Booth’s imagery you bump up against the old cliché of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, as in his portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., labeled Unarmed Black Man. Everywhere on these pages, Mr. Fish’s elastic formal chops are on display, showcased in an eight-part cartoon version of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man Spirographing into a black dot, a meditation on individuality being swallowed by “competing visions of truth and morality.”

The book concludes with Booth continuing to ruminate on God smiting us from above in divine drone strikes. He notes that when he was nine, “it remained my habit with every pair of sneakers that I wore for the next 3 years to write the words ‘by Dwayne Booth’ on the bottom of the right sole just in case I ever did get blown to smithereens in my bathroom and some future 9-year-old reading about the incident in a magazine might recognize in the inscription written across the bottom of my remaining foot that I was the author of my own fate, rather than crediting a grossly esoteric God who is always way too eager to take credit for a reality into which he refuses to assimilate gracefully.”

With his take-no-prisoners polemics, Booth refuses to assimilate—gracefully or otherwise. If he ever does end up a smoldering, one-footed lump, it may be simply because the ruling class finally tired of his blowtorch satire, which reveals their (and our) mediocrity, complicity, and duplicity. Perhaps the Koch brothers will push the button on that secret “spontaneous combustion” satellite we just know they keep in reserve for special cases, once they get a load of a particularly mordant Booth cartoon: A dark-skinned youngster has just been guillotined and a mad king is using the head for a macabre bout of masturbatory fellatio as one nondescript citizen in a shirt and tie says to another, “I don’t agree with all his policies, but he’s great on immigration, second amendment rights, and school prayer.”

Happy New Year!

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