MY GOVERNMENT WENT TO AFGHANISTAN AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID PIPELINE
Comic Book Galaxy, the 3-yr-old comics news and review site has published Rall's 14,000 word essay about the War on Terrorism. "Yes, it's long," says editor-in-chief Alan David Doane. "But it's lean and mean in the information it presents, and it's damned entertaining, in Rall's uniquely sardonic style. I hope everyone who visits The Galaxy to read our little funnybook reviews will care enough about the world to read what this important voice has to say about the tragic schemes being carried out pretty much right before your very eyes. It's the very fact that a 14,000 word essay may be too long for some to commit to reading that makes it possible for corrupt governments to carry out their labyrinthine machinations. It's long past time Americans started paying attention to the details, in hopes of understanding what happened on September 11th, 2001, and in hopes of making sure that that never happens again. The learning starts with Ted Rall's new essay. Now go and read it."
Graphically Speaking: Ted Rall Tells It Like It Is
An interview with Ted Rall, cartoonist and author of “To Afghanistan and Back”As a fellow editorial cartoonist and journalist, I recently conducted an interview with The Village Voice's most celebrated and controversial cartoonist, Ted Rall. Rall, the Ernest Hemingway of our times, landed in Afghanistan during the opening moments of the War on Terrorism and delivered inside coverage on the real Central Asia -- not the one reported in the international media.
- R. Callari
* * * * *
The graphic novel, a unique form of illustrated storytelling is a new genre that is gaining popularity in the US. Text balloons advance the plot and story line; where they often make conscious attempts to break free from the enclosing panels, presenting a distinct departure from their comic book origins.
In recent years, traditional publishing houses like Doubleday have opened graphic novel divisions. Bookstores are giving graphic novels more shelf space. Hollywood has adapted movies from many graphic novels, including last year's Ghost World and this year's Road to Perdition. The latter's 300-page black and white panels drawn by London-based cartoonist Richard Piers Rayner visually utilizes form and feature in place of the traditional text of a novel.
Adding a new wrinkle to the genre, Ted Rall, noted editorial cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Village Voice has released what has been described as the "first-ever instant graphic travelogue". Entitled To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue, the journal details his travel experiences pertaining to the war in Afghanistan in December 2001. The result was one of the first books to present journalistic coverage that reads like a dispatch from the front lines. Weighing in at 112 pages the book's centerpiece is a 50-page graphic depiction that features Rall's unique brand of cartooning, known to many by its Picasso-esque characters that bare two eyes on one side of their head.
For those unfamiliar with Rall's work, an introduction by Bill Maher sets the stage for a viewpoint that is far left of center. Rall's vitriolic rants on the Bush regime and its ersatz war draw parallels to our cultural and ideological clock being turned back to 50's McCarthyism. Afghanistan for Rall is a "clash between Islamic fundamentalism...left-over Soviet totalitarian dictatorships, mixed with its special witches' brew of tribal feuds and a Caspian Sea Oil rush!"
Having editorialized on Central Asia myself since September 11th, I recently interviewed Ted Rall to obtain his retrospective take on Afghanistan, a country he calls a "Mad Max state of Anarchy", since he has been back in the states for last six months.
* * * * *
Callari: What is your interpretation of an "instant graphic novel travelogue"? It appears to me that the lengthy cartoon section in the middle of the book is a visual interpretation of much of the text in the prose chapters. Did you feel the redundancy reinforced the message? Or that some of your readers would be interested in the comics versus the editorial sections?
Rall: The "instant" part of the description referred to the speed with which I created the book and that NBM was able to get it into stores. I returned from Afghanistan in mid-December and got straight to work on it; the first copies shipped in May, making it one of the first books about the anti-Taliban bombing campaign to make it to market. Though there is some redundancy between the text and graphic-novella sections, the emphasis of the comic portion is on my personal experience in Afghanistan--what happened to me and around me, and what it was like.
The 12 text chapters are dispatches that cover politics, the war on terrorism, that sort of thing. If you're looking for analysis, start there; if you want a more visceral feel for what it was like, look at the art. I think most readers, at least based on the feedback I've received, appreciate the way the two sections interact, with each other as well as with the editorial cartoons. However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit I would do some things differently if I'd had a few more years to work on it. Callari: I understand that you have been writing about Central Asian and Afghanistan since 1997, but what made you want to risk your life by traveling into heart of the military zone at the onset of this war? Why are you so interested in this part of the world? Is there a family connection?
Rall: The only family connection is that my mom bought me a subscription to National Geographic when I was a child. When I was 12 or 13, I read a big piece about the Kazakh S.S.R., now Kazakhstan that described the steppes of that region as the most rugged and remote place on earth. I never got that out of my mind, but I never thought I'd be able to go. I sated my curiosity about Central Asia in 1997, when P.O.V. magazine sent me to write a big feature story about the post-Soviet Silk Road, but when I came back I realized that everything that was going on in the world--oil politics, rising Islamic fundamentalism, the fallout from the Soviet collapse--was coming out of Central Asia. And the more I read, the more I knew I didn't know. So I've returned numerous times, trying to see as much as I can.
You know what's the most fascinating thing about Central Asia? You can go back to the same city two years in a row and it's totally changed. They're brand-new countries; some didn't even have written languages until 1922! So everything's up for grabs; everything's in play. Once you learn about Central Asia, you realize that, say, the Middle East is yesterday's old news.
As for risking my life, suffice it to say that I wouldn't have gone had I known how bad it was going to be. I'd been to a war zone before, but Kashmir isn't a hot war like Afghanistan. And my fellow war correspondents--people with a lot of experience--told me Afghanistan was much worse than Somalia or Kosovo. I went because I'm a curious person, and only an idiot could watch American televised coverage of the war and think that half of what was being reported was true. I wondered which half was and which half wasn't, and I wanted to see what my country was doing halfway around the world.
Callari: Looking back on your experiences in retrospect, was Afghanistan better served by the iron fist of the Taliban or the current Mad-Max anarchy of the Northern Alliance?
Rall: No one in Afghanistan, including women, is better off now. The Taliban were a despicable, atrocious band of thugs worthy of a painful death, and the Northern Alliance rulers are even worse. To put it simply, the Northern Alliance is the Taliban's laws (stonings, etc.) without any punishment against criminality. After dark, Afghanistan turns seriously ugly.
Callari: You are criticized often as possessing too much anti-Bush vitriol - and that this point of view diminishes the impact of your cartoons and editorial. How do you respond to this criticism?
Rall: You know, my main complaint about many other cartoonists' work is that they're too soft on him. Look, I think Bush is nothing short of disastrous for this country. The guy seizes power in a coup d'etat, kills countless innocent people to line the pockets of his oil buddies, and drives the country into massive deficit spending to give his oil buddies tax cuts. This is a gangster administration that wants your mailman to spy on you. To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, if you're not angry at Bush, at whom will you be angry?
My experience is that certain people wouldn't like my work whatever I did. Many of them are what Nina Paley calls "soft liberals"--gutless, spineless wimps who vote Democratic but wouldn't ever give up anything to make life better for other people. I respect conservatives a lot more than soft liberals--at least they have integrity. Callari: How has your life changed since your visit, since you wrote this book? Are you criticized more? Taken more seriously? More death threats? More successful financially?
Rall: Well, I won't see a royalty check until December. I think my book has given a lot of people some grist for the mill, both for better and for worse, and I think the reviews have been almost universally favorable. I get criticized a lot for my views, especially post-9/11, but the book hasn't been part of that. Generally speaking, anyone willing to spend $16 on your book probably doesn't hate you all that much.
Callari: Obviously Bill Maher is a fan or he would not have agreed to write the introduction to your book. However, I caught your first panel visit on Politically Incorrect and there did not appear to be any 'love loss' between the two of you. Did you come to respect each other's opposing opinions over time or are the adversarial confrontations on this program pre-planned?
Rall: There's a tad of planning, but not with the host. Producers take you aside before taping to ask you what you think about this and that. Then they disappear; you presume they're telling Bill what you said so he can be ready. But that's about it. I certainly respect Bill's intelligence and convictions; he's a thoughtful guy and that's all I ever ask from anyone. I hope he thinks well of me as well.
Callari: What follows this book? And how do you see your cartooning and editorial writing career going forward? Do you have a long-term plan for the future? Does a political position or involvement in government have any appeal? A return trip to Afghanistan?
Rall: Last things first: I was recently asked by a magazine to go back to Afghanistan, but I turned them down. I'm pitching a few book ideas around--a novel, a collection of short stories, a graphic novel and a follow-up to the Afghan book...even a possible Worst Things I've Ever Done Part 2. It all depends on what gets accepted. I would like to move more into fiction, more into writing while continuing the cartoons. The trouble with cartooning is that it's really a dying field, especially editorial cartooning. There are fewer venues and less respect and less money and less awareness. It's really quite depressing to watch. In an ideal world I'd do something that got made into a movie; if I ever make a significant amount of money I'm going to retire as early as I can while doing an occasional big project now and then, just for fun.
* * * * *
Well, if the trend of graphic novels continues, perhaps Ted Rall's editorial cartoons can find their way into film. After all, graphic novels accomplish the basic legwork of filmmakers, essentially story boarding a movie. One can almost visualize the opening scene, where a camera pans out on a war correspondent heading to the front lines as the sun is rising: " 9 1/2 hours ahead of and thousand years behind Ground Zero!" Graphically speaking, Ted Rall is a courageous US citizen who bravely put his pen where the sword was. Regardless of those that agree or disagree with his political beliefs, he has given American readers graphic visuals and a sense of what the war looked like in the early years of the War on Terror.
* * * * *
Ron Callari is a freelance journalist and editorial cartoonist who resides in Jersey City, New Jersey. He and co-creator Jack Pittman produce kidd millennium cartoons weekly. Contact Callari at email@example.com.
Ted Rall Afghanistan photo by Judy Chang.