In late May 2003 the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) hosted a discussion forum called Hell No: Designers and the War, featuring the design historian Steven Heller, the design icon Milton Glaser (perhaps most known for the “I Love NY” symbol and, more recently, the reworked version “I Love NY More Than Ever” with a small black wound over the red heart), the writer Micah Ian Wright, the cartoonist David Rees, and The Onion’s Joe Garden and Mike Loew. (The Onion is free on the streets of New York City, and if that isn’t a mark of civilization, I don’t know what is.) The event, moderated by the celebrated journalist John Hockenberry, was intended to encourage discussion of design and dissent in a time of crisis. Heller delivered a somewhat dry overview of artists and war imagery (Goya would have to show up at some point, and did), but almost anyone would appear dry and academic compared to Glaser, who came across as profoundly and quite poignantly wounded by events since the September 11 attacks. He spoke of his inability, with fifty years of design experience, to communicate ideas to a mainstream audience that is being lied to daily, knows it’s being lied to and is comfortable with that. He sounded like he was giving up.
Glaser is a hard act to follow at the best of times, but the deeply emotional way in which he spoke that night made Micah Ian Wright’s position even less enviable (which he noted). Wright’s book YOU Back the Attack! WE’LL Bomb Who We Want! (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) compiles some of the pieces from his Internet-based project of “remixed” war propaganda posters. What Wright does, essentially, is to take propaganda posters from previous wars and rework the text to comment on the current war, often tagging his work as “a message from the Ministry of Homeland Security,” 1984 reference intended. Wright has a unique perspective, as a former U.S. Army Ranger who participated in the 1989 invasion of Panama (as distinguished from the eleven other invasions of Panama since 1903), otherwise known as Operation Just Cause—an odd name indeed, which he talked about at length, including his role in the levelling of Rio Hato. The most recent war may be “over,” but there’s bound to be another one or two just around the corner.
David Rees’s Get Your War On (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2002) is thus in little danger of becoming dated, sadly. Tough questions are asked in this book: “I wonder what would happen if you literally had to fill up your gas tank with the bones of killed and raped people in order to make your car run?” asks one unnamed character. “What’s next,” another asks, “George W. Bush is gonna hold a press conference and fuckin’ rip his face off and it’s gonna be Ming the Merciless up under there?” Composed of corporate-memo-clip art from the early eighties, Get Your War On is fuelled by a nervy energy, equal parts fear, mock bravado and confusion layered on a foundation of rage at what governments are doing and how we let them. You might laugh at this stuff, and it’s funny, and you might feel guilty for laughing, or at least uncomfortable. That’s not a bad way to be: something tells me that no matter how outrageous these characters get, there are further outrages yet to come. “I want all my Americans who think this has been our finest hour to just throw your hands in the air!” exclaims one telephone-wielding cubicle jockey. “I want all my Americans who can now be detained indefinitely with no lawyer to wave ’em like you just don’t care!” counters another. “Now somebody, anybody, somebody—” Sure, you could read these comics online but buy the book, ’cause the royalties go to Mine Detection Team #5 in Afghanistan. And you get to read Colson Whitehead’s introduction. Both Get Your War On and YOU Back the Attack! are works in progress, books that started on the web and are now in print (the graphics in Get Your War On survive the transition a little better, while Wright’s posters clearly betray their low-resolution origins). But what also unites these books is the urgency they show in commenting on situations and incidents that are almost forgotten before they’re over (a joke in one of Rees’s strips goes: “Knock knock!” “Who’s there?” “Afghanistan!” “Who?”). Wright noted that while this kind of work may seem merely to be preaching to the converted, he’s gotten a lot of email from around the world because of it, all noting that global media have portrayed America in a far more homogenous light than is accurate, all but ignoring dissent and protest within America itself. People are therefore relieved that voices like Wright’s and Rees’s are there to counter the mainstream media. Of the two works, Wright’s feels the more disposable, and suffers without the accompanying text from the Center for Constitutional Rights. Perhaps by fictionalizing (however thinly) his outrage and confusion, and tempering it with a wickedly keen sense of humour, Rees finds a more durable voice, a more dangerous energy.