Smash Pages Q&A: Mr. Fish

The cartoonist, writer and teacher talks about his latest book, ‘Nobody Left,’ and much more.

Mr. Fish is a cartoonist, writer and teacher who’s had three books out this year. Nobody Left was a collection of interviews, essays, comics and artwork. He illustrated the book The Day the Rats Vetoed Congress, a political satire written by Ralph Nader. He also edited and drew much of Long Story Short, an anthology of artwork about great works of literature.

The three books are very different and cover a lot of intellectual and emotional ground and we were able to talk recently about politics and activism, the role of art and artists, and what satire really can be.

Nobody Left is a book of artwork and essays and interviews and many things. What did you want it to be?

Because it’s about politics and culture, there’s numerous ways to engage with that topic. It’s about art using art as a radical dissemination of politics and culture – and it’s about history. I wanted to be able to hit that from all sides because it’s such a deep and vast subject. I think it requires pictures and words to get to the bottom of these things. And as you know, most of it is me interviewing other people. I could say I am only responsible for asking questions so I don’t know if I am responsible to writing the whole thing.

That’s true. And in those conversations a few people, I’m thinking of Calvin Trillin, push back on some of your thesis.

There were a couple people who did a little of that, which is great. I think when it comes to the broad question that I asked with that book – do progressive politics exist anymore in any true way? Did they exist? You have somebody like Calvin Trillin who’s not used to having that kind of interview. He was an eyewitness to that time. I think some of these guys and women don’t have the benefit of being able to stand apart from things and see why it was special. An analogy would be someone who knows how to play piano really really well. To them it’s what they do but someone who doesn’t play piano is looking at something magical. From the spectator point of view, you’re never going to be able to convince the person performing that they’re doing something spectacular and magical. So when somebody lives through a time that I think was a more democratized time and had a lot more optimism and involvement of the artistic voice, it’s going to take some convincing for them to see why they had something and why I think I’m lacking in the time that I live in.

That stood out because I agree with your thesis in broad strokes, but he says, I covered the civil rights movement, I remember what it was like for women, we have made progress. There’s a way that we can over-romanticize things.

I totally agree. And I take his point. I think that it’s easy to point to those specifics and compare them to the 1950s and say, yes, things are better off. We are! We benefit from the seeds planted in the sixties. That’s definitely true.

Nobody Left is about a generation of intellectuals, most of whom were writers and artists who were engaged with popular culture in a way we don’t see major creators do today.

And that’s tragic. Look at how artists typically engage with difficult conversations or difficult subjects and address illogic. That’s sort of the mission of an artist. When an artist creates something he or she is usually doing it in a private space trying to get to the bottom of a truth or examine something. You’re going to be avoid many of the traps that in a public space where decorum is expected of you. You’re going to go deeper as an artist. It’s important to invite the artistic community into conversations about the viability of certain politics and policies because without that level of honesty, you’re not going to get a profound exchange of ideas. You’re going to get pulled punches and surface communication about things which will lead to a surface understanding about things. You can’t develop a comprehension of things unless you ask hard questions that you don’t know the answer to. You’ve got to engage with other minds about what we’re doing and how did we get here and how do we move forward.

The 1980s is when we start seeing a lot of this change, which is an oversimplification, but that’s where you can really see this change in the public sphere.

Joan Baez is I think the only one in the book who actually came out and said, things started to suck then. There’s some real truth to that. That’s the beginning of the complete eradication of the middle class. When it comes to artists being able to support themselves and to produce art, and finding platforms that aren’t just corporate platforms, that’s a middle class endeavor. Also government became more and more of a committee operation. Under Reagan it started to become clear that he’s a spokesman for this conglomerate of power that we don’t vote in. For me anyway it was the beginning of realizing that this isn’t about democracy, this is about the commodification of information and power that resides outside of government. One thing we have to mention is that the eighties was the very beginning of the overt invocations of the evangelical right into politics.

In Nobody Left you talked to Robert Scheer and Paul Krassner and all these people who agree with you in broad ways, and I’m curious about those experiences.

It was amazing. Like I said at the beginning of the book, there were a number of people I tried to talked to who dropped dead. As far as learning something from the experience, you can only state what would be obvious, which is talking to human beings who are engaged and we have similar concerns. It was like talking with close friends who got to tell some really interesting stories and have some insights. They’re like any other person that I know who has real deep concern about what’s happening right now.

You had that line about Howard Zinn dying, which really does seem incongruous – in part because he continues to live on in the minds of conservatives who have never read more than a paragraph of his work.

[laughs] That’s what I find so interesting about people like him. I love how somebody’s reputation becomes a dangerous radical personality. I wrote a piece years ago that was going to be published in this book but ended up being published in another book, 1973, about me wanting to grow up to be Angela Davis. That was part of that feeling. It would be great if I could live in a world where my presence was dangerous. I mean I’m just a white male so I profile the opposite from what I wish that I was. [laughs]

Satire and political commentary under Trump has been complicated, and often lacking. I know a critic who said, there hasn’t been any good political cartoons made in the past four years. And online people would say, what about this comic or what about this cartoonist, but they’re rare, let’s be honest.

I think that one of the problems is that the definition of satire has changed. It’s softened to the point where people confuse parody with satire. People watch Saturday Night Live and say, satire is alive and well! That just makes me want to cry. I think that one of the problems with contemporary satire works – and I’m not saying it didn’t happen in the past – is that one of the ways it can be problematic is if you simply target the personality of the person that you hate and make it about that person. If you’re attacking Trump and calling him a monster or a clown, that’s not really useful satire. That oversimplifies how the world is made up to where people will look at all of the woe they’re experiencing as spectators and they’re being conditioned to think, all we need to do is get rid of Donald Trump and everything will be better. We saw this when Obama got elected. I think that there is some really good satire that continues to go on particularly outside the United States from cartoonists who understand that. Who understand what people understood more broadly in the sixties and early seventies, which was that its’ not a partisan issue. It’s about the winners and losers. If those are your two choices, what do you do? Fight for the losers? Or join the winners? Those are the larger more existential questions that we need to be asking. When political satire sticks to politics and characters and personalities that people know, that’s lost. It loses the ability to work as a piece or activism and a piece of instruction. If you’re trying to figure out a truth and you want to use a form of investigation, which is what satire traditionally has been very effective at doing, you need to understand the bigger picture and how things fit together. And you want your audience to meet you at least partway. Don’t do all the work for your audience where the only result is them laughing. That’s not the function of satire either. If its just about laughter, you’re saying, I’m giving you some laughter about the treachery going on in the world, isn’t that relief? I think satire needs to draw blood, as Mort Sahl has said, and it needs to have some teeth.

That’s an important point. It’s not about mocking someone or something, its much deeper and deconstructs things in a lot of ways. People older than us will talk about Mad Magazine because it deconstructed politics and advertising and the world around them.

And as the reader, it gives you permission to do the same thing. I think that’s one of the key things. I gives you permission to think radically – even if just for a moment – even if to just get the joke. I don’t want to minimize humor or jokes. They’re tiny revolutions. When you’re presented with a joke, you’re given permission to step out of your safety zone and consider what is being asked of you from a completely different space. You’re forced to consider alternatives. And you’re experiencing the joy that it does’t change you in any significant way.

The people who made Mad initially were first and second generation immigrants who looked at things as poor outsiders and said, you can’t trust your parents or the government. No, that’s not a joke, you really can’t.

And remember where those guys came from. Look at what happened after the Second World War. When they were kids their parents understood that following the leader and using the great technology of Western Civilization now has the ability to destroy the planet. You have to have a certain suspicion towards what you thought were grownups minding the store. If you’re growing up in that time period, it’s not about republicans or democrats, it’s about power. So you’re going to start by asking your parents questions they can’t answer – and then you’re going to rebel. That’s what I mean about having a language with which to voice that rebellion. And make it funny, sexy, interesting, and not stay so inside the confines of what mainstream thinking almost did to us as a planet.

To segue to another book, Ralph Nader has a complicated legacy but he’s one of the great, most important Americans. How did you end up working on The Day the Rats Vetoed Congress?

He’s great friends with Christopher Hedges. I’ve been Chris’ illustrator for his columns for many many years. According to Chris, Nader became a fan of what I did and for one of the columns Chris wrote about Nader and I drew Nader. And then Nader reached out and asked if I would be interested in drawing this book. He’s been so embroiled in trying to change policy and is a genius at statistics, and being a fan of satire, he wanted to take a stab at it. My challenge as Ralph moves through his narrative was encapsulating sections and figuring out the emotional truth and finding a way to render that in an illustration.

Emotional truth is so important to you, and  before you said that you wanted Nobody Left to have a variety of ways to approach these ideas. I love so many of the images you made and how you play with some of these tropes of propaganda and advertising.

Thats one of the things I like to do. I like to find a kind of shorthand that people understand. People are becoming more illiterate about how to engage with visual language. If there is a visual form that people are learning from, it continues to be advertising. There is a similar mission between cartooning and advertising, it’s trying to get to the “punchline” as quickly as possible. These are mousetraps that happen. When I first started doing cartooning in the 1980s I became an avid reader of communication art and different journals because that’s where people were going to encapsulate an idea in really way. Of course towards a reprehensible end, by saying, purchase something, but I understand how that language works.

Long Story Short was a fun project, and you edited it and drew a lot of it. Were you thinking initially that you wanted to do all of it yourself?

I pitched it years ago to do it all by myself. But after the publisher said yes I got this creeping depression because its such a big project. To consider books and encapsulate their meaning into a single page of art, it’s huge. I tabled it for years and said, let me just edit it. I ended up doing most of it because I kept giving potential contributors examples of what I was looking for. I ended up turning down more people than I accepted. In many ways it’s a poetic exercise because the truth and power of poetry is that they say the unsayable. They create something more than just the words on the page. A good functioning poem uses words to build out all this truth inside your peripheral vision.

I’ve seen books that are more about gags or summaries of books, and you were trying to express what the novel said without ever writing a back of the book description.

The majority of people I asked went in with that lack of understanding and created some things that were wacky, but that wasn’t what it was about. The publisher didn’t expect it to be cutesy but in his mind he expected something more New Yorker than Robert Crumb. The subject for many books are not polite. Especially if it’s a truthful book, it reveals what is truthful and reprehensible about human beings. 

I keep thinking now about this idea of a democracy and citizenship being replaced by politics as sport and consumerism. For a spectator or consumer, it’s a binary choice, yes/no, us/them, good/bad. Democracy and citizenship are complicated processes.

Yes. Democracy requires participation all the time. Every election in my memory has been the most important election. But every time I think, that’s true. For the majority of people, that’s going to be their only political act. It happens every two to four years. I totally agree with the sports analogy. To carry that analogy a step further, if we consider the rules of the game and who can move certain ways on a chessboard, powerful people have a lot more moves than the people with the least amount of power on that game board. Somewhere along the line, that’s been normalized. Politically that’s where we are. 

Every now and then something happens culturally that pushes us forward and it happens less now as you argue but last year Naomi Klein, AOC, and Molly Crabapple made a great animation about the Green New Deal which is the kind of work you’re hoping for and longing for.

It is. That’s exactly what we need. While there’s always been a certain amount of sloganeering from protest movements, which is necessary and useful, you should also be able to retreat into longer pieces. People should be able to engage with journalism and have people from the arts community do journalism pieces. That’s why Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Vonnegut were sent to political conventions and to Biafra and to all these places that typically journalists go. As we said earlier if you can put an artist into a place like that to honestly communicate what the human experience is, a greater education comes out of that and a richer community is forged. Because what do we do, I’m guessing that you like everybody else relaxes and looks for artistic expression to remind you that you’re a human being and to make yourself feel not so alone. Those things remind us that we are worth saving. I think if we can do something like that, which showed not just we need a green new deal and it’s not just let’s have windmills, but this is how it would work and connect it and make a work of art that’s interesting, people will share it because its art, and then you have a community that’s looking at something in a deeper way.

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