Scheer Intelligence: The Political Cartoon Is Dead

Above image: “Is there nobody left?” Art by Mr. Fish.

Long Live the Cartoonist.

Political cartoonist Mr. Fish joins Robert Scheer to talk about the death of his art form and his most recent book, “Nobody Left.”

Political cartoons have helped us make sense of the world in which we live since they first appeared in the 18th century–though some, like the iconic cartoonist Mr. Fish, argue the art predates even newspapers. Although it’s an art form that is in many ways dying out, there are a precious few political cartoonists out there that still understand the importance of speaking truth to power through insightful humor and visual commentary.

On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the inimitable Dwayne Booth (AKA Mr. Fish) joins host Robert Scheer to talk about his life, his passion, his art, and his latest book, “Nobody Left: Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution and Liberalism in America.” Although the book does include some of Mr. Fish’s unforgettable cartoons, it is largely made up of interviews with figures such as Norman Mailer, Lily Tomlin, Christopher Hitchens, Howard Zinn, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich, Tariq Ali, Mort Sahl, Paul Krassner, Jon Stewart, and others, including the host of “Scheer Intelligence.”

“What really impressed me about you–and particularly with this book, but I’ve seen it before because sometimes you write too much in your cartoons–is that you actually are a terrific writer, and of great depth,” says Scheer.

Scheer prompts Mr. Fish to talk about his youth, dropping out of Rutgers University, and how his personal experiences shaped his decision to become a political cartoonist, much to the dismay of his own family. Mr. Fish, who is a ScheerPost regular and has his own site, Clowncrack, also explains what motivated him to print “Nobody Left” as a series of interviews. Lamenting the fact that, due to capitalism, technology, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, people are no longer having conversations with other people in person, Mr. Fish tells Scheer he wanted to highlight voices who inspired him and could inspire his readers, especially as counterculture and dissent fade into oblivion.

“There’s a lot of people who aren’t going to know who some of these people are,” explains Mr. Fish. “One of the missions of the book is to demonstrate that they are people who you need to know. I mean, they’re telling the truth, and they’re being really interesting, and their body of work is significant in so many ways. So it’s my mission to educate readers as to who these people are, and to draw them in with some snarky, inappropriate drawing that is all through the book, as well.”

The two friends and fellow radicals also discuss the dead elephant in the virtual room: the demise of political cartoons, a form both see as crucial to not only to understanding the societies we live in, but to holding those in power accountable.

“We’ve lost the most immediate means of mass communication: the political cartoon,” says Scheer. “It doesn’t really exist now.”

“It doesn’t,” responds Mr. Fish. “I think that one of the things that people should recognize is that it is lost, yes, but not because it’s not effective or it’s become this antiquated form of communication. There is overwhelming evidence that it is lost because it is so effective. Because it does force conversations, and it does invite common citizens into the debate in a way that longer form, even journalism, just doesn’t. That’s the reason why there are fewer known cartoonists.”

Listen to the full conversation between Mr. Fish and Scheer as they discuss how American culture has changed since the 1960s and which of Mr. Fish’s heroes didn’t make it into the book, among a slew of other urgent topics.

Credits

Host:  Robert Scheer

Producer:  Joshua Scheer

Introduction:  Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Transcript:  Lucy Berbeo

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, at least from the pen of my guest; I don’t know about the brain. He’s known as Mr. Fish; his–I guess your Christian name was Dwayne Booth. And I have to say, all jokes aside, I think this is one of the great graphic artists we have. In what’s left of cartooning and certainly political editorial cartooning, there’s no one in the country who touches him.

And Mr. Fish–and he looks grim now, and everything–this is going to be fun, Fishy. I’m not one of your targets in your cartoons. Although I am here to celebrate a book in which I do appear. And it’s called Nobody Left–and you know, I hope it’s available, if you ever find a bookstore; I guess you can get it–can you get this on Amazon?–

Mr. Fish: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.

RS: –a terrible thing, words to say, but OK–Conversations With Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution, and Liberalism in America. And these famous radicals and so forth, I happen to be one of them; it’s kind of a joke. But there are some seriously famous people: Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, Howard Zinn, Lily Tomlin, Graham Nash, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich, Tariq Ali, Calvin Trillin, Mort Sahl, and Paul Krassner, Jon Stewart, and others. And I love this book, not only because it supplies me with my indispensable obit, in what Mr. Fish in his grim fashion has written about me. He already describes me as a “relic,” so I might as well recycle it with my wife’s permission, and it can be my obit.

But really, what’s it’s great for, I think, is it’s an introduction to your writing. And you remind me of some of my more brilliant students I have at the University of Southern California, where I’ve been [teaching] for over 20 years. You know, some of them just don’t do well in school, but they’re brilliant. And it was really a great surprise for me; I always knew you were a brilliant artist. I knew your work from the L.A. Weekly, from the L.A. Times, from Harper’s; I forget all the list, what else do we have to mention–right? Where have you been? You’ve been everywhere. So let’s drop that, and I’m trying to do a quick introduction here–lots of luck, Bob.

Ah, but what really impressed me about you–and particularly with this book, but I’ve seen it before, because sometimes you write too much in your cartoons. You shove a lot in. But you actually are a terrific writer, and of great depth, actually. And one would think, wow, this guy probably went to the best prep school–kind of like our mutual friend Chris Hedges. You know, all the way up through Harvard Divinity School, and very erudite and so forth. But you, you know, you throw around these great philosophical thinkers and these great concepts with abandon. And yet when I read about you in this book–and I find you actually the most interesting person in this book, let me be honest about it–you know, you’re this kid who couldn’t even manage to get to class at Rutgers, get off the bus and show up, you know. You’re the kid I’m always complaining about: where’s your paper? You know, I want to work with you here, but you got to give me something to work with, you know. You’re that guy, right? Were you a dropout in college? I mean, you were not very successful, right?

Mr. Fish: Not in–not academically, no. Yeah, I did drop out of Rutgers.

RS: By the way, let me interrupt. I should mention you are now a lecturer at the Ivy League University–right?–of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Fish: I am.

RS: Right, and so you know, you–and you’ve been honored by the other Annenberg School at USC, and they had a whole exhibit, and they published one of your books. So you’ve gained academic respectability, young man. But you were really a horrible screw-up in college.

Mr. Fish: [Laughs]

RS: So just let’s begin with that, because a lot of people listening to this might have had some similar experience, or at least it’ll make them more tolerant of their offspring when they don’t do well.

Mr. Fish: Yeah, sure. Ah, it is true that academically and in the classroom structure I did not thrive. That said, I thrived in the atmosphere of the university. Because I did drop out after my, in the middle of my sophomore year, only because I found it distracting to go to class, and I didn’t like being–sort of the structure of learning. And I became very impatient, and wanted to figure out things on my own. So I actually lived on campus for the next three years, just on the floors of friends and, you know, really roughing it, having people pay for all of my food. And it was lovely, it was a really lovely time. And I had access to a really great library and access to New York City. So with–

RS: How old are you? What years were those when you were in college?

Mr. Fish: These were the 1980s.

RS: So what are you now? You’re getting to be old. You’re, what, 50 years old or something?

Mr. Fish: I’m in my fifties now, yes.

RS: Oh my god, look at the–they grow up, don’t they?

Mr. Fish: They do grow up. [Laughs]

RS: Well, let’s jump to that right away. One of the great things about your book–I don’t know if people remember Graham Nash from Crosby Stills and Nash, and all the people you got–you really bring out great stuff about these people. And you let them talk. And you really learn from all of them. It’s a wonderful introduction to people, and you enjoy their differences and their complexity. And so just, why don’t you take us through the book, because we’ll run out of time and I’ll forget to mention the book or deal with it. So let’s deal with the book right off the top here.

Mr. Fish: OK.

RS: Who are all these people? And you really are paying homage to a bygone era. The book is called Nobody Left, but what he really means is it all dried up and died for him about 20 years ago and then he had to keep drawing and making cartoons about these less interesting people, and more counterculture. But it’s really the counterculture of the sixties and seventies that you really, that shaped you, and ruined you for life, really, didn’t it?

Mr. Fish: It’s true. One of the key things that I guess that we should talk about is how did this counterculture come to be. And for me, it was really the first time there was a really seismic shift in who was allowed to frame the debate around politics, around culture, and literally around the meaning of life. That’s when artists and philosophers and cultural critics were allowed into the debate, or forced their way into the debate, and actually talked about what the meaning of life was from an emotional point of view.

Because really when it comes down to it, I think that if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, do we really want to learn what morality is from institutionalized structures, from politics and from religion? No. I mean, look at those institutions. Do they exercise morality in a way that we all should be proud of? Absolutely not. I think that historically speaking it was artists and writers who engage with that question: what does life feel like? What is the emotional component of life? That’s when you can speak honestly with your friends and with your loved ones openly. And that’s the voice of artists over the many thousands of years that artists have been communicating this kind of topic.

So all of a sudden, after the Second World War, when it was demonstrated that bureaucracy and people in charge maybe didn’t have our best interests at heart–they nearly ended the species–there was this search to find what it all, what does it all mean. You know, how do we engage with this in a way that is–

RS: Yeah, but right now you’re making it all sound highfalutin and complex. Take us to the bus. You’re on the bus and you don’t get off the bus and go to your class at Rutgers where they’re trying to teach you creative writing, because you’re listening to Bob Dylan or somebody. So you know, you’ve got these–

Mr. Fish: Well–

RS: –crap earphones on all the time–

Mr. Fish: I do.

RS: –you’re one of those people the teachers seem to think they can never reach because you’re just out to lunch somewhere, but you’re learning, right?

Mr. Fish: I’m learning. And as I said, I mean, I’m engaging in really serious things. I mean, it might sound highfalutin the way I’m talking about it. But to me it is–some of the subjects, when it comes to asking questions about who we are, why we are here–those can get murky, you know. Because they involve a lot of self-examination that recognizes that we’re not reliably benign, we’re not saintly all of the time; we’re all of these things. So art actually engages with all of those things in a very serious and interesting way that says that it’s OK to be faulty, and it’s OK to be unreliable, in many ways.

I mean, we can even go back, if we want to even look at what shapes us as human beings. Yes, I could talk about art; I could talk about where you go to recharge yourselves after a busy day devoting time to either your job or to school. You unwind with art, right? With these voices. But you also do that with friends and family. And I can tell you a quick story about what informed my character very early on. It was, I always go to my mother when I think about–

RS: Did you say what “deformed” your character, or formed it?

Mr. Fish: [Laughs]

RS: No, no, I missed a word–formed, oh OK, OK.

Mr. Fish: You can be the judge of whether it’s a deformation. [Laughter] But I remember my mother was somebody–and everybody in my family was very curious about just, let’s figure out what the greatest punchline is to this moment. Let’s not figure out, you know, how to follow the rules and to be proper. How do we punch holes in decorum? And so as an example, from my earliest memories as a child, starting in kindergarten all the way up through twelfth grade, my mother composed the same exact sick note for me every single time I was sick. And she thought it was hilarious, and I’ll tell you what it was. She wrote–even if I was on a vacation; I was not sick very much, but sometimes I would miss school–but her note, every single time, said: “Dwayne was absent from school yesterday because he had diarrhea.” [Laughter] And she did it every–and it was the only note that she would write for me. I would go and–

RS: It’s one that leaves a teacher grateful that you stayed home.

Mr. Fish: [Laughs] Right. But there was no way around it. I mean, and so it taught me that the camaraderie of family and friends was at least as important as these bureaucratic, larger structures in society, and in many cases much more important. Because they taught me to be self-effacing, they taught me not to take things so seriously. And when you don’t take things seriously, you develop this muscle of questioning the legitimacy of things. You know, what are these filters that we hold onto as we move through society, that society says that we shouldn’t question, you know? What is the hierarchy protecting? So with this reflex built into me from a very early age, I was always looking for what was an alternative way to look at a particular truth, just in pursuit of a meaningful punchline. And I think that jokes and humor do that; they upend these structures in a way that you can see their construction, you can see the mechanics of things a lot easier when you do that.

RS: Yeah, but the last thing your mother wanted for you is to become some outrageous political cartoonist. And certainly your stepfather didn’t feel that way; you’ve written about that. And you’re kind of, in their eyes–the kindest thing one can say is that they don’t understand you. But they probably think you’re a great failure, or thought of you as a great failure.

Mr. Fish: Hah. They don’t–I would say that they understand me, but they don’t–they never would predict that it would be a way for me to sustain myself in any meaningful way.

RS: Ah. So that you could actually, you know, make a career out of it. Then that would be OK. So let’s cut to the chase here. What was the appeal–and you know, we may have been spoiled in the–I’m older than you, so I remember the fifties. And you know, that was a horror. And so I understand the appeal of the sixties and seventies. What I didn’t appreciate is how unusual those two decades were, you know. And that they weren’t going to be repeated; they were an accident of capitalism, an accident of history, the emergence of a world culture, so it mattered what some people called Beatles were saying in London, or what some Russian poet was saying in the old Soviet Union, or what have you. And these are the people you talked to. Some were, like Norman Mailer, veterans of World War II; you know, Graham Nash was part of this whole cultural explosion, Paul Krassner was one of the great chroniclers.

So before we waste too much time on your story and my story, what did you really learn from all these people? I mean, they clearly inspired you. And you’re doing great work now, but there’s a lot of–there’s kind of a bit of nostalgia. Why isn’t it like it was, or I expected it to be. I suspect you’re not alone in feeling that way. So take us there. Why aren’t you–I mean, isn’t Biden sort of what you imagine as a–come on, I don’t want to set you up too much, but–what is the point of this book? Really, because I love reading it, because I’m learning about some of these people I knew quite well, that you write and I learn about them. So I’m recommending the book very highly. And your, as I say, your introductions to them, which are even more–almost as long-winded as my introductions on this show, nonetheless are interesting, more interesting than mine.

So really, I want people to look at this book. You know, and it’s–you’ve got a lot of cartoons in it,, and so they’re alone worth the price of admission. But it’s really the writing. The writing in this book is really quite powerful. And I’m–you know, people, they buy books but they don’t read them as much. I don’t want to be mean about it, but I’m finding that all the time. People tell me, oh yeah, I saw that book or heard about it, or I listened to it. But it doesn’t seem to have the same impact. And I mostly do this show because it forces me to read books that I otherwise might skim, including yours. And reading yours, I just was blown away. And this is the third, fourth time. Admittedly, I only at first thought I would just read about myself. But I was drawn in by your introductions. And it’s great. So introduce us to the book, please, before we run out of time.

Mr. Fish: Yes, yes, yes. Well, it’s not an accident that they’re interviews. And what I mean by that is, one of the things that also thrilled me growing up–other than the actual art that I was exposed to, whether we’re talking about jazz or radical forms of New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson and writers like that who were attempting to engage with what we were talking about as politics and culture in a way that was much more, what is the personal perspective without filters. I found that very, very thrilling. But what I also was very interested in discovering all my life are interviews with these artists. Because through interview, I found what the process was. How do you become a radical? How do you become somebody who sees virtue, bravery, and joy in essentially being an outlaw? Because there are plenty of indications inside society that you do not want to take that path. A, it doesn’t pay very well; B, there are great penalties to creature comforts. You know, just as we were talking about, the idea that I would attempt to be able to have a family, pay for food and a roof over my head by drawing cartoons that basically say, you know, F-you to how the society is set up, and capitalism is dangerous and it has to be dismantled, but how do I get money to survive? You know, it’s this–

RS: You have one great cartoon that I have in my hallway here, I don’t know if you have it, where you’re painting some rich guy, and you don’t get through the bad A-word, and yet–it’s for him, and then you want him to give you money to finish the painting in which he’s described, you know, as an asshole. And that’s sort of your–that’s the contradiction of your career choice.

Mr. Fish: Yeah. But it’s really the only choice that one has. And this is in how society is set up. And that’s why I thought it would be really interesting to talk to people who have had to navigate that trajectory for themselves. You know, how do you commodify activism, radicalism? And it’s always very curious to me. So, you do that with humor; you do that with igniting people’s passions and appetites for truth-telling. Because people are really interested and curious about that, and they want to do it themselves. And so by demonstrating that it can be done, and it can be done in a way that is edifying for the human experience–quite literally. I mean, these are things that when I engage with this work, it’s because every fiber of my being wants to have an actual, meaningful life. I mean, it might sound corny, but I feel like there’s not a lot of time that we all have, as people on the planet. And so I want to have as much integrity and joy as is possible. So–

RS: That’s a wild statement you just made. You added–“we don’t have much time,” and then you added, “as people on this planet.” Now, I grew up thinking, well, we don’t have much time because we’re mortal and it’s going to end and you ought to have a good life. I never thought–and I think your comment is accurate–I never thought at the end of my stay here–I’m going to turn 85 in a week or two–I never thought there would be an addendum to that. You’re not talking about the individual; you’re talking about the world’s population.

Mr. Fish: Right.

RS: And you just threw it in. But it doesn’t sound like crazy talk. It sounds very plausible. You know, we’re going through a pandemic, we’ve seen what one major medical crisis can do; god knows if we have a hundred of them unleashed on us by one cause or another. And yet we’re, you know, yeah, we make a lot of noise about it, but not doing very much about it. And so please, please, introduce us to some of these people you interviewed. Leave me out of it. And what were the memorable ones? What are the essays you’d really recommend right off the bat that people read in this?

Mr. Fish: Well, one of the ones that I really, really love–and I love many of them. But one of the ones that I really, that I return to every once in a while, because I think it was really, really interesting and precise, is the one that I did with Mort Sahl. And those people who don’t know who Mort Sahl was, he was considered the inventor of–

RS: You said–is he no longer with us, Mort Sahl?

Mr. Fish: He’s still around. He’s–

RS: Oh. Because he became convinced late in life that I was a CIA agent, but we don’t have to go there. Go ahead. [Laughs]

Mr. Fish: But, ah, he is somebody who is the inventor of what I call stand-up commentary. He made it OK to name names in the government when you’re creating your satire, and you’re criticizing power. And then that led to Lenny Bruce, for sure. But remember that Mort Sahl was very, very smart, and one of the most radical thinkers, consistently, up until–this interview that I did with him was in the mid-2000s, I think. And he was still one of the most radical people that I ever engaged with, and very, very keen on exposing the lie that there are two parties that are separate in this country, that there is even a modicum of caring that comes from elite society. All of those things that we really need to recognize. Because there’s lots of distractions that people think that the dominant culture has us in its best interest.

And one of the things that was really important to me with this book was I’m engaging with, the majority of people that I talked to lived in the world prior to the many technologies that are distracting now. And this is when I probably am going to sound like an old person. But there are distractions that come from our technologies that are preventing us from knowing that it’s time to panic. Knowing that we should be worried about the environment, and the fact that we are less and less engaging with each other in person, in intimate ways. Sure, we can say that we have millions of friends, and we interact with social media. But it is, it’s a short form, and it’s a very glib kind of sloganeering with which we engage with each other. And that’s really, really dangerous. Because when it comes to the issues of trying to figure out how our politics should actually protect us, that’s a longer conversation. That’s a deeper conversation that we should have.

So we have to figure out–and many of the people that I talked to seemed to agree with me–how do we reengage with each other in a way that we have stamina for? Quite literally. Because I think that being able to have longer conversations, and sitting with each other’s company, and probing these deep questions that have been with us since the beginning of time–we need–we need less cacophony around us to pull us from these deep conversations. In fact, if you will allow me, there is a quote from Norman Mailer, since you mentioned him earlier, that serves exactly what we’re talking about right now, that question of what is technology doing to the human experience. And this is–he was writing about television; this is from the 1950s, but I think that it really applies to modern technologies. And so he said, “Television perpetuates the notion that one can learn the secrets of the universe in some easy way. It teaches us that boredom is better than dread.” And so it’s those kinds of insights that–

RS: “Boredom is better than dread.”

Mr. Fish: Yes. “Boredom is better than dread.” And that’s a great insight to exactly what we’re experiencing now. And it even extends to, all through the book too is, I constantly go back to my love of jazz, as a form that was a political kind of activism in and of itself. Just, A, as what it did for legitimizing the search and the adventurism of the Black community in an emotional and intellectual way that was very, very important. But also, when you listen to jazz, there’s no words, there’s no lyrics that you are responding to; what you have to do with that music, you have to populate that music with your own feelings and your own life experience. Think about how, what kind of art we have today, with the commodification of all art. We don’t have art that is asking us to participate in that way. And I think that what’s key to the survival of all of us is figuring out how to increase participation in all of our interactions, and I think art is a really important tool that is slowly being disintegrated by our modern technologies. And it’s something that this book is attempting to revive and insist that we pay attention–with some great demonstrations, with good conversation and art.

RS: You know, it’s interesting, because I also–jazz changed my life in a very basic way. I would go from the Bronx down to Greenwich Village and hear Charlie Mingus and Thelonious Monk and so forth, and then when I came out to Berkeley that was the whole deal. But what was always impressive to me about jazz is that it was an exercise in spontaneity, to a much greater degree than any other art form. You know, the textbooks that we were reading had all been carefully edited, and vetted, and pruned out. But even classical music, and whatever–you know, it was all controlled, somebody had looked at it, somebody had checked it out and so forth. Jazz was happening in that club that night; maybe somebody recorded it. It would never come out the same way again. And somebody was taking risks.

Mr. Fish: Yeah.

RS: So I want to talk a little bit about risks, because it’s interesting. If I were your parent–and you do say something, by the way. You wrote in this book that you gave me, you said the father I never had–this is to me–and the bearded mother I always wanted, onward! Well, I guess I’m your bearded mother. But it’s interesting, because you know, you actually picked a career that was going to be problematic no matter what, and you decided to do it in a very principled and radical way.

But we did have other people; Paul Conrad, for instance, legendary four-time Pulitzer Prize winner at the L.A. Times was to my money just as nervy as you are. Maybe not as, you know, culturally; good Catholic boy to the end, but still. You know, and there are plenty of others. But you really pushed the envelope. And it was being rewarded. You were–but what happened is the ground was pulled from under you. Political cartooning–and this was the subject of your really important exhibit at the University of Southern California Annenberg School, and you’ve repeated it, I think, at Penn–right?–University of Pennsylvania–is that political cartooning is dead. And political cartooning really was the original mass art. It was a drawing on a cave wall. You could say “that guy sucks” or “the king is full of it” and you could do it in a very primitive form.

So you actually made this career work for you; you were honored, you’ve won many awards from press clubs and–I think you’ve won two from Sigma Delta Chi, the national cartooning award. You know, that’s a really big deal. And yet your profession ended. Political cartooning doesn’t exist now. So it’s a good thing that you can write, because you know–and on Scheerpost, the website I publish, we run all your stuff. And people, by the way, who want to see a great documentary, they have access on the website. You’re not promoting yourself at all, Mr. Fish, but–it’s “Mr. Fish” is the trade name. But really, you discuss a very important thing. We’ve lost the most immediate means of mass communication, the political cartoon. And it doesn’t really exist now.

Mr. Fish: It doesn’t. And I think that one of the things that people should recognize is that it is lost, yes, but not because it’s not effective or it’s become this antiquated form of communication. There is overwhelming evidence that it is lost because it is so effective. Because it does force conversations, and it does invite common citizens into the debate in a way that longer form, even journalism, just doesn’t. So it’s–that’s the reason why there are fewer known cartoonists. I mean, they’re still out there, because as a form of art, it predates the invention of newspapers and magazines. To your point, cave paintings–

RS: Oh, you didn’t have to be literate. It was just some, you know–

Mr. Fish: Right, you didn’t have to read, yeah.

RS: –scrawl on a wall, or something, but it could communicate–well, I mean, there are some cave drawings that are the form of original cartoons. And in the American Revolution you had, you know, and the French Revolution and so forth, cartooning was probably the main form of communication, mass art, and it’s gone now. But you’re suggesting that it’s gone because it’s an inconvenient truth?

Mr. Fish: Exactly. Yeah, because if you look at it, when it comes to the visual form of communication, whether it’s political cartooning or just fine art, it is universal. And a way that I process it and I think about it is that we use words to describe what the world means. Images show us what the world would say to us in self-defining itself. So that’s why it’s universal; it looks like reality, it implicates us all into the moment. You mentioning the spontaneity inside jazz is very key to when it comes to art, because art demands that you exist in the moment. it brings you to a moment, and when you’re sitting in that moment–

RS: The cartooning art.

Mr. Fish: Cartooning art, and just visual art. When you look at art–when you’re engaging with music and with visual art, you’re being asked to ignore what you typically use to make sense of the world, right? It’s asking you to open up both your heart and your head to how you’re going to decipher what is in front of you, whether it’s–

RS: So let’s take your head, and getting back to your book, which of these people opened you up, and that you–Graham Nash is an interesting person, Paul Krassner; do you want to talk about a few of them?

Mr. Fish: Yeah. I will definitely–ah, for different reasons, they’re all in there because they opened me up in some way. But talking about somebody like Graham Nash, the one–let me just say, because just talking about music, and you asking who opened my mind up more than anybody, is the one person that I could not get in the book, who’s John Lennon. John Lennon absolutely changed my life, and to this–every single day, I’m sad that he’s not here. Literally every single day, it crosses my mind, and it really bums me out. And that’s why I was talking, mentioning interviews earlier in our discussion, because one of the things that changed me, in addition to John Lennon’s music, was I collected bootleg recordings of all the interviews that he did when I was, starting when I was like thirteen up until now. And it was those kinds of conversations that made me really want to be an artist. The same thing with Paul Krassner. Remember, one of the things that made Paul Krassner really special is–

RS: Paul Krassner, who had the Realist magazine, and ah, yeah.

Mr. Fish: Yes, and who is credited as being the father of the underground press. Ah, he had, his interviews that he did were “an impolite interview with” and then the subject. His form of interviewing, to me, just blew my mind. It was amazing what he could get to. And I wanted to emulate that, and it’s one of the first things I told him when I saw him. I’m like, you’re the reason why I’m sitting in front of you, because I want to sound like you when I interview you. And he gave me his little tricks on what to do when you’re interviewing somebody, and some of them are just creating spaces of discomfort that your subject will want to fill because they don’t like discomfort. And inside that discomfort they may reveal something about themselves. That was one of the little gems that he taught me about.

But what Graham Nash and Krassner and Lily Tomlin–the way these people engage with questions is different from politicians or people who are studied in a different way. They do bring themselves to the question–I really don’t know how to talk about it. This is–it’s something that maybe everybody already recognizes, why you go to art. You know, because they’re bringing something truthful about themselves, and they’re really listening to the questions.

RS: Let’s not hold up art as a center of integrity, or–

Mr. Fish: Well, let me make a clarification with that. Because you’re right about how the gallery has been turned into a store. That’s been going on for a while, and there are people who are investing in the artifacts that are created, and buying and trading them like baseball cards, you know, but on the billion-dollar level; yes, that’s existing. But it’s really important to recognize when it comes to talking about art and artists, it’s a way to think, much more to me, rather than the proof of the artifact. Right? So if I–I would love to go with you to some of these museums. I know exactly what you’re talking about. But some of these things that are being drowned out by this commodification that does overwhelm the viewing–because when you’re in a museum, there’s security guards with guns; it feels also like a church. You know, it’s turned into an atmosphere that is not really conducive to engaging really openly and seriously and emotionally with some of these things, unfortunately. But they do exist. And I would challenge you to think about these things outside of the museum and see if there are some useful insights that remind you that you are a living, breathing human being that should have empathy for not only yourself but other people around you. That’s what it’s there for. It’s there to leak into your contemplation of your journey.

RS: OK. Now, you know, far be it from me, but since I am your–what did you say?–your bearded mother, we’ve got to push the book here. And–

Mr. Fish: [Laughs]

RS: No, really, I just, I think the world of this book. I really do. And you know, talk about what–you know, it’s a bedtime reader. Who might they turn to this evening when they go to bed and they’re not quite ready to go to sleep, they want to read an essay? That’s the way I see it. That’s the way I use it, OK. So who could they turn to? Just pick out different people, and tell us what you think is there.

Mr. Fish: I think that that’s going to–that’s going to be determined by your taste and your level of–

RS: All right, you don’t want to sell books.

Mr. Fish: I don’t want to sell–I mean, it’s full of pictures–[Laughter]

RS: Come on, you know, OK, let’s go through who’s in this book and why they’re interesting, for god’s sake. You know, seriously. Come on, pitch! [overlapping voices] What is it about Norman Mailer, now–I mean, come on. Maybe people don’t even know any longer who Norman Mailer was, or why is Howard Zinn in this book, why–Tariq Ali, a very interesting guy; Calvin Trillin. You know, what happened? Were these people you were able to get to, or are these the people that inspired you?

Mr. Fish: It was both. I had a long list of people who inspired me, and as I started the process of writing the book, they kept dying off, so I had to keep putting a line through their names.

RS: Yeah.

Mr. Fish: Which is, you know, sent a certain amount of worry through me, because I really wanted to finish the book. But to your point, there’s a lot of people who aren’t going to know who some of these people are. And one of the missions of the book is to demonstrate that they are people who you need to know. I mean, they’re telling the truth, and they’re being really interesting, and their body of work is significant in so many ways. So it’s my mission to educate readers as to who these people are, and to draw them in with some snarky, inappropriate drawing that is all through the book, as well.

RS: So let me–all right, so I said I wouldn’t bring myself into it, but I will. You have–I’m in the book, and a good friend of mine, Christopher Hitchens, is in the book. And yet, in the essay you have on me, I’m debating Christopher Hitchens, and I’m being quite tough about it, and he was quite tough about me. And as I say, we ended up agreeing to disagree about the Iraq War, but we certainly never accepted each other’s point of view. What was your point about Christopher Hitchens? What did he do for you?

Mr. Fish: What he did for me was that he made conversations–he deepened them, he deepened conversations for me. I was right there with you, and that was one of the–as far as the Iraq War goes. Because as much as I found his line of reasoning reprehensible, there was no doubt and no debate about how well he communicated his ideas, and how joyful he was in debate. And also drawing on–he loved to quote literature to back up his point; all of those things, philosophy, science. So he was such a–he was just a very well-rounded guy who was really interesting to talk to. And that’s really why I wanted to talk to him. Yeah.

RS: So talk a little bit about John Lennon. Because I have the same feeling you do. But my interest is much more narrow than yours; I just love “Working-Class Hero,” and I love that whole album, and I love the stuff actually he did after the Beatles. And I thought there was an honesty, and a rejection of commercial, capitalist success. Really profound rejection there that is worth–that I go to, you know, for clarity. I’ve written quite often–I know you write with music in the background; I’ve written quite often with John Lennon in the background, you know, those albums. But describe, because I think you said he was the pivotal figure in your education.

Mr. Fish: Yeah, he was just very–it’s just very grounding to have somebody who is communicating in a way that just sounds so honest, and in many ways painful. You know, and it’s frustrating–

RS: “A working-class hero is something to be,” they feed you on drugs and TV, and yeah.

Mr. Fish: It changed my life. And the F-word was in that song. To have a Beatle release a song where the language–he trusts his audience to get what he’s trying to communicate. And that to me was one of the things that made him really interesting.

RS: Let’s talk about that word. Because–and I don’t want to use it, because then maybe some NPR station will carry this actually as a broadcast and not only as a podcast, and they’d have to bleep it out or something. But these words matter a lot to you, and you throw them in all the time. You have kind of a scatological imagination, and you also have played–one cartoon you did that got me in trouble as a teacher, you had every one of these words we’re not supposed to use in there, and I had you in speaking to my class, and we show this drawing that–you’re not approving of them, but you’re showing them these words are out there–well, that in itself is now a high crime, you know, quickly get you fired. So, but why are these words so important to you, that you intrude them into your cartoons quite deliberately?

Mr. Fish: Because I think that it’s very important to delegitimize concepts of obscenity, if they are abstractions. And also if–when it comes to some of the cartoons I do, there’s one in the book actually that addresses this problem quite accurately, I think. And what it is, it’s an artist who is standing with his cartooning pad, and he’s looking at a politician. And the politician is screaming these racial epithets and just being very ugly–his arms out, screaming to the world. And the artist is drawing accurately the guy, the politician who’s doing it, and putting the exact words that the politician is using. Second frame, he’s carrying it with a big smile on his face to bring it to his editor at the magazine where he works. And the editor is actually saying, “We’ll only publish it if you let us take out all the dirty language.” And so that’s where I feel, that’s where the problem is, because artists, many times what makes their work so powerful is just the fact that they’re reporting on the truth blatantly without any filters or any censorship.

RS: You know, I think that’s really important. And I just taught a class on the whole homosexual revolution, and the success and so forth. And there’s a very emotional moment for me, because one of my childhood friends was routinely referred to by unkind–which was almost all of the children in the neighborhood–as Mel the, you know, F-A-G, OK. And you cut out that word, you cut out the experience. This kid was tormented almost every day of his life. Somebody yelled that at him. Somebody dismissed him. Somebody demeaned him. You know, and then he ended up committing suicide, jumping out of his apartment when he was, I don’t know, 21 or something. He never overcame that, you know. And so you can’t educate about what the treatment of homosexuals in America or the world was like without showing this bite. And that is true of racial epithets, religious epithets, and so forth. And when we clean it up–and you know, it’s not a battle I’m particularly willing to have, because you lose; everybody wants it cleaned up, but they don’t solve the problem by cleaning it up, because they erase the hate there, you know. And not to trivialize it, but that’s what’s descriptive. And you know, you got me into a little bit of trouble over this, because I–and it’s in the movie. What is the title of the movie? We’ve got to get people to watch this movie.

Mr. Fish: Sure. It’s Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End.

RS: Yeah. And it’s hard to get, but it’s out there, right?

Mr. Fish: Mm-hmm.

RS: If they go to Scheerpost they can find a reference to it, but elsewhere. And what’s his name, the filmmaker? He’s very good.

Mr. Fish: Pablo Bryant.

RS: Yeah. And so people should check that out if they want more of Mr. Fish, which they should want more. But I think this is a good point on which to end. I was hoping we would get it down, the frame of time, but I think it’s important to pursue this a little bit. You know, you don’t make people comfortable, but then again Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and, at the end of his life, John Lennon didn’t make people comfortable, you know. And what we teach people now is, be interesting, think differently, outside the box–but don’t do it in such a way as you crush the box, you know. Careerism, the meritocracy, requires an allegiance to certain form, and not being too disturbing, and being persistent.

I remember you had me dealing with the Wen Ho Lee case, this Chinese scientist–wasn’t Chinese, he was actually from Taiwan–you know, but was accused of, by the New York Times, of stealing the most precious secrets, and they had him locked up for nine months and surveilled by camera. You describe all that in the book. And I remember in that as a journalist, if I wrote about it a couple of times, that was OK, interesting, Bob, yeah, you make some good points. When I was persistent and wrote 20 columns on it, I remember they said, you got to drop it. I remember at the L.A. Times being told, you got to drop it, you know, it’s enough; people think you’re carrying–but I said, did they release him? Did I miss something? Is he not in solitary? You know, is he getting a new hearing? What? How can I drop it?

And that idea that–you don’t drop it. You know, I’ve asked you to drop things, as your publisher, at times–“come on, give it a rest”–that’s the words they used with me. That’s what publishers and people will always do–“give it a rest.” But no, the society hasn’t given it a rest. There will be that move now–Black Lives Matter, “give it a rest,” you know. Why? Are there not a disproportionate number of Black people in our prison system, or unemployed, et cetera, et cetera? Is discrimination dead? “Give it a rest.”

And that has really been the challenge you have faced, and that’s what your book is really about, and the people that you interviewed or profiled in your book. At some point, will careerism trump everything? Or will you break that and not give it a rest? And you know, you’ve got two daughters now, about to, what, go to college? Yeah. And you know, and life has not been easy for you, and you have a great wife who trained in journalism and so forth. And I know, you know, not just the pandemic but in general, it’s not easy being–what does it mean to be a cartoonist, an artist, at this time in America? There’s no space for you, is there?

Mr. Fish: No. No, but at least I get the joy of feeling like I have some integrity. And engaging with people from the past in this book is my attempt to link that all up and say, look, there’s virtue in just having a white-knuckled grip on your own soul. That’s meaningful to me.

RS: Most of them let go of that grip at some point, but then tried to get it back.

Mr. Fish: Right.

RS: The book has a lot of successful people in it, you know. Joan Baez is a very good example, she clearly was, you know, at the top of different charts, and great career. On the other hand, clearly a human being who has struggled with, you know, what does it all mean and how do you push it and so forth. That’s what makes all of the people–again, the book is Nobody Left–come on, you know–Conversations With Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural–but what’s interesting about it is all of them, you know, wanted to get back. In Graham Nash, you have him finding it in abstract painting, or painting later in life, in your vignette about him. But there’s, you know, at the end of the day, integrity is what you hold onto. But it’s easy to say, hard to do, isn’t it, Dwayne, Mr. Fish?

Mr. Fish: That’s exactly true, yeah.

RS: Isn’t it? [Laughs]

Mr. Fish: But the rewards are vast, you know. It’s, again, it’s just having a meaningful life is the best–

RS: So that’s a reason to buy this book. Let’s close on that, you know, get it under 50 minutes. Nobody Left, give it to your nephew or your own child or grandchild, and that’ll give them a reason to hold on to integrity. Careerism isn’t everything. And on that note, Dwayne Booth, Mr. Fish, I just want to encourage people one way or another to get in touch. I’m sure plenty of people listening to this already know your work. But watch the film. Go, we have a “Fish Tank” at Scheerpost, which is good. You have, what is it, Clowncrack?

Mr. Fish: Yep, Clowncrack.com. Yep, that’s my site.

RS: Yeah, Clowncrack. OK, that’s it, Fish, Mr. Fish. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for week after week getting this show posted. And I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for, good friend of yours, for writing the intro; hopefully she’ll be kind to you on this one. Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription, who again, somebody who knows you well. And I want to thank, most of all, Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who’s a big fan of yours. So this’ll be one interview he doesn’t try to cut some of my darlings, and I’ll say ah, I should have probably gone longer! And I want to thank the JWK Foundation in memory of another contrarian–and I use that in the best sense–Jean Stein, well known for Edie and West of Eden and other books. A great interviewer in her own right, interviewer of Faulkner in his Heyday in Paris Review and what have you. Anyways, it’s really been delightful to talk to you. And I’ll be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

Dwayne Booth (a.k.a., Mr. Fish) is a cartoonist, freelance writer and ScheerPost regular who has been published in many reputable and prestigious magazines, journals and newspapers. In addition to Harper’s Magazine, his work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones Magazine, the Advocate, Z Magazine, the Utne Reader, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and various European newspapers. He has also written novels, screenplays, short fiction and cultural criticism collections, and several volumes of political cartoons.