“Editorial cartooning has never had a Mozart, much less a Bob Dylan, although there have always been a shitload of Donovans in the profession.” -Mr. Fish
Mr. Fish isn’t his real name. His real name is Dwayne Booth. When he decided to launch his career as a cartoonist, he realized signing his work ‘Booth’ might confuse fans of the New Yorker’s George Booth. “I didn’t want to sign just my first name Dwayne. That would be pretentious,” he said, “I’m not Madonna or Cher.”
After dropping out of Rutgers, Dwayne boomeranged back to his old bedroom at home in New Jersey. He holed up in his room simultaneously working on his music, his drawing, and attempting to write a novel, “a dark existential masterpiece.” One day in 1984 his Mom bought a pet bird. Dwayne was convinced she should name it Mr. Fish. He made a ‘Mr.Fish’ sign with an arrow and taped it next to the the bird’s cage. Mom was not amused; she removed the sign and put it in her son’s room with the arrow pointing toward his sketchbook. So the name stuck, but not to the bird.
I met Mr. Fish when he came to visit the Kutztown University’s Rohrbach Library for Library Week. He is a regular contributing artist for Harper’s online and Truthdig.com. He shared his images from his first book-length collection, Go Fish. The book has an apt subtitle: How to Win Contempt and Influence People. At first glance the cover image on Go Fish looks like one happy Daddy heading to work, circa 1965. On second glance, you notice the bombs dropping from the sky blowing up the neighborhood.
Mr. Fish may look like a mild-mannered grad student in his Clark Kent glasses, but he is one angry young artist. He lobs grenades at the right, the left, the middle, and even other cartoonists. Mr. Fish argues that no cartoonist should be considered a genius, “the same way a tournament level nose picker will never compete in the Olympic Games, no matter how good he is.” Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau, for one, is not likely to buy him a drink after reading Mr. Fish’s assessment that he “hasn’t had anything to say for thirty years.”
Go Fish is mostly pictures with a few wild essays. In the afterward, Mr. Fish insists he does not want to be considered a cartoonist. He is especially unimpressed by humorists poking fun at President Bush. “What makes George W. Bush the most lampooned U.S. President in history, surpassing all 20th Century Presidents combined, is the fact that you don’t need a house of mirrors to confirm that he is a complete asshole from every angle.” Much of this vitriolic essay, “Leave Me Alone, I Like the Company,” can be found here on his website, www.clowncrack.com.
Mr. Fish does not cut Barack Obama any slack. He is certain Martin Luther King would be protesting in the streets against Obama’s Afghan war and his domestic policies. Mr. Fish drew Obama’s face on a southern sheriff unleashing police dogs on peaceful demonstrators. He also drew Dr. King visiting Obama in the Oval Office. King says, “So, that’s my dream. What’s your dream?” Obama answers, “To not piss off rich people- that’s really about it.”
Mr. Fish won the Society of Professional Journalist’s Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning in 2010 and 2011. The 2011 award was for his drawing of a worn out man with a sign, “Will HOPE for Work.” The unemployed man in his dusty fedora might have been plucked from a Dorothea Lange photo of the Great Depression. The only color in the drawing is the Obama campaign logo in the O of HOPE. I had guessed that Mr. Fish used Photoshop to composite old and new photos. He tells me while these works are based on photo reference, they are actually original pencil renderings. Typically, artworks like this one take him five or six hours at the drawing board. On the other hand, his simpler line art style, like the art grant cartoon, can be completed in less than half an hour.
After Mr. Fish’s library talk, he spoke to a senior level illustration class. One student asked if she should go to graduate school. He told her as a college dropout he might not be the ideal guidance counselor, but he didn’t see the point of an advanced degree in illustration.
Another student asked, ‘Where does an artist need to live?’ His answer: “Anywhere you want.” Mr. Fish explained that early in his career he lived and worked in L.A. His illustrations often appeared in the L.A Weekly, a newspaper owned by the Village Voice. Technology freed him to work from home. Now married, with twin children, he lives in a Philadelphia suburb that he chose, in part, for its good schools. His neighborhood is not where his readership resides, most of his “fan base” comes from L.A and New York.
Mr. Fish earns a modest salary from his editorial artwork for Harpers and Truthdig. His original drawings are sold at The Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica, CA. He supplements this income by selling Mr.Fish “merch” on his web site –mugs, tee shirts and signed prints. For a while, he was making “around twenty dollars” each time he sold a pair of Noam Chomsky sneakers. If you didn’t get your Chomsky sneakers, it may be too late. Seems they are sold out.
Prof. Chomsky is one of the few living thinkers Mr. Fish admires. Mr. Fish is working on a graphic book project based on his conversations with Chomsky. He interviewed Chomsky at length at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on June 19, 2008. The date, Mr Fish reminds us, is not only the anniversary of the first baseball game played in Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, but also the 111th birthday of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. This loopy interview was recorded and the transcript can be found here. Spoiler alert: Prof. Chomsky reveals that La Bohème doesn’t have a happy ending.
One of the seismic shifts in Internet publishing is that artists lose control of their images the moment they hit the web. I told Mr. Fish that I saw his JFK hoodie cartoon on Facebook, not at Harper’s. I also found his cartoons on a web page that had been viewed 55,000 times with no link to his site. Mr. Fish shrugged and said he has no way of telling which of his images go viral. He only knows how many viewers he gets at Harper’s, Truthdig, and Clowncrack. He enjoys reader feedback, though. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11 he did a drawing called Rewind. It is a simple pencil sketch of the burning twin towers with the rewind icon superimposed over the center of the image. Emails poured in from readers who repeatedly clicked on the rewind button and were disappointed when nothing changed. That was Mr. Fish’s point, some moments in our shared history, no matter how much we would like to rewind them, can not be undone.
A number of Mr. Fish’s drawings struck me as lewd and crude, others struck me as absolutely brilliant. Internet cartooning is uncharted territory. This new frontier is often described as limitless. I have a gut feeling there may be limits and Mr. Fish is having fun racing towards these limits. Go Fish!