A conversation with the man behind the panels
In a way, boredom is the best muse for a creative individual, and sometimes it can do wonders for both your drive and passion. Just ask Ted Rall, a native of Kettering who broke free from the restraints of small-town suburbia to become one the country’s most celebrated and notorious editorial cartoonists. As he puts it, “Cities like Dayton are incubators, and boredom is an absolute incubator for creativity. I know a lot more people from boring towns who are way more interesting and creative than anyone I’ve met from a big city like New York or L.A.”
For Rall, his career has been one wild ride. It’s a saga about a man who’s always searching for answers, despite where they may take him. He moves from panel to panel trying to find the next hard-hitting joke that will splatter onto people’s minds without coming off easily. Rall has made a career by voicing his opinions through drawings, cartoons, essays, books – whatever kind of outlet he can get his hands on, because one type of medium just isn’t enough to contain what he has to say. His creativity is too big, and whether you love him or hate him, Rall is there to tackle some of the biggest issues grappling our country. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Rall a few months back, and as we sat back and chatted with ease, I not only learned how outspoken and passionate he was, but also how friendly, down-to-earth and generally cool he truly is. His love is not just devoted to the political game, although it does absorb a rather large chunk of his time. You’ll also find a big part of his heart still tied to his native land, and over time it’s spread to include an affection for the entire Dayton region, even if that affection has some criticism mixed with it.
“Dayton really is a great place to live,” said Rall. “It’s a cool city … I just think if the governing powers got their shit together it could be a whole lot better.”
Rall first opened up by telling me a little bit about his childhood in Kettering, and the changes that have taken place over the years. “When I was growing up I remember not having much to do around here, at all,” explained Rall. “We had nothing, and now they have places like the Fraze where you can go see a decent concert in the summertime. I saw they had the B-52’s coming to town one year and I was like ‘What, the B-52’s are coming to Kettering?!? That’s insane!’”
Originally born in Massachusetts, Rall got into cartooning thanks to a hometown hero, Mike Peters. “He was doing cartoons for the Dayton Daily News, and in the early ‘70s I feel like he was really at a peak in his powers. Maybe not in the sense of being established or anything like that, but he was much more hard-hitting and meaner than he is now. He had that energetic, wild style that I was very inspired by.” Rall also found inspiration in war comics like “Weird War Tales,” and cites Charles Schultz and Matt Groening as influences. In school, Rall said some teachers helped him find another big influence to his work, Jules Feiffer. “He was a cartoonist for the Village Voice, and even though his stuff didn’t run here I had teachers who had his ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ books hidden in the back of the classroom. I was fascinated by him because he was so wordy, and it was more about how politics affect the lives of normal, everyday people, which I enjoyed.”
After having his cartoons run in a few local dailies, Rall went to college at Columbia University where he sharpened his craft by submitting cartoons to the campus newspapers. Afterwards, he found work not in drawing but in Wall Street during the “high times” of the ‘80s stock market boom. Eventually, Rall got syndicated in 1991 and left the financial world for good. Since then, Rall has made a big name for himself, and his work has been featured in a number of different publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone and Mad magazine as both a cartoonist and a contributing writer/columnist. As he likes to say, “Only a cartoonist would look at freelance writing as a cash cow opportunity.” His work has been both praised and damned, and through it all Rall has emerged a tougher and better man than before.
Rall has frequently made traveling a part of his work too, and Central Asia has become a region he’s just as struck by as Dayton, Ohio. “I first went to Central Asia on assignment for P.O.V. Magazine in the late ‘90s. I told my editor I wanted to drive a car up and down the Silk Road and write about it, and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure, do it!’ And I’d call them up and ask for more money and they would say, ‘Yeah, OK, here you go!’ It’s a little mind-boggling to think about now, but back then it was the greatest feeling ever. I felt like Hunter S. Thompson, you know?” His writings on the region do have a particular Gonzo-like feel, a mix of imaginative travel-related material with the typical Ted Rall political undertone.
Rall has also visited Afghanistan twice, first in 2001 for the Village Voice and KFI Radio in Los Angeles and the second time in 2010 for The Los Angeles Times. Both trips were eye-opening experiences for Rall. “My first trip was during the full-fledged U.S. invasion,” said Rall, “and bombs were falling and there were explosions all over the place. It was chaotic and dangerous, and out of the 45 journalists that went, three were killed and eight were seriously injured. It was like total PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] for all of us when we returned home.” In 2010, he returned to a much different country, but not one that was necessarily better. “On my second trip, there was a lot more infrastructure – more stores, more roads, that whole deal. I was surprised when I landed and found that my cell phone worked! But not much had really changed in the sense of it feeling like a civilized country, and the people were more pessimistic the second time around. By that time, there was a general feeling that it was ‘too little, too late.’ The Taliban and other insurgents have created a sense of anarchy, and in that kind of environment nobody gives a shit about their cell phone coverage.”
In recent years, Rall has become a harsh critic of President Barack Obama, and his most recent book, “The Book of Obama: How We Went from Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” deals with his frustrations through two different ends of the political spectrum: the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Those two groups were really interesting because they were strong responses to the failures of our government on both sides. Each group wanted to address people’s needs and desires. They were rebellions from the right and the left, and to have them both rise up around the same time was no coincidence.” In addition, he also names Obama’s weak response to the country’s economic troubles as a clear flaw in his leadership. “When Obama came in, the country was in a global-crisis mode, and it still is. But in 2008, the economy was tanking and I don’t think Obama took it very seriously. It’s clear that he didn’t take it seriously by the people he appointed and from his tepid response to the situation. We needed someone to step up and kick some major ass, like FDR in 1933, and Obama didn’t do that.”
From federal to local, politics of every sort can get Rall worked up, and the same can be said for Dayton’s own political playground. For instance, Rall thinks the local government should be doing more to connect downtown Dayton to the surrounding suburbs. “It’s always bothered me how people who live in the suburbs don’t seem to have any affinity for the downtown area,” he said. “You talk about the rusted-out factories and abandoned buildings we have, and some folks just shudder and say, ‘What, not here. That’s downtown, not us.’ And that kind of thinking is outrageous.” Rall points out that people in other big cities across the country don’t think of their downtown as being “different.” Instead, they embrace it as part of their own, and it’s something Dayton should be considering in the future. “I mean, you have places like downtown Detroit, which is basically just a hollowed-out, post-industrial graveyard, and even there you don’t see the kind of thinking that goes on in Dayton. It’s bad, and it’s a problem, but they know it’s their problem. That’s huge, and that connection isn’t evident here.”
When asked about the future of Dayton, Rall believes that the younger generation can save the city -that is, if the governing powers will allow it. “Dayton also needs to start focusing on bringing in young, smart, creative types of people and allowing them to live here at an affordable rate,” Rall explained. “They should set up a system with subsidized rents and make living cheap, like $100 a month, but in order to qualify they would need to be productive and give back to the community. Make them start a business, open up a café, start a band, become an artist or a writer. The payoff would come later, but it would encourage the young brainpower we have harvesting in our city to stay here.” Rall’s plan may not be as crazy as it sounds. “Think about it: if we can encourage these people to stay in Dayton, eventually they’ll grow up and have families and start business here, and that could benefit the city tremendously. It’s a long-term investment, for sure, but it could be a start.”
Rall thinks the cost of living should be lowered for people all around the city, not just for the younger folks. “High rents are what make people want to leave Dayton in the first place. The local economy doesn’t justify the housing prices anymore. The jobs aren’t here for people to have the kind of salaries they used to, and if the industrial base is gone and the salaries are low, then the rents should be low, right?” Of course, all of this aggression comes from a place of sincere love, and as Rall puts it, “It frustrates me because I hate to see my hometown in disarray. The people who live here are smart. We just need to do more to support and protect those people.”
As outspoken and opinionated as he might be, Ted Rall is a man who is always pushing the limits, stretching them out to see how far they can go. He’s not afraid to piss people off and say what’s on his mind, and this has been both a gift and a curse for him throughout the years. Either way, it’s that kind of courage, that kind of risk-taking behavior that will help you move up in this god-forsaken world we live in today. Rall is a man who is not afraid to hold a mirror up to the face of America, laugh and say, “Look! See! I told you so!” At least I’ll be able to get a sense of comfort in knowing that if North Korea drops the bomb tomorrow, Ted Rall will be there with a cartoon that explains why.
To see more of Ted Rall’s work as a cartoonist and writer, visit rall.com/rallblog.
Reach DCP freelance writer Zach Rogers at ZachRogers@daytoncitypaper.com