Love, American Style: Ted Rall on The Year of Loving Dangerously
Ted Rall is an American cartoonist, political commentator, and writer who has made a career of recording He’s been a war correspondent for the Village Voice and a contributor to everything from the New York Times and Rolling Stone to Time and Mad. His latest project is a memoir about the year 1984—the year he spent living and loving wildly while his future lay in the balance. We caught up with Ted to ask him about how this memoir came about now.
You’ve waited a long time to tell this part of your story. What made it come to fruition now?
Like most people, the older I get, the less self-conscious I am. I've never been ashamed of that period in my life, far from it, but I've often wondered whether people were ready to hear about it. Then the economy began tanking after the dot-com bust in 2000, and I started reading all these stories about middle-class people who lost everything. That's when it clicked for me. Although what happened to me during the mid-1980s makes for an entertaining story, hopefully anyway, I think autobiography ought to make a point, to be relevant to life, to teach lessons. In this case, the lesson is if a white, male, Ivy League–educated lout like me can be reduced to poverty in a matter of weeks, it can happen to anyone. It's important to realize that. Don't look down on the homeless. If you understand how close we all are to sharing their fate, it politicizes you, makes you conscious. Hopefully.
Also, I was hoping to do an [autobiographical] book that would make a cool movie. I think this one qualifies; so do some people I've talked to in Los Angeles.
In a way, this is a surprising book to come out from you. What do you think the reaction will be from your fans?
So far they've been receptive. One person wrote me recently complimenting me for being willing to take on different genres. He gets it! Like my favorite author, Sherwood Anderson, I like to do a lot of different things—feature writing, editorial cartooning, humor comics, war correspondence. I was worried that female fans might think I was a using pig, but they seem to get me too. It was also a new experience to work with an artist collaborator—and a great one! Pablo Callejo is amazing. It's been gratifying.
Any embarrassment or trepidation about telling such a detailed personal story?
When you sit down to do an autobiography, you can't pull punches or try to spin yourself. You've got to be honest, or it will suck. So once I was in the personal space that allowed me not to care, to embrace the message of "so what, this is what happened," as well as that of total sexual liberation in what is outwardly a conservative country, everything else naturally followed. That said, my mom isn't happy about this. I make things difficult for her sometimes. Mom, if you're reading this, sorry!
Comics have always been used as a source of political discourse. Do you see comics artists and writers using the format as a political tool more effectively now than in the past?
There has been progress, to be sure, especially in the field of travelogues like those produced by Guy Delisle and Joe Sacco. Comics journalism produces books that tell a story that couldn't be told any other way. It's fantastic to read Delisle's accounts of life in North Korea and Myanmar; you feel like you're right there. I'm not as impressed by the new genre I call "faux politics" graphic novels. You know what I'm talking about—stories done by superhero-influenced artists who don't know much about politics or history but pick up cool-sounding phrases from the news and toss them around in their text. "The Northern Shuria's forces teamed up with rogue NSA agents in the No Man's Zone near Kandahar and blasted away…" F--- that. It's stupid.
What are some of your favorite graphic novels?
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel sets the gold standard for the genre. I also like Beg the Question by Bob Fingerman, derf's Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. To be honest, though, I mostly read alternative weekly political cartoons by people like Stephanie McMillan, Matt Bors, Abell Smith, Keith Knight, that sort of thing.
How was it working with Pablo G. Callejo on this book?
He's such a nice guy! And a consummate professional. Like me, he's a perfectionist—if something's not right, he slaves over it to fix it. At times it felt like he was reading my mind. I would send him scripts for a page that had detailed descriptions, and the art would come back and I would literally have flashbacks to New York City in 1984. Scary! Especially since he never came to New York before the book was finished! We did everything by email and phone. I really hope I can convince him to do the third volume of this series. (This is the first tome in my "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll” trilogy.)
Since you yourself are a great artist, why did you choose to work with someone else on the artwork on The Year of Loving Dangerously?
Wow, thanks! Much appreciated. My publisher, NBM, thought my abstract style wouldn't be right for all those sensuous sex scenes. They suggested I work with Pablo. Once I saw his stuff and his sample pages, I jumped at the chance to work with him. He is a much better artist than I am, much more able to elicit tone and detail necessary to evoke a place and time that is gone now. But I'll definitely be doing my own artwork again in the future. The next book, by the way, will feature artwork by Matt Bors.
When you look back at 1984, as captured in this book, what do you see in yourself that you're still dealing with today?
Ambivalence. Difficulty connecting with other people around me. Social awkwardness that no one else can feel. A sense of fa
king it, like I'm a fraud—you know, imposter complex. I can't believe anyone is interested in what I have to say!
What was the hardest memory to relive in this book?
The fear. Fear of not knowing where my next meal was coming from or whether there would be a next meal.
When you look back at the time in this book, what are you proudest of?
Basically, I was decent. I told some lies and stole some stuff, but I didn't do anything terrible. Given the circumstances, that's an achievement.
Do you have plans to do more graphic novels or memoirs?
Yes, there will be a sequel and prequel to Year. The Year of Chris comes out in 2011, the next one after that. I'm also working on a fictional graphic novel with the working title American Messiah. This fall, my next book is all prose, a political manifesto for Seven Stories Press that I think will make some headlines.