Ted Rall is one of the world’s most incompetent cartoonists. His drawing in his political strips makes Dilbert look like a masterpiece of subtlety and elegance. His writing is often even more incompetent than his illustrations—his gags combine a leaden ear with a leaden heart. His most infamous blunder was a post-9/11 strip that mocked and insulted widows of the deceased, suggesting that they were reveling in the subsequent media attention. With apologies to Mark Twain, Rall sees as through a glass eye, darkly.
Rall’s peculiar mix of dunderheaded talentlessness can be occasionally enjoyable in an outsider-art vein. He is always terrible, but sometimes he manages to be terrible in mildly unusual ways. Happily, that's the case for his new graphic novel, The Stringer, a befuddled paean to the hard bitten investigative reporters of yore which suggests that a chief danger of the collapse of journalism is that former war correspondents will go rogue and destroy us all.
You can see Garth Ennis or someone with an actual sense of humor taking that conceit and turning it into a preposterous satirical romp. Not Ted Rall, though. Pablo Callejo, who also worked with Rall on his memoir The Year of Loving Dangerously, illustrates the script with a blocky, thick-lined style that is certainly more accomplished than Rall’s own cartooning. But it is neither whimsical nor charming. The opening sequence captures the team’s misguided, unintentionally laughable didactism. A middle-age white guy with greying Reed Richards hairline stares out at the reader and announces himself with a sub-Dickensian joke. “My name is Mark Scribner. I am a journalist.” Strings swell, trumpets blare, close-ups close-up. “Journalism can save the world. It’s the only thing that can.” Cheering, giggles, stifled fart.
The book starts off as an earnestly clichéd chronicle of the power of journalism and What We’ve Lost. Young Mark’s dad is a newspaperman, and Mark has printer’s ink in his blood. When a school drug raid leads a peer to suicide in prison, Mark writes a blistering report, accusing school officials of murder. But the industry is collapsing, jobs are scarce, and Mark’s ideals are dealt a blow when his fiancé is conveniently killed trying to get to a crappy journalism job interview in Scranton.
Despite this setback, Mark becomes a well-known war correspondent. Increasingly bitter and angry with the poverty wages and callous bosses who demand kitten content, he decides to embrace the dark side. Using encryption tech and his knowledge of foreign conflicts, he impersonates a foreign leader online, insults a rival, and starts a war which he is in a position to report on exclusively. Things escalate from there, and soon he’s both a world beloved celebrity journalist and a clandestine arms dealer, profiting doubly off global violence—once by weapons sales and once by writing about the carnage he’s created.
If that sounds like a revenge empowerment fantasy for disgruntled reporters—well, yes. Rall pretty much admits as much in his foreword. “[T]hrowing human beings into the trash of economic history isn’t merely cruel, it’s unwise, especially when they serve an invaluable role in society,” he muses with hapless menace. “’The Stringer’” is both a present and future cautionary tale as well as a prediction.” Dump on journalists will you? Well, just watch. We’re coming for you now! With nukes!
Despite the nukes and the lying and the odd misogynist slur, you’re still supposed to root for Mark. His anger is righteous, and the government and capitalists he bamboozles are supposedly worse. In short, he’s a standard-issue antihero with standard-issue ambition and even a standard-issue nagging ex to contrast with his standard-issue younger and sweeter new thing. “You might be surprised at what I want,” says Robert Mugabe. “You might be surprised at how hard it is to surprise me,” Mark responds. But no one is really surprised. The complex jet-setting plot hobbles along towards his inevitable victory and moral regeneration, helped along by little text inserts to tell you where you are and who is in the panel.
We really do need journalists. The collapse of the profession is a tragedy. But it’s not a tragedy because war correspondents are deadly super-spies just waiting to be triggered by economic anxiety. We have more than enough conspiracy theories, which clutter up Rall’s narrative like Q-Anon fanciers in a Facebook-comment thread. (The low point is when Rall suggests that sexual harassment allegations are planted by the government to bring down troublesome reporters.)
Instead, we need journalists mostly to do the tedious work of keeping a day-to-day eye on things—reporting on what city councils are doing, explaining legislation, keeping track of police abusing their power, and yes, informing the public about what’s happening in the rest of the world. The idea that journalism is valuable because it’s an exciting bastion of super-machismo and danger just makes it harder to fund basic reporting. Ted Rall knows nothing about journalism, just as he knows nothing about anything. The Stringer is another impressive low point in a career composed of little else.