Dwayne Booth seems like the typical mild-mannered man, middle-aged hipster model, with his round horn-rimmed glasses, thrift-store-chic wardrobe, tousled yet stylish haircut, and bemused expression. Booth lives in the tiny, kid-friendly borough of Narberth with his wife, Diana, a Quaker school technology coordinator, and their 8-year-old twin girls. On school mornings, he waits at the bus stop with his daughters, chatting with the other stay-at-home parents (mostly moms), as commuting neighbors (mostly dads) bustle toward the SEPTA station.
It’s easy to picture Booth in one of his prior low-wage jobs for high-IQ slackers: coffee shop barista, Barnes & Noble clerk, paid medical volunteer. It’s a bit jarring, though, to learn how this unassuming Main Liner actually earns his living.
After waving goodbye to the girls, Booth retreats to a second-floor studio in his twin house, jams some jazz, and draws cartoons. His work is nothing like newspaper comic strips, or Donkey Democrat vs. Elephant Republican political cartoons. Under the name “Mr. Fish,” Booth’s work is even more radical, and more disturbing, than the standard fare in lefty “alternative” papers like the one you’re reading now.
One Mr. Fish cartoon, captioned “MORE BLOOD!” depicts George W. Bush as the smiling head of a very engorged penis. In another, a haloed God sits dejectedly on a cloud, reacting to the legalization of gay marriage. “Oh fiddlesticks—I’ll never be able to compete with analingus.” Even cute herbivores are not safe from his poison pen. A mother deer lovingly explains that “Republicans are dickhead motherfuckers with shit for brains who have gotten everything wrong for the last 50 years.”
Over the years, Mr. Fish cartoons have appeared in Harper’s, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, Slate, Huffington Post, Truthdig.com and—until a very messy departure—the LA Weekly. Booth has collected his favorite cartoons—both published and rejected—in a new book titled Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People (Akashic Books, $18.95). The artwork is interspersed with a short memoir—or, as Booth puts it, a “coming-of-rage story.”
Booth grew up in the Jersey shore town of Manahawkin, near Long Beach Island, the son of a “1950s housewife” mother, and a blue-collar stepfather. The town was choked with free-spending tourists all summer, but was desolate after Labor Day. The off-season economy was supported by “a single Dunkin Donuts, a porno shop, two and a half gas stations and a thousand bars,” Booth recalls. “It was suddenly the exact wrong place for tourists to come, unless they wanted to commit suicide in the dunes.”
In this manic-depressive milieu, boy Booth taught himself to draw on purloined classroom paper, sketching skeletons, elaborate battles between sharks and whales, and a 474-page opus on a giant, violent hog named “Suey Pig.” Booth never read comics as a kid, he insists. “I preferred monster magazines, because I pitied monsters. I saw them as victims of straight society’s thuggish refusal to tolerate outsiders.”
After high school, Booth enrolled in Rutgers as a fine-arts student, but dropped out after a couple semesters. He bummed around New Brunswick for another three years, working odd jobs and homeschooling himself on Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and other wise guys.
Booth began drawing as a break from his main passion: “writing unpublishable diatribes on what’s wrong with everything and everybody in the world.” He adopted the nom de cartoon of “Mr. Fish,” the rejected name of a family bird, to avoid confusion with George Booth—the more famous, less nihilistic New Yorker cartoonist.
Unlike Booth’s angry writing, Mr. Fish’s angry art slowly found a market. His first cartoon was published in Anarchy magazine in 1990. Predictably, the anarchists never got it together to pay for his cartoons, but they published Mr. Fish for years.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1997, Booth finally landed a steady gig with the LA Weekly, where he was a regular contributor from 2003 until 2010. During these years, Mr. Fish sharpened his pen to skewer the Left’s usual suspects, as well as its heroes.
Some of Mr. Fish’s most malevolent work involves George W. Bush—a gardening Bush planting miniature flag-draped coffins on Earth Day; a blood splattered Bush watching his daughters’ heads being blown off to impress “Middle Eastern Daddies” about Western values; and a Frankenstein monster Bush watching Karl Rove leave the White House, thinking: “Maybe he’s right—maybe the villagers will eventually respect me.”
These days, Mr. Fish is just as brutal with Obama for unfailingly, and predictably, betraying the Hope-and-Change hype. In one cartoon, the dorkily smiling president tells a resurrected Martin Luther King Jr. that his dream is “to not piss off rich people—that’s really about it.” In another, Obama is “selling his war in Afghanistan to suckers,” opening his suit jacket to reveal those ubiquitous flag draped coffins.
Booth admits that he is especially hard on Obama, who “was so likable that his supporters made excuses to perpetuate a lie that politicians will honor their campaign promises.”
An indifferent Protestant boy turned avowedly atheist adult, Mr. Fish’s cartoons often profane the holy. Jesus Christ hits on women at a bar by bragging: “My dad invented the beaver.” A bloody, crucified Jesus is in bed with a blonde, apologizing: “Sorry, baby, not tonight—I gotta rise up early tomorrow.”
While he may offend the odd Christian, Mr. Fish really pisses off Jews and Muslims. Cartoons critical of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians—like the Israeli tank with a menorah turret, or emaciated concentration camp survivors protesting the “Holocaust in Gaza”—have drawn death threats and hate mail, says Booth, who insists that he is neither pro-Palestinian nor anti-Semitic, but anti-violence.
In September 2005, Mr. Fish jumped—or, rather, tried to jump—into the worldwide controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Booth submitted to the mainstream daily LA Times and the alternative LA Weekly a recreation of one of the most inflammatory cartoons—Mohammed with a bombshell turban. It was a dot-to-dot version, so readers could have the thrill of actually drawing one of the graven images that had sparked bloody riots throughout the Muslim world.
Cowed by death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, the worldwide mainstream media had a self-imposed ban on reprinting the sacrilegious cartoons. The LA Times immediately rejected the cartoon, Booth says, “because they were afraid of having their heads chopped off, literally, and their families killed.”
However, the LA Weekly editors summoned the courage to publish his dot-to-dot Mohammed. The day before the cartoon was to appear, Booth happened to be speaking to a cartoonist group in San Diego. “I told everybody in the room to pick up a copy of the Weekly and send a message that we are a free society capable of grappling with controversy and celebrating the virtues of fighting censorship.”