Friday, October 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #278: Real Americans Admit: "The Worst Thing I've Ever Done!" by Ted Rall

Ted Rall, as a cartoonist, has always been a pessimist. (He may be a pessimist personally as well, but I can't speak to that. I tend to believe it, though.)

Part of that is because he's done so much editorial cartooning, which always centers on whatever horrible thing some politician has done most recently. Even before he had a syndicated strip, though, Rall's focus has been most often on bad people doing bad things for bad reasons, or just, more starkly, the huge gap between what he wants the world to be like and what it actually is. (Rall has a larger such gap than almost anyone over the age of twenty-one -- he's one of those deeply frustrated optimists who is continually bashing his head against the things that aren't the way he wants them to be.)

So when I saw Real Americans Admit: "The Worst Thing I've Ever Done!", I had to pick it up. This is peak Ted Rall here -- possibly the epitome of his worldview and central concerns. Better yet, it's from 1996, early enough in his career that he was still primarily known as a Gen X slacker apologist.

There's an introduction in which Rall admits that he's not great with social skills -- which will not surprise anyone familiar with his work and career -- and says that he'd recently (in 1995) stumbled upon this question as his big icebreaker. That is, he asks random people he's just met to confess to him the worst thing they've ever done: morally, if not legally.

Rall clearly has at least slightly better social skills than he thinks he does, because he not only survived that experience but actually got a good number of responses. After spending most of 1995 doing this -- taking out ads in alternative weeklies (remember them?), posting online, asking friends to spread the idea around -- he ended up with 630 responses from various Americans of all ages, classes, and types. (Though all clearly with a deep confessional streak.)

Rall turned twenty-four of those stories, the best and/or most characteristic ones, into comics for this book. Most stories are a single page, but five or six of them are much longer -- I think up to nearly ten pages. (Neither the book itself nor any of the "chapters" are numbered.) They're all in the words of the people who submitted them, but it all sounds similar -- it's all American Confessional, and there's a standard mode for that.

The confessions range all the way from "I shot my bookie to death" to "I had sex with someone I just met in a car" -- some people's worst is objectively more horrible than others'. They're all morally wrong, at least to the person that did them -- I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with the woman who hooked up once with a guy who, as far as she knows, was as unattached as she was -- which is the source of their frisson.

Rall draws this in his chunkiest '90s style, straight out of the alternative weeklies, with mismatched eyeballs and other facial features that owe more to Picasso than Schulz. It is a style that takes some getting used to, particularly if you don't remember it from the first time around in the '90s.

This is an interesting book, full of...well, I don't think there's a word for it, exactly. It's the first cousin of Schadenfreude, but without the comeuppance -- these are all people who got away with it. If you like that feeling, this book is full of it. (And if you have a word for it, please comment!)

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