Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
“To read most of the graphic novels that have received widespread coverage in the mainstream media, you would think that all cartoonists lead dull lives: they stay home in their studios, masturbate a lot, and whine about not getting laid.”
The summer of 1984 was tough for political cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall. Within the course of a few months, he found himself dumped, expelled, fired, and evicted from his Columbia dorm with no one to turn to for help. With no particular plan in mind, Rall bought a slice of pizza, met a girl, and ended up spending the night with her.
The Year of Loving Dangerously (written by Rall with art by Pablo G. Callejo) is the story of what happened over the course of the following year as Rall narrowly avoided homelessness by spending the night with as many women as possible while he tried to get his life back together. As a graphic memoir, it defies the conventions of the genre by rejecting the stereotype of the cartoonist as a dateless loser in order to tell a very different story, one, that Rall explains, “of the male slut, and particularly the variety of promiscuous male who uses sex for some sort of financial advantage.”
I recently spoke with Ted Rall about the book and how the events of that year changed his life. —Chris Teja
Chris Teja: So more than twenty years have passed since the events in the book took place. What made you want to tell this story now?
Ted Rall: There were a few motivations. In no particular order: First, I was tired of reading boring autobiographical graphic novels. To read most of the graphic novels that have received widespread coverage in the mainstream media, you would think that all cartoonists lead dull lives: They stay home in their studios, masturbate a lot, and whine about not getting laid.
I’ve led a relatively interesting life, and I’m a pretty good storyteller, so I thought I should step up and demonstrate what a good autobio book looks like. That, and the fact that a lot of cartoonists actually do have quite vibrant sex lives. Ah, if you only knew my friends…but I digress.
Chris: That’s funny. I wouldn’t have guessed that cartoonists exaggerate how sad they are to sell books the same way rappers exaggerate how dangerous they are to sell albums.
Ted: Ha. Personally, I find Chris Ware’s observation that life is sad to be idiotic. Of course life is sad. But it is also many other things, including fun—especially for people who draw funny pictures for a living while other people are sucking up their bosses’ abuse in cubes.
Second, the economic collapse that began in 2000 (with the dot-com crash) was a major motivation.Year serves as a metaphor for the insecurity that necessarily accompanies capitalism: If a white, male, healthy, Ivy League-educated person can go from scholarship status to homelessness within a matter of weeks, it can happen to anyone. I wanted people to know that.
My third and final major motivation was to tell what I thought was a fairly interesting story, one that isn’t told often: that of the male slut, and particularly the variety of promiscuous male who uses sex for some sort of financial advantage. I’ve read books by supposed cads who slept around, but they didn’t really—they had three girlfriends over two years. Whatever. And I’ve read books by hustler guys who were with other guys. But not this.
Chris: I think that what you just said is what really struck me about the story. It’s really unique in that, and Xaviera Hollander talks about this in the introduction, you’re depicted as being a promiscuous heterosexual male without coming off like you were using or really deceiving the women you were sleeping with. And considering the type of life you were leading, I was really surprised by how relatively sincere your relationships with all of them seemed to be. Was that aspect of it something you planned on, or did it just sort of come out that way?
Ted: Well, there was some deception. At first I didn’t tell my girlfriends that I didn’t have a job or, for that matter, a place to live. One could argue that it wasn’t really their business, that we weren’t in committed relationships, and that’s true, but they were lies of omission—even if they didn’t particularly harm them.
Things did get mixed up. As Xaviera says, there’s always a relationship between money and sex. The question was: did I like certain women because they kept a cozier crash pad than others? Maybe. But I might have felt the same way later, when I was financially solvent. That’s really the big question in the book, and it’s ultimately unresolveable. As I wrote in the book, however, I really was in search of a steady girlfriend. Whenever I started to feel that there was no future in a relationship for whatever reason, I ended it. I remember dumping women for incredibly stupid reasons: taste in music, too much hair on her arms, etc. I was 20 years old. I was an idiot.
Chris: After your life gained stability again, did you find that your views on relationships were different as a result of your year of sexual promiscuity?
Ted: Yes. I learned to uncouple sex and love. Ideally they go together, and sex when you’re head-over-heels in love is often the best, but there’s also a lot to be said for just having a fun, no-strings frolic with someone you wouldn’t want to date. I developed more of a sense that relationships come and go as do friends, though I suspect that that had more to do with the inevitable break-up with my college girlfriend. I certainly stopped being jealous; I had girlfriends who dated other guys at the same time, and it simply stopped bothering me. I realized that it’s important to give people freedom because they have it anyway. In other words, people always do whatever they want to do anyway. You’d might as well give them permission so they don’t have to sneak around.
Chris: At one point in the book, you imagine how your life would have turned out had you stayed with your girlfriend and not been expelled. And even though you were homeless at the time, you still seem to cringe at the idea of a comfortable suburban life. What did you take away from your experiences (aside from a more open-minded attitude towards sex) that made you who you are today and not that other guy?
Ted: Actually, I really craved the security of a bland, dull life in a house with wall-to-wall carpeting at the time. I would have done anything for it…even while loathing the idea. As to the takeaway, it is—as always—complicated. Poverty makes people think differently. So I can’t judge who I was too harshly. I think that if I went back, I would still have wanted to make things work with my girlfriend—despite it all. Now, I’m glad things didn’t turn out that way…but of course I’m informed by the knowledge of what did come next. You can’t separate those things.
Chris: Your writing and cartoons usually focus more on social and political issues. Was it strange for you to put all of this shockingly personal stuff out there this time around?
Ted: There’s a political subtext there, not even that subtle. This was Reagan-era America, of course: harsh. And part of what went wrong was losing my financial aid, which was Reagan’s decision. But I intentionally left the overt politics out of it because what happened to me could have happened to anyone regardless of political orientation.
Chris: That’s another really interesting aspect of the story. It’s everyone’s biggest fear: losing everything and not having the resources to get it back. It’s something anyone can relate to.
Ted: Publishing this book scared me. I was worried that I would offend people who knew me and those who didn’t. Now everyone in America can find out I’m a slut! Even though my partisans lean left of center, it’s amazing how many liberals are sexual prudes. Maybe they’ll hate me now! And what about the feminists who might dislike my behavior back then?
I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. What separates the good ones from the bad ones is that the good ones are brutally honest to a fault. If you commit to writing an autobio, you’d better damn well commit to the story, and tell it as it was—or at least as you think it was. If you plan to spare feelings or try to make yourself not look bad, then don’t bother. The book will suck.
Chris: I can imagine it being nerve-racking to know that you have to lay it all out like that.
Ted: Nothing could be more frightening. I remember breaking down in tears on the subway, desperately afraid because I had no idea where I would sleep or where my next meal was coming from. Yes, that’s a reality for millions of Americans every day, but the fact that it’s commonplace doesn’t make it any less terrifying.
Chris: There’s one image in particular that really stuck with me. The couple of pages where you contemplate jumping off the roof of a building at your school. Did you tell anyone about that after it happened?
Ted: Only a few people. It’s not really the kind of thing you bring up at cocktail parties. But when you do, you find that most people have thought about ending it all at some point.
Chris: I bet. I only ask because it’s just such an intensely private moment. But that’s exactly what sucks you into the story within the first couple of pages. You’re so open and honest about everything that you can’t help but relate.
Ted: That’s what I specialize in: talking about stuff in public that no one else likes to. I like to expose the hidden.
Chris: Did you struggle with leaving certain parts out, for the sake of other people’s privacy or to make a better story?
Ted: Yes, editing is always crucial to storytelling. I crafted the story to emphasize what matters and omit what doesn’t. I made an effort to protect privacy when it was important to do so, but it’s pretty raw and uncensored, relatively.
Chris: And I have to ask, what did your wife think about the book?
Ted: She knew me during that period, and she doesn’t shock easily.
Chris: I feel like The Year of Loving Dangerously is going to hit pretty close to home with a lot of young people who are struggling to find a job right now and just barely keeping it all together. Any words of advice as someone who’s managed to go from having almost nothing to having an amazingly successful career doing what you love?
Ted: I’ll quote what the pop artist Keith Haring told me when I asked him for advice on “how to make it”: If I knew The Answer, I’d sell it. Success is equal parts hard work and good luck; one is useless without the other. I’ve had both. My best advice is to do what you love the way you like it best; that way, whether you make it or not, at least you will have had fun. But there’s no formula, and no two careers are the same.
Chris: Sounds like solid advice. One more question that requites a short answer: What’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Ted: Shocked bummed pissed ranted paid laughed.
To read an excerpt from The Year of Loving Dangerously, click on the pages below and they’ll expand. Move your mouse to the right side of the panel to go to the next page
BUY a copy of The Year of Loving Dangerously.
READ an excerpt.
VISIT Ted Rall’s website.