Dwayne Booth may be responsible for some of the darkest, most adult satirical cartoons in the world today, but he was already creating outre art as a 7-year-old boy growing up in Philadelphia. He wrote the same obscenely belligerent phrase on dozens of sheets of paper, turned them into paper airplanes and flung them out his apartment window and onto the sidewalk below, hoping to freak out passersby who would pick them up and start a panic that would eventually involve the police trying to get to the bottom of it all..
Instead of living out this colorfully controversial fantasy, however, the 51-year-old Booth was thwarted by the fact his sister was the first person to find one of the airplanes and immediately reported him to their mother. She thus was the only person to freak out, leaving Booth with more fantasy than reality in his attempts to shake up the system.
Booth’s recounting of that early incident provides the amusing opening for the new documentary about him by director Pablo Bryant called “Mr. Fish,” which will screen at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Arclight Hollywood, with Booth and Bryant sharing a post-screening Q&A session with prominent Pasadena-based journalist Mark Ebner as moderator. The memory is also emblematic of the current frustrations Booth feels as his outlaw cartoon stylings are making him more and more overlooked amid the nation’s current conservative climate.
“I heard him on a KPFK fundraising drive in Los Angeles, talking about how he experiences each day as the five stages of grief, but in reverse,” says Bryant. He wakes up with acceptance of the world, bargains with it, gets angry with it, then goes into denial so he can sleep. It’s a beautiful metaphor for expressing how to deal with the reality of modern life and the struggle of being alive in these modern times.
“I found him to be funny, sweet, smart, and heartbroken and it spoke to me,” Bryant continues. “I got his first book ‘Go Fish,’ which was a mix of his essays and cartoons, and the cartoons spoke to me in the same way, communicating what is difficult to face in modern life: dysfunction, exploitation, and the imbalance of power. They were funny but also dark, so you can laugh and cringe at the same time. I found that to be a unique experience, and yet they were truthful to me.”
Bryant shot and edited the film over five years, starting in 2012 and ending with the women’s march that took place on the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. He shot more than 90 hours of footage with Booth in an attempt to find a clear storyline that could make the most compelling sense of the cartoonist’s complex life, and also incorporated frequent and varied animation throughout the documentary.
While the film displays several dozen of Booth’s most controversial single-panel cartoons in order to give a sense of his outrageous output, Bryant found his through-line in following Booth’s reactions to the contentious 2016 presidential race and Trump’s election. He also opted to focus on the fast-fading state of satirical cartoons in even the freer content found in alternative weekly papers, an issue that has affected Booth as he has lost prominent gigs with the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair over the years. He presently counts Truthdig.com as his only outlet aside from his own site.
“I feel very isolated in how I approach politics and the problems of politics, “ explains Booth, phoning from Austin, Texas, where the film had a special screening Tuesday night. “I grew up being a huge fan of 1950s and ’60s satire. And I got used to assuming that if you’re going to be a satirist you’re not going to pull your punches and take on the concept of justice in the most severe way that you can.
“People point to ‘Saturday Night Live’ and say that satire is alive and well, but it’s not,” Booth continues. “Today it’s all commercial and completely antithetical to what the mission of satire is. The real problem with that too is that it’s just parody and allows the audience to relieve themselves by laughing and then it’s done. Real satire is supposed to stoke anger and give you something besides really good belly laughs.”
Booth grew up outside Philadelphia, where he lives presently, but lived in Sierra Madre from 1997 to 2010 and is planning to move back. He recalls that he and his wife opted to move west while they were “young and adventurous,” eager to reinvent themselves more than 3,000 miles from their hometown.
He had been working on an aborted novel and playing in a rock band while in Philadelphia, but his wife encouraged him to focus on the talent that seemed most likely to earn a living as he served as a stay-at-home dad while she worked a corporate job. He opted for cartooning since it enabled him to stay home more than being a musician without being as drawn out and singular a pursuit as novel writing, and was a regular presence in the Los Angeles Times opinion section.
“It was an interesting period to work for them, and I had gone through a number of editors for their opinion page,” recalls Booth. “It was right after they fired [multiple Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter] Robert Scheer who had been there 35 years, while Paul Conrad had been with the paper forever and had just retired.
“They were trying to figure out what the editorial page should look like, so there was a little push and pull with them in terms of the content of what I was doing, but it wasn’t impossible,” he continues. “It did involve more conflicts than anywhere else. At LA Weekly I never even got suggestions for editing. I just said this is what I do and they took it.”
Considering that Booth’s artistic output has included a cartoon of boy Jesus accidentally nailing his hand to a dresser while learning carpentry, President Trump dancing with a skeleton and a bloody soldier wearing a big smiley face, it’s perhaps easy to see why mainstream publications and sites eventually drove him away. In an age when the few remaining editorial cartoonists are distributed by newspaper syndicates that only pay them “$3 to $8 per paper,” according to Booth, it’s become nearly impossible for anyone to make a living in the profession.
“I’m curating an exhibit for the University of Connecticut about artists and cartoonists who worked for the alternative press through the ‘60s,” says Booth. “They have a massive archive from Los Angeles Free Press and all these other alt-press papers. And I realize ‘Wow, I was born at the wrong time.’ These were papers that sustained themselves outside the corporate atmosphere, with no ads, so they didn’t have to pull punches.
“It’s heartbreaking to look at the content of these papers and see what journalism was capable of at one time, and the arts community was symbiotic with that communication,” adds Booth. “My wife and I are talking about leaving the country, particularly as all these festivals in Europe and Canada, particularly Toronto, plead with me about what am I doing inside America.”
Dwayne Booth and Pablo Bryant appear with journalist Mark Ebner moderating a post-show discussion, at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Arclight Hollywood, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $13 to $18. Visit arclightcinemas.com.