His Pen Is Smitier Than the Sword

Mr. Fish is the nom de plume of Dwayne Booth, an artist whose clever, biting, often funny, sometimes gut-punchingly painful work is the subject of the documentary Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End, scheduled to be screened at this year’s Rhode Island International Film Festival. I recently talked to Fish and he chatted happily about his daughters and wife and his successes and missed opportunities, but then we waded into the deep end.

Motif: How has reception for this film been so far?

Fish: It has been really good. Lots of people come up afterward and embrace me, essentially saying, “I thought I was alone.”

Motif: Alone in what respect?

Fish: I give them permission to think further left than the Democratic party. I think people are more radical than they show in public. To see that [thinking] demonstrated in public the way I do with my cartoons and conversation gives them permission to think and feel more deeply than polite society allows them to do.

Motif: Some of your work is pretty shocking.

Fish: Shock value — that is the currency. It’s either humor-based or it’s absolutely vitriolic and what I think is ugly. There are two different missions. There was this George Orwell quote: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” That’s what joke telling does. It gives permission. It allows people to think outside the lines to consider alternatives. If you’re given permission to do that, you’re more liable to consider alternative points of view. But the ugly shock value — I do understand that there’s a lot of gore in some of my work — reflects the panic that I feel and that a lot of people feel. If you are trying to warn a population against an approaching doomsday, you don’t want to make that clever and cartoonish. You want to make that ugly and worthy of disdain. Ultimately, politics shouldn’t be about intellectual debate. You’re trying to communicate why human beings deserve safety, justice, freedom and life. And those are all emotional. That’s poetics. That’s poetry.

Motif: It seems like no one is immune to your pen. When it comes to politics, how do you remain objective?

Fish: Everyone’s relationship with life is a personal relationship. As far as judging who is right and wrong, everyone has different experiences and tastes, and that informs how you decipher life. I think it’s about being honest with how you think and feel about things. If you’re able to communicate that and someone has a contrary opinion, they will communicate that. At the end of the day, you might learn something and change your mind. If you are always objective, you pull your punches and are not as honest because you’re interested in decorum.

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