‘Mr. Fish’ and the art of public disengagement
A new exhibition on campus explores public disengagement through the famous faces of celebrities illustrated by cartoonist, commentator, and Annenberg School lecturer Dwayne Booth—who goes by the pen name “Mr. Fish.”
For the show, “We Are Not Alone,” on the walls of the Forum of the Annenberg School for Communication, Booth created 10 large individual images of thought leaders who each have wide spheres of influence: musicians Joni Mitchell (ink, acrylic, pencil); John Lennon (ink); John Coltrane (pencil); and Bob Dylan (pencil); comedians Lenny Bruce (pencil); Sarah Silverman (pencil); and Bill Hicks (pencil); novelist Kurt Vonnegut (ink); writer-filmmaker Susan Sontag (pencil); and whistleblower Edward Snowden (ink).
Each illustration was completed on white paper and matted under Plexiglas, sealed on two sides with bulldog-hinge paper clips.
In an artist’s statement displayed on one wall in the Forum show, Booth posits that the public reveres prominent people’s quotes and dismisses opinions produced by the overwhelming majority, thereby minimizing our contribution to common knowledge.
Booth’s political cartoons were first displayed on campus in the show “WARNING: Graphic Content – The History of Art as Commentary,” an exhibition of more than 100 editorial cartoons and illustrations, also in the Forum of the Annenberg School during the 2014-15 academic year.
A self-described “insufferable know-it-all,” he published his first cartoon in Anarchy in 1990. His most recent books are “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People,” “WARNING! Graphic Content,” and “And Then the World Blew Up.” His work centers on pop culture and politics, and skewers politicians on both sides of the aisle. No topic is off limits.
“The idea that a subject is taboo simply means, to me, that the conventional interpretation of it is substandard somehow and that the language with which to comprehend it has not been developed yet,” he says.
Equal rights for women and African Americans, and gay marriage were taboo subjects at one time, Booth points out. He says that he abhors the concept of censorship, as did Lenny Bruce, who is featured in the show.
Booth has been a cartoonist and freelance writer for more than 25 years, publishing under both his own name and his pen name. He was unable to use his last name when he first started in the industry because there was already a well-known cartoonist named George Booth, who still works at The New Yorker.
He took the name “Mr. Fish” after first offering it to his mother as a possible name for a pet bird. But she didn’t want to call the bird Mr. Fish.
“So, I took it, never expecting to be published under it, and might’ve stopped using it had my first publisher not claimed to be a huge fan of my work, saying that he’d been following my work for decades,” Booth recalls. “I was 19.”
Today, his body of work stands at nearly 6,000 cartoons published under his pen name and his own name, created primarily for Truthdig.com and Harpers.com, and often appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, Vanity Fair, and many other media outlets.
A measurable portion of the public response to what he does is derisive, while the private responses—that are not death threats—he says, are laudatory. His readers regularly send him gifts.
Booth, who joined Annenberg’s adjunct faculty in 2015, teaches two undergraduate courses: “WARNING! Graphic Content – Political Cartoons, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind?” and “Sick and Satired: The Insanity of Humor and How it Keeps Us Sane.”
“I want to refine my students’ critical thinking skills and get them to recognize how and when to fight injustice and institutionalized apathy,” he says, “and how desperately important it is to laugh their [tails] off as often as is humanly possible.”