Unfiltered: 'I got death threats from the left … [and] right'

Shocking. Offensive. Truthful. These are all words that have been used to describe the work of controversial cartoonist Mr. Fish – aka Dwayne Booth. Fish, as he prefers to be called, is known for his bold imagery and variation of style, but whether it’s a minimalist “Sunday funnies” parody or a highly detailed, photo-realistic illustration, the one constant of Fish’s work is a satirical sense of humor that pulls no punches.

Raised on some of history’s greatest satirists, from Bugs Bunny to Bill Hicks, Fish developed a sharp sense of humor in order to compete with his siblings. Raised in a home where thinking outside the box and irreverence and counterculture were celebrated, it was always a race in his family to see who could come up with the most inappropriate punchline.

A child of the ’70s, Fish was hopeful that the activism of the 1960s – such as the civil rights, feminism and gay rights movements – would lead to a better society. “I couldn’t wait to grow up, because I saw all of these things that from the past were finally being shaken out. All the nonsense and the bulls*** was finally being called nonsense and bulls***, and I was ready to reap the rewards of living much more honestly and sane in a saner society.” Unfortunately for Fish, that hope has long since dissipated. “I am furious at the fact that all of those sacrifices seem like a waste of time.”

It’s this disappointment that brings the bite to Fish’s cartoons, humor that pushes his audience to think rather than going for the obvious cheap laugh. He offers an unforgiving nonpartisan look at the corporations and politicians who shape our day to day, a mirror held up to the modern American life, highlighting its flaws and hypocrisy.

“In order to exhibit yourself as a leftist it seems now, all you have to do is maybe scissor up the plastic six-pack rings that you have and send them out into the ocean. Or you can use your reusable shopping bags and fill them with factory farm foods and put them in your SUV, and you’re an environmentalist,” says Fish. “Even on the other end, if you want to be seen as pro-American just demonstrate real discomfort around Hispanic people. People brand themselves with these concepts of who they are and what they are without any demonstration that goes deeper than fashion.”

Fish says he approaches his work with an “outlaw mentality.” He believes that the conventional and mainstream way of looking at things is deep down just a sanitized, branded version of the truth. His work tries to cross the line of mainstream thinking in order to present a more realistic perspective. This method is seldom used in today’s world of cartooning, he says, as media continues to consolidate and corporations try to push easily digestible and nonoffensive cartoons to the public, watering down the majority of cartooning jobs one can make a living from.

“More and more artists have got to bend their product to meet the needs of corporations’ marketing concepts in order to sell the work, have their work be seen and to feed themselves,” says Fish, “I don’t create my work to sell.”

An illustration by Mr. Fish, titled, ‘Through A Looking Glass Darkly’ (Image: Dwayne Booth/Mr. Fish)
An illustration by Mr. Fish, titled, ‘Through A Looking Glass Darkly’ (Image: Dwayne Booth/Mr. Fish)

Although Fish stays true to himself, he sees a growing issue in America’s current corporate and political climate where individuals are penalized for speaking their mind and those that dumb themselves down get rewarded. Rather than sacrifice the integrity of his work, Fish says he would rather leave the country, an ongoing discussion he currently has with his wife.

One of Fish’s more talked about images is a parody of Norman Rockwell’s self portrait, the famous piece of Americana that adorned the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. But in Fish’s version, Mr. Rockwell is replaced by a hooded Klansman staring at himself in the mirror, painting how he pictures himself – not as a hooded fearmonger but as the noble superhero Captain America. Fish says, “For me it’s an absolute accurate depiction of what goes on when it comes to people who claim for themselves what real America is. It’s white wholesomeness that can sometimes manifest itself into very ugly racism.”

Although much of his fan base is made up of left leaners, Fish objectively pokes holes at politicians on both sides of the aisle, including former President Barack Obama.

‘One of the other cartoons that I’ve gotten a lot of blowback from is the cartoon I did of Obama holding back attack dogs that are attempting to maul Martin Luther King. But if you look at the policies of Barack Obama and you look at what Martin Luther King found disdainful, and at the end of his life became very, very vocal about warning against the United States’ empire. You would see that if Martin Luther [King] were alive today, there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that he would be a very, very, very vocal critic of Obama.”

Controversial illustrations like that one have earned Fish a healthy surplus of fans and haters from both sides of the aisle. “I’ve gotten hate mail, and I have gotten death threats. The majority of death threats that I’ve gotten, I’ve been able to engage with these people because it’s been through email to the point where they apologize for threatening to kill me, which is nice. A couple of people, I didn’t engage with because they were way too crazy to engage with.”

It was just two years ago that several cartoonists were gunned down by Islamic radicals for their depiction of Muhammad in the French publication Charlie Hebdo. It was an incident that shook cartoonists and illustrators all over the world, although Fish’s takeaway from the incident was unique: “I remember when I heard about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, bone-crushing dread and sorrow over the incident aside, I was jealous of a publication that had a number of cartoonists under a roof that could convene an editorial meeting. Like, wow! That is amazing. I don’t know of an American publication that has a group of cartoonists for a newspaper that people read that is being threatened by any radical elements.” Fish shows no fear in the sensitive subject matter he tackles, and believes that no artists should self-censor their work because of perceived danger.

It seems that Fish’s work is ironically starting to infiltrate the mainstream — he has a popular website, his third book was released last year and a new documentary about his life is generating rave reviews – but it’s unlikely to affect how he executes future projects.

“One of the things that I want people to come away with if they look at my art is that there’s no such thing as a thought crime. People can engage with any concept or idea and communicate that idea and not be ashamed. You learn about yourself as much as you learn about other people when you do that.”

It’s Fish’s persistence in wanting to speak his perception of the truth that will keep his work from being homogenized or “soft”; he believes humor insists that you “go beyond the quorum.” “If you are permitted what I would call the grace to go beyond the quorum, then you start to see things for what they are. I would argue that the majority of jokes work and function really well and are thrilling to people because they’re really the most blatant form of truth-telling that you can offer.”