reviewed by Simon A. Thalmann | Monday, August 1st, 2011

Akashic Books, 224 pages, trade paperback, $18.95

You might expect that the debut collection of cartoons from a left-leaning political satirist would excoriate the Tea Party and Republican right while perhaps giving leeway to those who supposedly fall nearer to his own side of the political landscape — but when it comes to the political cartoons of Mr. Fish in Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, due out in August from Akashic Books, the opposite is true: no one is safe from the scornful scrutiny of Fish’s pen: not the left, not the right, and certainly not those of us caught in the middle, who allow and even enable the issues Fish brings succinctly to light to continue.

At their best, Fish’s cartoons — some of which previously appeared in outlets including Truthdig, Harper’s Magazine, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice — leave one with the same type of feeling incited by the line in the Death Cab for Cutie song “Cath,” where the subject is described as holding a smile during photographs like someone would hold a crying child. Through panel after panel of smiling, oblivious-to-suffering politicians and American-flag-draped coffins, you’re left wondering if you should really be sitting there smiling when there are obvious issues at hand that could use your immediate attention.

Of all the subjects Fish applies a reckoning to throughout the collection, none is perhaps scrutinized more poignantly than war, and no individual more imputed with disappointment than President Barack Obama, who Fish paints here as a compromising, lost great hope cast in one cartoon as a Trojan horse, in another as an emperor with no clothes — and that’s Fish being kind. America in the cartoons is largely portrayed as a militaristic bully which operates with impunity at the behest of a governing few willing to sacrifice mindless masses of soldiers ready to kill and be killed for, as one panel puts it, “all that extra money for college.”

The cartoons are at times straight-up comedic and at other times just obscene, and not all are political, but Fish is undoubtedly at the top of his game when he’s making a statement. In one, Uncle Sam stands over an open grave with a shovel; the headstone reads “Hero” while the contents of the grave read “Sucker.” In another, a blindfolded Cupid aims downward with his bow, the arrow at the ready a missile marked “USA.”

A great surprise in the collection — given most readers will likely be drawn to the book for the cartoons — is the quality of the essays (there are five, plus an introduction and an appendix). Each serves as an introduction to a particular section of cartoons and uses autobiographical illustrations to expand upon the narrative Fish constructs through his visuals. Fish’s use of prose is at least as engaging as his visual acuity, and his written observations are as intelligent and sharp as any in the cartoons they frame.

“It’s easy to have a big mouth and a shitload of opinions about what’s wrong with everybody in the world,” he writes of Jesus Christ, another subject of considerable scrutiny in his visual work, “when your dad is the guy who invented the world and everything that’s wrong with everybody in the world.”

Possibly the highest compliment that can be paid to Fish’s work is that as you read it, it makes you want to do something — even if you’re not entirely sure what that something is — to change things for the better, and the feeling stays with you long after the book is closed. By the time you reach the penultimate section of the book, titled “Anger,” you’re certainly feeling that emotion. The key is not to fall into the trap illustrated in another of his more poignant cartoons: in one panel, labeled “An American embracing war with all his heart,” a man is sitting in an armchair, staring at a television; a second panel is below it, labeled “An American protesting war with all his heart,” and the picture is identical to the first.