By Shelley A. Sackett
Dwayne Booth wears many hats.
He lives in the Philadelphia area, where he is a loving family man and a popular lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
For the last 25 years, he has also been known as Mr. Fish, the controversial and enormously talented freelance editorial cartoonist whose work has been published in some of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals, newspapers and web magazines, currently at Harpers.org and Truthdig.com.
Although Fish (as he prefers to be called) has written three books of cartoons and essays and won several prestigious awards, his was hardly a household name. All that has changed with the release of the documentary feature, “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” which screened last Friday evening at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of the Salem Film Fest.
Not your average editorial cartoonist, Fish’s radical and sometimes outrageous work brims with controversy and biting satire, drawing from politics, propaganda, religion and social taboos. His rebellious anti-establishment philosophy is a throw back to the 1960s, yet his angst is contemporary. He has been called a poet with a cartoonist’s pen.
Nothing is off limits to Mr. Fish — he dares us to look away and invites us to cringe all the while challenging us to examine our assumptions and question the status quo. “I want cartooning to be dangerous and to be more than ink on paper,” Fish says to the camera.
Director Pablo Bryant shot over 90 hours of footage over the course of five years, and his film lets its audience through the keyhole into Fish’s private family life. Against a backdrop of Fish’s art and animation, the film explores his relationships with his wife Diana and their children; the beginning of his career; his views about money, war, and environmental catastrophe; the decline of the print industry that used to publish his work, and the diminished commercial appeal of his art.
“Where is the threat to the dominant culture today? There’s still so much work to do. Who’s going to do it?” Fish says in the film.
Watching Fish effortlessly draw his cartoons is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. Bryant’s unobtrusive camera allows the audience to eavesdrop as Fish explains how he comes up with his ideas and what drives him.
“The fact that I use art to communicate what it feels like to be human and why it’s significant to me- I feel like I have no other choice,” he says. “A lot of people go thru life masking what it means to be a human being. I would rather use art to demonstrate the injustice of the overall society.”
Faced with compromising his creativity to earn a living or staying true to his artistic and moral compass, Fish is at a real financial tipping point by the film’s end, and the audience is left wondering whether Fish will have to sell out after all.
Luckily, Fish, his family and the film’s producer and Massachusetts native, Ted Collins, were on hand for a lively and intimate 30-minute Q&A once the near sell-out crowd stopped clapping and settled down.
Asked if he was receptive to being the subject of a documentary, Fish said he really didn’t care one way or the other, but credited his wife Diana (who, with their twin daughters, later joined Fish and Collins for the Q&A) with deciding to invite director Bryant to stay with them while he was filming. “For a filmmaker, it was sort of like Jane living with chimps,” Fish said, referring to Jane Goodall.
Asked what happens to the original art he creates if it has no current market, Fish told a story about his early career, when he was fiercely opposed to the commodification of art. He would take his cartoons to Staples, make copies and destroy the originals. When he met the famous Los Angeles gallery owner Robert Berman ten years ago, Berman asked him for the originals. “Luckily, I had a few I was too lazy to throw away,” he said as the audience laughed.
Fish said that since Trump was elected President, there has been a renewed interest in his art. He published a new book in 2017, “And Then the World Blew Up,” and has two more scheduled. He even has a line of skateboards.
“I’ve been told, ‘Now is your time. Now you have a purpose.’ My job is very hard, though. What I don’t want to do is to turn Trump into a clown or a monster. That turns it into burlesque and ignores the underlying problem,” he said.
When an audience member asked Fish how parent-teacher conferences went, given his known proclivity for the graphically vulgar and obscene, he invited his family to join him on stage. His daughters told a story about their 6th grade teacher who fished their lunch bags out of the trash during a field trip because he knew Fish drew cartoon portraits of the girls.
Diana told about the time she entrusted her husband to attend parent-teacher open house, which included attending the girls’ classes to meet their teachers. When she received a call from Fish, she asked him why he wasn’t at the open house. “He told me he was cutting their classes,” she said.
Salem Film Fest Program Director Jeff Schmidt knew “Mr. Fish” would be a good fit for the Salem festival. “As a programmer, I’m constantly on the look out for films starting to make their way onto the film festival circuit. I ran across “Mr. Fish: Cartooning From The Deep End” early on and reached out to producer Ted Collins and director Pablo Bryant to encourage them to submit to the festival. Our programming team loves films with unique characters who take chances, and Mr Fish certainly fits that bill,” he said.