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Generation Hexed

Cartoonist Ted Rall Lowers the Boom on the Boomers and Speaks Up for His Hard-Luck Peers

July 02, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cartoonist Ted Rall has important information for you. He can explain why your twentysomething daughter got straight A's in college and then took a job in a warehouse, packing crates.

He knows why that bright young guy at the office went surfing instead of to work--until he got fired.

He understands why Jerry Seinfeld isn't funny to members of Generation X: "It's nihilistic boomer humor. Jerry's gotta be 40 at least."

Gen-Xers (which he roughly defines as ages 23 to 37) do not relate to such frivolous, fictional nothingness on TV because the vacuum in which they actually live is too numbingly real, says Rall. And nobody seems to care. In his view, Gen-X is the most misunderstood group in America. He ought to know. He's one of them.

But wait. We hear splish-splash and other water sounds gurgling through the phone lines. He's either washing dishes for an hour while we chat, or he's soaking rather noisily in a tub.

It's the latter, Rall, 34, admits. The tub is a huge Victorian claw-footed vat. It stands in his New York condo, which is just behind Columbia University, from which Rall was once expelled for not doing any work. In fact, Rall's whole resume typifies the Gen-X group for which his cartoons speak: a reluctance to finish school in the normal span of years, or to seek advancement in the corporate world, or to show much emotion about the things his elders, the baby boomers, often get all worked up about.

Rall purchased his apartment with proceeds from his new book, "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids" (Workman Publishing). It's a collection of the cartoons and essays now making him famous by explaining the generation that he sees as almost, but not quite, lost.

"In my age group, it doesn't matter whether you were born rich or poor. Either way, your father probably abandoned you, you probably owe a lot of money on student loans, there has never been a government program aimed at making your life easier, you never had decent textbooks when you were in school, baby boomers lock you out of all the good jobs, the corporate world has been downsized and plundered so that your family elders are out of work, and the media has ignored your existence totally."

And that's just for angry starters.

Rall's cartoons also tackle such subjects as friendship, love, the judicial system and presidential prowess. He has been called a liberal for the way he jabs boomers who loot successful corporations while putting thousands out of work. He has been called a conservative for his almost retro stand on morals and family values. "If it were up to me and my friends, we'd bring the '50s back. I can't tell you how many people I know of my age who are making the decision to have the wife stay at home and raise the kids. And how many of us think there should be laws to make divorce more difficult."

As for President Clinton? "He's the ultimate example of the worst traits of the baby boom generation. The self-indulgence, the smugness, the cynical exploitation of young people. Many in my generation think it atrocious that a 52-year-old guy would take advantage of an unpaid 21-year-old who was working for him."

Satirist Stan Mack, whose work appears in such places as the Village Voice, recently said of Rall: "His attitude is so rotten, he's well on his way to becoming a spokesperson for his generation."

After holding dozens of jobs that he considered meaningless but necessary to support his cartooning habit, Rall is suddenly hot. His clunky line drawings and acid words mix satire, politics and sociology to capture the angst of the era to which he is attached. They are syndicated in 140 papers, and his cartoons and short essays appear in such major papers as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

So is he rich? Is he happy? Is he employed?

Are you nuts? Those are boomer goals to which most Generation Xers don't even aspire, mostly because they believe they haven't got a shot at them.

Rall's high-powered cartooning credentials would lead anyone to think he's finally struck the mother lode. But reality bites. A Rall cartoon has appeared in the New York Times for the last five weeks, he says, still splashing vigorously in his bath.

He gets $100 for each, but after the newspaper syndicate takes its cut and taxes come out, Rall winds up with $30 per cartoon. And, he says, the Washington Post pays only $10 per political cartoon--from which he nets $3.

No wonder he's soaking at home on an ordinary weekday afternoon. He can't afford to go out.

*

But his generation is used to dismay, he says. Its dreams were stomped on from birth. His own dad left his mother before he was 3. In fact, "the Great American Dad Disappearance began in the 1960s, and it's been getting worse ever since. Divorce is the single most formative experience in the Generation X child's life."

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