A stubbornly amiable film about a compulsively provocative talent, “Mr. Fish” ponders the outer limits of editorial cartooning in an age where there’s arguably more fodder for such commentary than ever — but also more blowback from those who don’t want to be challenged, or simply disagreed with.
Cinematographer Pablo Bryant’s first directorial feature couches the larger issues of modern politics and media in a portrait of an artist almost self-defeatingly resistant to compromise. Brisk and ingratiating, with some brief animated sequences adding color, this is an easy watch despite the frequently incendiary nature of its subject’s barbed images. Those images, however, along with a fair amount of salty language, could limit the documentary’s broadcast sales.
Mr. Fish is the nom de plume of Dwayne Booth, who starts things off here relating how even as a child — a small-town New Jersey white boy who wanted to be Angela Davis when he grew up — he sought to change the world via shock value. A few decades later, he’s an esteemed cartoonist whose work has been most frequently seen in Harper’s, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and The Village Voice, as well as online outlets.
While you may not have heard of him, odds are you’ve probably seen at least a couple of his more famous panels: For instance the parody of Norman Rockwell’s self-portrait in which a man sees his real self in a KKK robe in the mirror, yet paints his delusional self as Captain America; or the one in which another artist asks a curator for money to finish his latest work — a picture of the potential benefactor with the legend “F——g Assho.”
Booth’s humor is usually rude and mind-spinning in this manner, which would be challenge enough for mainstream publishers. But what’s perhaps been an even bigger roadblock is that while many of Mr. Fish’s cartoons resonate comfortably enough with MOR-to-progressive readers, his targets aren’t reliably partisan ones — and many bridled at the typically blunt, envelope-pushing critiques he aimed at President Obama during the Democrat’s time in office. More than one colleague here tries to gently urge Booth toward tamping down his often lewd, macabre sensibility a few degrees to gain the commercial success that should be his. (Beyond shrinking placement in fast-disappearing publications, he doesn’t do very well selling original drawings to collectors, either.) “I want cartooning to be dangerous,” he says. “Do I want my art to be a threat to the dominant culture? Yes.”
Such an attitude might be viable as well as admirable if he weren’t also the father of two young daughters, and mate to a loyal but exasperated spouse — a teacher who despairs of his unwillingness to confront their increasing financial straits. “It’s time to step up and grow up,” she demands when yet again he declines to sully his artistic integrity with “bread and butter work” that would provide a steadier paycheck. But mainstreaming is palpably difficult for Booth: The innately rebellious child of alcoholic parents, he’s so sour on institutions and authority in general that he would prefer not to participate in the capitalist system at all if he could.
Though we hear plenty from the subject’s editors and sundry admirers (including musician friend Graham Nash), “Mr. Fish” ultimately focuses less on the cartoonist’s public stature than on his private struggle. He and wife Diana are a true love match despite her scant overlap with the more transgressive side he channels into his excoriating political and cultural commentary. He may well force himself to compromise ideals in order to be a better provider for his family, but the pain that causes him is no politically correct pose.
Providing tension of a different sort is the genuine fear political satirists like Booth feel after the massacre of the staff of French newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” by Islamic terrorists three years ago, an act that placed a cautious chill on much such outre content. (However, it seems fair to note that in the Trump era, Mr. Fish’s brand of outrageous visual commentary is clearly back in vogue with a vengeance.)
Booth’s notion is that an editorial cartoonist’s task is to “surprise and delight.” The artwork seen here does more than live up to that credo; its sharp originality also extends to a wide variety of visual styles and techniques. Having already waded tentatively into commercial animation projects as one possible new revenue stream, he also creates the diverse cartoon sequences that dot this documentary.
Perhaps to further offset the queasiness that Mr. Fish’s images often generate, Bryant lends his well-crafted feature a bright, playful, even antic tenor, painting his subject as a lovable eccentric rather than a tortured artist. That notably extends to use of the music of several composers that is so airily pleasant it might have been lifted from a CD called “The Greatest Hits of Brunch.” Its subject and his work may define “edgy,” but “Mr. Fish” itself is more inclined to be cuddly.