Q&A With David Rees, Cartoonist and Pencil-Sharpener Extraordinaire


David Rees is no stranger to paper. As a cartoonist for Rolling Stone and other publications, he won widespread acclaim (and criticism) for his politically charged “Get Your War On” strip, which visualized, in comic form, the intense spectrum emotions felt throughout the Bush years. He is also the self-proclaimed “hottest blogger on the planet.” Now, he’s onto a bigger project and this one involves his own drawing device: the pencil.

Last July, Rees started an “artisanal pencil-sharpening” business. For $15 or so, customers could send him their pencils for a quick touch-up from the famed cartoonist. From there on out, Rees dedicated his time to the lead-filled field of study and, as of last week, his book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Craft of Pencil-Sharpening, can be found on bookstore shelves everywhere.

His tour for the book will end May 18th in Brooklyn at the Public Assembly, with guest star and the book’s foreward author, comedian John Hodgman. Runnin’ Scared sat down with the cartoonist-turned-pencil-author to find out more about the ins and outs of the ‘artisanal’ craft, his career in cartoons and what will make people laugh in this upcoming Presidential election:

Runnin’ Scared: So how’s the tour going? Are people across the country excited about pencils?

David Rees: It’s going great! I’ve answered a lot of people’s questions and long-standing issues with pencils; I wanted this tour to be an ‘adult education class’ and it’s playing out just like that.

Runnin’ Scared: So you probably get this a lot but how did you go into the field of pencil-sharpening? Why did you leave the comic field and decide you wanted to write this book?

David Rees: I got a job working for the Census as a door-knocker. And on the first day of staff training, we all had to sharpen our #2 pencils they had given us. I hadn’t sharpened a pencil in a long time and it was really satisfying. So I told myself, “There’s gotta be a way to get paid sharpening pencils.” So I started my own pencil-sharpening business.

Runnin’ Scared: So what’s your favorite way to sharpen a pencil?

David Rees: It really depends on what the client wants. If I’m just doing it for myself, though, a pocketknife is pretty satisfying or a box-cutter. It’s the most difficult but it gives you the most control on what kind of point you’re going to make. Each different technique has its own pleasures.

Runnin’ Scared: The title of the book includes the “Practical and Theoretical” sides of pencil-sharpening; what’s the theoretical side apply to since the practical presumably applies to the how-to guides?

David Rees: I think the theoretical stuff applies to matching the device to what the client needs. And the psychological part of sharpening a pencil. All the nostalgic association people have with pencils and what pencils can symbolize for people, in terms of the anxiety of trying to produce this perfect pencil point versus the practical nature of actually just needing to use the pencil. That kind of tension, I find really interesting; it’s symbolic, on a deeper level, about whether you’re going to spend your whole life just dreaming of the perfect situation or whether you’re going to go out and get to work.

Runnin’ Scared: In regards to nostalgia, do you think, with iPads and keyboards, kids are missing out on the glories of pencil-sharpening?

David Rees: One of the points the book makes is to celebrate the pencil itself as an engineer device, as a really efficient and elegant tool. The basic design hasn’t changed for hundreds of years because it’s still really affordable, flexible and portable. I’ve been telling people that if Steve Jobs had developed and designed it now, people would cream their pants over how amazing it is. If no one had seen pencils and it came out today, it would blow everyone’s mind. But they’re so familiar and ubiquitous to us – we don’t really think to celebrate them. The book is to make the pencil new to the reader again so they can appreciate how cool they are.

Runnin’ Scared: Do you ever see pencils going extinct at one point?

David Rees: I don’t think so: they’re erasable, they’re portable and long-lasting. And you still need them to fill out scrantron sheets, like on the SATs or the Census. But the domestic market, in terms of manufacturing in America, has basically collapsed; it’s nothing like how it was a hundred years ago. There’s still billions of pencils produced; it’s like any other market: if America stops using pencils, China will pick up the slack like they do with everything else… like pollution.

Runnin’ Scared: In a field as non-controversial as pencil-sharpening, do you still get haters? Do pencil haters even exist?

David Rees: Not pencil haters, ‘artisanal pencil-sharpening’ haters. For some reason, this project has made people really upset and frustrated. They think I’m pulling a scam or it’s proof of the collapse of modern society. Not pencil-sharpening, but my business of ‘artisanal pencil-sharpening, – charging people $15 for a hand-sharpened pencil.

Runnin’ Scared: In the ‘Customer Testimonials’ section of the book, there’s one with Spike Jones where he complains that one of your pencils stabbed him. Have you had any other encounters with ordinary people complaining about the dangers of your pencils?

David Rees: Every pencil I sharpen comes with a certificate that says it’s a dangerous object and you have to be careful with it. One of the funny things on this tour is that people are coming up to show me old pencil wounds from their childhood.

Runnin’ Scared: We‘ve read online that you fact-checked at Maxim and Martha Stewart Weddings. At what point, were you just like, “Yeah… this isn’t me”?

David Rees: Those jobs were very interesting; people think they’re different but, in a way, they’re both similar kinds of softcore pornography for two different audiences. I still was at Maxim when I started the “Get Your War On” comic.

Runnin’ Scared: “Get Your War On” was unbelievable because it showed the hyper-paranoia of the Bush years in visual form; the surveillance, the terrorism alerts no one could make sense of. If you were writing that strip now, how would it look different in Obama’s America?

David Rees: I did a comic strips recently about the election for Rolling Stone. But, like alot of liberals, I’ve been frustrated with the stuff Obama’s done. A lot of the issues that began under Bush are still continuing under Obama, whether it’s the actual policies or the conversations and discussions being had among the elite class and elite media class. They still sound stupid and unproductive to me. Domestic issues and all the arguments about so-called “class warfare” distract us; it’s embedded in our culture – the logic we use to solve situations – and it doesn’t really matter who the president is. That’s why I left cartoons for the most part after Bush; his administration was just exhausting and I respect cartoonists, like Tom Tomorrow, who are still able to do it regularly.

Runnin’ Scared: Many people in the comedy business – like the writers of SNL – think this is going to be a relatively boring election. How do you think cartoons of Romney and Obama will play out? Is there still hope for comedy?

David Rees: It depends on what kind of topical satire you’re interested in. You can always make political jokes about Romney being a robot but the stuff that always interested me were those deeper issues – how we talk about fighting terrorism, how we talk about creating wealth and what it means to be an engaged citizen. I think if you stick to those issues instead of the foibles of the individual candidates, there’s still good jokes to be made. But yeah, I can’t imagine this campaign will have anyone like Palin again.