“What’s this stupid nonsense all about? Nobody wants to hear about your balls!” This statement and similar others made by cartoonist Danny Hellman during his mock e-mail discussion, “Ted Rall’s Balls,” are at the center of a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against him.
On Aug. 3, 1999, editorial cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall wrote an article in the Village Voice criticizing Art Spiegelman, a comics creator best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” as being the “cartoon czar” of New York illustrators, claiming, “If you’re a cartoonist, he (Spiegelman) can make or break your sorry ass.” Hellman, one of several cartoonists who took issue with the Spiegelman article, contributed a cartoon satirizing Rall’s attacks to the New York press and was among the many in the comics field to write a letter-to-the-editor to the Voice condemning Rall’s accusations as unsubstantiated and petty.
He took his protest and satire a step further, sending a prank e-mail under Rall’s name to 30 of his friends in the comics community and to Rall himself, declaring the creation of TedRallsBalls @onelist.com, an “open discussion forum for everyone in the cartooning community.”
“A rowdy punk free-for-all where courageous cartoonists with balls can boldly tear down all those imperious golden idols of yesterday,” reads the e-mail as it parodies the prattling writing style of Rall’s columns. The e-mail was followed by several faked responses from made-up magazine editors and art directors, complaining they didn’t care about Rall’s courage, or more specifically, his balls.
On Aug. 19, 1999, Rall responded to Hellman’s prank with a $1.5 million lawsuit against him for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A little over a year later, the case is still in the discovery phase, with Hellman waiting to give the second half of his deposition in coming months. Hellman is proceeding with the case, confident that Rall’s legal grievances are unwarranted.
“Rall is trying to prove that the mere act of impersonating him constitutes libel, which my lawyers believe will not hold up. Libel means you have to say some pretty awful things about someone, and I said no such things about Rall,” states Hellman.
In a February “Comics Journal” article, Rall listed some of the conditions under which he would settle the case. They included full payment of his legal expenses, public apologies in advertised form in all major New York weeklies, and to never discuss him again in a public forum. “I think those conditions are ridiculous,” says Hellman. “I’m sure that Rall would agree with me that having someone else dictate what one can and cannot say is at the very least repugnant, and, more than likely, un-Constitutional.
“…I don’t know if Rall has any idea what such ads would cost, but this request is laughable. Next he’ll be demanding that I walk the length of Broadway naked with the words ‘I’m Really Sorry, Ted’ painted on my ass.”
Hellman continues to deal with the financial burden of the case that has so far amounted to $19,150.
“Rall vs. Hellman has already had a devastating impact on my income, and I’m sure it’ll continue to do so well after this frivolous lawsuit is resolved. I’m sure I’ll be paying off my lawyers for many years to come,” explains Hellman.
To alleviate some of his suit’s cost, Hellman has started a few fundraising projects. Last December, a benefit concert that featured Soul Coughing, The Hangdogs, Furious George, and Girls Vs. Boys raised $7,000 for his legal expenses. Plans for second concert have begun, but no date has been set.
Hellman is also putting together a benefit 200-page comic book, “Legal Action Comics.” Although the book won’t comment directly on the lawsuit, it promises to offer a diverse collection of comics; Hellman has received submissions from several prominent cartoonists such as Robert Crumb, Tony Millionaire and Kim Deitch. Hellman also plans to include original strips of his own in addition to those of the contributing artists. The book is currently under the consideration of a publisher, and if picked up, should be released during summer 2001.
Through his website, www.dannyhellman.com, Hellman is offering self-illustrated posters, “Free Dirty Danny” T-shirts and his self-published 1995 “Peaceful Atom” comic, with all proceeds going to his defense fund.
The site also contains detailed accounts of the Rall v. Hellman case, including the original text of the e-mails written and the correspondences that followed between Rall and Hellman.