As I wrote last week ("Ted Rall's Bawls," 8/18), Rall had initiated litigation against Hellman in the wake of the e-mail prank that Hellman, a well-known jokester, played on him after his controversial Village Voice article attacking comics-world powerbroker Art Spiegelman. Rall claimed that the prank?which involved a satirically self-aggrandizing letter entitled "Ted Rall's Balls" that Hellman, a critic of the Voice article, fabricated and signed with Rall's name?reached editors and art directors in a position to damage his career. Rall demanded $20,000 from Hellman for damages.
On Thursday, however, Rall escalated his demands. He's now seeking $1.5 million from Hellman for invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
What accounts for the sudden 7400 percent increase in the settlement figure?
"The court will decide the amount of damages, if any," Rall explained by e-mail. "Ask any lawyer: They'll tell you that the amount you specify on your request for damages?$500,000 for compensatory and $1,000,000 for punitive damages?is meaningless. We are suing for libel per se, which recognizes that the damages are intrinsic to the act. In other words, I don't have to wait 30 years and see how much work I lost from this to sue for damages?the act itself is sufficient because it's so extreme."
Rall insists that he has no intention of keeping whatever money he wins, if any.
"Any monies I recover from Danny Hellman over and above my legal expenses will be donated, probably to a First Amendment freedom group," he says. "This is because Danny Hellman's action was designed to intimidate me in the aftermath of expressing my Constitutionally-protected opinion in print."
Meanwhile, the case is attracting the bemused attention of others in the artists' community, who seem to agree on two points. First, that "Dirty" Danny's pranks can be irritating. Second, that Rall is overreacting, and that the matter has spun out of control.
"Rall's $1.5 million lawsuit is outrageous, but I find it very hard to feel sorry for Hellman," says Hate author Peter Bagge. "Ted Rall and Danny Hellman deserve each other."
"I was instantly aware of the nature of the Ted Rall's Balls announcement," says Rick Altergott, who was a victim of a Hellman e-mail prank and who was one of the fake letter's original recipients. Altergott says he found it obvious "that it was one of Danny's pranks." He adds that he would be "surprised to learn of even one of [the recipients] who could have possibly thought differently," and calls Rall's suit "frivolous and groundless."
As for Rall's contention that he's suffering professionally as a result of Hellman's hoax, Altergott's skeptical. "I think it's far more likely that fallout from his lopsided feature on Art Spiegelman is the real explanation" for whatever professional problems Rall might be having.
"I really think he's been courting this kind of danger for a while now," says Queen Itchie, art director at Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, of Hellman. "Going to such lengths?bothering to set up fake e-mail accounts and such?just to get a laugh at some idiot's expense is a tad deranged."
But Itchie adds: "More often than not, I just immediately delete any funny-looking messages in my inbox. That's what I did with the TedRallsBalls stuff as soon as I got it."
"How the hell does Hellman have so much free time?" asks artist Mark Poutenis, another past victim of a Hellman e-mail prank. "I can't find time to feed my cats and he's opening fake accounts to bust someone's cajones. That being said, I think even Johnnie Cochran would be hard-pressed to make the smallest pile of shit out of the bland parody that that thing was. The whole lawsuit would be a pathetic joke if it wasn't so scary."
The lawsuit is producing some funny moments. Papers filed by Rall's lawyers in State Supreme Court refer to Rall as "a well-known, internationally syndicated, cartoonist, humorist and author" before listing the various publications in which Rall's work has appeared and his other accomplishments, such as his radio call-in show, his calendars and books and that, in 1995, he "received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged." Other awards and distinctions are also listed.
Hellman, on the other hand, is referred to as a "relatively minor New York based illustrator whose illustrations appear in such publications as Screw and Brill's Content."
Even Rall's Aug. 21 syndicated comic strip addressed the controversy. In it, one character spends four panels abusing another: smacking him in the face, squirting him with water and calling him things like "nimrod," "twit," "turd" and "fag." The last three panels find the abused fellow turning on his persecutor to stab and shoot him to death. "You have no sense of humor!" protests the original bully. "No, that's not it?" the other answers. "It's that you're not funny."
The way matters are progressing, look for Hellman to file a countersuit against Rall for threatening him.
"Maybe this is just a practical joke?yeah?he's kidding, right?" jokes artist Fly. "Just stickin' it back to Danny. Trying to create a little 'emotional distress.'"
"I hope this doesn't reach legal defense fund proportions, but if it does I guess I'll have to throw my light weight behind that mischievous street urchin, Dirty Danny, before he gets dragged to the poorhouse," says artist Russell Christian.
Hellman declined to comment for this piece. What Art Spiegelman thinks of it all is unknown, since we were unable to reach him by press time.
For what it's worth, all of the people quoted above, except Groth and including Rall, have received paychecks from NYPress.