Max Cannon speaks at the UA.

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RAGE AT THE MACHINE. Max Cannon swears he's not a political cartoonist. But something about the way the world's turned out politically has gotten to him lately.

"I just woke up this morning in a righteous rage," explains Cannon when I call him at his Tucson home.

"I'm not even a particularly political cartoonist. But hard times call for hard tactics."

So is "Red Meat" going to go ballistic next week?

"I'd betray my loyal audience," Cannon quips. "'Red Meat' is an anomaly; it's one of the few in the alternative press that's not political."

The Wildcat was the strip's first home. Since 1989, Cannon's been churning out the strange litany of characters every week to nearly 75 alternative publications.

It's sick, twisted and perverted. Flip to the back pages of The Weekly and see for yourself. His strip is found in alternative papers around the country and is also printed in Finnish, Czech, Spanish and Canadian publications. You'll be introduced to some rather ghoulish characters. There's Bug-Eyed Earl--a macabre and particularly morbid guy who just comes out with these lines you can't believe. So does Baby Head and Milkman Dan.

They're all elements of Cannon--self-admittedly, so.

"But I don't go about torturing cats or babies or go to work drunk," he adds.

"And it's not like I'm avoiding politics, either. Sometimes we need to escape, and humor is very therapeutic. But this week, man, I'm not ruling out beer by mid-day. Maybe I'll just wash away the agony with morphine."

But then Cannon worries he might miss the presidential primaries.

And his rant goes full throttle.

"Bush gives me plenty of material to work from--pirates and clowns aplenty. I think when G.W. builds his post-presidential memorial library, his will be the first to have pop-up books.

"I'm sick of all these pickup trucks and U.S. flags waving in this town! These people screaming that we should drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq have no clue about anything! A warhead can ruin your whole day!"

Relieved to get that rant out of his system, Cannon switches gears and calmly explains that cartoonists are a breed of their own.

"They're generally very nice, normal, kind of shy people, even charming. They're a strange lot. I mean, when you tie your financial security to the alternative publication world, it's a scary thing."

Some papers have consistently carried "Red Meat" for a decade or more. But most feature it and then drop it, then come back for more.

"Security is an illusion. I guess I should have gotten a job as a government file clerk. But then not only would I be unhappy, I'd be at the behest of someone else. So, the publishing world--well, it's unreliable and it's amorphous and it's what I know.

"And really, the only security you have is your own internal world."

Cannon's seems filled with torture, based on the grimacing characters in "Red Meat."

"I want it to have a certain look--like I'm the one suffering and I just want to share the pain with you all. It's really not just imaginary paranoia and free-floating anxiety. I guess it's mine."

So I had to ask the obvious question. If Cannon rarely chows down on beef--he's admittedly "mostly vegetarian"--then why pick the name "Red Meat" for his strip?

"It kind of came out of nowhere and I thought, 'OK, no one's using it, I might as well take it.'"

But Cannon says that he has to field some strange e-mail from people who've visited his Web site,

www.redmeat.com.

"Folks from the meat-processing industry want to see my product catalogs. And when the war started, I got queries from people in Iran and Pakistan wanting meat-shipping services. Maybe it was someone spamming me, who knows?"

The "Red Meat" community is more than individuals reading Cannon's comic strip in the back of rags like this one or cattle ranchers in Wyoming thinking he's got meat to sell. A full-fledged, quasi fan club exists, and every year, they gather in Tucson.

"They're very nice, creative, highly intelligent people who come here, of all places, to have their mother of all meetings," explains Cannon, who says he shows up--not necessarily as a guest of honor, but just to hang with a bunch of cool people.

"They get together for a 'Red Meat' barbecue. People who live here just open up their houses for the 15 or so others who come to town for a week. I don't know if it's because of 'Red Meat,' but this thing is more about community gathering.

"It's a perk if I show up, but I think they'd all have as swell a time without me. It's kind of weird--like a family and I'm the outsider.

Max Cannon offers wisdom about his comic art, his strange characters and all things related to "Red Meat" on Thursday, July 24, at 6 p.m., at the UA Music Building, Room 146, located in the Fine Arts courtyard just east of Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue. The lecture is free as is parking in all Zone 1 lots and at meters after 5 p.m.

Get all your questions answered at 626-7639.

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