"He made it personal," cartoonist and writer Ted Rall's insisting. "So I don't care. Yeah, there's going to be people who are like, Oh, Ted Rall's not punk rock. Yeah well, you know, I never noticed the Dead Boys not having copyrights on their records. I never noticed those people not trying to enforce their rights. It's the same thing here. If I let this go... I'm telling the whole world that it's open season on Ted Rall. Which nobody can tolerate."

This has suddenly become serious. The villain Rall's discussing is?as members of the cartoonists' community are probably aware?NYPress contributing artist "Dirty" Danny Hellman, who recently played an e-mail prank on Rall.No one disputes the basic facts, which are as follows. In response to Rall's attack on comics icon Art Spiegelman in the Aug. 3 Village Voice, Hellman?who took issue with Rall's article?first disseminated to about 30 correspondents a satirical letter under Rall's name. Then he invented false art directors and editors and media types who sent back phony e-mails to "Rall" in which they most often registered their disgust with the letter. Now Rall's claiming publicly that the letter harmed his reputation and will cost him work.

"What he did was incredibly reprehensible and illegal and devastating, and obviously harmful to my career," Rall insists.

And he's threatening to drag Hellman?who's well known for playing gags on pals like his fellow NYPress artists Tony Millionaire and Sam Henderson, and who on occasion infiltrates NYPress' extremely discriminating mail section with his goofy hoax correspondence?into court for libel, defamation of character and $20,000, unless Hellman settles. As of this writing, Hellman, whom Rall calls "a stinking, lying sack of shit," hadn't done so. But he had contacted a lawyer, and seemed resigned to contesting Rall in court.

Rall's "trying to freak me out," Hellman claims. "He's probably hoping that I'll call up and say 'Look, will you settle for 5000 bucks?'"

The whole thing's a little strange, though. Once you acquaint yourself with the intricacies of Hellman's prank, it's hard to imagine that it's worth such tremendous hullabaloo. More: it's hard to imagine that the prank could have generated much more psychic pain for Rall than could have been assuaged by his telephoning Hellman and telling him off.

Here's how the fake letter, which seems to satirize the loquacious Rall's proclaimed antiestablishmentarianism, reads:

"When I wrote my now-legendary feature about Art Spiegelman for the Village Voice, I knew I'd be starting some trouble, but I had no idea I'd get this kind of response.

"And contrary to what some of you sourpusses might think, the vast majority of those e-mails have been favorable! Most folks want to salute me for having the balls to launch my brave attack against the cartoon business' own bald, chain-smoking Napoleon. I want you to know that your letters of support are far more valuable to me than the modest fee paid me by the Voice; I respect the opinions of each and every one of you, and I'd respond to each of you personally if only I had the time (we all know what deadlines are like).

"I hate to brag, but I've received so many of your e-mails that the server for my site, crashed seven times in the last 48 hours.

"So, for the sake of my server, (and my webmaster's sanity), I'd like you to direct all future commentary to TedRall'sBalls@onelist.com.

"My intention is that TedRall'sBalls@onelist.com should become an open discussion forum for everyone in the cartooning community.

"I want this to be a free zone; a place where we can all stop by and tell it like it is. A place where the disenfranchised underdogs of the comics scene can take a meat cleaver to all the comics industry's sacred cows, a rowdy punk free-for-all where courageous cartoonists with balls can boldly tear down all those imperious golden idols of yesterday.

"I want this to be your place as much as it is mine, so grab that keyboard, and let's tell all the bastards out there exactly where they can go!!!"

The letter's signed "yours, Ted Rall, The REAL VOICE of the comics community!"

That would seem to be an obviously satirical document. The real Ted Rall's not going to allude to his own testicles in such a context, much less produce scenery-chewing prose like "a rowdy punk free-for-all where courageous cartoonists with balls," etc. Is there really potential there for damage?

Here, though, would seem to be the core of whatever case Rall has. Hellman meant to restrict the letter to?depending on whom you ask?between 25 and 30 of his acquaintances. But the letter did indisputably reach one real-life art director, Nicholas Blechman of The New York Times' Op-Ed page. Hellman admits this, but attributes it to an oversight rather to any malicious intent; Blechman's address was held over from another CC list. Blechman couldn't be reached for comment.

"He contacted an employer of mine!" Rall protests. "It's like me calling up Russ Smith and pretending to be you and saying that you like to fuck dogs or something. It's just insane."

But people are more reasonable than that. Either Russ Smith rolls his eyes at the insinuation that I fuck dogs (and?who knows??beams the e-mail off for yuks to every Campaign 2000 obsessive and George W. Bush aficionado on his voluminous CC list); or else, if he's lost his mind, he summons me into his office and demands a very solemn accounting of my bestial proclivities...There's no room for dogfucking in this organization, Slivka...fairly serious allegations...family newspaper...and so on...

To presume that art directors would deny Rall work on account of this is to presume that they're motivated by a near-sociopathic humorlessness.

And far from making the joke more vicious, the phony responses Hellman concocted from art directors and media heavies would just seem to underline that the Rall letter's a gag. The non-existent "Jim Deeds," for example, responds as follows from the non-existent e-mail address jdeeds@forbes.com: "This thing's a fucking nightmare. I don't know how I got on this stupid list, but TAKE ME THE FUCK OFF AT ONCE."

This is transparent silliness.

Another phantom art director, writing from the Hellman-concocted address of john_terhorst@hotmail.com, answers in the following obviously satirical manner: "ted rall is a cartoonist who wrote a feature for the villege voice last week tearing Art Speigalman a new asshole. this ted rall person is the new scurge of the cartooning community, second only to adolph hitler on puletzer-prize winning speigalman's personal death list. you may have seen mr ralls work in time and fortune. this will no longer be the case when art gets back from paris and starts using his speed-dile."

And only the most hopeless and infernal boobie of a reader could possibly imagine that Si Newhouse has either the time or the inclination to sit messing around with his e-mail and sending messages like "TAKE ME OFF THIS LIST OR I WILL HAVE YOU KILLED!!!!" to cartoonists. Damage to Rall's reputation? Come on. That's obviously not Si Newhouse.

Rall's response to that statement is essentially as follows: How do you know?

"I don't have the time to track down all these people," he says. "And also, frankly... Do I want?the first time I talk to Si Newhouse in my life?do I really want to call that guy up and ask him about this? Not really."

Rall insists, however, that the "Nicholas Blechman thing by itself constitutes slander and intention to defame and libel and a whole litany of crimes." And Rall also insinuates that Blechman wasn't the only real person to whom the list was sent.

"I think some of these are faked and I think some of them are real," he says, "and it's hard to determine which ones are which."

But maybe it's not so hard. Any professional cartoonist colleague of Hellman's and Rall's, you'd think, would be able to look at the list and determine whether the names are real or not; the list of periodical art directors who employ cartoonists isn't an unmanageably long one.

And in fact Rall seems to be retreating from his allegation that a number of real-life art directors and editorial types received the note. His original claim, posted Aug. 9 on the Internet, was that "within hours" of Hellman's spamming, "editors at Conde Nast Publications and The New York Times contacted me to tell me that my work would no longer be welcome in their pages." He also wrote, "The e-mail addresses on Danny Hellman's list were, in fact, actual, bonafide e-mail addresses to notable editors and cartoonists upon whom I depend for living."

Hellman flatly responds, "There are no real Conde Nast people on the list. They're all made up." He adds: "As far as I know, if you were to write a message to those e-mail addresses, you'd get them back undeliverable."

Now, on the phone with me, Rall hedges his bets.

"But let's just look at it both ways," he says. "Let's just say that all of them were fakes. Then he still did this with an intent to fuck me up psychologically and to create, in the parlance of my lawyer, emotional distress."

Maybe. It's just as likely, though, he just wanted to perpetrate a dumb joke. Again, it's not as if Hellman isn't a well-known prankster. Pranking, I allow to Rall, is Hellman's shtick.

"Well, my shtick is that I litigate," Rall shoots back. "I have a lot of lawyers," he adds, "and I never hesitate to use them. I don't think I've been not in court a single calendar year... Frankly, he's just picked the wrong target."

Indeed. Other victims of Hellman pranks, like Tony Millionaire, have reacted with annoyance, but don't seem to hold it against him. They definitely didn't litigate.

"It was about my famously enormous balls," Millionaire says, explaining the nature of the gag Hellman played on him. "He posed as me, asking everyone on the list to comment on their size. It was annoying, because I thought he was sending the list to some big shots who I thought I might someday work with. It turns out that those were the fake addresses, and that the only people really receiving the e-mails were goofballs like Sammy Henderson, Kaz and Queen Itchie." The joke, says Millionaire, was "not that funny, but totally harmless."

Rall responds that the situation in the case of the Henderson and Millionaire pranks was different, because Hellman knew his targets personally. Rall claims never to have heard of Hellman before this controversy started.

Rall makes a point of his political radicalism?he's an avowed Marxist. (One wonders if that radicalism has cost him work in a media culture that's got to be more offended by Bolshevism than it is by cartoonists' scrota.) So I asked him if, as a putative Red, he was prepared to get hassled for appealing to authority as soon as someone gooses him. That's a particularly salient question when you remember that the Voice article that Rall wrote to catalyze this mess was a deliberate provocation. If you're going to gleefully kick someone, as Rall did, shouldn't you accept it in good grace when someone wants to boot you back? That's the business we're in.

"The fact is, we live in a capitalist society," Rall responds. "And until the revolution comes, I'll be toiling within this capitalist society to do the best I can. When the revolution comes, I'll toil within a communist society to do the best I can. That's just the real world. And one has to be realistic and say, well, maybe the revolution is never going to come. Similarly, in this case, the legal system makes provisions for what Danny did. If we lived in a primitive society, I would just go kick the shit out of him. But that's not legal."

Rall's also apprehensive that Hellman?who also posted on the Web a sophomoric notice offering money to anyone who would do stuff like vomit on Rall?has stirred up a Fifth Column of supporters to harass him.

"What he's doing is creating an atmosphere of violence..." he explains. "I think Hellman is really funny. However, the fact is other people could take this shit seriously. And what he's doing is inciting other people to commit violence on me and my property. I'm not going to let that go. He's declared war on me."

Hellman, who's finally contacted a lawyer, doesn't have a lot to say at this point.

"If I'd really wanted to ruin his career," he protests a little glumly, "I could have gone to my Rolodex and pulled out 40 real e-mail addresses of art directors and editors. Then he might have a case."

Is prankster Dirty Danny done for good?

"I don't know," Hellman answers. "This has put a pretty bad taste in my mouth."

As for Rall, he has no illusions that he's going to win this one in the court of his fellow cartoonists' opinion. Sam Henderson is considering selling "Free Dirty Danny" t-shirts and the several cartoonists with whom I've talked have expressed disbelief that Rall's actually going through with this.

"I'm totally prepared to be called a humorless dick," says Rall with great confidence.