On Cartooning

[Originally published, September, 2007] CAVEAT: A lot of these thoughts are completely out of date and no longer apply to me personally. Still, it’s an interesting wee time capsule of my former self etc.

December (2007) marks the 10-year anniversary of my “cartoons drawn on the back of business cards” format. Here’s some random notes on the subject, in no particular order:

1. I came up with the format in early December. I moved to New York about a week and a half later. But the format didn’t really gel till I got to the East Coast, a couple of months later.

2. At last count I had 5,000 of them. That was over a year ago.

3. I never really experienced the “Big Moment”, the Tipping Point etc. The schtick just built up slowly, day by day.

4. When people ask me what I do, I never say, “I’m a cartoonist”. But the other day a friend of mine made a compelling case for me to start doing so. Not sure what to think yet…

5. I never expected the cartoons to get successful.

6. The way most cartoonists make a living utterly horrifies me.

7. Constantly setting new goals, artistic or otherwise, is harder than it looks.

8. Not caring what other people think is harder than it looks. Especially AFTER you get successful.

9. As I get older the temptation to “tone it down” grows stronger every day. I’m glad I still can resist it, most of the time.

10. My favorite cartoonist for the last while has been David Shrigley, long since before he was hired by Hallam Foe to animate the title sequence. I first met him in Glasgow in the early ‘nineties. He’s a really lovely guy in person.

11. Musicians have always inspired me far more than other cartoonists, with perhaps the exception of Charles Schultz, Saul Steinberg, Ralph Steadman, Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey.

12. Instead of carrying a portfolio around, I just keep a couple of hundred images on my iPod. Seems to work well enough. Luckily my format is well suited to the device.

13. Everything I own would easily fit in the back of a small pickup truck. I’ve never been into possessions. The same was true for my late paternal grandfather, probably the most resonant influence in my life.

14. I find it very liberating to have a format that allows you to store a few years worth of work in a single shoebox.

15. If you offered me $10K for this cartoon, I’d probably turn you down.

16. One of the smartest moves I ever made was to figure out that making money indirectly off the cartoons was far easier than trying to make the money directly. If I could teach gapingvoid readers just , that would be it.

17. I can’t imagine how I would have made the cartoons successful without the internet. I just can’t imagine a likely alternative scenario.

18. There are tons of cartoonists who write and/or draw better than me. If my work has anything, it’s the quite unique and unconventional life that I’ve always seemed to lead.

19. I’ve never envied people with “normal” lives. Nor have I ever envied the people without them.

20. My work generally isn’t for sale (the business cards, at least). You have to ask me to give you a drawing. And I have to be in the right mood at the time.

21. I have found the standard “struggling artist” myths and stereotypes mostly full of crap. Powerful magnets for Bullshitters, to say the least.

22. I don’t envy, admire or like pretty much 90% of the artists I meet. That’s not me just being old and jaded, that was just as true when I was a teenager.

23. I want to draw cartoons that rip the face off the reader. But in a good way.

24. I have no artistic ambition outside the cartoons. No desire to write a novel or anything like that.

25. I would never recommend to a young person to pursue a career in fine art. Even if she had a talent that was off the scale, I would be slightly hesitant.

26. The most important word in cartooning is “continuity”. Drawing a good cartoon isn’t difficult. Doing it repeatedly, day-in, day-out is far, far harder.

27. Cartoonists who don’t like to think much about the actual business they’re in, who are fond of saying, “I just want to draw” deserve everything they get.

28. Drugs and alcohol are lousy substitutes for inspiration.

29. The older I get, the more solitude the work seems to require.

30. The longer it takes you to become successful, the harder it will be for somebody else to take it away from you.

31. I increasingly find that, as I get older, the only subjects worth writing about are Love, Loss, Religion and Ambition.

32. Back in the day, when my current cartoon format was “new”, there was a certain magic to it that now I SIMPLY CAN’T RECAPTURE. It took me many years to just let it go.

33. The format works for me because it forces me to keep things simple.

34. If the early days, most of my drawing was done sitting at the bar. Nowadays most of the work is done at the kitchen table. They both have their pros and cons.

35. There’s something about being a celebrity, even a micro-celebrity, that poisons the soul.

36. I can totally see why so many artists eventually become recluses, living in the boonies. I find myself increasingly heading in that direction, and I doubt I’ll lift a finger to stop it.

37. In the early days of the cartoons I was living in Manhattan. It would really tickle me when people would describe my cartoons as “SO NEW YORK”. Though now a wee voice tells me that if I still lived there, I’d probably be dead by now. I think a lot of ex-New Yorkers feel that.

38. One of the best things about the format is, hey, they’re just doodles on the back of business cards. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or not.

39. If you told me ago that I would still be using this format pretty much exclusively in 2007, I don’t think I would’ve believed you.

40. I have never really given any serious thought to changing my format in all these . Sometimes I find that odd.

41. Art is simply using the tools at hand to ask the question, “What is possible?” Painting, music, literature, it doesn’t matter what media . What matters is the question.

42. No artist wants their best work behind them. But that day always comes.

43. I was fortunate. Somehow I managed to get the B-Plan baked into the A-Plan. And vice versa.

44. The good news is, my drawings will probably be worth a lot of money . The other good news is, I probably won’t be alive to see it.

45. I feel extraordinarily fortunate and grateful.


DON’T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME WORRYING ABOUT THE HIGHLIGHT REEL.

[More thoughts on The Ignored Series.]

DON’T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME WORRYING ABOUT THE HIGHLIGHT REEL.

We like to think that it’s our life’s highlights (our “highlight reel”, as it were) that make us happy.

That time we walked the red carpet. That time we stood in front of the Grand Canyon and took a selfie. That time we had dinner with the famous person. That time we gave a big talk at SXSW.

But it turns out it’s the little stuff we do daily that actually makes us happy long term.

That first cup of coffee in the morning. That bagel every Saturday morning on Lexington Avenue and 41st. That last whisky before bedtime. That half hour of reading before lights out. Sunday dinner after church. Tennis with Marcio after work on Tuesdays. Hanging out at the comic book shop with Phil. Walking around downtown taking photographs.

The highlight reel is all about what motivates you extrinsically. And the little stuff is about what motivates you intrinsically.

And “intrinsic” is where actually happiness- the kind that lasts- is found. Sure, you can build the “extrinsic” stuff into the mix as you go along, but to sacrifice  the former just to have a wee bit more of the latter is a fool’s errand.


THE BOOK OF THE IGNORED

[NB The archive of my drawings 1997-2019 is here.]

INTRODUCTION: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE IGNORED

Dear Ignored,

I call you that because you’re like me, you see.

Your movie will never be bought by Hollywood. Washington will never elect you to the Senate. The New York Times will never review your book. Columbia will never offer you a record deal. Google will never buy your startup. You will never be a guest on The Tonight Show. Your paintings will never hang in the MoMA.

Like me, you will be permanently ignored by the big fish. You will never be a “Name”. You will be one of those people that the “Names” are completely oblivious to.

But that’s OK. By being “Ignored”, that means nobody is watching you. That means you can do what you want, with the people you want, making a difference on your own terms. By being “Ignored”, you are forced to discover your own “intrinsic” meaning behind your work, because the “Names” and their “”extrinsic” acolytes aren’t there to help you.

And with the Internet, all that is easier than ever. Just start. Today. Find your tribe online and give them a reason to be excited. Make it matter. Make it count. Like Seth Godin says, don’t wait to be picked, pick yourself.

Just don’t waste a second ever again, waiting for the phone to ring. The phone isn’t going to ring. This is our fate. We are The Ignored. We’re going to change the world on our terms, not theirs.

And “The Book of The Ignored” will show you how, or at least, help you get there a little faster.

Let me know how you get on,

Lots of Love,

Hugh

FURTHER READING FROM “THE BOOK OF THE IGNORED”:

  1. DON’T SPEND TOO MUCH TIME WORRYING ABOUT THE HIGHLIGHT REEL.
  2. NEVER PLAY DICE WITH THE UNIVERSE.
  3. HOW TO BE A SELL-OUT.
  4. DO IT WITH REVERENCE.
  5. SPEND MORE TIME WITH THE LORD
  6. FIND THAT MOMENT OF TRUTH
  7. NOBODY KEEPS THEIR SOULD FOR FREE.
  8. “THIS IS WHAT I DO”
  9. IT’S NOT HOW MUCH, BUT HOW OFTEN.
  10. TIME IS ALWAYS THE ENEMY
  11. FAME IS OVERRATED.
  12. THE DAY I REALIZED I WAS IN THE WRONG BUSINESS
  13. AND PREPARE FOR DEATH.
  14. ART IS CAPITAL, NOT INCOME
  15. PLUS CA CHANGE, PLUS C’EST LA MEME CHOSE

The Hughtrain (2018 version)

[Please download the original 2004 PDF version here, Thanks]

THE HUGHTRAIN: “THE MARKET FOR SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN IS INFINITE.”

[First published in 2004 on the Gapingvoid blog]

1. We are here to find meaning. We are here to help other people do the same. Everything else is secondary.

2. We humans want to believe in our own species. And we want people, companies and products in our lives that make it easier to do so. That is human nature.

3. Product benefit doesn’t excite us. Belief in humanity and human potential excites us.

Think less about what your product does, and think more about human potential.

What statement about humanity does your product make?

The bigger the statement, the bigger the idea, the bigger your brand will become.

4. It’s no longer just enough for people to believe that your product does what it says on the label.

They want to believe in you and what you do. And they’ll go elsewhere if they don’t.

It’s not enough for the customer to love your product. They have to love your process as well.

People are not just getting more demanding as consumers, they are getting more demanding as spiritual entities. Branding is a spiritual exercise.

These are The New Realities, this is the Spiritual Republic we now live in.

5. The soul cannot be outsourced. Either get with the program or hire a consultant in Extinction Management. No vision, no business. Your life from now on pivots squarely on your vision of human potential.

6. The primary job of an advertiser is not to communicate benefit, but to communicate conviction.
Benefit is secondary. Benefit is a product of conviction, not vice versa.

Whatever you manufacture, somebody can make it better, faster and cheaper than you.

You do not own the molecules. They are stardust. They belong to God. What you do own is your soul. Nobody can take that away from you. And it is your soul that informs the brand.

It is your soul, and the purpose and beliefs that embodies, that people will buy into.

Ergo, great branding is a spiritual exercise.

7. Why is your brand great? Why does your brand matter?

Seriously. If you don’t know, then nobody else can- no advertiser, no buyer, and certainly no customer.

It’s not about merit. It’s about faith. Belief. Conviction. Courage.

It’s about why you’re on this planet. To make a dent in the universe.

8. I don’t want to know why your brand is good, or very good, or even great. I want to know why your brand is totally frickin’ amazing.

Once you tell me, I can tell the world.

And then they will know.

[THE END]

2018 HUGHTRAIN INTRODUCTION

This Manifesto (which was more of a short rant than anything else, to be honest) came in Summer, 2004 after I had drawn a series of what are now 7 seminal marketing cartoons, that I had created in my usual “back of business card” format. Here they are (PS None of the original seven are for sale, by the way):

At the time, social media was just starting to take off, and I was predicting that it would have a massive effect on the advertising business (I turned out to be right about that, although I had no way of predicting Facebook, Google et al). My own career as an advertising copywriter was floundering at the time, I knew social media was my future but my future had not arrived yet.

But in the meantime, I was asking myself, what’s the point of it all, anyway? Why do people care about ads? Why do they care about brands? What is it that my clients are really selling?

A few years later in 2008, my good friend, Seth Godin answered this question in an email interview I did for him:

“You can’t drink any more bottled water than you already do. Or buy more wine. Or more tea. You can’t wear more than one pair of shoes at a time. You can’t get two massages at once…

“So, what grows? What do marketers sell that scales?

“I’ll tell you what: Belief. Belonging. Mattering. Making a difference. Tribes. We have an unlimited need for this.”

And this was precisely what these earlier 2004 cartoons were aiming at. I guess great minds think alike etc.

Though it sounds a rather cheesy thing to say, there is a direct link between our spiritual selves and our marketing selves, just as there’s a link between our spiritual selves and every other realm that our consciousness inhabits.

And I thought if I could bring that link to light, I could create a lot of value there, and that would be a interesting and rewarding way to spend one’s career.

But where to begin?

It turns out I was wrong in the end. The future of advertising WASN’T the Hughtrain, wasn’t all that touchy-feely, marketing-as-soul-food stuff.

The future turned out to be in fact the exact opposite, something far more cold and dead (See ‘sweatshop’ cartoon above). It turned out to be all about algorithms and bots and Facebook and Google and… a lot of stuff very few people actually care about. You can read all about the great, fraudulent dumpster fire that it became over on Bob Hoffman’s blog.

So what’s left?

The same thing that’s always left, the stuff that never goes away. Quoting Seth one more time: “Belief. Belonging. Mattering. Making a difference. Tribes. We have an unlimited need for this.”

So instead of asking yourself what the next big trend is, the next big thing coming down the ‘pike, ask yourself instead, what DOESN’T change? What will ALWAYS matter to people? And how do I get my product or service to be a part of that equation?

Think about it.

[TO BE CONTINUED…]


 “THE SEX & CASH THEORY”.

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In 2004, I wrote a blog post about how artists and creative types should hang on to their day job:

The post was titled, “The Sex & Cash Theory”:

THE SEX & CASH THEORY: “The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”

The blog post ended up being read by literally millions of people (six million, the last time anyone counted); it ended up being a chapter in my 2009 bestseller, “Ignore Everybody”.

Looking back, it’s probably the passage in the book that people mention the most, when they send me fan mail. I guess it really hit a nerve.

Here’s the rest of it it. It’s thankfully not very long:

A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines- it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll go off and shoot some catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.

Another example is somebody like Martin Amis. He writes “serious” novels, but he has to supplement his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers (novel royalties are bloody pathetic- even bestsellers like Amis aren’t immune).

Or actors. One year John Travolta will be in an ultra-hip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), the next he’ll be in some dumb spy thriller (“Cash”).

Or painters. You spend one month painting blue pictures because that’s the color the celebrity collectors are buying this season (“Cash”), you spend the next month painting red pictures because secretly you despise the color blue and love the color red (“Sex”).

Or geeks. You spend your weekdays writing code for a faceless corporation (“Cash”), then you spend your evening and weekends writing anarchic, weird computer games to amuse your techie friends with (“Sex”).

It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s creative sovereignty. My M.O. is my cartooning (“Sex”), coupled with my day job (“Cash”).

I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool and hip magazines…. who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly.

Well, over time the ‘harshly’ bit might go away, but not the ‘divided’.

“This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”

As soon as you accept this, I mean really accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens. It’s the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way- who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy day job and moving straight on over to best-selling author… Well, they never make it.

Anyway, it’s called “The Sex & Cash Theory”. Keep it under your pillow.

Considering it’s almost 15 years old, the post hasn’t dated too badly. Martin Amis and John Travolta may have greyed a little, but the points made are still perfectly valid. The “tense duality” between art and commerce still remains and, like I said, it will never be transcended.

Looking back on three decades in the Creative game (Cartooning, fine art, advertising, film, TV, book authoring, marketing, publishing, corporate consulting… you name it, I’ve done it), it seems to me that managing The Sex & Cash Theory is the hardest part of the game.

The external stuff- making the work, finding collaborators, raising the production funds, learning how to market oneself, finding customers, learning about running the business- that’s all pretty easy in comparison.

Embracing The Sex & Cash Theory, managing the “tense duality” is the real killer…