Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Updated 04/02/08

Artist's Statement

Note: I have finally updated the letters pages to include the months October through March. My apologies to those who had to wait months for a reply. Since Ms. C.-H. absconded for Paris this fall I have failed to keep on top of the administrative duties at the Pain offices.

Please note, by the way, the new email address on the letters page. Ms. C.-H.’s old account has gotten hopelessly clogged with spam. I have no idea whether she knew some trick to filter this crap out or if she was just patiently deleting fifty ads for Vicodin, luxury handcrafted timepieces, and penis enlargement scams every day, but I can’t bear to wade through it anymore. Perhaps I’m oversensitive but I feel there is something erosively depressing about being lied to fifty times a day, day after day, even if it’s only by mindless impersonal software programs.


This question of money has been much on my mind lately. Having permanently relocated from my undisclosed location on the Chesapeake Bay to New York City, where the flat rate for leaving one’s apartment for any reason is $100.00, I am suddenly faced with the joyless prospect of having to earn some sort of real income. (My cartoon, including book royalties, brings in about enough to support one adult cat.) Like many artists, I am a lousy self-promoter and an indifferent businessman, intimidated by and mistrustful of the whole world of commerce. And yet unfortunately, like many artists, I also suck at everything other than the one frivolous thing I do well. With the job skills of a talented fifth-grader and a conspicuous twenty-year blank on my resumé, it is hard for me to imagine what anyone might possibly pay me to do. Any suggestions? Job offers?

Lately I’ve been having conversations with a few colleagues about being in our forties and still not making any money. We commiserate and bitch and confess to secret insecurities and shameful jealousies, and give each other halfhearted pep talks. Of course, money is not the reason anyone goes into the arts. But money's not only a useful thing to have lying around in case of hunger; it’s the token by which society recognizes the worth of what we do. And after twenty years of not making any money it’s hard to escape the impression that what you do is worth nothing in the eyes of the world. More and more lately I am troubled by the possibility that what I’ve done with my life has been stupid. As my colleague Megan put it--speaking not only of the arts, I think, but of life in general--“It’s a slog, a goddamn slog.”

This week I saw an old teacher of mine, Edward Albee, speak after a performance of two of his early one-act plays. He repeated the advice he always gives aspiring young playwrights: “If there is anything else you could possibly do and still feel complete, do that instead. The theater is a tough racket. Virtue is not its own reward. If, however, you truly feel you cannot do anything else… then welcome to our club.” It’s good advice for anyone considering a “career” in the arts. A few days ago I finally got around to answering a letter from a young cartoonist who sent me a link to his website months ago, and, although I liked the fact that he was truly investing himself personally in his work rather than just trying to come up with a marketable product, I hesitated to encourage him to keep drawing cartoons. Could I, in good conscience, encourage anyone else to do this? For what?--a four-figure income and the admiration of tens of fans? I remember an old writing teacher of mine (not Albee) once telling me, “if you choose a career as a fictionist, I predict you’ll do very well for yourself.” Rash, perhaps irresponsible words. But then, he was then younger than I am now, and probably didn’t know any better.

I also got a note from an earnest young admirer of my work asking me if he could reprint one of my cartoons. Of course he couldn’t pay me anything, he hastened to apologize, but it would be great exposure. I have become sufficiently touchy about this issue that I no longer even respond to such entreaties. It’s rude of me, I know,but if I had a nickel for every time someone said that they couldn’t pay me anything but it would be great exposure, I would have, well, more money than those people ever gave me. I think I may well strangle the next person who tells me they can’t pay me anything but it’ll be great exposure.

Anyway I’m sorry to say that one thing I’ve been considering in my desperation is the feasibility of making some money off this website. (The kinds of people I have structured my whole life to avoid ever having any interaction with refer to this as “monetizing” the site.) Obviously we won’t be putting advertisements on because a.) that is not the sort of thing we do around here and b.) advertisers are not exactly clamoring for access to the audience (or “eyeballs,” as those kinds of people call you) I can provide anyway. But I do have some other ideas. Last week someone wrote me asking for a copy of an illustration I drew for The Stranger several years ago, and I sent her a nice .tif file suitable for printout. I suggested that if this was worth anything to her, she might send me whatever amount of money she thought it was worth. She wrote back and said the check was in the mail. I have no idea whether this will prove to be one dollar or twenty. It’s occurred to me that selling prints of Pain cartoons on request might be one way to generate a little income. What do you think? High-resolution prints of your favorite Pain cartoons on nice glossy paper, suitable for display in home or office? Would anyone want one? You, sir? Maybe you'd like one, ma’am. No? No one?

Okay well then I may as well mention that I’ve also considered maybe turning this into a subscription site, where you could see the weekly cartoon for free but would have to pay some small monthly sum for access to the artist’s statement, archives, letters, naked photos of Ms. Czochula-Hautpänz,* etc. Not sure whether this would be worth the trouble. What do you think? Would anyone out there willingly pay for what you are currently getting for free? I thought not.

Really my long-term master plan is to wait for all you guys who write to tell me that I am the greatest cartoonist alive and you can’t believe I’m not world-famous to become influential agents, editors, publishers, and critics. Climb that ladder, kids!

But enough of my poormouthing already. Let us turn our attention to some of the grander, more ambitious moneymaking schemes I’ve been mulling over:

Panel 1: This is an idea that occurs to me in surly, self-pitying moods when I see graphic novels that would receive no attention if they were written in prose become publishing sensations, especially when they concern the plight of the interestingly victimized or marginal. As a guy whose only feeble claims to minority are being adopted and left-handed, I lack the advantage of disadvantage. I’m not gay, or from an oppressed nation, nobody I know was in the Holocaust—shit, I got nuthin’. But I realize this smacks of the kind of churlish complaint made by whiny self-pitying white guys who think that blacks and women get all the breaks, and it is unworthy of me. As I said, I’ve lately been suffering from professional jealousy.

(An aside, though: it does seem significant, and too little remarked-upon, that most of the big fake-memoir scandals in recent years have involved relatively wealthy, privileged writers either wildly exaggerating their pedestrian problems--spending months in prison instead of a few hours--or impersonating people with much more legitimate and impressive claims to victimhood--boy soldiers in Africa, HIV+ gangbangers. That the line between novel and memoir is often less than ironclad comes as news only to those whose first exposure to reading comes through Oprah’s book club. The phrase “true story” should always be viewed in the same sprit as those labels on kids’ cereal boxes that claim it is “part of a nutritious breakfast.” To me, the more interesting story than the rote outrage and professional soul-searching is what these scandals have revealed about our society’s creepy beatification of victimhood. Of course triumph-over-adversity always makes for a dependably bankable, if clichéd, story. And there is some truth to the notion that wisdom, or at least depth of character, is born out of suffering. But there’s also a crass element of literary rubbernecking here, of savoring-while-pretending-to-cluck-empathetically-over the lurid details of lives less dully comfortable than our own. People have constructed their lives to insulate them from any danger, anything different or unfamiliar—living in gated communities, eating at franchise restaurants when they’re in foreign cities, thereby starving themselves for authentic experience, which is by definition always going to be chancy, and maybe dangerous. These stories feed both our pity and our voyeurism. They also reinforce a romantic, diamond-in-the-rough fantasy about literary prodigies who grow up in impoverished or traumatic surroundings but find their voices and land sweet publishing contracts through raw talent. Of course such things do happen, but rarely—Charles Dickens is one of the few examples who come to mind. It’s much more common, for obvious reasons, for good authors to come from bourgeoisie backgrounds with sufficient resources and leisure to cultivate a useless luxury skill like writing.)

Panel 2: B. Kliban, my favorite cartoonist, was a surrealist genius but it was his cat cartoons that made him rich and famous for all the wrong reasons. He moved to Hawaii and continued to draw brilliant, hilarious and disturbing cartoons of which Gary Larsen’s Far Side was only a commercial imitation while making kajillions in royalties from cat calendars and dishtowels. Why couldn’t I do the same thing? It’s been thirty years since Kliban’s Cat. People are about ready for another one. And I’m a cat guy. Huge cat guy. I got a cat sitting here on the couch next to me staring at me like I’m made of shit right this moment.

Panel 3: This idea, you will admit, is worth millions. The arts have become dishearteningly segregated since I was a kid, and I feel that, what wiith Obama’s candidacy and his amazing speech on race, the time is right for a feel-good, crossover zombie flick. Maybe starring Ice T and Ted Nugent! I have mentioned this idea to my producers, but they only seemed bemused and demurred. (I was disappointed that they did not immediately offer me money for rights to the title Kung Fu Honky, either.) Inspired though it is, B,W,&RAO is arguably not as great an idea, or as potentially huge a cash cow, as Boyd’s and my concept for a porn/horror/exploitation film called Black Zombie, White Tail.

Panel 4: My custom-guided Ass Tours of the Met are a highlight of any true connoisseur’s visit to New York City. Available upon request. Please schedule 14 days in advance.

As often happens, I just came across a passage in my reading that was exactly the thing I needed to hear right now. At the height of all my fretting and crankiness over finances, I read on the recommendation of a friend an extraordinary short story by A.S. Byatt, called “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.” It’s inspired by a painting of the same title by Velázquez, about a painter who uses two kitchen servants as models. One of them, who is an artist as a chef, is disgusted that her creations aren’t appreciated, just eaten indifferently within minutes or ignored. The painter tells her:

You are very young, Dolores, and very strong, and very angry. You must learn now, that the important lesson -- as long as you have your health -- is that the divide is not between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning. When I paint eggs and fishes and onions, I am painting the godhead -- not only because eggs have been taken as an emblem of the Resurrection, as have dormant roots with green shoots, not only because the letters of Christ's name make up the Greek word for fish, but because the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it.

Well, that’ll maybe get me through another week.


*Sorry, not really. If I had any such photos I wouldn’t be wasting your time with cartoons, I can tell you.


BACK TO The Pain Homepage