Thursday, September 3, 2009

I’ve Been a Bad Robot: The Decidedly Inhuman Art of Self-Promotion

My first entreaty to the professional world, a badly-crafted business card, ready for the printer, 1982. If you can’t quite read it, the card proudly proclaims Jeremy Eaton to be a writer • illustrator • humorist. Would that I could go back in time and follow the path of that humorist! I may well have missed my calling.

Having primarily been self-employed as an illustrator for the last twenty years, I still find one aspect of such a life to be a regular stumbling block – and it’s not for a want of trying, as the following image gallery will attest to.
Anyone who has ever, however briefly, considered such a life, need only ask themselves one thing: Can I live with worry?
Personal employment is one that relies on a precarious trail of randomly-sourced paychecks – the wafer-thin stepping stones the self-employed set across the unforgiving current of reality. Living with such constant financial uncertainty, a state that will exist, in relative proximity to need, regardless of one’s stature in the field – especially in this age of diminishing print options – requires a whole litany of accessorized selves, much like being one of those giant space robots with detachable units. Each sector must function on its own, while also fitting together, in some semblance of harmony – less the artist develop an acute ulcer.
These divisions of self break down into five basic components.
First there is, of course, the Talent-Bot, that which enables you to enter into such an insane pact with ever-possible calamity. You either have this or you don’t, but know that it comes in greatly varying shades of competency, such degrees of ability often having nothing to do with the ultimate success of the robot as a whole.
Second comes the judge of talent, the personal Editor-Bot who tells you when to continue with a particular approach or style, and, perhaps more importantly, when to abandon ship.
Third is the Motivator-Bot, the personal coach, the grumpy-faced unit who gets you up in the morning, gets you to block out the hours of the day, to focus on completing your jobs in a timely, professional manner. Do not mess with the Motivator-Bot – let him do his job, he may well be the most elemental of all your individual partitions.
Fourth we have the Business-Bot, the manager, the personal accountant who tallies earnings, saves pay stubs, chases down delinquent clients, drafts contracts and keeps one eye on the taxman, all the while smiling patiently through impossible situations, those moments in the day when you truly realize you are all alone, that you have no employer to cry to, no union, no guild, no support system to fall back on – just you, the crazy, compartmentalized individual whose stubborn character has brought you half way across that raging river of improbable success, leaving you stranded there, with nothing to do but face the desired direction, hoping, always hoping for that next thin mark in the trail to appear.
Finally, fifth, perhaps most important of all, is the Sales-Bot, the personal advertising department, that part of the multi-functioning you who must, on occasion, step forward and proclaim to the world “Look at me! Look at what I can do for you!”

Successful self-promotion is a tireless, mostly thankless part of my job. The rule is to never expect direct results from your advertising. Anyone seasoned in this lifestyle knows that the expected job rarely materializes, that it’s usually the forgotten inquiry, the apparently long-dead lead that arrives in the nick of time, pulling you from those frothy rapids.
Before some clever, indoor-types discovered a way to stuff the world inside tiny plastic and metal plates of information, the illustrator had to literally hit the pavement, a neatly-organized portfolio in hand, practicing his smile in the store windows that lead him to whatever tower of hopeful income in which he was destined to prostrate himself.
Having been born with a healthy chip on my shoulder when it comes to recognizing the evident power structure of our monetary society, I have struggled with a bi-polar promotional robot staff, one half compliant, pleasing butlers of civility, the other a mad ring of seething savages, hell bent on disrupting the status quo, winning the golden ticket with their unorthodox carnival of personality. I’ve strolled from top floor advertising agencies in ripped jeans, half stoned on my decidedly alternative ego, having secured a high-profile gig. And then, on the other side of the personal income coin, I’ve sat in dumpy coffee shops in my best shirt, listening to some mumbling wannabe entrepreneur lay out his born-to-fail plan, feeling foolish, feeling over-dressed, knowing everything is bound to fail, knowing the promised money will never materialize. Of course, now that we are moving screen-first into the digital age, never to return, such sole-wearing (and soul-wearing) appearances have dwindled. Most of my meetings are now by e-mail. Even phone calls are becoming unusual, so much so those that do arrive often make me suspicious – why do we have to actually hear each other’s voice, I wonder, cautiously pressing buttons.
Along with this evaporation of face-to-face interaction has been the sudden lack of reliance on printed promotions, those ubiquitous mailers that were once, not so long ago, the Sunday tie of any self-respecting illustrator, colorful little bullets reflecting the pride and desire of the Talent-Bot, but fashioned by the Business-Bot, cordial, clever, and effective, one would always hope. It was here, in this realm of a now bygone day, that my inability to find a convergence of mind amongst my many-united self caused me to produce a litany of baffling, over-imagined, ultimately ineffective promotional discharge.

Having introduced you to my failings as a reasonably-aligned robotic generator of income, I’d like to now take you down a visual gauntlet of those Fitzceraldos, a bumpy path lined with curiosity and milestone, one revealing an assortment of amusing missteps and over-thought campaigns, the trail of a lean, but tenacious little career I call selling myself – me, the bad robot in ripped jeans.

From 2003, a fully-realized version of a fold-out “newspaper box” mailer, complete with a tiny 2” x 3”, 10-page facsimile of an alternative newsweekly. This promotion was exclusively aimed at acquiring more weekly column gigs, three of which I was then currently illustrating: Dish, in the Miami NewTimes, Thinking About Playdoh from InPittsburgh Weekly, and I Love Television in The Stranger. Following is a series of images that take one through the unfolding of this time-consuming little extravagance.

Ending with the two-dimensional form, which was folded in half for mailing, complete with building instructions. I still wonder if any of the hundred or so I sent out were ever put together, to sit on an art director’s desk or shelf, as I’d intended.

Three early postcards, the middle being from 1993, advertising my new Fantagraphics comic, Whotnot!, the others from the late 90s, announcing new mailing addresses. *Please note that the contact information on all of the mailers and cards featured in this post are now out of date. If you wish to reach me, please do so at

From 1986, two shots from a series of promotional photos taken by a photographer friend in Pittsburgh, who was repaying my having posed for a group show, in which he entered images of friends, sans clothing, complete with angel wings. These images found me in my disheveled, neo-bohemian, “European Cartoonist” mode – a phase that didn’t last too very long – perhaps only six or seven years. Photos by George Davis.

Here’s a timely reminder of how quickly the world has changed. From 1998, still without a computer, I was faxing black line art to clients, often with coloring instructions. Realizing my career without a computer was quickly becoming a dog without legs, I sought to salvage some of the work I was undoubtedly losing by offering up Faxy, my fax-happy mascot, in a mailer campaign designed to give the fax machine a cutting-edge desirability over the internet and e-mail attachments. Need I go on to say that I acquired my first computer the very next year?

Two more promotional photos of myself, from 1987, here dressed as the lead character in my weekly strip, A Sleepyhead Tale, which ran in alternative newsweeklies from 1988 until 1993, and was collected in three book editions by Fantagraphics. Photos by George Davis.

From 2000, a mailer for my short-lived weekly strip, You Stupid Little Duck, which ran for some thirty-odd installments in the Seattle Weekly. Did anyone indeed end up buying a duck from that man? The answer isn’t yes.

A business card, both sides, from 1999.

A CD mailer, from 2001, featuring now-amusing instructions on how to download it into one’s computer.

Two color postcards, one from 2002, the other from 2006.

Another mailer, this one with a gatefold, from 2002.

Me, caught in yet another clumsy act of self-promotion, dressed as a “cartooning nerd”, a photo taken during a talk I was giving, during the run of my solo show at the now-defunct Seattle gallery Milky World, in 1998.

Yet another illustration mailer, this one from 1999, when sending out huge stacks of 11” x 17” sheets of printed paper still seemed a practical thing to do.

Finally, from 1987, here is the most elaborate promotional mailer of a bygone era, a 12-page, 11” x 17” printed booklet entitled NEATO (an oh-so-clever inversion of my last name). Having spent the first half of the year as staff illustrator at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an ill-fated tenure (see My Life in the Op-Ed Trenches for the full story) that left me with a few thousand dollars burning in my pocket, I ended up spending a good one thousand on having 500 of these giant calling cards printed, on nice stock with heavy, glossy covers, a venture that now seems quite mad. That I chose to accompany the illustration samples with my own, only partly-serious “poetry”, never clearly letting the recipient now just what NEATO was all about, left more than a few questioning art directors about the country. I actually received a couple of phone calls, inquiring when the next issue of the “art magazine” was coming out. Needless to say, this was the only issue.