This past weekend, I packed a pile of books, T-shirts, prints, and posters into my aging Honda Fit and made the long trip from scenic Silicon Valley down to the Los Angeles Convention Center for Politicon – a convention where news junkies can gaze upon the waxen visages of cable news pundits and attention-seeking politicians. I made the same journey back in 2016, back when Trump merely seemed like a sick joke and America didn't seem like it was careening towards a police state. Then, I wrote:
In spite of sharp, intolerant divisions we can see on cable news and social media, Politicon left me with a sense that we aren’t quite so divided after all and that there is still general faith in the American idea.
After this year's Politicon, I'm far less certain in that general faith.
This year, there was less art, fewer vendors and generally less fun. There were more 'roided out Trump bros sporting red MAGA hats, more T-shirts emblazoned horrific messages ("Mohammed is for Homos" and "Socialism is for Fags" were two standouts) and more booths that were obvious fronts for dark money organizations. Across from me was the Turning Point booth, Karl Rove's PAC, which was a gathering spot for a lot of those 'roided out bros with offensive shirts.
The vibe at Politicon felt like walking into a household where the spouses have long since stopped talking to one another but haven't quite called the divorce lawyers. Chilly, uneasy and defensive. A couple of the Trumpsters were just nasty. One hatchet-faced old lady took one look at my Veeptopus poster and snarled, "I think it's abhorrent what you're doing to this country and these fine leaders. Anything to make a buck. But then that's the great thing about Capitalism, right?" She seems nice. I'll bet she likes calling 911 on black people barbequing at the park just for fun.
Others were nice up to a point. A couple other Trump bros (easily identifiable by their ubiquitous red hats) came over to my table, telling me my stuff was awesome. But when they saw my portrait of Pence, they grew quiet and awkward. Some slinked off. One guy recoiled but then bought the first print he could grab, Thomas Jefferson.
The gaggles of Hillary-supporters that were around last time (and who were among my most reliable customers) were far fewer. It was almost as if Democrats had decided after a year and a half under Trump that politics wasn't fun anymore; that the tired Right vs. Left equivalence repeated ad nauseam by cable news channels doesn't really hold water when one side is openly cuddling up with Nazis, condone right-wing terror and building prison camps for children.
Of course, not everyone there was a member of der Trumpengruppen. I met one guy who was an unabashed Stalin enthusiast, for instance. He had an Uncle Joe sweatshirt and the twitchy demeanor of someone who knows that he is probably going to get punched in the near future.
I also met a number of actual fans. A couple staff members of Politicon are Veeptopus enthusiasts apparently as are several employees of the Nixon Library which had a large presence at the convention, including a vintage Nixon-era presidential limo. And one young woman who does a presidential magic show (which sounds awesome) who seemed downright giddy upon meeting me. I so rarely make people giddy. It was nice.
At one point, a woman from China came up to my table. She asked me the usual questions that I've grown used to answering since starting Veeptopus (they tend to be variations of "...why?") and we started talking about Politicon in general. She said she came to the event because she wanted to understand more about America but she came away more confused than ever. "Could you explain to me what's going on?" she asked. I thought for a minute and and said, "I really don't understand what's going on either."
That’s right! Veeptopus is going to be at this year’s Politicon in downtown Los Angeles selling books, prints, posters, and T-shirts.
What’s Politicon, you might ask? It’s basically Comic Con for news junkies - definitely the sort of place for people who might want what to buy cephalopod-bedecked portraits of vice presidents. I sold my wares there back in the summer of 2016. Here were my impressions then:
I had no idea what to expect what it would be like. I feared that I would be crammed in the corner, next to the anti-circumcision stall, getting snarled at by stark raving Trump supporters. But I was pleasantly surprised.
The crowd was generally speaking open and good-humored, filled with socially-minded college kids, aging hippies, Bernie Bros, and one sweaty guy in a cowboy who tried to sell me the bumper stickers he had balled up in his fist. But hands down my favorite person I saw there was a budding politician – maybe fifteen, accompanied by his mother – who was dressed in a brown suit, a bowtie and a bouquet of Ted Cruz buttons on his lapel. With the same of studied polish of a pro, he shook my hand and called my art “positively joy sparking.” I wish I caught his name. I’ll probably be voting against him in a couple decades. In spite of sharp, intolerant divisions we can see on cable news and social media, Politicon left me with a sense that we aren’t quite so divided after all and that there is still general faith in the American idea.
Obviously, the political landscape now is much different than those innocent days before the 2016 election. I am very curious if the mood of the event will be as convivial as it was previously. This year they have a wide selection of speakers from Alyssa Milano to Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky to Michael Avenatti to (ugh) Tucker Carlson. Dennis Rodman is even going to be there for some reason. You can buy tickets here.
And be sure and stop by and say hi.
So I've long been a fan of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. He makes these elegant, emotionally restrained movies that pack a surprisingly potent emotional punch. He was at the very center of the Japanese film industry - he was the head of the director's guild for years - yet he dispensed with Hollywood film language to create an idiosyncratic film grammar of his own. He was a quiet radical. He populated with his movies with "pillow shots" - empty shots of hallways, streets or the like. They did nothing to further the plot but gave the movie a moment to stop and rest. They gave his movies his trademark contemplative tone.
So I've long been fascinated with these pillow shots - especially from his most famous movie Tokyo Story. I've long wanted to do some kind of artistic series based on them. I've also lately been exploring more in color. Specifically acrylic paints. So I decided to paint these pillow shots using some very un-Ozu color schemes.
All of these are on 9x12 watercolor paper, using acrylic paint markers.
I saw that famous picture of Trump and Andrea Merkel from that disastrous G7 summit last week and I knew I had to draw it. This was the result. I call it "Backpfeifengesicht" - a German word that means "a face that deserves a fist." I'm guessing that Merkel was thinking something along those lines as that photo was taken.
This is a verbatim quote from the lad.
More cartoons drawn from true events at the homefront.
Here's something else I've been experimenting with - cartoons. I've always liked doing cartoons. Back in high school, I got into trouble for a few of my cartoons in the school newspaper. So it feel nice going back comics. These days, of course, I have a lot of fresh material.
All the books on creativity and being an artist says that you need to keep a sketchbook. I've been frankly dilatory and inconsistent on that front. I guess that was because I didn't have any focus or rules. It sounds weird to have rules for a sketchbook, but that's what I needed, I suppose, to get me working.
So here's the rule: draw one complete picture a day. That's it.
I'm using this structure to explore different styles, different types of pens and different themes. Most of the time, I have no idea what I'm going to draw, so it's always fun to see what my twisted unconscious comes up with.
A couple more comic journal entries in the style of the previous post. I'm trying to get better at perspective, refining an image down to its basic graphic elements and playing around to see what pen-style I like. The first one is from the Philz Coffee in the gleaming new "town center." It doesn't feel like a town center, by the way, but it's not a bad mall.
And this second one was drawn in Social Policy in downtown San Jose. I like how this one came out. Feels like something you might see in The New Yorker.
So I'm trying something new to get out my creative rut. A comic journal. Thus far it's mostly about coffee shops because, well, that's where I spend a lot of time. I don't think I would have been able to do this as successfully last year. I've been concentrating this year on building my atrophying art skills. It's satisfying to see a little reward for my efforts. Need to get better at lettering though.
Looking back at the year, I've been doing two things repeatedly. 1) I've been screaming at my twitter feed and 2) angsting over what I've going to do next after the relative success of Veeptopus. As it turns out, the two are sort of connected.
The news, and social media, in particular, has sent me into regular paroxysms of fear, dread, and fury. The toxicity of Trump and his band of racist fat cat cronies is taking way, way too much mental bandwidth. Social media has a way of overwhelming the brain's system while leaving you with that hollow feeling of powerlessness. Facebook was once a fun diversion of junior high school friends and Farmville invites. But then somewhere along the lines, many of my junior high school friends turned out to be Trump supporters and the whole enterprise morphed into a cesspool of tribalism. Twitter is even worse. All heat, little light.
So for my own sanity, I'm taking some steps away from social media. I've removed it from my phone and iPad. I regularly use Freedom to block the nicotine-like urges to check Facebook while working.
The other problem is that I've been stuck thinking about what to do next.
flow is the feed (“It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist.”) and stock is the durable stuff (“It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”)
Basically, by focusing on my twitter and Instagram feeds, I've been concentrating on my flow and not my stock. Kleon preaches the virtue of turning flow into stock. The way that Facebook and the like are constructed, it makes it difficult to accumulate enough flow to turn into stock. Your ideas not only get flushed into the great social media feed but it also becomes the property of a massive corporation.
So I'm not only going to step back from social media, I'm going to pretend it's 2007, which is in my mind the zenith of the internet - back when it was still laptop based, back before iPhones. By which I mean I'm going to focus more on blogging. That way I can get all of my flow into one archivable space.
And maybe that will help me get enough light to move me forward.
So this week, Veeptopus is being featured in the Silicon Valley Metro, one of those free weekly newspapers that every metropolis seems to have. I also happened to write the article, along with providing the art, so I'm pretty happy with it all the way around. If you're not in the Silicon Valley/San Jose area this week, you can see the article here. Or below:
A few years ago, after getting laid off from Yahoo, I decided to reinvent my life in the most rational way possible: I drew portraits of America's vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.
The pictures seemed to have struck a chord with people because they gave me a pile of money on Kickstarter last year to turn the pictures into a book called Veeptopus: Vice Presidents with Octopuses on Their Heads. Life is funny sometimes.
My fascination with the vice presidency started when I was 5, flipping through a copy of Newsweek. Walter Mondale was on the cover, standing sheepishly behind Jimmy Carter. "What does a vice president do?" I asked my mom. "Go to funerals, mostly," she said. This seemed impossible. How could the No. 2 guy in America just go to funerals?
The answer, as it turns out, is that Founding Fathers just didn't spend much time thinking about the office. The responsibilities of the vice presidency are described in one vaguely worded sentence in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clause 6 to be exact). It declares that the veep shall take over upon the president's "Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties..." That's it.
In practice, the duties of the veep are maddeningly few. Vice President Charles Dawes, a man of great ability—he won a Nobel Peace Prize and wrote a No. 1 pop hit—summed up the job like this: "I can do only two things here [in the Senate]. One of them is to sit up here on this rostrum and listen to you birds talk without the ability to reply. The other is to look at the newspapers every morning to see how the president's health is."
The job proved time and again to be purgatory for ambitious men. They were tantalizingly close to the apex of political power yet largely powerless and often ignored. America's first VP, John Adams, complained, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
The vice presidency was considered so insignificant that President James Madison waited nearly a year to replace George Clinton—America's fourth vice president, not the cosmic funk god—after he died. The office was regularly left veepless as, for whatever reason, vice presidents tended to expire on the job more regularly than presidents during the 19th century. Madison had two die during his tenure.
Even alive, veeps got no respect. Woodrow Wilson's wife and close advisers kept Vice President Thomas Marshall in the dark for 18 months about the president's incapacitating stroke, thus denying him the presidency. A clearly ailing FDR only met with Truman once before he died in the middle of World War II. And LBJ so relentlessly teased Hubert Humphrey during Cabinet meetings that the veep reportedly broke down and cried. No wonder then that John Nance Garner, FDR's first VP, said that the job wasn't worth a "warm bucket of piss."
In the past few decades, though, the profile of the office has risen. One reason is the close relationships that recent veeps since Walter Mondale managed to forge with their respective bosses, allowing them to command power within the White House.
Another reason is the 1967 passage of the 25th amendment, which sought to clarify the Constitutional vagueness that dogged two centuries of VPs. The amendment clearly spells out the line of succession and, so as to avoid another Woodrow Wilson farce, provides the mechanism to remove an enfeebled POTUS.
That seemingly prosaic amendment developed a sensational cast since the 2016 election. As the rumors of Trump's fragile mental health circulate, the internet has fantasized that Pence might use the 25th Amendment to oust the president. Even bloated white supremacist Steve Bannon thinks it's a possibility. All of a sudden, the VP seems less a joke than an unlikely savior, assuming you feel that a vacuous religious zealot is marginally better than a trigger-happy, unhinged narcissist. The office of the vice presidency might finally just get some respect.
And if that happens, I'll have to think of some other animal instead of octopuses to bedeck vice presidents.
First, I got an advanced copy of The Believer. I did all of the spot illustrations in the issue, which hits the stores next week.
The Believer started out as an arm of Dave Egger’s McSweeney’s publishing group before relocating over to University of Nevada Las Vegas’s Black Mountain Institute. They regularly feature written and illustrative work by people I hugely respect like Greil Marcus, Nick Hornby, Charles Burns, and Tony Millionaire. So when I got a chance submit work for them, I leaped at the chance.
I produced a series of portraits of World War I generals - a largely forgotten group of historical figures, many of whom had really interesting facial hair.
A couple of months ago, I sent off my book Veeptopus: Vice Presidents with Octopuses on Their Heads (which is for sale on Amazon, by the way) to three former vice presidents - Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and Joe Biden. I figured Pence and Quayle wouldn’t appreciate the book and I vaguely feared that sending one to Cheney would result in me getting spirited into an unmarked van by masked men.
While, of course, I fantasized that one of these august figures would publicly and enthusiastically endorse my book, I really just hoped to get some kind of response. And a few days ago, I got a letter from Joe Biden.
Sure, it’s a form letter but I’m still getting it framed.
As I write this, Apple is having their annual event in its new gleaming headquarters. The building - which I like to call Steve’s donut - is literally down the street from Veeptopus International. So in the spirit of the new iPhone 8 and Apple Store getting mysteriously dubbed “Town Squares,” I too have something to report.
Veeptopus is having its first-ever book signing this weekend, September 16 from 8 - 11 pm, at The Rondo (202 W. Canon Perdido St.) in Santa Barbara. I love this because Santa Barbara is where I first started to put cephalopods atop elected officials. Having a signing there sort of feels like completing a circle.
So you can imagine how stoked I was to learn that my event ended up on the cover of the Santa Barbara Sentinel. I’m pretty overwhelmed. This is the first time I can get the physical book out in front of people, which is great because people who see the book tend to really like it. It is — if I do say so myself — a very pleasing object to hold and read.
I will also have a handful of posters and T-shirts for sale from the Kickstarter. So if you’re in the area or you’re in LA and looking for an excuse to try some of the fine Santa Ynez wine, stop by and say hi.
couple of months ago, some right-wing knucklehead tried to start a #boycottveeptopus campaign against me because I painted a picture of Donald Trump.
A little background: now that the Veeptopus book Kickstarter has been more or less fulfilled, I’ve been looking around for ways to expand and deepen my work.(Veeptopus: Vice Presidents with Octopuses on Their Heads is now available on Amazon. If you haven’t got yourself a copy you really should.) Even though there is probably money to be made drawing octopuses on the heads of authors, rock stars, Canadian Prime Ministers and other folks, it didn’t interest me. I don’t want to be the octopus guy. So I’ve been going into my studio and trying things out.
I’ve drawn portraits of every single U.S. Senator for a website project I hope to get off the ground in the fall. I’ve been doing some work with print making, which I’ve found both grueling and fascinating. And I’ve even dabbled in oil painting.
“Oil painting is serious,” said my dour, thin-lipped teacher when I took my one and only oil painting class in college. And thanks to that class where a spent a semester painting dismal bowls of fruit, I’ve always been daunted by the medium. In spite of that, I picked up a brush a couple of months ago and attempted to paint a more realistic version of the Trumptopus drawing that I did back in 2015.
Considering I had no real idea of what I was doing, I was pretty pleased with the results. So I posted the image on my Instagram and Facebook pages. People seemed to dig it too. Late one night, I posted it onto a Facebook group innocuously named something like “Watercolor, Acrylic and Oil Painting.”
It honestly didn’t cross my mind that people might find this painting offensive but holy shit they did. See, what I realized when I got back on the web the following morning is that Facebook group should have been called “Angry Trump Supporters who Sometimes Paint Watercolor, Acrylic, and Oil.” There were roughly 900 comments on my painting, many were so vitriolic that it was kind of funny. The administrator of the group took down the picture before I could make a thorough record but “Asshole” was thrown around a lot. “California” was used as an epithet. And one guy who liked to paint pictures of his truck said I had no talent.Some other guy even photoshopped me against a Soviet flag which still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And one irate snowflake tried to launch that twitter campaign to boycott me. It didn’t really take off. And good thing too because, without the support of Trumperistas, I might just go out of business.
At the time, I laughed off the kerfuffle, promising myself to be more careful on where I post my work. But since horribleness in Charlottesville this past weekend, I’ve felt more and more unnerved by my run in with the rabid right. I painted a mildly satirical picture of a sitting U.S. president that would not have received more than an eye roll in the past from people on the other side of the political aisle. Now, I get a barrage of personal insults and an attempted internet boycott. It’s chilling what’s happening to civil discourse in this country. But I am more committed than ever to speak out.
After all, oil painting – and art, in general – is serious.
I made this quick 9-second long video for the Veeptopus book, which, if I didn't tell you yet, is available now on Amazon! I'm pretty happy with both the book and the commercial. Check the vid out below.