Poplife: Issue #2

Thu, February 14th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

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Edemame Handjive

[She needs action!]
Ladies Love Cool Fraction.
Click to enlarge.
I swear to god: I'm on another fucking airplane. This trip, when it's done, brings it to 16 in the last month. That's practically a plane ever other day.

Un. Fucking. Real.

And yeah, I'm going back to NYC-for business this time, though, along with half of my company MK12 . We're doing a weekend meetandgreet blitz across Manhattan, putting names with faces and drinks with clients and all that. Nothing ultra-pressing or ultra-promising business-wise, but it'll be nice to finally meet some of these people.

Okay, so. I'm a loon. Really I am. I find myself slugging along through my life freaked out and turned on. I can't look people in the eye when I talk about the company or myself. I stutter, I stammer. I get sortakinda uptight.

But I can pimp like you wouldn't believe. I'm good at it, at meeting total strangers with large amounts of money and convincing them to share it with us. I don't know if it's a grace (heh) under pressure thing or what- but put me in a meeting out of my element and out of my league and I swear that nine times out of ten, I'm gonna win.

So this will be fun. And not about comics at all.

I know this restaurant well. The weekend drunk with Timmy and Karen started here. I'm eager to leave. Do you, she begins while leaning forward, have any ideas for a series? It'd have to be low budget, between 250 and 500.

Or, says her boss, a feature?

You people realize I've been waiting my whole life for someone to ask me if I have any ideas for features or TV shows, right? I start to laugh, and start to take notes.

What will come of this? Probably nothing. But two Adults asked me in all seriousness if I had any ideas for TV or a feature. The restaurant isn't so bad.

True story: we're approached by an ad agency to do some type-treatment animation stuff for a series of car commercials. Four lines of text in two ads, maybe a week's worth of work for a few of us, nothing major or serious. We bid the job out at a low-to-mid five-figure number. Which, I don't know about you, is a lot of fucking money to us. The agency that's representing the car company calls us and insists something was wrong with the fax we sent-characters had to be missing, bad transmission, please resend.

We insist, no, no, it's cool. You got exactly what we sent.

Are we kidding?

We were told the project was low budget. So, yeah, low-to-mid five figures.

Certainly there's some kind of mistake. They've asked us to rethink and reexamine the bid for resubmission early this week.

See, we live and work in Kansas City, Missouri. The rents are cheap and food is cheaper. The people are good and the roads are bad. The cost of living isn't so fierce. A lot of people get sorta stuck here because it's easy to live a good-enough life, money-wise, in a place like Kansas City, or it's hard enough to live by the fiscal discipline required to leave. I stayed after college for work, basically. I had a job, which led to another job, which led to the bottle, which led to another job that led my friends and I into starting our own company. I never intended to be here longer than a few years, but now there's this Thing I can't turn my back on, right?

We, as you may have surmised, were the only company that they came to who weren't on either coast, who weren't in either Manhattan or San Francisco. And we bid on the job honestly and fairly by our standards. And it wasn't enough.

This is, as they say, a question of 'perceived value', which is an oxymoron if I ever heard one. It doesn't matter how good our work is, it doesn't matter who's ripping us off shamelessly in Times Square (more on that later), what matters is the number of zeroes after that first one. The work can't Look Good and Be Cheap. It must Be Very Very Expensive.

So, tomorrow, I am waking up, going into work, and insisting that The Car People pay us three times what our work is actually worth because, after all, if it's not six-figures it's not really Real. I will make up some excuse so as to not sound like we are a batch of rubes-something about, oh I don't know, national broadcast rights or something, that we thought it was just a regional spot, something like that. I will inflate our bid stupidly. I will take it as high as I can without giggling into the receiver. And if they like the work, and we've not lost too much time, they will Pay What I Tell Them To.

We're at a party. It's a party being thrown by some Professional Friends of ours. They're the only company we've ever consciously been envious of; they do great work and have great ideas and I want them all dead. We began a correspondence by email, and became friends. We sent them a box of crap from our office when we moved as a way of saying hi; they sent us Chinese food for lunch. Anyway, they're good guys.

So they have this great new space just under the Empire State Building. They take us to the roof to get a look at the fucker, all lit up red white and blue like a Turbo-Pop. Outside it's cold and windy but the utter majesty of the view removes any feeling other than awestruck wonderment. It's quiet there, though, so we do more formal (re: audible) introductions up there.

One of their guys introduces himself to me as Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwww. Um, okay. We shake hands, and I can't tell if he's fucked up, French, or both.

Later, Kelly Sue explains that yes; he's French and probably a little fucked up and his name is "Loren," but it comes out Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawww.

Dude, you seriously need some consonants in there somewhere.

Attention: If you cannot dance, do not dance.

[In heaven you will be my slaves.]
In heaven you will be my slaves.
I freak out.

Someone says something that's untrue; it gets back to me after it's been cleaned up, but it still gets back to me. It opens up a can of worms that I have to fucking deal with because, ha ha ha, I'm insane and I can't just shut the fuck up and enjoy myself.

I don't understand this business and I've never tried to. I enjoy stumbling ass-backwards from perplexing situation to perplexing situation. And having just gotten out of a long weekend in NYC, seeing how the Big Boys do it... I have no interest in understanding.

There's the ideological revulsion to advertising, yeah; but it pays stupidly well, so at least there should be Good Looking Ads, right?

There's the Buzzwording Shoptalk which I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. I leave work so I don't have to talk about work, you know? Half the reason I was content to nuzzle into Kelly Sue's neck and whisper snarky comments at Quesada's birthday party was that there seemed to be such a big Career Vibe happening there, lots of Talk Shop, lots of Get Famous or Networking or whatever. Same thing in design-everyone knows everyone else, everyone wants what everyone else has. Can't we talk about something else? Please?

Anyway. I freak out.

I think it was the fact that the mess fixed itself without me. I don't know if that makes sense. An imaginary solution to a fictional problem. Not letting myself off the hook, not being on the hook deep enough.

We visited a friend who works for a notable design company in Manhattan. He and some of his coworkers show us some recent work they've done. It's obvious that they've ripped us off. I don't mean like one of those things, like the ad for the PS2 game ACCELERATOR or the show-open for THE MIND OF A MARRIED MAN (or whatever it's called) where, okay, maybe I can see it but even IF it's a rip, they took it somewhere else and it's not so bad-this was OUR FUCKING SHIT. I don't think the guy showing us realized it, nor did he realize why we very suddenly wanted to leave.

And, what's worse, if you go to Times Square and look around... you'll see them ripping us off. In Times Fucking Square. From color-scheme to visual elements, we've been robbed (and badly, I'd like to add) and they're advertising it in the absolute heart of the Center of the World.

For a second, I was mad.

Fuck it. Who cares? None of this is actually real, you know? Comics, or design, none of it's real outside of the work, and the money you get paid for doing the work. You wiggle your hands over a machine for a while and Things Happen somewhere, somehow, and if you did right by it you feel okay and you sometimes get paid for it. I refuse to take anything other than that seriously and, in fact, I've gotten worse and worse as time's moved on. I take our work very seriously. I take getting paid for it very seriously. And that's where it stops. Everything else is surrealist nonsense.

I'm typing this in a coffee shop. I've got headphones on. I know, I know. Anyway-writing in a coffee shop. Someone comes up and kisses the top of my head. My friend Aimee is in town. For a second I thought she was someone else; I try to mask my disappointment.

I used to think it was some sort of dumbass punker kid growed up thing, the last twitch of juvenilia or something. Now I kinda think there's something wrong with me. I take meetings with clients unshaven and wearing t-shirts and I bark noise about drinking and drugs; the more horrified they look, the more I talk. I wear mechanic shirts and boots. I swear a lot and answer questions honestly when asked (which is probably the most lethal thing I could do) and have the ability to pinpoint weaknesses in plans which I absolutely love to address. And nothing says professional quite like a guy in a HUSTLER t-shirt and a cowboy hat telling you that your business plan is fucked.

As a company, we've been able to pay our bills and pay ourselves meagerly for just about half a year. Every time I balance the checkbook I laugh until I'm sick. We're not rich and none of us have more than a couple hundred bucks to our names, but it's better than before where we had nothing. Our only rule as a company has been zero-debt; we don't have a corporate credit card or anything like that. We spend what we have and save it if we can. That's our fiscal paradigm, our business plan. We drew it on a placemat in a Chinese restaurant.

So I look like gutter trash and I make insane promises to people, not insane because of what I've promised is difficult or impossible to perform, but because I don't believe that ANYONE would deal with a cornpone fuckup like me about ANY sort of number that has a comma in it anywhere.

And the last six months of my life has proven otherwise. It doesn't matter how I look or what I say, it turns out I'm good at pimping. Somewhere between the work and me, clients decide yeah, okay, sure, and they take a chance on us.

As long as there's a comma and enough zeroes, apparently.

Attention: Unless you're a woman, you cannot make Leather Pants work.

Cosmic Coincidence Department: on my first trip to NYC in October, I met a bunch of the WEF regulars to go see a play that Bahama Johnny Cecil wrote called LIARS. It was put on in a space at 440 Lafayette St.

So, before the show, I've got some time to kill, and I call my old friend Whittles Pastorek to see if she wants to get some dinner. She does; can I meet her after work? Sure. She gives me the address, I take a cab and...

...And there I am outside of 440 Lafayette St.

Did I fuck this up? Did I get something wrong? Write the wrong address down, something?

Nope. As it turns out, Whittles works above the floor where Cecil's play is being put on.

Our last meeting on Friday is with Curious Pictures. They're located at-you guessed it-440 Lafayette St.

Attention: Some of us can grow moustaches. Some of us cannot. You would do well to learn which camp you are in.

I think I'm daring someone to call me on it. I think I'm begging, pleading for someone to point at me and scream IMPOSTER at the top of their lungs. None of this is real, and no one is more acutely aware of that fact than me. I'm a liar, I'm a wreck, I'm a faker. I'm making all this shit up as I go along. Someone stop me, please. Stop sending us money. We don't really know what we're doing. Don't you see? It's all nonsense.

The paradox is, of course, this isn't make-believe. I mean... we get Big Checks in the mail every now and again. Big Checks with which we pay ourselves. There was a day in January where I negotiated our way to our first six-figure day. SIX! FUCKING! FIGURES! For OUR! FUCKING! COMPANY!

THIS IS MY JOB. Lots of folks I know don't seem to be able to get their heads around that-THIS IS HOW I EAT. We try to bust ass all fucking day; we built this company out of absolutely nothing, we starved and sweated, schemed and suffered for the longest winter of our lives before people started talking to us and taking our work seriously. Yeah, I'm my own boss and roll in whenever I get up, but make no mistake-this is what my friends and I DO. This is how we make food happen, how we make the lights run. We take care of each other, because we have to.

But I can't stop, I can't help it, I can't stop trying to fuck it up, I can't control the urge to make someone call my bluff.

My last semester of college, I didn't study. At all, anything. Just didn't do it. I wanted... I don't know what I wanted. I wanted to fail? I wanted them to pull the scholarship? I wanted to see if I was as smart as I thought it was? I wanted to drink? Whatever the reasons-and I shoulda maybe talked about it with my therapist, but I didn't-I didn't crack a single book come exam time and I did Just Fucking Fine. 4.0, no problem. But it was a specific, deliberate decision. It was a conscious choice.

Maybe some of it is arrogance, sure-and I'm half-convinced that's how it comes off to our clients, like we think we're so great that we don't give a fuck. And since these are advertising people we're dealing with most often, they spin that to be anything other than the physical manifestation of our contempt for advertising (Like that Bill Hicks bit, "Oh, you've got that whole contempt for advertising vibe going on, that's great."). That, or we're 'eccentric' which we get a lot.

Look: I want nothing to do with me. Look at me. I don't wanna be a part of any club that would have me as a member. Blow the whistle, pull the plug, point the finger, flip the switch. The emperor is naked and he's kind of an asshole.

What I'm getting at, above and beyond this opportunity to publicly self-immolate, is that comics are sorta the same way in my limited experience thus far. Someone asked me the other day how I got into it, and I almost had to draw a fucking map on a cocktail napkin to make sense of it. I have no idea. I started talking. People started listening. I'm stupid and I got lucky. I decided that This was my job and I got to Work.

There's this shit in my head and I want to get it out. And sometimes I get paid for it.

Believe me, no one wonders louder or harder about the absurdity of this phenomenon more than me.

Honor Roll: Timmy Fishsticks, for getting author Susan Orlean (also an honor roll inductee) to sign my copy of her new book while I was getting a haircut and not attending her reading.

Note: Ms. Orlean was not prompted to sign in any particular way, and yet... she's one of us,

The company that ripped us off laid off 80% of its staff unexpectedly the other day.


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