I fully admit to my days of bastardness, obsessed with success, craving power over others for the sake of revenge and pleasure, wanting to stand on the bodies of others to heighten my status in life.
I look back on those days with some nostalgia but mostly shame, and shiver at how so many tread the same path. I’m human and while that may buy me a little bit of an excuse, I feel my realization of better ways, brought on by the beating life tends to dole out, and the passing on of this knowledge may buy me some karma points, a bit of sympathy by those who stand at my grave, a nod of understanding or a comfortable spot for my bones on a burned out planet.
Is that too far? I can never tell when I start to wax lyrical.
Still, the deadly sins of jealousy and pride take their toll on those of us who climb the ladder of success only to tumble down later.
I have several favorite lessons that I impart when I speak to students or young designers, one of them is a quote from the late Jackie Gleason; “be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because you’ll meet them on the way down!”
I was reminded of this the other day when I connected with an illustrator who commented with joyous disbelief on my career as a writer and art director for MAD Magazine. My first thought was: Did I turn him down when he applied to work for me?
Luckily, I had only been a bastard to one person, and to my recollection, he deserved it. Although I knew people I had turned away didn’t have a good opinion of me and some said it out loud on the internet. The illustrator, to my relief, imparted that he hadn’t applied, having too much doubt that he would be able to compete with greats like Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, Dave Berg and George Woodbridge, just to name a few of the dinosaurs who made the magazine the icon it is… or rather was, as it is yet another lesson in falling from the top.
“Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”
– Dale Carnegie
It was a tough position to have. Being somewhat of a celebrity but without paparazzi trying to get upskirt shots of me as I exited limos; I always wore underwear just in case, although they were thongs.
But, there were plenty of people who wanted autographs and places I could cut line and jump velvet ropes with a mere presentation of my business card. Friends loved to introduce me to their friends, and while I never told shop owners in my neighborhood what I did for a living, after a small interview on a popular TV show The Anti Gravity Room, which spotlighted comics, music, video games and pop culture, I found there were more fans of the show and MAD than I would have believed and I became a neighborhood celebrity.
World at your feet image via Shutterstock
Often the fawning I received forced other confused customers at the corner pizza parlor to ask the counter guys who I was. Most didn’t give a titterly-twat about MAD but enough did to spread the word from the pizza place to the deli, bagel shop and dry cleaner.
Enough love to smile and feel important among my neighbors but not enough to fear my children being kidnapped and held for ransom.
I even kept a crap-load of MADs in my messenger bag to hand out to the kids on my block, which might be considered child abuse by some who thought the magazine was trashy filth, which is a compliment for MAD. Naturally, I enjoyed the attention.
With power, however, comes a great burden and many headaches. When friends and acquaintances believe you are their easy entrance into what was, at the time, the premier humor magazine that made careers for illustrators and writers, there is the moral dilemma of doing what’s best for the magazine and breaking hearts or chucking professional standards and giving work to those who aren’t right for the look and feel of your life blood.
Much to my shame, I slipped a couple of times and the results were not pretty. I lost long-time friends when I had to tell them about the disappointing results they delivered and take the hit from higher-ups as to why I would waste my budget on such bad illustration vendors.
It hardened my heart as I realized the truth to an anonymous quote I once heard: “a coward is a brave man with kids and a mortgage.”
I felt my bastardness rising to survive and I started making enemies. It's the line that has to be crossed when you are in charge.
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
There was still no joy in turning people down when they showed their portfolios to me.
Every year, a local school would have their illustration and cartooning seniors come to DC Comics, in which MAD was situated, owned by the giant Warner Bros. Corporation and invariably there would be at least one kid who panted at meeting me as working for MAD was his/her life’s dream. Turning them down, even with the usual encouragement of them keeping in touch as their career and talent grew was not an easy task.
Looking into the eyes of those whose dream has just been dashed; if you think you would enjoy that, then you have some really big problems.
When I first started at MAD, an editor who had been with the magazine for almost the entire history, sat me down and explained the responsibility of being part of a worldwide icon. Perhaps I was just young or naive but I couldn’t grasp the power any publication could have. I thought he was being dramatic and giving more credence to his long-time employer and to a certain extent that was true. He was adored and feared by illustrators and writers and his rear end was constantly damp from the ass-kissing people did in the hopes he would hire them. When he was forcibly retired, it ended his life. He no longer mattered in his little part of the world. He lived on but most of what was inside him died.
When my turn came to escape the changing magazine, as it jumped the shark not through necessity but by foolish corporate decisions, I landed at Golden Books, known for the little books with the golden spine. Another icon of publishing but I was to head the design of a Japanese property that had just come to America — Pokémon.
When the neighborhood kids asked me for copies of MAD, they frowned at the loss of those freebies. When I offered them Pokémon items, their little heads nearly exploded. I was still a neighborhood celebrity, at least among seven to twelve year-olds.
The requests still came in from those close to me, dreaming of being an author or illustrator of children’s books. I had learned my lesson and was more comfortable with saying “no!”
The fortunes of life saw me move across the country, twice for family reasons and once more for business. I was lucky and continued to land jobs with iconic American companies, which kept my résumé impressive and fresh. I thought I would retire from my last employer, still at the top of my game. Economics had another direction in mind.
“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”
– William Faulkner
After massive layoffs and forced retirements of the aging, higher-paid workers at Hallmark Cards (although they will argue that was the reasoning behind choices or who stayed and who went), I found myself in a small town, looking for opportunities that just weren’t there.
As days turned into months and then even years, it was obvious that “young and cheap” had become the hiring basis for many, if not all firms and I wasn’t young or cheap enough.
Unemployed image via Shutterstock
My peers from throughout my career started openly discussing their depression at not being able to find work, obvious waste-of-time interviews and the question of where do they go from their years of high salaries and grand positions at the best-known corporations in America.
One friend cried to me about how she was forced to take a job in a bank when previously she had been making a six-figure salary as a creative director for a well-known pharmaceutical advertising agency.
It wasn’t just the money — it was the loss of prestige and the ability to set design standards, creating global design projects. Some friends left the field completely, not wanting to face former coworkers and explain what they felt was below their deserved abilities.
Another friend, a creative director for Playboy Enterprises and a former schoolmate of mine from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, was angrier than most of my peers; who wouldn’t be? He used to proudly email me pictures of himself standing next to nude playmates of the month.
“We went to one of the best art schools in the world and we can’t find work?” he shouted over the phone, “WE can’t find work!?”
I felt his frustration as many of my peers from every corporation were contacting me for the names of recruiters and moaning about the desperation of not being able to regain an equal position ever again.
I’d like to say I was calmer about the prospect of making less and working freelance until the day I died but it’s not true.
While with a group of designers at an industry event in New York, one designer chatted about his world famous piece and how much he made from it. Almost innocently… with malice aforethought, I admit, I pointed out he had done that project twenty years ago and asked what had he done lately. He couldn’t bring up anything nearly as impressive. I also had to bring up that he was vacating his long-term office for a smaller place. He was shocked I knew about it, as he didn’t want people to think he wasn’t doing well. He wasn’t and his fall from the top was bone crushing… to his ego.
Suicide image via Shutterstock
It wasn’t so much the power that I missed, although suddenly taking orders and having to be at the bottom of design-by-committee was maddening (no pun intended). As the head of a creative department, I had been able to defend design decisions but, at the bottom, I had to bite my tongue when the 25 year-old creative director would wet his/her pants as subjective opinions landed upon his or her shoulders. I wanted to shake them and give mentorly advice, as I do now through my writing, but I always remained silent and moved on once the project was over.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill
Many of us found freelancing forced upon us if we wanted to stay in the creative field. Some chose to use their skills as illustrators to paint meadows and cloudy skies. Designers started looking to other corners of the industry with paper goods, app development and crafts to be sold on Etsy.
When you are creative, there is always a way to make money. It won’t be a corporate salary and benefits but, in the long run, does money buy happiness? Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.”
Aside from that, how does one replace the smile of a job working with nude women? Being in charge of a staff of people is also a hard thing to forget. It’s not so much the power, at least in my case. I preferred shuffling people around to play to their strengths than having to fire them.
I took great joy at watching young people grow in their careers and hired many interns to help them on their way. I did, admittedly, also like putting the jerks of the world in their places.
At the bottom rung of the ladder, I saw some really bad managers and realized how good I had been with my staff and how lucky they were to have me. Daily suffering of management buffoonery takes its toll on an unhappy staff.
I wish I could say I’m different from my peers and have no animosity for my fall into obscurity, such as it were. I won’t retire rich but then again, what designer does? I burn inside when I deal with a fool who wants to hire me for a low-paying design project and I want to shout, “do you know who I am?” but they wouldn’t care as they are looking to hire a pair of hands with a computer with design software, ready to take micromanaged direction with megalomaniacal attitude.
So I just try to remember that I manage to pay my bills, take time with my kids, design a flyer for their school every now and then and hear them say how their friends though it was “cool.” I take pride in my designing and writing and enjoy the applause of students and young designers when I speak to them and hope that my words will live on beyond me, in a legacy of some sort.
I go on designing and taking joy at the projects that have at least 90% of my fingerprints upon them.
Pastures new image via Shutterstock
When I began my creative career, a famous designer once chatted with me at a design event. I asked why young creatives were so nasty but those who really made it were so nice. He smiled and replied: “Because there’s all the room at the top and precious little room at the bottom!”
Perhaps I got used to the “room” or the years there just mellowed me out. Maybe it all just numbed me out for the rest of my life?
“Remember that failure is an event, not a person.”
– Zig Ziglar
In a year when too many friends have been fighting cancer, watching my father decay faster towards finality, and feeling aches on cold rainy days a bit more then my youth when each broken bone and scarred piece of flesh was a red badge of courage, I grow depressed at having to buy neoprene braces for my arms, knees and wrists to ease the pain of those mishaps from living life to its fullest… foolishly some will scold.
When one of those little scarring events was a major motorcycle accident, I didn’t think I would regain the use of my right hand. I did, but my career as an illustrator was over. I met the challenge by wrapping my hand around a computer mouse and becoming a designer. Obviously, according to this article, I did well enough to be happy.
Oddly enough, while I miss the day-to-day running of important creative departments, I also have to say I don’t miss the pressure of having to be on guard and being responsible for others and sometimes dashing their own hopes and dreams.
I never liked that part.
I feel my own mortality more these days and have to take stock in what I have — I’m still alive and life is everything. Enjoy what you have, while you have it and welcome what change gives you. Meet that change head on, with fortitude and purpose, or let it eat you up inside. My advice to my friend who worked for Playboy was, “there are always other avenues for creatives and you can find pictures of nude women anywhere on the internet.”
So, if you are in a position where you feel uneasy about your career ups and downs, just take joy in being creative. Every design is important, whether it’s for the school bowling trip or the new logo for Microsoft. One of those designs might even allow you to use nude pictures!
“The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.”
Have you come to terms with your career taking a step down? Has your career been a rollercoaster or are you in a stable position? Share your experiences in the comments.