Lest You Think I’m Whacked…

The first artist to catch my eye, as a kid, was Wally Woods. His best work was in the “great” years of Mad magazine (before the asshole publisher fired Kurtzman and Elder and turned the rag into a creative blob)… mostly the decade between the Congressional hearings on the dangers of comic books in the early fifties through the election of JFK.

I liked Woods because he snuck “dirty” stuff into each scene, yes… but even more because he was able to infuse his panels with real movement and a sense of organic life. No one else came close, in the world of cartooning, until Robert Crumb.

I started my own mini-career as a cartoonist before I knew how to write. Pencil and pad of paper, and I was a happy little feller. My career peaked when I was given a weekly cartoon strip in my high school paper (for which I won a Quill & Scroll pin), and later another weekly strip in my college paper (which I kept up for a full year after I graduated).

What does cartooning have to do with marketing?

Not much. But give me a second.

I want to scare the living bejesus out of you.

The best cartoonists in the short history of publishing have actually been fine artists. (A famous critic once called R. Crumb “the Breugel of our time”, referring to the breakthrough Flemish painter who used real life village scenes, in action, as his subject matter. His work remains a rare glimpse into early Renaissance life among peasants.) The best work is mesmerizing, and you can stare at it for hours, or come back to it years later, and still find new stuff in it.

I sucked as a cartoonist, because I was self-taught and insisted on struggling to discover the “secret” of great graphic art all on my lonesome. No classes, no tutoring, no help at all from anyone.

What an idiot. But that’s the way my mind worked. I had to learn, the hard way, how to ask, to seek, to knock.

And though I’ve long since given up drawing for writing, I still like to check in on the whacky world of comic art every now and then.

My love of Mad, and then Zap, was augmented with an adolescent love of horror comics. Creepy and Vampirella were the quality publications back then. And the guy who did the ground-breaking covers (plus a few panels inside now and then) was Frank Frazetta.

Even if you have no idea who Frazetta is, you know his work. Because he is the most copied artist in commercial art today. (As the most ripped-off copywriter on the Web today, I feel a kindred spirit.) He established himself doing cover art for the Conan the Barbarian novels, which spawned just about every sword and sorcery fantasy movie made in the last half-century.

Schwartzenegger owes his career to Frazetta’s work, because of Frank’s faithful rendering of super-muscled heroes battling dragons and demons, while stunning maidens with impossibly lush physical charms screamed warnings.

It can also be argued that heavy metal music owes its lasting appeal to Frazetta… and the first piece of evidence is that about half of all the thunk and shred albums since Molly Hatchet have featured rip-offs of Frazetta’s work.

Now… it’s taken me all these years to even begin to understand what it was about Frazetta’s and Wally Woods’ art that grabbed me so effectively. Out of all the hundreds and hundreds of other artists I was exposed to.

The answer became clear after watching a documentary on Frazetta.

And the key was this: He always painted scenes that were about two seconds from some climatic action.

This was important. Lesser fantasy artists always paint scenes that are already IN the action — the fight is already on, blows are already being delivered, the action is engaged.

Not Frank. The pure, raw, and undiluted tension in his paintings capture that moment of lull, when every participant realizes that the clash is about to begin. Eyes are wide, muscles tensed, the incredible force of motion is held up just for one last intake of breath.

Imagine stopping a huge ocean wave inches before it crashes on the sand. Imagine a little crab looking up, way too late to escape, tensed for the chaos. Imagine a surfer, having misjudged the undertow, realizing he’s about to wipe out on hard-pack beach… but not just yet.

Not just yet.

Boring artists simply have their subject stand there. Impatient artists depict action in full swing.

But the guy who transcends mere representation and creates art that leaves an impression knows how to find that exquisite moment of truth.

To my mind, the great artists of the twentieth century aren’t Picasso or Warhol or Johns.

The greats are the craftmen, the illustrators and cartoonists who obsessed on finding that “moment” in life that rocked your soul. And they did with comic books.

Now… the reason I bring this up has nothing whatsoever to do with art.

Nope. The point I’m trying to make is all about that moment of tension before things happen.

Most people live their lives waiting for big noises. They plod through their days until something wrenches them out of their routine… and then they grind their teeth until they can settle into the next waking dream.

The big noise can be a world war. Or another deep recession. Or some new plague.

What was before, is now history. What is now, is new and scary.

If you aren’t hip to those exquisite moments of held tension, you’ll forever be taken by surprise.

And guess what?

We’re in one of those moments right now.

Last blog, I tossed out my intuition that the Gold Rush days of the Web are nearing an end. Amazingly, I got zero comments on that.

Not a peep from anyone.

So, let’s twist the knife in a little more.

Last Fall, Intel Corp., Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and AT&T all got together for a super-secret technical brainstorm session.

The ONE subject they discussed: The complete structural collapse of the World Wide Web.

They all agree that we’re running up on some serious architectural limitations. The main problem is that millions of new users are signing on every day. Putting wicked stress on the network.

And entire developing nations, like China, have billions eagerly waiting to get online. Each time computer technology gets a dollar cheaper, the Web groans under another load of new users.

The big companies are trying to get another network launched. I believe the working name is “PlanetLab”, but what’s interesting for marketers is that this new network will have built-in traffic monitering and security gates.

That’s code for “no more Gold Rush”. That’s code for “controlled by The Man.”

The Great Depression really got going when farmers ignored the warnings of overharvesting in the mid-west and drained the soil of nutrients. It was preventable, but it happened.

Today, we pride ourselves on being able to better predict and counter most threats to our economy. But we aren’t perfect by any stretch.

Again, don’t panic or sell the house and move into the hills.

But don’t doze through the coming shakeouts, either.

We live in the most prosperous and strange times in the history of the world. No one knows what the place will look like even five years from now. It could all be just fine forever. Or, it could be a roller coaster ride. Or… something else.

We’re in a lull. The tension is palpable, if you can feel it.

Stay frosty.

And keep honing your old-school chops.

John Carlton

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  • Chris Turley says:

    You rule dude. I’ve watched the Frazetta documentary about 5 times in the last month. Wow, your commentary on his work nailed it…plus the reference to heavy metal. Classic!

    Something personal and a littel silly…For the past month any time I have a “victory moment” I envision Conan standing atop a pile of bodies…with a girl on his leg…Dio’s Holy Diver playing in the background, me pumping the air guitar. This always gives me a belly chuckle.

    I love that you referenced the Crumb documentary too.

    I agree that the most poignant artists are the cartoonists/illustrators… and the most important writers, the direct response copywriters.

    I’m an ex-cartoonist, a guitar player, and a student of advertising and marketing.

    You never cease to amaze me my friend. I’m on your page…you are a bad muther f-er!

  • Ken says:

    Interesting re cartoon insights… as a fan of Frazetta, and Boris Vallejo .. I used to buy original art from the pages of the comics, and in person when I went to comic conventions years ago…

    Usedta read heavy metal magazine too, which was pretty good.

    what hits me is the tension you talk of, that’s a good way to think of copywriting as well, eg “2 seconds before the action”, the energy level that needs to get captured in the pitch, in print…

    and I’ll start experimenting with offline too (direct mail, ads in magazines), because you make sense about shouldn’t have all the eggs/revenue coming just from online.. good stuff as usual.


  • Ray Edwards says:

    Good Lord, man. I thought it was only me and about 6 other geeks I knew who were really into Frazetta, and Boris Vallejo… and then I read this. You never cease to surprise me.

    Thanks! Really put a smile on my face.

  • ewen says:

    hi john… writing about your upcoming freelance copywriting course…if anything like your past stuff it should be a doozy…please put me on your notification list …here,s my details : ewen vile 524 swanson road ranui auckland new zealand …email: ewen_v@hotmail.com p.s.using your blog because i can,t seem to use your other email applications.

  • Cynthia says:


    I’m always delighted and amazed by your blog comments. Have you been reading my mail?

    It’s no wonder you’re at the top of your profession. You have the uncanny ability to see beyond the horizon and put into words the concerns many of us have. Oh, how I envy you!

    Please let me know when your freelancer’s course is available. Thanks a bunch.


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