The art disease
The Art Disease caught me when I was five years old. I blame my mother.
She couldn’t wait for the words “my son the doctor” to become the essential part of her daily vocabulary, so she started early. She bought me stacks of children’s books about great medical heroes: Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightingale, you name it. I fell in love with them—not the doctors and nurses, but the stories and pictures. I became hungry for narratives of all kinds, not just to read, but also to write and draw myself. Every day I wrote silly stories and drew cartoons.
From primary all the way through graduate school, I was always the kid in the back of the class with his head down, sketching in the margins instead of admiring the blackboard or hapless teacher. Throughout primary school my character Hoiman the Mouse was the mascot of DUM Magazine, self-published with several friends, including a future California State Senator.
In high school my friend Jon Tschirgi and I co-created an unkempt character named Billy Wizard, and together we co-habited in Billy Wizard’s world, meeting in the corridors to trade full-page Billy Wizard comics we’d each drawn in class.
Cartoons were my way of making sense of the world. They were my catharsis, my private little universe where I could avenge myself against my tormentors. But not with violent action heroes. Humor and sarcasm were much more satisfying weapons. In my pen-and-ink world, every event ended in a punchline.
When I call it the Art Disease, I mean it. Some people draw, write, make music, dance, for fun and entertainment. Others do it because we can’t not do it: going a day without making art makes us irritable, physically sick, or just bad company.
For us, art is a chronic condition, incurable, irreversible. Sometimes I used to wish it would just go away and let me feel normal, work a regular job, play sports, weed the garden, kick back in the evening with a beverage…without ever feeling consumed by the neuro-physical need to express something. But I never really meant it.
Over a dead body
My life seemed directed toward an art career, right? Wrong. Here’s what Mom said when I told her I’d applied to art school:
“You’ll be an artist over my dead body.”
She convinced me that no artist in the history of mankind had ever supported a family. I would starve. I would end up stacking boxes in a Sears department store.
“What about Walt Disney?” I asked. I already shared his birthday.
“You don’t want to be a doctor? Fine,” she replied. “A lawyer, then.”
Instead of medicine, law, or art, I chose no direction at all. Literally.
I stuck out my thumb and spent two years hitch-hiking around North America, sleeping in highway rest stops, under park benches, in college dormitory lounges. I was free at last.
Then I went to Germany. Wouldn’t you, if you wanted to read post-war German literature in the original? I’m not making this up: I tossed a dart at a map, it landed on Freiburg im Breisgau, and that’s where I spent the next year, studying German and copying Asterix comic books to train myself in that very European drawing style.
Back in the USA, I was restless. I already had the Art Disease, but now I’d also caught the Travel and Language Bugs. Where else to go but…Japan! I would teach English, learn Japanese, and immerse myself in the burgeoning manga culture in the most cartoon-obsessed country on earth.
First stop along the way: Honolulu. There to study for a Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, which would ensure me premium employment abroad. Smart thinking, am I right?
That’s when God finally lost patience.
An angel intervenes
Fresh off the plane in Hawai’i, I needed a place to stay. I drew a “room wanted” sign with a cartoon of my face and posted it on bulletin boards around the university.
A day later, I received a call: “Hi. I don’t have a room for you. But I do have a job.”
Jeff owned a caricature stand in a tourist mall at Waikiki Beach. He needed a new artist. I told him I was here to study linguistics; besides, I didn’t know how to draw caricatures. “No, thanks,” I said.
The next day he called again: “I’ll train you.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m too busy with school.” Was that my mother speaking for me?
Two days later, the phone rang. Jeff: “So, have you thought about it?”
“I already told you—”
“Shh. I’ll train you. You don’t even have to work for me.”
He trained me.
A week later I was drawing cartoons for a living! Spending the day at the beach, showing up to work in an aloha shirt with sand in my hair, drawing tipsy, happy tourists, and making more money than I’d ever earned before. In Hawai’i!
Over your living body, Mom!
I soon met a brilliant, beautiful foreign student moonlighting at a souvenir stand across from the caricature booth. We’ve now been married for 35 years. Thanks to Jeff, I found my destiny and the love of my life. Then Jeff disappeared without a trace.
In the years since, I’ve tried every which way to find Jeff, to thank him and lavish him with gifts. But inquiries, even with people who should have known him, produce a response of, “Who? Never heard of him.” If not even Google knows him, is it possible he never existed?
Here’s how I explain it: God got fed up with me. Enough of the aimless wandering, enough of the English teacher nonsense, enough avoiding the mission I had been put on earth to achieve. He sent an angel down from heaven, who delivered the message: “Let there be cartoons. And here’s a girl into the bargain.” How lucky I was!
Cathy and I moved to southern California, where she had enrolled in graduate school. A call from a friend led me to a Hollywood animation studio, which was so urgently in need of a new artist right now this moment, that they hired me over the phone. I was drawing cartoon cats all day, surrounded by brilliant artists from around the world. How lucky I was!
Then Cathy and I visited her native Hong Kong supposedly for two weeks. Out of curiosity, I scouted for work. Within days I was so swamped with freelance work–illustrating textbooks, designing toys and gifts–that I needed a full-time assistant. Cathy found good work. That two-week visit extended into forever. How lucky I was!
Being a foreigner in colonial era Hong Kong, trying to assimilate into a working class Chinese family and learn a difficult language, landed me in countless hilarious cultural misunderstandings. I turned these into a series of cartoons and submitted them to the newspapers. The Hongkong Standard hired me on the spot. I had my own daily cartoon in the paper, the first ever for any Hong Kong English newspaper. How lucky I was!
After a year I started a comic strip about a young Chinese office worker and her gwailo (Caucasian) suitor. “Lily Wong” was instantly popular, including among Chinese readers. How lucky I was!
A year later, a larger English newspaper lured me away with a boost in salary and five times the number of readers. As Hong Kong’s nerve-wracking handover to China approached, the editor encouraged me to make the cartoons more political, which I did with gusto. Here’s my response to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre:
As my work became increasingly critical of the Hong Kong colonial authorities, and of course the British and Chinese governments, journalist colleagues cautioned that I was the “canary in the coal mine” when it came to freedom of speech as the bulldozer of communist rule edged closer. I took this as an honor.
Meanwhile, Lily Wong cartoons received awards and were reprinted in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Economist, and every British newspaper. My annual book collections of comic strips were #1 local best-sellers. Sometimes I had to pinch myself that it was all real. I’d never planned–or even dreamed–any of this. How unbelievably lucky I was!
My wife didn’t want me to run this cartoon. She said it sounded too much like tempting fate, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Two years before the handover, I was running a series of cartoons on the controversial topic of Chinese prisons selling prisoners’ body parts for export. China of course denied it. The newspaper had recently been sold to a Chinese businessman with significant investments in mainland China. Can you guess what happened? I couldn’t.
The next day, right after dinner I received a fax from the editor. I was fired with immediate effect.
The demise of “Lily Wong” was just the story that foreign journalists were waiting for: pretty Chinese cartoon character strangled by the invisible fists of communist oppression on the eve of Hong Kong’s Date with Doom. Hundreds of news organizations around the world ran the story. The newspaper, its publisher, and its editor were the subject of international shaming. They got their revenge.
I was blacklisted in Hong Kong. The newspaper’s management spread stories about me: I was a racist, a flaming anti-communist (which was of course a bad thing), a greedy money-grubber, a raging madman. Every editor and art director was so scared of “offending China” that even friends declined to give me work.
The blacklist spread abroad. My editor, an Australian, made it clear to me, through a mutual acquaintance, that I shouldn’t bother seeking work in Australia.
I worked harder than ever, submitting comic strip ideas, book proposals, and portfolios all over the world. Here’s a sample from one of those packages:
After three years of rejection after rejection, while my wife supported the family, we moved to London, England.
Some work came in, including prestigious gigs illustrating for Time, Fortune, and The Economist. But they were all one-off, never repeating. I sold my rare record collection to pay off mounting debts.
Five years since my firing, I was exhausted from trying, yet had found no traction. Surely luck would rescue me again, as it had in the past.
A fall in the park
I brought my eight-year-old son Ivan with me for one of my rounds. We’d just visited the Art Director of a satirical magazine, who had kindly offered Ivan cookies and milk. As for me, not even a cookie crumb. I was “on his list”.
With another appointment less than a mile away, I led Ivan on a shortcut through Hyde Park. It was early spring, damp and chilly, leaves beginning to peek from branches. Mid-morning on a work day, few people were about. As we cut across a quadrangle of lawn, my portfolio dropped from my hand. My knees buckled. I crumpled backward into a boggy tread of mud. I remember my legs kicking and arms flailing. I remember seeing my son frozen in terror, watching his father have a nervous breakdown. Only later did he tell me how much I screamed.
Something changed in me that day. I felt as though a spirit left me. It was not a painless departure, more like something being yanked out with a forceps.
Cartooning had once been my life calling. Somewhere along the way it had become my job. And sometime during the past five years of pushing myself to exhaustion, struggling to keep cartooning as my job, the life calling part had evaporated.
Lily’s last stand
In early 2000 I received a call from Hong Kong. A new English newspaper was starting. Would I be interested in being their cartoonist? I asked Cathy and the kids if they wanted to move back to Hong Kong. It was a no-brainer. London had not been kind to any of us.
I reincarnated my “Lily Wong” comic strip, but my heart wasn’t in it. Try as I might, I was not excited about the task.
I could still write professional gags, but rarely came up with an inspired one. Then it took every bit of willpower to force out a pencil drawing. By the time I came to ink each cartoon, I was nauseous. I still had my professional pride, and my drawing skills were still there. But sometimes I had to fight back tremors to get a line down. I hated drawing.
When the newspaper went out of business 15 months later, rather than panic at renewed unemployment, I was relieved. I put away my pens and pencils for good. My stacks of art paper yellowed, my ink hardened into crystals.
Since I was a child, Cartoonist had been my identity. Now I had none. I sympathized with those one-hit-wonder pop stars, now social workers or living in their cars. But I’ve never been one who wallows in memories of the “good old days”. My maternal grandfather, the most anti-nostalgic person I’ve ever known, who’d lost everything several times in his life, once advised me:
“Never look back. When you look back, you die.”
I did other creative work: animated cartoons, silly e-cards, book design. But I never drew a single line. I paid other, better artists to do the artwork.
The spirit from Portugal
In May 2018 another angel paid a brief visit. Out of the blue, I received an unexpected credit on Amazon. Normally I’d never spend US$40 plus shipping on a book. But this was free money, so on impulse I splurged on a graphic novel. All I knew was that it was about Portugal, a country I’ve become enamored of.
The story is partly-autobiographical, about a French cartoonist who loses his zest for drawing. Art has become just a job, all the passion gone. He quits his clients, leaves his life in Paris, and goes to Portugal. There he soothes his own bitterness and disappointment, while rediscovering his family roots in a Portuguese village.
One day, sitting in a cafe, he’s compelled to pick up a pencil, and makes a few doodles of the people around him.
I had to put it down, so that my expensive book wouldn’t be ruined by the tears cascading down my cheeks.
The artist rediscovers the original spark that had inspired him to draw in the first place. He sketches everything he sees, in a new, loose, jubilant style.
When I turned the last page, something cracked open inside me. I couldn’t sit still. I ran into the privacy of my home studio, where I could cry out loud so no one could hear. I wanted to draw again.
I wanted to draw.
Not for the purpose of publishing or earning money. I wanted to draw, just for the joy, the compulsion I’d once felt. When was the last time I’d felt the Art Disease? Eighteen years since that morning in Hyde Park.
It took me a day or two to build up the courage. Sitting on a ferry, I spotted a guy napping a few rows ahead of me. Years ago I used to sit in hotel lobbies, where I’d rapidly sketch passing people, just to capture interesting body shapes, postures, and gestures. On the ferry I didn’t have a sketch book, so I opened a drawing app on my phone, and with my stubby finger I quickly sketched the guy before he changed position. The drawing is ugly, but no uglier than those 10-second hotel lobby drawings. I was rusty, but I still had it in me.
I dashed into the ferry’s toilet, where I leaned against the wall, hyperventilating. The Art Disease had found me again. A piece of me which had been missing for so many years was back. I was whole once more, at last.
Or was I?
A couple days later I rose from bed and nearly toppled over. My feet were numb. So were all ten fingers.
To learn why, read the next post.