What the hell is “DeadChuck” anyway?
TL;DR: He wasn’t always named that. It was only after I realized I’d been channeling my dissatisfaction with my own career that I christened him an “undead” version of me. I’m actually not a huge fan of the name anymore, but it serves an important purpose. It’s a reminder to me of something life-changing. What follows is the story of what it means to me, and how I got there.
OK… here’s the full story behind DeadChuck. I’ve sketched the outlines of this story over the years, but never filled in the details. But I think it’s time I stop pulling punches.
First things first: like many creative people, I’ve been practicing my craft since I was a kid. It was in my blood. Somewhere along the way I got the idea I could go pro — in my case, it was shortly after college. For years, I’d stay up late nights drawing cartoons and submitting them for syndicate editors, only for the syndicates to send back rejection letters. One time I actually got on the phone with one of them — that story here — but for the most part, it was an endless stream of “thanks, but no thanks.”
In hindsight, looking back on those early submissions (I still have copies), it’s a wonder they didn’t burn them with a blowtorch. They were SO bad. Over time, I got better… but the outcome was the same.
After 6 or 7 years, I did the one thing I never thought I would do: I quit. I had met the love of my life, my career was taking off, and it just didn’t seem like this was in the cards for me. It was too frustrating to do all that work and get nowhere. So I stopped trying. And by that I mean I literally put my art table out by the curb and let my rapidographs dry up. I’m nothing if not dramatic.
And that was it. Aside from a few sketches here and there, I really didn’t draw much for the better part of a decade. Most of my 30s, I believe. I think I thought I had moved on, but in hindsight, I think I was just pushing it down deep. I didn’t expect it to come up again.
But it did.
I mentioned earlier that my career was taking off. And it’s true — I’ve had the pleasure to work at some great companies in my home town, and every position seemed to bring more responsibility and opportunities for growth.
And then I found myself in a weird spot. And this is the part of the story that has always been uncomfortable for me to tell.
That “weird spot” was working for a company called Valpak. You might be familiar with Valpak — the blue envelope with all the coupons? Now, I want to be very clear here: Valpak was (and is) a great place to work, and the company was very good to me. The people there are top-notch. “Finest kind,” as Hawkeye would say. This is not a “let’s bash my former employer” moment. It was one of my favorite professional tours of duty, and I met and worked with some amazingly talented and smart people. I learned a lot.
I’m a brand marketing guy, and let’s face it: when you think of Valpak, you don’t necessarily think of a super modern brand. It’s kind of a older brand. It’s paper that comes in the mail once a month, for Pete’s sake. In a world of mobile apps and instant digital savings, I thought it needed a shot in the arm to become more relevant again. All the raw ingredients were there: talented franchises, brand awareness, infrastructure, etc. But something was missing. I thought Valpak needed to reconnect with the present year, if only just to kick-start it’s reputation a little bit. And of course I thought I was the creative guy to do just that. Seemed like a great project!
(Trust me, this all has a point.)
So I had this idea of doing a series of videos that would hopefully make people rethink that little blue envelope. At the time, shows and movies like The Walking Dead, the MCU series and Pirates of the Caribbean were in their prime. Why not make some videos shows zombies using coupons? Or superheros? Can you imagine a Thor knock-off needing to get his cape dry cleaned, and “MetalMan” handing him a coupon? Or pirates, looking for buried treasures, only to find that the real treasure is not in finding gold, but in saving more of the gold you currently have? I wanted them to be live action, not animations. If they were funny, I thought we could get a lot of mileage out of them on social media. I thought it would be a fun way to help people reframe the brand and consider it in new ways.
(NOTE: I am not saying I was right about what was needed… just explaining my thinking. I don’t know if it would have helped, hurt or neither.)
In fact, I had already privately concepted the zombie version of this a few months earlier… I just didn’t share it with anyone other than a few close colleagues, and my boss who understood what I was getting at. It wasn’t much of an animation. I was just playing around. But it would be the first time this green-skinned character showed up. My drawing hand was super rusty, but here’s the video:
(Apologies to the real holy trinity of Geddy, Alex and (RIP) Neil… I used the Witch Hunt soundtrack in the first few seconds!)
It would be at least a year or two later, in a team off-site meeting where we were kicking around ideas to boost the brand, that one of my team members reminded me of this video, and said something to the effect of, “Why don’t we just use that? It seemed fine to me.”
I was kind of floored. You thought it was… good? Wow. It lit a fire under my butt.
I mentioned earlier I had a pretty awesome boss. She got what I was trying to get at, and so I floated up the idea of these videos… zombies, pirates, superheros oh my! She was on board, but there were others to convince, and I think they looked at me like I had six heads.
So I thought, ok… I will show you what this could look like. Keep in mind I still envisioned this as being live action, but I thought maybe I could do a better job explaining the idea with a little animation. So I created this:
Only at the end, there was a tagline that said “Valpak: Save an arm and a leg.” (Get it?)
I still remember making that voice over! All the grunting. My wife wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing! Well, we ran that video as a test ad and it performed in-line with other ads, but the powers that be really weren’t sold, and so the idea died a quick death.
Except something else happened.
Remember how I said I thought I had repressed all that art crap? Well, a small crack appeared in the dyke that held back those ambitions. And that dyke would quickly fail.
Before I get to the end of this long story, I need a quick sidebar. The boss I mentioned happened to also be really into the study of positivity, and she reminded me about those interlocking circles: What are you good at? What does the world need? What gives you meaning? What can you make a living doing?
I realized that maybe I was a good marketer, and I was making a living… but meaning? Meaning was absent. And that wasn’t because I worked at Valpak. Valpak was just a place. The place wasn’t the problem (aside from the fact that I still thought it needed a shot in the arm!).
The problem was I wasn’t doing what fed my soul. Art. Humor. Bringing a little laughter into this pissed off world.
So I kept playing around with this zombie character. It was fun. I fell into projects and lost track of time. Something was coming back from the dead… literally. The juices started flowing again. I went to art stores. Bought pens again.
If you’ve followed me from the beginning, you’ve witnessed my animation learning curve first hand (apologies and thank you). I’d try different gags, different techniques, etc. At one point I thought this character would really be a zombie living in the world of the living, sort of like a reverse Walking Dead. Then I decided, no, I liked him better when he was kind of dumb. Wait a minute – was he dumb or just impatient and cranky? And on and on it went in my mind as I tried to figure out who he was and where to take this.
And one day I made this video:
It’s so horrible for me to watch years later! But, what struck me hard when that video was done is this: I looked at that character, with his f*ck-all attitude, his crankiness, his soulless existence… and I thought:
I am literally channeling myself into this character, sitting there in a cube, pecking away at emails as if it was the most important thing on earth. Probably in the early throes of the proverbial mid-life crisis. And slowly dying inside.
Scott Adams (Dilbert) tells the story about how Dilbert got his name. He had been drawing this unnamed nerdy engineer character for a while, and he started a “Name the Nerd” contest to finally give him a name. People would write possible names on a white board but none seemed to fit. One day, someone came in and wrote “Dilbert.” I’m paraphrasing, but I remember reading this story in a collection of his, and he said something to the effect of “I immediately called the contest off and declared the winner. It wasn’t as if Dilbert had been given a name… it was as if I was finding out what his name had been all along.”
If you aren’t artsy, that story may mean nothing to you. But it struck me as very profound, and the day I looked at my purple-shirted creation with the recognition that I was really channeling my inner desire to do more with my life was equally as profound.
On that day — and I still remember this moment vividly — the character became “DeadChuck.” Because that’s how I felt inside. Dead. I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of how I spent the bulk of my time on this planet. I was missing something important.
Let’s fast forward a couple of years and wrap this up. No, I’m not a famous artist making a mint drawing silly animations. I’m still a marketing guy (see my Day Job page) and enjoying it. But I’ve developed this hobby where I get to make people laugh and explore my art, and it’s changed my life. I wish I could do this full time, sure. But even if not, in my relative anonymity, I’ve had a few followers who seem to like what I do and find it funny. That’s enough for me.
I’m not in love with the “DeadChuck” name. It’s a little morbid. I’ve thought about getting rid of it. Who wants to follow that guy? But it’s not for you — it’s for me. It’s a reminder to me to not let myself go back to that place of chronic indifference and professional emptiness. To never give up; to not lose what feeds your soul.
So it stays. Sorry, Mom. (She never liked the name.)
The character has evolved a bit over the years, and I’m taking this project in new directions shortly. It remains, however, one of the more profound experiences I’ve had on this journey around the sun: the realization that you can’t suppress your passions forever.
Here’s all of the videos, oldest ones at the bottom. I’m working on a new project that will build on the foundations of this character. It’ll take me several months to complete, but hopefully will be worth the wait.