Monday, May 15, 2006

Friends of the Fiend 21: Benita Epstein

I've never made any secret of the fact that Benita Epstein is one of my all-time favourite cartoonists. I have one of her original drawings in my collection, and it is just so small and delicate and perfect to look at, that the humour sort of creeps up on you. Her cartoon, below, is just about my favourite cartoon.

Hundreds of companies have published Benita's cartoons, including The New Yorker, Wall St. Journal, Barron's, Harvard Business Review, Prospect, Punch, Air & Space and several greetings card companies. Her drawings appear in cartoon collections, books, websites, newspapers and calendars, and her syndicated graphic panel, 'Drawing a Crowd' was distributed by Creator's syndicate. The NCS has had the good sense to nominate Benita for five Reuben division awards.

You'll find an interview with her here, on Moneypants, and find out a lot more about Benita Epstein here, on her website.

CF. Hello, Benita.

BE: Hi, Cartoon Fiend!

CF. Okay, what are your current projects, anything exciting in the pipeline - that you can tell us about?

BE: What do you call exciting? I'm working on deadlines for various greeting card companies and magazines. And every week or so, month or so brand new markets pop up, and I make a stab at those.

CF. Did you always want to be a cartoonist, and set outto become one, or was it a gradual process?

BE: Not at all. This is my second career. Previously I did scientific research. That's why you see a lot of lab scenes in my cartoons, or talking mosquitoes. I made an abrupt change after attending a one-day cartoon workshop. It was bye bye good salary, benefits and pension. Hello to an uncertain future.

CF. The work you do at the moment, can you tell us something about the process?

BE: I start out feeding my brain with newspapers, books, TV news, internet news, listening to conversations. Then I write, usually in the morning.
Gags comes out of nowhere. Even if it's silly or stupid or unusable I write it down. I can edit it later. I let the writing simmer. After a day, a week, sometimes years, I go back, fix the writing and pick out some gags to draw. Occasionally I have brainstormed via e-mail with other cartoonists. It works great and I can't ever remember when either of us wanted the other one's ideas, so we never really stepped on each other's toes.

CF. I know you've been asked this a million times, butwhat tools do you use, and what format do you work to?

BE: I make a primitive, rough outline of the people, main characters in a basic setting on crummy copy paper with a regular pencil. Then I put a nice piece of smooth HP laser paper over the sketch and ink over it on a light table. For crowd, bar, vegetation, beach and laboratory scenes I draw directly on the finished paper with no sketches because I draw fast and background scenes are loosely lined. I use Pigma pens and a brush, sometimes a Sharpie or a black calligraphy pen. Then I scan the drawings into Photoshop. If a company wants an original I ink on good watercolor paper and add a gray wash or watercolor. But in Photoshop I shade/color the drawing using a Wacom tablet. If I'm on vacation I can draw on tracing paper and save that to scan later, or photocopy the cartoons, send by mail to various companies then scan them when I get home. I like to have every single cartoon scanned so I can pull them up at a moment's notice and either print hard copies or send pdf's. I've been sending stuff via pdf for years worldwide and I think it's given me an edge over a lot of cartoonists who concentrate on the regular major markets here in the U.S.

CF. Is the cartoonist a proper artist? I mean, does cartooning have the same cultural impact as some other artforms, in your opinion?

BE: Yes. Just because the cartoons end up on paper or a computer screen doesn't make them less valuable to our culture than fine art done on more permanent media. Also, just because cartoons are funny, doesn't mean they are less important to our culture than stodgy, boring paintings (some). A cartoon is a reflection on what's going on in life, just as some fine art or other artforms are. Just look at all the cartoons on baby boomers, retirement, technology, avian flu, blogs, makeovers, internet dating, etc. Obviously political cartoons have cultural impact, but magazine gag cartoons and comic strips do as well.

CF. Is there any other area of cartooning you'd liketo work in, if you can find the time?

BE: Animation, maybe, but probably not. I've done magazine gag cartoons (my specialty), humorous illustration, greeting cards, newspaper syndication, a daily cell phone cartoon, scientific illustration, three of my own cartoon collections and some advertising.

Who were your major artistic influences?

BE: Chas. Addams, Edward Gorey, I used to copy my brother's cartoons, too. As a kid I read every single cartoon in the LA Times.

CF. Who was/is your favourite cartoonist/writer, of all time?

BE: Well, Fiend, I've always loved your bold lines and humor (Fiend faints). And I loved Virgil Partch (VIP) and Chas. Addams and many other New Yorker cartoonists. My favorites change from year to year. Sam Gross and Arnie Levin are always at the top of the list.
As far as humorous writers I like David Sedaris and Jerry Seinfeld (Letters from a Nut and the rest of those he claims he didn't write are 'fall-on-the-floor' funny).

CF. There's a lot of talk about a new 'paper-less future' and 'newdigital reading habits', do you think this will affect cartooning,at some point.

BE: Maybe. I don't know. People still like to read in bed with a good book (ideally a cartoon book). The paperless future has already changed how we do things, and sometimes this helps the cartoonist, sometimes not. Sometimes a great magazine will stop using cartoons and go online (or just stop using cartoons), but for some reason another market will come along. It always does. Also, one's website attracts all sorts of new markets that wouldn't have been possible, say, 30 years ago. Not to mention work appearing on websites themselves, cell phones, iPods, other digital media, etc.

CF. If you had the time, and you were helicoptered in to work onanything you chose, any publication, strip, panel, character,book, show, what would you like to work on?

BE: A movie that I wrote (would have written), a murder-comedy, maybe about an entomologist turned cartoonist? They say 'write what you know'. I'd have to study the murder part.

CF. Is there anything you'd rather be?

BE: Not really. I wanted to be a writer as well as a cartoonist and now I don't think that sounds like so much fun. Being freelance, I can go anywhere, travel anywhere and not have to worry about being chained to an office. Also, whenever I meet someone they are very impressed that I am a cartoonist.

CF. Thank you for visiting with us.

BE: Thank you for thinking of me. All the best.


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