Jim. K. Benton. (enough said.)
Jim Benton‘s work has been nominated for an Eisner Award, it has appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list, it has been honored by the Society of Illustrators, chosen three times by the American Librarians Association, it has won three Addy awards, and a Governor’s Award …it’s no surprise, then, that he’s one of the only webcomic artists with a Wikipedia page. Jim is a stalwart in the world of high-quality comic and cartoon creation, and is also one of the most recognizable contributors on sites like Reddit. Everyone knows his name, and if they don’t, then they’ve at least seen his work somewhere. He comes from decades of experience, and he has more knowledge about making comics, finding the funny, selling his work, and sharing it online than anyone else in the sphere of webcomics. Without further ado…
Questions in the beginning
Q: When did you start drawing and why?
Earlier than I can recall. I’m told that I was one of those “busy boys” and pens and paper were something I would actually sit down and be quiet with. Two years old.
How did you come to start publishing comics and cartoons online?
Posting cartoons online is kind of a recent development for me. When I discovered reddit, and that you could just post something and walk away, it was like electronic graffiti for me where you didn’t have to run from cops.
Who would you say were your main influences?
I think we’re all influenced by everything we see. I’m kind of a big dumb fan. I see things I like everywhere.
What’s your process for creating cartoons?
Usually I sit down and sketch for a few minutes and an idea will come. Sometimes I’ll give myself an assignment like: “draw something about wine” and then see if I can come up with anything.
What kind of ambiance do you need to work (music, setting, lighting, etc.)?
Ambiance and materials matter very little to me. I enjoy drawing in the dirt with a stick.
You are one of the most consistently good artists online—how do you come up with so many ideas? What’s your process for coming up with an idea, and what do you do when you hit writer’s block?
There’s no special process. I just sit down and start scribbling. Ideas come very quickly to me and even when I don’t want them. The hard part is that you can’t always tell what’s going to land. On occasion I’ll crack myself up with something that nobody else on Earth finds funny. I don’t really get writer’s block. I suffer from Writer’s diarrhea.
I don’t really get writer’s block. I suffer from Writer’s diarrhea.
Managing an online presence
What’s your advice for growing an online presence?
Draw more. Post more. Be nice. Try not to let criticism bother you.
You have a big readership—how do you engage them?
I try to let people know I appreciate their interest. I try to make sure I respond to questions and comments.
What is your favorite platform for publishing your work online?
I’m on GoComics and I like them a lot. Really nice folks at AndrewsMcMeel. I probably get the most views on Reddit.
Can you recall which cartoon was your most successful of all time? Why do you think it worked so well?
On reddit, it was one I did with an old lady handing on full size snickers bar. (Still waiting, by the way, for that crate of Snickers to arrive ). I suppose it worked because it had some popular elements—Halloween, candy, generosity, defeating death. Also it was upbeat. Easy to like.
Overall, it would probably be the first It’s Happy Bunny design I did.
You have so many books and awards it’s hard to keep track. For webcomic artists unfamiliar with the cartoon book publishing industry, how does one get started?
I really don’t have all the answers here. The way I got started in kids’ books was that I wrote one. Beginning to end, completely polished. And I pitched it to publishers. I had an advantage in that by that time, I had a platform to talk about. By that, I mean that I had created and widely licensed original properties that were successful at retail. Having some kind of a platform is important. I couldn’t PROVE that the book would sell, but I could prove that I knew SOMETHING about creating and selling original ideas. I had also worked as a contributing editor on Writers’s Digest magazine for years—this makes me sound smarter than I actually am; I was illustrating many of the writing articles. But this meant that I had to read all of them, and you pick up a thing or two that way.
I had also worked as a contributing editor on Writers’s Digest magazine for years—this makes me sound smarter than I actually am
What’s the story of how you came to publish your first book?
The very first book I published was the result of an article that People Magazine did about me and my t-shirt successes. An agent saw it and phoned me. She asked if I had a book I wanted to sell. “Yes,” I lied. I got together some cartoons and she pitched it to Simon and Schuster and they bought it. It was called DEALING WITH THE IDIOTS IN YOUR LIFE, and you can still get in on Amazon, but I have to warn you it is jam-packed with very dusty jokes about Madonna, and Dan Quayle and that sort of ancient history.
How long does it typically take you to create a publishable book?
It depends on the book. I can write a chapter book in about four weeks and then illustrate it and finish it up in six or seven more. Time to shelf depends on the type of book, where they print it, and how it fits into their schedule.
Do you travel a lot to promote your work?
Nope. I pass on most travel opportunities. I’m pretty happy here in my studio.
Tell us about the artist-agent and artist-editor relationship—is there any advice that you could give us about this area?
The artist-editor relationship can be phenomenal. They want you to be better, and if it’s the right editor for you, you want to be a better writer FOR them.
I don’t have a publishing agent, but I also have a manager, and we have a great relationship as well. Trusting each other is the biggest thing there, because when shit isn’t going the way you like, all the two of you will have left is faith in each other.
Do you have multiple agents and publishers?
What kind of circulation do your books have? Where do they sell best?
I’ve sold over ten million books. I’m not sure where they sell best. I just finished the 18th book in my Dear Dumb Diary series with Scholastic. I co-wrote and produced a made-for-TV movie musical with Janet and Jerry Zucker based on that series. You know Jerry form AIRPLANE! or GHOST!. I created a series for FoxKids way back when, so I was familiar with writing for script, and how things came together in a production. I had turned down a few earlier entertainment offers on the series, but c’mon, when the Zuckers called, how could I refuse? It’s on Netflix now, and it ran on Hallmark channel. We had hoped for broader distribution, but we had a great time making it, and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
I’ve sold over ten million books.
For all the webcomic artists who need to hear about your success: are you able to make a living drawing cartoons?
I make almost nothing on the web cartoons, but I don’t really try to. Some have been compiled into books, and my newest one is called MAN I HATE CURSIVE. I make a bit off the books. By the way, the cover of that one was chose by The Society Of Illustrators for their cartoon annual and it hung last summer in their gallery in New York. That was pretty awesome for me, to hang in a gallery with so many personal favorites.
Any words of encouragement for those of us who have had ideas shot down by publishers?
I get stuff passed on all the time. it’s just part of the business. You step into the ring, you’re going to get hit. But have some faith in your chin—know that you can take that punch and still come back. Everybody else is taking a beating, you just don’t see it. Shake it off, my friend. Over time you’ll discover that taking a punch can become the quality you value most in yourself.
The maze of merchandising
Do you handle prints yourself and mail them? Have you considered something like Zazzle for prints, since you use that site for the Happy Bunny Store?
We started doing the prints because people asked for them, and I knew I could do them here and we could offer them much cheaper to people than any other way. I think it’s really important to keep prices low. If people are really interested in collecting, they can buy originals, which we sell occasionally on Ebay. The drawings usually go for under a hundred dollars, and the paintings I think usually go for a few hundred. I should probably put more things up. I’m not a very good Ebayer. At auction, I’ve had stuff go for as much as 8000.00, but that seems like waaaaaaay too much to me. Maybe I should put more things into art auctions? Nah—I’ll keep dicking around on the computer.
So, how else do you sell your work?
I license it to manufacturers. The simple story is this: If a brand starts to sell at retail, it can snowball into a larger program. These can last for weeks or months or years. My property It’s Happy Bunny has generated more that 3/4 of a Billion dollars at retail, and we’re currently relaunching it with our very first partners Hot Topic. But Licensing is a very tough biz and requires a great deal of patience and practice. Nothing happens as quick as you’d like.
Maybe I should put more things into art auctions? Nah—I’ll keep dicking around on the computer.
About Jim Benton
Tell us about a typical day in the life of Jim.
I get up very, very, early. I make coffee. Everything depends on that moment. I might french press it, or hit the Keurig button, but this must happen. Then I look at what I’m supposed to be doing that day. Which I ignore while I dick around on the computer for a while. I draw a bit, just for the fun of it. I might post it, or toss it in a pile. Eventually I get to the deadline of the moment, which is always different.
Where are you from originally, and what inside scoop can you give us about your past, for those who are dying to know?
I wasn’t born in Michigan, but this is where I grew up, so this is home. As I kid, I regularly picked through the trash behind a local printshop for paper, and that’s how I always had enough. Sometimes the printers would put it out in nice little bundles for me. I worked professionally pretty young, but my first full time art job was drawing in a t-shirt shop. I still love screen printing.
Which of your own comics is your personal favorite?
The most recent. I’m always most excited by the most recent one.
How do you think funny comics affect the world?
Well, they improve it, don’t they? I’m not doing anything much different than our caveman ancestors did on cave walls. Their drawings were like “Hey. Remember bison?” And the other hominids smiled and nodded, and for a split-second, all they feel is that happiness. It’s a great thing to be able to share with people, those nanoseconds of happy.
It’s a post-apocalyptic world where the leadership class all shares the same pre-apocalyptic profession. Which would it be and why?
I’m guessing gunsmithing?
Someone comes up to you and hands you a briefcase of money before quickly running off. What do you do?
Run after them, “You have the wrong guy!”
Every movie ever made must be remade using only three actors. Which actors would they be?
Bill Murray. Julia Louis-Dreyfus. A trained bear.
You can only keep one of your senses. Which one?
All the human race must relocate to the moon. How do we all get there?
Tractor beam to pull the moon to earth. Then we can walk.
The world’s ending and you get to decide how:
Death by chocolate.
What’s your ideal home look like, where, etc.?
I’m living in it. Large messy studio in the house, pool in the yard. Barbecue grill.
You get one magical power. What is it?
The power to create graven images that can elicit brief moments of happiness.
Hint at the future
What projects do you have on the horizon?
I have some new books coming out. Some entertainment projects kicking around, new licensing junk.
What else are you up to that you’d like your followers to know about?
Hmmm. I don’t know. They can check in on my tumblr, or twitter or Facebook and see.
Thanks to Jim Benton for this wonderful interview.
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Happy Bunny merch: http://www.zazzle.com/itshappybunny
Happy Bunny on Hot Topic: http://www.hottopic.com/product/its-happy-bunny-politics-was-fun-t-shirt/10773530.html
Jim’s latest book: I Hate Cursive
Latest Dear Dumb Diary: Dumbness is a Dish Best Served Cold
Check out Jim’s Amazon Author page for it all
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