MOME Interview 4: Jonathan Bennett
Saturday, 25 February 2006

This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 4.

It was practically inevitable that Jonathan Bennett would become a cartoonist: Growing up in Syosset, a suburb on Long Island, he was a comics geek at an early age, reading newspaper strips first (Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Ziggy), then graduating, if that is the word, to shitty Marvel comics at the age of eight or nine. I use the word 'shitty' advisedly since Jonathan admitted to loving Marvel's Secret Wars II series, one of the most incontestably awful comics series ever conceived. But apparently nothing could stop the young Master Bennett, not even a love of Secret Wars II. He became obsessed, as we all did: He wrote and drew his own X-Men stories, would draw his homework assignments in comic book form when he could get away with it, went to comics conventions with his dad, and even took weekend cartooning classes at the age of 10 or 11.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook

His interest waned somewhat when he became a teenager when music (Nirvana, the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Frank Black, and even "older" bands, he says, like Talking Heads and the Velvet Underground) and starting a band replaced comics as a creative interest. He kept drawing, just not comics. After high school, he attended The Hartford Art School, where his interest was revitalized when he was given a copy of Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, which was something of a revelation ("I was definitely shocked when I read It's A Good Life. I read it in one evening on a train ride..."). He began to realize the artistic possibilities of comics when he started reading more widely — Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Joe Matt, Dave Collier, Chris Ware, but still wasn't sure enogh of himself to draw comics full-bore: He drew some sample strips he wanted to submit to the college newspaper but got cold feet and never did. "That was where my comics career began and ended as far as I was concerned in college. I figured I should just be a fan. I'm not meant to do this."

After he graduated, he and his wife-to- be Amy moved to Brooklyn, where he got a job in a tiny T-shirt factory literally spending eight hours a day silkscreening T-shirts — "exactly one year of horribleness" is how he describes it, but which at least inspired him to try to draw a comic about it. From there he got a job at D.K. Publishing as a designer, and had to devote pretty much all his time to leaning how to design books "while putting up a facade like I knew what I was doing" — doing it and faking it at the same time is like two full time jobs, as most of us know, and leaves little time to actually draw comics, so his comics production as put on hold.

Luckily he got laid off three weeks after 9-11 and, using The Jules Feiffer Career Advancement Method, used the time he was subsequently paid unemployment compensation to buckle down and teach himself cartooning. "It was during that brief month and a half of unemployment when I went out and bought a drafting table and finally researched online and found out what pen nibs to buy and practiced with them and started working really hard at trying to draw like a cartoonist." Arguably, this worked.

In 2002 he self-published the first issue of Esoteric Tales and the second and last issue in 2003. These two small comics were all I'd seen before I invited him to be part of MOME, and, in retrospect, look like mere warm-ups to the longer, more formally elaborate work that he's done in MOME. His approach to storytelling has congealed: Jonathan's work reminds me of Robert Bresson's in its sparseness, economy, and interiority.

This interview was conducted in late February, 2006 and edited by Jonathan and myself.

—Gary Groth

jonathan bennett: I started working on my first comic stories. I made a couple short ones that have since been thrown away and were never published. Then I went to MoCCA [in the summer of 2002] and was introduced to so many more minicomics and other books and stuff like that; I didn't have a table, I just wandered around at that one. But I brought my first Esoteric Tales to that.

gary groth: Because you were something of a designer and because you studied printmaking, you could publish your own comic.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook
jb: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I think I just started buying a lot of minicomics around New York at bookstores and comic shops and stuff so I figured out that there was a big community of people making these Xeroxed books and things that were printed on their home printers. I had been working on my own comics from October through June, so I'd been working for like eight months at the time, and threw out a lot of comic strips that didn't come out well, but had practiced enough and gotten confidence enough that I was able to put together a book's worth of material — that first issue. I made that a deadline for myself when I had learned about the show when it was first announced, people were talking about it on the message boards, so I said, "OK, well, I'll make my first comic and I'll hand it out to people at MoCCA."

I can't get anything done without a deadline, so that worked, miraculously. I just started using all my free time, I got out of music, stopped being in band and stuff. My last band broke up badly, and I just put all my creative energies into comics instead.

gg: There are only two issues of Esoteric.

jb: Yeah, pretty much; there's also those two really small minicomics that are sort of Esoteric Tales also, they're just smaller.

gg: They're just really really esoteric tales.

jb: Those are also self-contained short stories, whereas Esoteric Tales is more of a couple of stories in each book. It took a lot longer to produce. I would do those little miniature books in like two weeks, and Esoteric Tales, those would take me forever to do because I was just slowly working on random comics and didn't know what I was doing. Eventually, when a comics convention would come up, then I would say, "Oh, I better start finding stuff I can print."

So I didn't really have a plan of what would be in it until I found out there was a comics show coming up and that I have to fill up 16 pages.

gg: It seems like those first two issues were a learning experience; I can kind of see where you're learning how to develop an inking technique, for example.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
Observational painting
jb: Yeah, definitely, I was trying out all those different things like brushes for the first time. I'd used nibs before, several kinds, and never well, and finally started using different things and trying lettering professionally and buying an Ames guide and all that stuff. Trying to learn how to make things as well crafted as possible and I really was trying really hard even though I look at them now and cringe at a lot of this stuff, but I really tried hard to make them look as professional as I possibly could.

gg: There seems to be a real break between Esoteric Tales and all the work you've done in MOME — the first story you did in MOME is not dissimilar stylistically to the fourth story you've done in MOME. there's a stylistic coherency to all the stuff you did in MOME which is quite different from what you did in Esoteric Tales. Was that shift a conscious decision or a gradual evolution that looks abrupt?

jb: I guess you could call it a conscious decision, it was more of a...

gg: A very deliberate refinement?

jb: It was just fear; I was afraid, I had never been published before by anyone, so when you guys contacted me about it, I just freaked out and I didn't feel like anything I had printed to date was good enough for a real publisher to have published. I was already very critical of all that stuff, even though it was only a couple of years old. I just made myself work extra hard at trying to make everything better. I was just really freaked out by the whole opportunity that you guys had given me. [Groth laughs.] I felt a tremendous amount of pressure.

gg: I guess that had a good effect on you.

jb: Yeah, I've read that interview, some publicity thing that I guess Eric [Reynolds] has shared with a few interviews, where he said part of the reason that you guys wanted to put together MOME was so that you could get work that otherwise wouldn't have been created out of some newer, under-published cartoonists. I think with me, that's exactly what happened. I never would have written these stories, they weren't kicking around in my head waiting to be written when I had the time or anything like that. These were things that I've had to come up with on the spot because I knew I had a deadline all of a sudden.

It's been really great for me, because it made me work harder and it made me take it seriously on a new level. I was really trying hard, but it upped the ante to have you guys looking over my shoulder and knowing that you'd be reading it, and knowing you guys were committed to publishing whatever it was that we handed in, pretty much.

gg: Let me ask you how you construct a story. All your stories are around eight to 10 pages or so. You don't write the entire story out first, I assume.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook
jb: No, no. I've never worked on anything longer than maybe three pages, or four pages, until I started working on MOME. I would do those stories that you saw in Esoteric Tales, that were maybe 10 pages long, but really they were on only two sheets of paper and I would chop up the squares and make them — I had these big Chris Ware rip-off style pages with 24 panels on a page, where I was really trying to make it look like one big solid old Sunday newspaper page or something, and then I would reconfigure them to fill up Esoteric Tales when a comics show was coming up. Just to fill up 16 pages.

This is the first time that I knew that I'd have to make full pages and make a 10-page story for real, so yeah, I used to write those stories. It's easy to say "OK, this is what's going to happen, it's going to be this brief little anecdote," and I would just make myself a chart. I got this very loose idea of what I would get started with as an opening sequence, and one thing that I would, like thumbnail it out and do a lot of the writing on the page as I get started and not really know where it's going to end up. It's been a weird experiment. Not very well planned at all. Sort of a surprise.

gg: There's an organic quality to your stories that I wouldn't necessarily think indicates that you have a blueprint before you started drawing. In fact, your stories almost seem like a narrative version of a train of thought — that connections the mind makes routinely becomes a narrative, one things leads to another that leads to another that leads to another.

jb: Yeah. That's exactly what it is, just trying to think how something has to happen on this page, and trying to further a simple storyline that's going underneath one story that may or may not have a goal or an ending. Trying to keep things interesting visually and not only to allow what's happening to inspire the next panel, and lead to the next section of the story, but also to visually try and use certain points and jump off of them visually. It definitely is an organic sort of thing that grows on the page as each panel leads to the next.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook

gg: Right, right. It almost replicates the way you reflect on things when you're driving or when you're on the subway or when you're not focusing on something in particular and your mind starts wandering.

jb: That's pretty much what it is; I have to sit at the drawing table and let my mind wander in order to come up with another idea. I don't know, it's really weird to try to have that come across. It's weird to me that that comes across reading my comic, because it's not really a train of thought, because all that stuff happens moment to moment, and with the stories, they're taking me weeks and weeks to finish everything. It will take me two weeks to finish one page sometimes, because I only get to work for maybe an hour and a half or three hours at a time each night or something like that. I'm pretty slow at working. But I guess I write the page fairly quickly and don't necessarily commit to everything on the page, but have an idea of where it's going to go.

gg: Do you design the page and lay it out and have the figures placed and then write it, or do you write it —

jb: Yeah, I usually write the actual thoughts and things being said, those are usually written as they're being lettered, because I can't really think that far ahead, because each panel — I don't know, sometimes I'll only have a panel and I don't know exactly what's going to be in the next panel, I'll just know that on this page, a certain thing will happen by the end of the page, and try and write my way up to that event, and then move on to the next thing and then get past it. I don't really have a method yet, I haven't really figured out why I do things the way that I'm doing them or exactly what I'm doing.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From Esoteric Tales #1
Sometimes I try and just allow the character to write the story for me. They're not really autobiographical stories, I'm not retelling what actually happened in my day, they're sort of things that happen to everyone and have happened to me, so I do have my real-life experience to work off of. But, it would be really boring if I told it as it happened. So instead I'm using circumstances as a springboard. Like, then what could happen, or sometimes I just find it writing itself and not trying to pick what would happen, but instead would feel something else coming. I don't think it happens unconsciously, a lot of the ideas, and then I'll have to sit down and actually write out things.

gg: It sounds very intuitive.

jb: I think so. I don't know if that's a good idea or not, and it's hard to count on that, to sit down at the drawing board and hope that something just feels right, or — [Groth laughs]. I wish I had it written out, and I wish I could just sit down and then tell the story that I knew I wanted to tell, but it hasn't happened that way yet.

gg: Well, as long as it works. I don't think there's a 'right' way or a 'wrong' way.

jb: I guess so, yeah, but I don't even know if it's working [Groth laughs], I'm having a hard time evaluating my own work and trying to move ahead and try different things. It's been a difficult, weird process, and it's all because of the page lengths, because I'm just not used to knowing that something is going to be 10 pages. I'm getting more used to it, but it's still really weird that it has to keep going and going and going. [Groth laughs.] I can't just stop when I feel like something has happened successfully. OK, now I'm on page three. So that's how those stream of consciousness stories emerged, I think.

gg: When you construct a story, you don't necessarily have beginning, middle, and end, it continues page by page until it ends?

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook

jb: Sometimes. Sometimes all I will have is the ending. Like with the story in this issue, I had that whole idea of creeping into the mattresses and emerging from them at the end. So I knew that would happen. But all that happens in the last two pages. So, getting up to that point was the tough part. I just knew I didn't want to open up with that happening. So yeah, sometimes the one section of the story that got me started on an idea doesn't necessarily have to be the beginning, middle or end, and all those parts are never there when I've gotten started on a story. It's either knowing that I'm going to work my way up to something and trying to fill in the blanks, or starting off with an idea, using it up, or trying to preserve some part of that idea so that it can also tie into the ending somehow.

gg: All the characters in the first four stories could be the same character; with the fourth one being the same character maybe 20 years later.

jb: I feel like that was a huge mistake. I don't know why I made that someone who wasn't myself, or not the same character I've been using, whoever that person is; I don't know if it even feels like it is me or not. It was a weird — I wanted a change visually. I wanted to try something different. So I thought I would try and put it all on someone else's physical body. I don't know if that worked or not, but we'll see.

gg: In the first three stories, does the main character look like you? Because I don't even know what you look like.

jb: Yeah, yeah, I think so. It's a caricature. I've been told by people, "You look just like you draw yourself in your comics." And I've also been told by people, "You look nothing like you draw yourself in your comics." [Groth laughs.] So I don't know who's right. But yeah, it's definitely based on myself, it's just a little cartoony version of me.

gg: Now the characters are all microscopically obsessed. They're all pretty insular, and in all the four stories, there're only two other characters.

jb: Yeah. It's the guy who's picking up junk or whatever?

gg: Yes, and the other is a girl who has a cameo for one page and then disappears. The stories are primarily one character, either wandering around or reflecting.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From Esoteric Tales #2
jb: That's true, that's my problem. [Laughter.]

gg: Or your strength.

jb: Yeah, I don't know.

gg: So why, you don't write stories where characters interact with other human beings?

jb: I don't know if it's because I just can't do it or I'm afraid to attempt it or what. I think I also spend a lot of time just wandering around alone. That's where I do all my deep thinking. [Laughs.]

Who knows; I don't know. I don't want to transcribe conversations in my comics. I hate the idea of that. Eventually I will try my best to do that, to bring in different characters who are interacting, but I have a fear of that, I don't always like that when it's happening in comics. If you don't really have a solid storyline, then it's hard to improve that sort of stuff...for me.

I feel like I'm still learning how to do comics, still trying to learn how to do the basics of it, of writing. I feel like I would need an actual story written down, not necessarily a script, but at least a thumbnail and an idea with a beginning, middle, and end to incorporate other characters like that. I don't know why that is, but the only other characters that I can handle at this point seem to be these people who are on this periphery, edge of things.

gg: In a way, it seems to me what you're doing is very difficult to do, especially in comics, which is that you are creating a narrative out of the interior of these characters' lives. Basically, it's them thinking to themselves or making connections through observation.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook

jb: I think that it allows me to do things visually though, or at least it's made me try and consider the visual side of comics and storytelling instead of just having 12 frames of a talking head or having someone sitting somewhere. It's made me try and keep it a little more interesting, have something else happening visually. So I don't get bored, and so that I feel like there's something worthwhile going on. Whether it's something like a pigeon sideline story that's happening in #2, or flashbacks. I don't know, just having things happening in the environment around me.

gg: Well, they're interacting with the world, but just not with people in the world.

jb: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I can't explain what it is, I think I'm just embarrassed to say that I'm not an experienced enough writer to have taken the plunge. I'm self-obsessed, egotistical, I don't know what the word is. [Groth laughs.] I don't know what my problem is, but I definitely want to get away from it, and I tried really hard to begin to break away from it with issue four by making it not myself. But that didn't work, because it became me anyway.

gg: Your characters almost always start reflecting back to childhood.

jb: Yeah. I tried to avoid that. It even happened in #4 again. I do not use the same device that I've used in the past, those little like, rip off Sugiura-style manga children. I think it's in the first two stories. I couldn't help but make those connections with the world and how I was interact it with those stories. Those were the things where I see it happening and that's how the writing process happens. That's the connection drawn, and I doodle down the next square, and that's just what it becomes. I just try to let it write itself. I definitely try to avoid doing that though, for a little while. I didn't want to do that in #3 or in #4, because I felt like I was doing the same exact thing twice.

gg: Do you yourself do that? Reflect upon your childhood and relate it to your current life?

jb: I don't know.

gg: Is that connection important to you?

jb: It must be. Definitely, because all those things happen regularly, it's very much my normal train of thought, all those things always pop up, things are always reminding me. I don't know if that's any different for anyone. It seems very natural, I don't feel I'm obsessed with my childhood, or trying to get back to it. I have fond memories of childhood, lots of funny stories that always seem to pop up. So I don't know why that is. I don't feel like there's a particularly interesting reason for it.

gg: Your characters also have pretty vivid fantasy lives in the sense that they'll imagine themselves, well, talking to an anthropomorphized version of some inanimate object. In Esoteric Tales, it was the nib of a pen. I think in the first story, there was something like that. The back of the guy's head was talking to you.

jb: That's definitely something that I'm guilty of. I have lots of fake conversations with all kinds of inanimate objects or with people who I've never met while I'm wandering around, I just find myself just talking, not out loud, to myself, I definitely have a lot of interior monologues and dialogues with myself. So. It's a weird way of thinking. Strange, I don't know, but I definitely have always brought inanimate objects to life in my brain, I can't help but consider their feelings or whatever it is, because I have really strong reactions to things like that. I get really angry at inanimate objects a lot of the time. [Laughter.] So I can't help but put words in their mouth.

Illustration by Jonathan Bennett
From sketchbook

gg: You said that in the story that's in this issue, that you had the last couple of page in your head first. What did that represent, his crawling into the bed and... Back to the womb, or — ?

jb: That's the obvious connection. I think it's one of those things that was much more random until I decided to start writing the first page and made the obvious connections right there with the title of the story. Yeah, it's more of something I've always done since I was little, just really being fascinated by and always drawn to creeping into really small places. I don't know why that is. I've now been consciously obsessed with it, but I always used to like doing that. Slowly pushing myself through the — my bed in my childhood bedroom was against the wall, and I would always squeeze myself between the crack between the mattress and the wall and slide down until I was under the bed. Slowly pushing the bed off the wall. I remember doing that a lot. Not something I ever did with friends, we didn't play and build caves or anything, and dig underground like Joe Matt apparently did. I don't know, it's one of those things I never have even done in real life. That whole mattress, the dualmattress womb. I'll have to try that someday if I ever am in a hotel with two mattresses. [Groth laughs.] It's probably pretty awesome.

The whole thing could be a product of being a certain age during the Baby Jessica event. Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas and I remember staying up really late to see the man with the collapsible collarbones shimmy down the hole to save her. Maybe that's part of it. My mom has told me the story of how they told her they might have to break my collar bone to get me out of her because I was so big. I think that all answers your question. I have a fixation on "tunneling" because of my birth experience and Baby Jessica. I wanted to be the hero who could save the girl, though I think that guy commited suicide when I was in high school.

gg: One of the lamentations I hear from cartoonists is that the sheer labor of drawing comics is so arduous, and it seems like yours would be more arduous than most, because your stories hinge on such inert details: somebody sitting on a park bench or wandering around a neighborhood wondering where he left his cup and so forth. Is it in fact arduous to do that?

jb: Yeah, it is; it's one of those things where Amy, like I said, goes to the studio, and she spends her 8, 9 or 10 hours at the studio, and then she comes home around the time I get home from the office and then I sit down at my drawing board. Right now, I've been on this writing vacation, since I finished the last MOME story, spending my nights working on some freelance illustration jobs and design work, but once I've started on a story, pretty much every night I try to sit down and work for a couple of hours, and she just hates it, you know? She's very supportive and she likes my comics and she likes that I'm doing it and wants me to do it, but she always resents the fact that she's on the couch, trying to relax, just staring at the back of my head. [Groth laughs.] She doesn't complain about it too much, but she occasionally gets very sick of it, and I can completely understand because I'm also doing the same thing to myself I feel sometimes. Like, "Why am I doing this?"

I don't know if I even feel like I like what I'm working on at the time, and I just don't know if it's working, I feel like I'm just putting myself through some sort of torture, because it is very time-consuming, and it's not like this energetic, creative experience. You're not in a room with a bunch of people like I was in art school working on prints and everyone's helping each other out with projects and helping make decisions together. It's very isolated and you do it all on your own. Maybe that has something to do with it. I've also been much less social as I've gotten into comics. When you're in a band, then you bring your song out to your friends and you play it for them and then everyone joins in, it's this big social thing, even if only with three people.

gg: It's a very isolated activity. You must have an enormous amount of discipline.

jb: I've been working on that. I'm really not that disciplined. I'm lucky if I can get a couple of hours of work out a night.

gg: What I was referring to was a discipline in the sense that your pacing is so very, I don't know if methodical is the right word, but it's so slow. You don't rush things, is the positive way of putting it. And that, it seems to me, would require discipline, there would seem to be something in the back of your head saying, "Come on, get this thing moving," but you certainly resist that impulse, which I think is one of the virtues of your art. It's so observant of the minutiae and the details of daily life.

jb: I think that's more of what I'm excited about, I'm giving myself a story and a dumb situation that's really inconsequential to deal with so that I can just basically bring out details and observe them and have them happen in my comics on their own. Those are the sort of things that seem to write themselves, that I don't really think about too much. They happen casually, and I actually get excited about working and making those things happen, just small details that I didn't foresee, and that weren't part of my one sentence at the top of my blank page of Bristol board, this has to happen on this page, here's the next event.

gg: Right. Are you always taking mental notes, as you go through your daily routine?

jb: Not as much as I probably should, because I find myself desperately trying to dredge up a memory that I thought would have been a good idea. And I don't always write them down, but I do always keep a sketchbook around, I usually have one in my bag or my pocket and try to write down ideas. But a lot of the times, they really do write themselves and it's more exciting that way, to not have an idea of, "Oh, wait, I should make sure that this small detail comes out in one of my stories in the future."

Instead, I know that I've seen these things, so I must be taking some sort of unconscious mental notes of them in order to remember them. It's more like when I'm writing the story than I'm almost trying to remember how it happened, even though it didn't necessarily happen to me. I'm trying to write down the story as if it were a memory, even if it didn't really happen in any specific order. I may or may not have ever experienced that sort of thing.

gg: You've got to be extrapolating from memory but changing the context or changing the situation.

jb: Yeah, because these are all things that I've either witnessed or thought about it, or obsessed over. When they come out, it's usually surprising, and hopefully it will work [Groth laughs], I hope that they fit into the story.

gg: This is how things would unfold if you actually sat on a park bench and watched pigeons for 20 minutes.

jb: Yeah, exactly, which never really happened. I saw the chicken bone being feasted on by a couple of pigeons a couple of years ago and that was just the seed for a story, but a lot of the stuff in that story, just sort of came out of that story as I was writing it, which worked I guess.

gg: It seems like a great way to work, really. It gives you free play. I'm always leery of people who create vast blueprints, and then follow them assiduously [Bennett laughs], rather than letting the story itself create more opportunities.

jb: It's very limiting of course, and I really want to get away from it, at least for a little while, and try to bring two things together at once, so I have another style of working, at least. Because I really don't like being tied down to that and making the same sort of stories.

gg: I look forward to a story from you with two people in it.

jb: Yeah. [Laughs.] It'll happen, I think. I don't know if it will be any good, but it will happen.

gg: A cast of two, or a cast of three.

jb: I think I'll make that jump, hopefully for the next story, I don't know, I haven't even gotten started on it yet.

gg: We could put that in the press release.

jb: Yeah. [Laughs.] So we'll see, we'll see. I'm working on it. I just feel like I've hardly been doing this at all, even though I've been doing it for a few years now.

More books featuring Jonathan Bennett (click covers for complete product details)

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Price: $14.95

All books featuring Jonathan Bennett