Who Are You? An interview with Bengo & Pug
Welcome to “Who Are You?”, the Webcomic Overlook’s first foray into interviewing people involved in the business of webcomics. This feature was actually going to go by a completely different name, but I had The Who on my iPod playlist this morning. You might call it fate.
The husband-and-wife team of Bengo and Pug produce two cartoony comics that are a pleasant mix of humor and drama. Li’l Nyet, which updates weekdays, conerns a feline demon in Soviet Russia. Scratchin Post, which updates weekends, follows the adventures of a group of eccentric, city-dwelling friends. In addition, Bengo manages a directory known as Psychedelic Treehouse (on which The Webcomic Overlook is featured as a link). Both have blogs: Bengo with a webcomic-focused blog called The Floating Lightbulb, and Pug with a more informal blog called Dog Toys and Dried Blood.
On The Floating Lightbulb, Bengo has not been afraid to speak out about several issues in webcomics today. His candor is sometimes confrontational, oftentimes refreshing, and always well researched. I contacted him via e-mail if he and his wife were game for an interview, and he and Pug gladly accepted.
Interview with Bengo and Pug
The Webcomic Overlook: Most people tend to work on webcomics by themselves. So I think it’s a pretty unique situation when there are two people working on a webcomic, and even moreso when the other person is your wife. How did you guys end up doing comics together?
Pug: We just wanted to make each other laugh. We still do. We are our audience. But next thing we knew we had shelves and shelves of sketchbooks loaded with Scratchin Post stories, and we thought, “Hmmm…” We didn’t start out with any sort of plan. For my part, I wasn’t even aware of the whole webcomic phenomenon. Not at all. The idea that we could clean up these drawings and put them online was completely new to me, and I’m not exactly a Luddite where the internet is concerned.
Bengo: We’ve only found about five other webcomics done by married couples, like nemu nemu. But there are of course many partnerships of friends and married couples where one manages the business end. Considering that print comics have pencillers, inkers, colorists, letterers and editors, doing a strip alone is pretty heroic.
We always wanted to collaborate professionally, so we’re pleased to be in a medium we love and which makes good use of our skill sets.
WCO: Looking at both Li’l Nyet and Scratchin’ Post, both prominently feature cats. Are they based on any felines you know in real life, or do you just like to draw cats?
Pug: I like drawing animals generally, but a number of years ago I’d started working on a comic about a whole cat universe after I found myself in accidental possession of 6 cats at once and became fascinated by the complexity of their relationships, and the various equations possible, e.g. take the orange one to the vet and suddenly the white one beats up on the spotted one, that sort of thing. Their universe was in perpetual flux. I called the comic strip “Nine Lives to Live”, since the whole thing was so soapy to me.
The tiniest things make cats SO MAD, and most of the humor was based on this simple truth. One character would, say, move closer to another cat it didn’t like, creating a thrilling cliffhanger. This ridiculous yet reality-based dynamic reminded me of old soap operas, when something bad was about to happen, with the accompanying “duh DUHHH” of an organ playing off camera. In a cat’s mind, sitting closer to another cat is a bold, hostile move akin to aiming a crossbow at their head. As with soap operas, nothing ever actually happens. (Well, mostly.) The downfall of “Nine Lives to Live” was my perfectly insane idea to create it using linoleum cuts. I thought it was genius, and it looked cool, especially hand-colored, but everyone thought I was nuts. You see, you make these linoleum cuts of each character in numerous poses, and you… never mind.
Trixie is based on a Black Lab I loved hopelessly for 14 years. Hence her last name, “Schwartz”, (German for black) even though the character is brown. It’s just about impossible to render a completely black cartoon character. At least it was with Trixie. Believe me, I tried. It could be said that I invented my Lab’s persona, but I think it came about organically. I’d say that’s the case with every pet I’ve had. They tell you who they are, the same way your best characters “write themselves”, as so many artists have observed about their own work. I know that sounds egotistical–or lazy–but it’s true. A good character writes itself, and tells you it would never say that and to cross it out and start over.
Bengo: Yes, some are based on pets, pets past and present. Dogs, too. But others derive from ideas or people. Katrinka of Scratchin Post and Li’l Nyet herself actually trace back to the same willful animal who likes to leave dead voles on our Wacom tablet.
But also, family. My grandmother fought Cossacks, starred in early motion pictures, shared one bed with her entire family, was betrayed by smugglers… She in turn told me many stories about her father, an inventor. That was an unusual vocation for anyone in that time and place. He reminds me of myself. I’ve had only a few real jobs, inventing my own career along the way.
WCO: Do you see any aspect of your personalities reflected in any of the characters you’ve created?
Pug: I puzzle over which one or ones are based on me–Bengo says I am Irv Poodlestein, which I find disturbing–so maybe I’m too close to them. It’s easy to peg the ones who are based on Bengo, and gender isn’t a factor, for anybody who is guessing. I would say that the dynamics between characters are more revealing and pertinent to our own personalities than any individual traits. And one character is just a direct ripoff of one of my sisters. (She doesn’t suspect.)
Bengo: Yes, and I am waiting for a reader to guess correctly any of them. It’s a little tricky, because they may draw from how I was as a teenager more than who I am now. Some of my buddies work their way into the cast as well.
WCO: Dialogue seems to be an important aspect to both strips. And I’m not just talking about the stilted English speaking style of immigrant Russians. In Scratchin’ Post, several sentences seem to be structured in such a way as to lend a fairly sophisticated aura. It reminds me of the speeches in Walt Kelley’s Pogo. What would you say influences the style of your characters’ dialogue (in either real life or in media)?
Pug: Children’s books. Everything I make is influenced much more by children’s books and cartoons than by comics, maybe because I didn’t have access to many comics as a kid, other than the crap in the newspaper. I didn’t have money to buy comic books, and in my family they were viewed as somewhere on a continuum between pulp novels and pornography. A copy of Mad magazine found its way to our front steps, and I recall being tarred and feathered.
I love the writing of William Steig, P.D. Eastman and Bernard Waber, to name just a few. It’s sort of “proper” and old-fashioned, and uses words that fell out of fashion before I was born, making them new again. I love words, I love language, and using old words in new ways is a lot of fun. Vintage idioms are another favorite.
I never liked Pogo. I probably shouldn’t admit that.
Bengo: The goal is to make every funny line as funny as possible. Certain words and constructions activate my funny meter, and if Pug agrees, we’ll try it. I don’t want to write it to make it difficult for people, but judging from our mail, our readers are smart and thoughtful, and we want to insert depth that will reward re-readings in the future.
I have some collections of vintage comics — Dick Tracy comes to mind — which I have re-read many times since I was a kid. R Crumb is another. I want our comics to be rich enough so that if they are ever printed in an attractive, collector’s-style binding package, they will come off the shelf for re-enjoyment. I like the lyrics of Elvis Costello because the more you listen, the more meaning and jokes and puns you pick up. I want people to find new rewards on re-reading, but without feeling they are missing something on the first round.
Sometimes there are story-advancing panels without room for a humorous element. Other times, there’s something to laugh at in every frame. Those are my favorites, the ones that keep hittin’ you.
WCO: Your (Bengo’s) blog (The Floating Lightbulb) mentions that Li’l Nyet has a decent readership in the Baltics, but among Russians (who are the stars of the strip), not so much. Any guesses why?
Pug: Oh, good, I don’t have to answer this.
Bengo: Some of our Russian friends are just glad to be out and free and don’t think back too much. But some I have spoken to online are quite touchy about their homeland’s political legacy. Russians love Russia, and will really put themselves out to make visitors feel welcome, even at risk of breaking their budget. When you mention Stalin, linked to more deaths than Hitler, you are putting a black wreath over their homeland. It is hard for the conscience to bear the weight of their history, and younger ones, who feel that was a long time ago, are often defensive.
Who can blame them? After a century of totalitarianism, dictatorship, corruption, collapse of empire and economic suffering, they feel they deserve a chance to proceed in the world and claim equal status. The fact that the Putin regime is routinely shooting journalists and political opponents, and looting the national treasury on a degree never seen before, are inconvenient facts that some would rather not face. Life has improved greatly, and there is a pent-up desire for status and the good life. With Li’l Nyet set in the Cold War Soviet Union, it picks the scab. Though during the current story line, which is less political and employs Baba Yaga, a famous figure from Russian folklore, our Russian readership has tripled.
Those who are historically suspicious of Russian intentions, like Poles, Lithuanians and Finns, have given us a sizable international following that surprises and delights us. Similarly, Scratchin Post plays well in France, because it pokes fun at American silliness in a way that resonates with French tastes in humor. No sooner did I mention that in public than a letter arrived from French cartoonist Nathalie Schon. It turns out she likes both strips.
WCO: What influenced your artistic style?
Pug: My older sister. She and I sat drawing comics and fake newspapers all afternoon and all summer for years. She’d draw and leave the balloons empty for me to fill in, and vice versa. Gradually I did more drawing and she did more writing. I went to art school, and she got married and became a mom. As adults we continued by mailing comics to each other. I have those lying around somewhere, but the earlier ones aren’t accessible to me. We made hundreds of comics, scribbled on notebook paper with ballpoint pens (only the best!), that are lost, most likely somewhere in my parents’ house. (This has been disputed vigorously.) Other than my sister, I’m not really sure where my style came from. I’ve always drawn the way I draw, and I never copied the work of other cartoonists the way many cartoonists say they did. (I probably should have–could have saved a bundle on art school.) Well, I did draw Snoopy, but only on his doghouse, in that WWII garb. That was it. I really liked puppets, too. I made lots of puppets as a kid. I honestly don’t know what/who my direct influences are. Maybe somebody else can tell me!
Bengo: Using the art supplies and paper at hand to keep from going mad with boredom in grade school. The other kids who cartooned all had their own tricks, and we traded knowledge by collaborating. Trust was built by reliably protecting the comics from teachers.
WCO: Is there a certain target group your comics are aiming for? Such as, say, elementary school kids or jaded college students?
Pug: Again, we make them for us, and we hope somebody else likes them too. I think it’s the only way to go, at least if you want to enjoy the process. I still love to read kids’ books, and I don’t think I’m alone–let’s face it, most are written for parents these days–and I suspect there are others like me, adults who like goofy stories where nobody dies, except maybe of embarrassment. Jaded college students are no fun at all. I certainly wasn’t.
Bengo: If they make you laugh, you’re in the demographic.
WCO: There’s a short series of strips in Li’l Nyet that seems to be poking (good-natured) fun at Ryan North. What’s your opinion on today’s more popular comics — like Dinsoaur Comics, xkcd, Cyanide & Happiness, Order of the Stick — which seem to value writing over artwork?
Pug: Well, obviously, as an artist, I’m pretty pro-art, and wish there were more of it–more good art, to be precise–but I don’t view the strips you listed as being the same thing as what we’re doing, and comparing them artistically doesn’t make much sense to me. They serve a different purpose, I think, and the art (such as it is) reflects that. They’re much more “gag”-oriented, too, which ours are not. I’ve read a few times that “the writing is more important than the art”, usually from fellow cartoonists, and I’m not sure I can agree with that. The reason is that the art for the xkcd genre *fits* the genre. I don’t know that it would be as funny or funny in the same way to have a gloriously rendered Cyanide & Happiness. Let’s face it, stick-figure comics are easy to do. So why aren’t there lots of them? (Well, lots that anyone reads.) Because there’s a “marriage” of the art and the writing that works, for the successful comics. Extrapolating, it stands to reason that this applies to all successful comics. And possibly marriage. Hey! Check me out. Awesome philosophy bookending there.
Bengo: Anyone appearing in a cameo in our work should interpret it as a salute to their accomplishments, even if we poke a bit of fun. Dinosaur Comics is a remarkable phenomenon: Ryan invented a way to do comics that worked around what he says are artistic limitations. How can you not admire that? Yet, there are some bulls eyes painted on his work, such as the most recognizable shade of green in comicdom. I couldn’t resist having a little fun there. I felt comfortable doing it because he knows my admiration for his accomplishments and conduct, and a large proportion of our readers have probably seen his strip.
I’ll tell you a secret: once, on a lark, I posted on a forum, “Who do you think has done the most for webcomics?” A number of people received votes, but Ryan ran away with it. All very unscientific, of course.
As for art, there is simple art and there is hasty, rushed art. As a two person team, we can do more than a person working alone, so we can’t take shots at less elaborate work. What I don’t like are comics that lack soul, where the characters are flat and lifeless. A couple of titles I like are medium-complex. Nanda’s Ugly Girl started very simple and the style blossomed but it’s still something most of us who draw at least a bit could draw with practice. Ant Guy by Adam Rutten is simpler in that it’s a black & white, and the level of detail moved it closer to the advanced level. What’s hard to duplicate is his incredible radar for use of black and white. So few do it well. As a lifelong Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) admirer, I regard Adam’s arrival as miraculous. That’s one webcomic all artists can study and learn from.
Let’s face it: frequency of update is a big factor in success. A person working alone, doing everything, is often going to have to seek efficiencies.
WCO: Are there other webcomic or print comic creators you regularly associate with?
Bengo: We’re both burned out former road warriors, so we like to stay home, work in our studios, and rely on the internet for a lot of conversation with colleagues. We’re within ten feet of each other about 22 hours a day.
I can’t offer a list without leaving some out. Some of my web friendships that mean a lot to me are with Chris Harding of We the Robots, Drew of Toothpaste for Dinner, Delos Woofruff of Frog Pond and the ArtPatient Webcomic Blog, Kez of War of Winds, Steve Hogan of Acid Keg, fluffy [with a lower case f] of Busybee comics, not to mention some readers. I hit it off with Jay, the guy doing the Webcomics Collage project. Oddly, Delos and Kez don’t live all that far from us. But Upstate NY is a big region.
Pug: I have absolutely no friends.
WCO: When you commented on my blog, The Webcomic Overlook, you expressed your disdain for pop culture references in comics (which, lets face it, is pretty much the crux of most webcomics these days). I noticed that the same principle is reflected in your own comic, which drive the focus toward either historical culture or everyday foibles. Why do you think pop culture references are bad for webcomics?
Bengo: Well, I may be overstating the case, but they are transient, and they seem to lock a comic into a time period. There is a risk of becoming a historical reference for a certain period, understood by few and read by fewer. Some comics become dated but remain excellent, like Buck Rogers and Popeye. Even when Buck is in deep space with a goldfish bowl over his head for air, we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy the strip. But the dialog is not weighed down with “23 Skidoo” and catch phrases from that era. I hope I am matching eras with at least some overlap.
I like stories about people with deep souls, and pop culture lifestyles are somehow shallow and empty by comparison to me. Pop culture is a gimmicky way of bonding with people, because it’s not about what they have in common, it’s about two people having something in common with a game, or slang, or trend, and having that in common.
Pug: On the one hand, pop culture humor writing is lazy, empty and meaningless. On the other, I love The Simpsons. South Park, too. Both loaded with pop culture. Both ARE pop culture. But–going out on limb, steady, steady–the references are well-chosen and continue to have heft and meaning 15-20 years on. I doubt this is an accident. A 1993 episode of The Simpsons still makes me laugh. It may contain jokes about pet rocks or whatever, but there is layering, and meaning (usually). The history we make use of was once “pop culture”. It held up, and now we’re exploiting it. Thanks, historians!
WCO: Let’s talk about the Psychedelic Treehouse, your directory to several active sites about webcomics. What inspired you to start this project? What is its main goal?
Bengo: When I switched from zines and self-publishing to the web, I found it very hard to learn the essentials of webcomics. So I created a file of useful information, which became a site, and recently is receiving contributions from another half dozen writers and artists. I thought the site might take off and become a portal to our two comics, but it’s worked the other way. The comics are bigger. But we get mail about the treehouse site, with people expressing appreciation for how much they learned from it or offering suggestions. We think of it as open-source webcomic information, and tentatively plan an eBook in the future for people who would like to download it at cost. The working title is Surviving and Thriving in Webcomics. We don’t hype how wonderful webcomics life is, we offer blunt talk about the significant challenges. But we love webcomics and want to lighten the load for anyone making one.
It’s a sprawling site, and I am hoping some of the other participants help me get it under control. It has ideas and advice from the “How-to” zone: networking, monetizing, tools, etc. It covers collectives, webcomic blogs and portals. It has a link list approaching 2000 titles, including a foreign section. Archived interviews and reviews may be detached at some point.
The essential point is that it’s always evolving, with contributions from all over, even if we are simply linking to items like Howard and Sandra Tayler’s blog series on merchandise fulfillment. The challenge is to organize it for ease of use and get plenty of feedback so we know what’s working and what isn’t. We need to devise a way to announce what’s new more easily, so people can find it. If you count linked pages, we’re trying to manage easily over 100,000 pages of webcomic guidance, tutorials, history and some plain craziness. It’s very fun and forces me to learn things I might not. Currently I am making an index to aid navigation, it’s gotten so big.
Pug: Again, I don’t have to answer this. Score!
WCO: You’ve been a very vocal critic against meaningless award ceremonies. Rather than popular vote, which is how the WCCA’s are run, I think you suggested some sort of governing board. Who do you think would make up such a board, and by what criteria should webcomics be judged?
Bengo: Well, bear in mind, I say my share of dumb things. But let me explain my thinking. It seems we have a nice idea which is flawed by fairness problems. For example, is someone the best at something if the voting group is too small to be statistically significant? We must be honest about what is an award and what is a popularity contest that can be swayed by elbowing your friends for support.
A review process could calculate what number of ballots need to be received to declare a proposed ceremony fair and valid. They would not be a replacement for real voters. Some people considering sponsoring an award might think twice, and it would keep us from cheapening the coin by having too many awards. Some have obviously become publicity opportunities, and serve two masters. From what I’ve seen, it appears that no voting site or award ceremony has met the fairness threshold in years.
We might not need a board. There might be a book or guidelines about insuring ballot fairness. But if we did a board (and I can see that causing more fighting than it’s worth), it needs someone who’s good at math and a couple of people who are calm and competent to verify the lead person’s analysis and offer advice for adjustments for a competition that is found wanting but still stands a chance of being salvaged and run well.
It could simply be someone who is good on the topic offering to review a proposal and comment, and endorse the ones that meet fairness standards. Completely voluntary: someone offers to critique and credential ceremonies while they are in their formative stages. Their reputation rises or falls with the fairness of the ceremony.
My concerns about fairness are mostly about science: I want the conclusions to be reliable. But they are somewhat about awards going to people who are slick, and spin their stories to their own advantage. That’s unhealthy. A few people have gotten swollen heads and a snobby attitude and I think it has harmed their careers. And for what? Awards at too young an age can do damage. They make people slack off prematurely. Backed by the full weight of a broad and fair vote, they can be good, showing the community’s faith in someone and giving them an incentive to aid them if they stumble.
WCO: You also have been critical of the sorry state of real reporting in webcomics. What are your biggest grievances, and how do you think they can be fixed?
Bengo: One is either a webcomics journalist, and you follow journalistic ethics in your work, or you are a blogger and you do whatever you want. I aspire to the webcomic journalist title, but I have been called on my failings by friends like Alan Gardner of Daily Cartoonist, and to earn the title, I have to continuously improve. It’s been years since I worked as a journalist, but I’m still proud of my best work.
There are people using the fancier title — good people, who have contributed enormously to comics — who do not follow the code. This means thuggish types can beat up on a journalist whose review irritated them without fear that other journalists will investigate and report the story. I think aggressive conduct by cartoonists, both obscure and well-known, is a story, and when they attack the media by harassing their family, spamming their sites and other common troll tactics, it’s an even bigger story. When it’s a minor celebrity, the story should be investigated and, if credible, reported throughout our internal media. It forces people to think twice about shabby conduct, and it just might save the careers of some of the ultra-thin-skinned, ultra-defensive characters by forcing them to keep their worst instincts in check.
Bloggers can write whatever they want, but when one writes a shabby, incorrect story proclaiming a breakthrough analysis of someone’s else’s methodology, claiming to prove it is false, and the story doesn’t hold up, is it a story when they refuse to retract it? To me it is, because it says a person will print nonsense to get attention, and people have a right to know that. Right now, the most irresponsible bloggers can get away with that because one person holding them accountable is a grudge; three or four holding them accountable is a public relations disaster.
The fix is to put professional conduct on the news topic list. I would also like to see us all work together more, including acknowledging criticisms and responding instead of hiding. I would like to see it become known that anyone abusing one journalist will be receiving inquiries from others, whose goal is to get the facts and cover the story fairly. Besides being a webcomicker or a moderator of a forum, this is one of the hardest jobs in webcomics. Being lone wolves helps keep us honest, but we must be prepared to draw together and lead the public to the scene of bad conduct no matter how big the name or what claims of self-justification they are peddling. Let word circulate: you want to question what a journalist has reported, you write a sober essay or similar item; you don’t email threats to their family members or post false articles.
Delinquent behavior can be defeated, but not as long as many people are comfortable with it as a fact of life. The price of that attitude is living in fear. I don’t live in fear.
Pug: We have a mean dog.
Bengo: You see? There’s a comic.