Jen, in addition to Manya you also write poetry and plays, right? What else are you working on these days? Where else can we find your stuff?
BENKA: Because Kris and I are both Geminis, we are both drawn to working on a minimum of two creative projects at once. We both are usually pretty productive, but every blue moon we turn into werewomen and howl.
In addition to Manya and Max & Lilly, Kris and I are collaborating on a project tentatively titled Girl World - a comic book for... girls!
I recently wrote and produced an interdisciplinary performance piece called Tree Stories, which involved 100 slides of trees and wood I've taken in the past year, and original music and monologues which reflect on trees and wood as metaphor and natural resource. It's not a blatantly environmental piece, though. It's a more subtle and simple presentation of stories about trees and woods things that have been important to particular characters in some way.
I'm completing a manuscript of Fourteeners, which are usually two-line poems of 14 syllables (Fourteen syllables to contain/ A thought so small it keeps.) Kris experimented with a few of my earlier fourteeners and produced some completely compelling images to go with them. I've recently sent her some of the new ones, and if we're lucky, Kris will work her magic. I've written 130 fourteeners so far and will be ordering them by theme and subject. I hope to shop the manuscript around to some poetry publishers when it's finished. I'm looking forward to being rejected- it's been awhile since I've tried to publish, and I kind of miss those one-page letters from editors who just don't get it. The subjectivity of that process can be kind of invigorating.
Jen wrote and performed with the band MOOK,
which she tells us means "good-for-nuthin" in the Netherlands.
I've also recently completed writing a set of music. I've written and performed music with a few bands, and released a CD a few years back. I'm in the process of organizing a new band, and hope to be playing out by late summer. In the meantime, I've laid down a recording I'm calling Two Tracks and An Empty Room.
I'm writing a novel. And have been for a year and a half. This is a completely different experience from anything I've written before. It's a mysterious process. It's arduous. I hate it and I love it. I hope one day to finish it.
From Jen's photography portfolio.
I've been preparing my photography for review by some gallery owners, and I'm working on a visual-poetry project I can't detail, because it's just hatching.
At this time, there's no real way to get any of my stuff unless you live in Milwaukee or contact me. I'm happy to share, though.
Kris, in addition to Manya and Max & Lily you're an art director at a children's book publisher, and you've done greeting cards, right? Is this stuff your comix fans should track down?
DRESEN: Ummmm, not really. The kids books I work on don't have my name on them and I don't illustrate them. I just do the book design and art direction. You'd have to be a real hard-core fan to want to have those! ("Yes, this is one of Kris'! See? The typeface on the copyright page is set with Gil Sans! Kris always uses Gil Sans!")
A greeting card by Kris.
I still do greeting cards, though, and lots of fans have discovered them on their own. I illustrate them but I utilize lots of different drawing styles other than the one most people are familiar with, but those with a good eye can spy my work. I've done too many to count and I come across them everywhere. So if they keep their eyes peeled, they'll eventually find them.
What role does Toby Georgiou play? How did the three of you hook up?
DRESEN: I met Toby several years ago through another comicbook publishing endeavor we were mixed up in. That quickly went south and he and I stuck together and started Vagabond Press, now VP Books, to put out our own work. Toby is officially the publisher. But he is much, much more than that. I can safely say that he is the single most supportive person of Jen and I. Without Toby there would be no Manya. He deals with the printers, distributors, and general freaks who approach us at cons. He's my security blanket. The man is amazingly ego-free and truly enjoys being a part of all this from the wings. Toby has become my closest friend and I love him to death. He's also a damn fine writer and someday I'll get him to write something for me to draw.
BENKA: Toby is our muse, body guard, publisher, supporter. He and Kris have a history they let me in on.
How did the two of you meet?
DRESEN: Jen and I wish we had a simple answer like "We met in college." Actually, we've known each other for ages - since about junior high school age, twelve or thirteen years old. Our fathers worked together when we were growing up and our parents are friends. So the Benka kids and the Dresen kids were thrown together many an occasion . But Jen and I didn't get to know each other until we started doing Manya.
BENKA: Our parents would organize Dresen-Benka family gatherings during which I would drink a lot of Coke and have cat allergy attacks and Kris would jam on an electric guitar. We were reunited after a decade or so by Kris's sister Jenny. I lived with Jenny and 15 other people the fated summer I temped at the hospital. Jenny saw my Manya doodles and encouraged me to send them to Kris.
How did you end up working together? Was Manya the excuse you had always looked for?
DRESEN: The first memory I have of Manya is of Jen handing me a fistful of pages torn from a small notepad and saying, "Do you think you can do something with these?" I looked at the stack of papers with scrawls and doodles on them and said something profound like, "Sure." After Jen had left, I read what turned out to be monologues for a character named Manya. Jen had even drawn her - a spikey-haired gal with a striped shirt. While I was amused by Jen's scribbles, her words made me laugh out loud. I had always known that Jen was a funny person and I was dimly aware that she wrote, but I had never seen any hard evidence of this. I was instantly enchanted and inspired by her words. I saw the possibilities and potential of this smart and sassy character Jen had created in the duller moments of an even duller job. This could be our ticket to recognition and creative liberty. Manya could be our salvation.
I immediately tucked the papers safely away and didn't look at them again for nearly three years.
After finishing college, I was bored. I didn't realize it then, but I was a baby workaholic. My full-time job wasn't enough, I wanted to work evenings and weekends, on holidays and vacations, seven days a week. And if there was little or no financial reward, even better. I didn't want friends or relationships, I wanted the pleasure of my own company under the heat of a desk lamp in the stink of a poorly ventilated studio. But what to do? How could I accomplish this ? I had just gotten back into comics after a few years of being too mature (ha!) for them. I pulled out the now yellowing Manya pages Jen gave me. After reading them again, I thought that they would make a cool comic book. I drew up a few of the strips, tracked Jen down to mail them to her, and we were on our way.
BENKA: We immediately started working on more Manya, and have kept with it. We're both kinda plucky.
Who are your influences, both within and outside of comics? What comics do you read?
DRESEN: Comic influences? Strip-wise it would be Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse), Alison Bechdel (Dykes To Watch Out For), Bill Amend (Fox Trot), and Max Cannon (Red Meat). These are all strips that are well-written and have superior strip-style artwork. I think Hilary Price's Rhymes with Orange has some very funny moments and it's an extremely rare example where I can forgive the weak art in favor of clever writing.
I adore Degas. He is the only artist ever who got the female form correct. I look at his work and I just melt. His color, linework, stroke...it is perfection in my eyes. I never get the sense that he was objectifying his subjects, that he truly appreciated the grace and elegance of the female body. Of course, he may have been king misogynist for all I know, but he sure did make wonderful visuals of lovely women.
Comics I like... I tend to like comics drawn by creators who are primarily illustrators doing comics. Kids might want to take note of this fact.
Nowhere by Debbie Dreshler. She gives me hope for the medium. Beautiful duo-tones. Dear Julia by Brian Biggs. Anything by Richard Sala. Berlin by Jason Lutes. Dave McKean is always interesting. Leave It to Chance is a fun read. Ariel Shrag's stuff is pretty intense. Leanne Franson's comics are always delightful. Megan Kelso is always worth a look-see. Her Queen of the Black Black is a lovely book. And Daniel Clowes is the absolute best at what he does. Kyle Baker is always a good time, as well. Why I Hate Saturn is what got me back into comics as an adult.
Comics I still read but don't know why...probably out of boredom or habit:
Strangers In Paradise used to be OK, but it has sunk quickly as of late.
Action Girl Comics was an interesting place to scope out new girl talent. But now it appears that you have to draw in that quickly-growing-tired manga style to be in it. I still look at Evan Dorkin's work when it comes out, but it's worn thin on me.
Outside of comics I'm heavily influenced by children's book illustrators like Lane Smith and Chris Van Allsburg. I'm a design geek so I look at lots of design magazines like Communication Arts and Print.
I used to read books all the time, but I don't have time for that anymore. The only books I make time for are any by Octavia E. Butler. She's brilliant. And I'm totally in love with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. That book is to die for!
BENKA: Art Spiegelman, Jason Lutes, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel on the comics front, among many others... On the writing front, Elizabeth Berg, Annie Lamott, Keri Hulme, Anne Waldman, April Sinclair, Jamaica Kincaid, Holly Hughes.
What do you think makes a good story?
DRESEN: Any story can be good if the writing is smart. That's all I'm gonna say. Let Jen tackle this one.
BENKA: A good story has layers, complexity, dramatic and comedic elements. It's relevant, and has something that the reader can relate to. It presents a unique way of thinking about or seeing something. It captures an event, provides documentation. Encourages empathy. Sheds insight. Tells us something about something of ourselves. Our life. Fears. Desires.
What is "art," what is "entertainment," and which are you doing?
DRESEN: Art is what the creator does and entertainment is how the audience accepts that art into their world. Of course, everyone has wildly different opinions about what art and entertainment are to them. And that's great. I believe that what we're doing is art. Jen and I have both worked long and hard to hone our craft and continue to try and better ourselves. But, being insecure artists, we crave public acceptance of our creativity and toss our work before the masses for their opinion. The masses desire to be entertained and they look to our work to do that for them. For the most part they seem to be entertained by our art - so everyone seems happy.
I've never been of the mind that I wanted to paint or draw a piece, display it in a gallery, sell it for an obscene amount of money, and then have that piece disappear into a space where only a few will ever see it. To me, art is public. That's why I love books and magazines and the web. You can go into a store or library or the web and look at publications and see all sorts of things without buying them. Then, when you see something that you really enjoy, you can purchase it to own. Or, in the case of the web, bookmark it to come back to again. I like the fact that lots of people see our work and share it with others. I get a kick when someone writes and tells us that they enlarged a panel from Manya and taped it above their desk at work or that they snagged an image form the website and made it the wallpaper image on their computer. I love that. I get enormous pleasure that what we're doing pleases them that much.
BENKA: "What is art?" is perhaps as old as "What is life?" "What is love?" "What is beauty?" and probably shares parts of an answer to any or all of these questions. We express this when we say that God is any or all of these things. We answer a mystery with a mystery. What each of these - art, life, love, beauty - is so obvious it's complicated beyond anything language can express. They are a combination of senses and memory, expectation and loss, fear and forgiveness.
Didn't someone say, "I don't know what 'art' is, but I'll tell you when I see it?"
"What is art?" Augusto Boal, my favorite Brazilian theatrical theorist says that: "Art is pure contemplation... that which presents a vision of the world in transformation... that which, with science, corrects nature in all its faults..."
I think he's on to something.
"What is art?" Didn't some French gal take a stab at answering this by penning a Tony Award-winning play which starred Alan Alda? Let's ask her. Maybe she knows.
Art is art is art. Let's ask Stein, it seems like she knew. She knew enough anyway to buy canvas after canvas on the cheap from her friends, building an expansive collection of eventually priceless modernist work.
Am I avoiding the question?
OK, I'm sitting down now... I think that what "art" is changes. It isn't one thing. Not necessarily the product of intensive crafting or honed technique. Not necessarily the spontaneous eruption or words or paint or ink. Sometimes it can be these things. But it can also be the 1950's neon hardware sign from the right angle on a rainy night. Or the two elderly women (we know are not sisters) dressed alike, and walking arm in arm downtown. The dusty stack of aqua Melmac cups and saucers at the antique store. The Haiku with three too many syllables written in fat pencil by a fourth grader.
Capitalism would say art is art if it sells.
Socialism would say art is art, free for the masses.
Art is art when it captures a moment or feeling better than anything else could.
Art is art when you can't stop staring.
Art is art when the way a subject or idea is captured seems inevitable.
Art holds time still for as long as you let it.
Art is art if it moves you to act.
Art is art when you realize life is larger.
How did you end up as a writer and writer/artist?
DRESEN: I've been drawing since I could grasp a crayon. And even as a kid, I would write stories to go along with my pictures. I have no choice - this is what I have to do, creatively and financially . I suck at math, have the social skills of a bridge troll, and have no desire to brown-nose my way up any corporate ladder. So what's left? Seriously though, I can remember as a kid saying that I wanted to draw for a living. I think I inherently knew that this is what I was meant to do. I believe that everyone is born with a gift or skill that they are meant to utilize to make their time on earth valuable and worthwhile. The problem is in discovering what that gift is. I was lucky in that I recognized it early on. Some don't find it until later in life, others recognize it but their circumstance doesn't allow them to tap into it or they're afraid of it, others never find it. I remember a few years ago when it first hit me that I was actually supporting myself with my art, I was like "Wow. I actually became the ballerina/fireman that all kids say that they're going to be when they grow up."
Drawing and writing give me more pleasure and satisfaction than anything else in the world.
BENKA: I don't think I ended. I think actually, I'm just beginning. Writing has always been an important way I've communicated and expressed myself and my ideas, and I expect this is how it will always be for me.