April 28, 2012

STRANGER: Ben Claassen III
LOCATION: Golden West Cafe, 1105 West 36th Street, Baltimore, Maryland
THEME: Chatting with a cartoonist

It’s not the first time someone’s turned me into a cartoon.

The first time was at a friend’s work party in Washington, DC several years ago. It had a distinctly boardwalk atmosphere to it — bouncy castles, face-painting and a grumpy-looking man sitting behind an easel offering to draw caricatures. I decided to give it a try. True to his curmudgeonly appearance, he spoke gruffly and in short sentences. I think we exchanged fewer than a dozen words. The picture below was what he came up with.

Does my hair really recede that much? Regardless, I’d forgotten about the artwork after putting it in my closet.

Getting lunch with cartoonist Ben Claassen III brought it all back.

Ben lives in Baltimore, so I took a weekend train trip up to Charm City to meet him for an interview. From the moment Ben met me at the train station he was friendly, with a soft-spoken and laid-back manner. We wandered the streets for a while before Ben decided on the Golden West Cafe for lunch, so we jumped in a cab to get there.

It’s a brightly lit and clearly popular place – almost all the tables were taken. Finding a spot at the bar, near to the jukebox playing an odd but welcoming mix of 80s songs and random rock tunes, Ben and I sat down and glanced over the menus.

Then Ben pulled out his notebook.

Recently he’s revived an old habit of drawing a sketch a day in a pocket-sized notebook that he takes with him wherever he goes. Ben used to keep a daily comics journal to sketch observations. He started it in 2004 after getting out of a five-year relationship, using the doodles as a way to express himself: “I was used to always having someone to talk to. When she left, I had to it put that somewhere.”

For a while he’d post pictures from the journal online, but stopped as social media grew in popularity. “That stuff came along and freaked me out. I didn’t like the lack of privacy.”

Ben’s fear of the Internet’s reach into everyone’s life stems in part from his work on the website Killoggs, which featured various articles and art work, and had many readers. At one time it described itself as, “A web community made up of displaced and disaffected Southern artists, animators, writers and wage slaves. Plenty of art, opinions and cynicism.”

There were bizarre developments with the site that showed that maybe being online was giving away too much — one female reader of the site sent Ben and his friend Josh a board game based on things she’d learned about them from the site. “Josh almost fainted when he got it,” Ben said. The lack of privacy and the fact that anyone online could know what Ben was up to unsettled him. “It used to really creep me out.”

He’s only recently gotten comfortable with daily online comic journal updates again. I’m glad he has, because following Ben’s cartoon updates on Facebook, one gets a comical update on his life with some nice cartoon work and funny observations.

Ben said he’d sketch the interview, and I think the cartoon he made ably reflects two key points. First, it shows you his usual style of drawing. Second, these interviews involve my tape recorder (and my questions) stealing the souls of everyone I meet.

It was impressive to see Ben craft the image without making any sketches first. Pen hit paper, leaving even less room for mistakes compared to erasable pencil, and within minutes he’d created another in his ever-expanding collection of sketches. It appears to come easy for him, and that might be because he has been keen on drawing since he was a child.

Ben’s now 34 and has parlayed that interest into full-time work.

His comic strip Dirtfarm runs in several newspapers, including DC’s City Paper. He also draws the cartoons that accompany psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior’s column in the free Express newspaper handed out to commuters on DC’s subway system. (Side note: I interviewed Andrea in September 2011, but she and Ben have never met in person.)

“She just sends me a question, I just illustrate it. I try not to add anything,” Ben said.

Still, he has fun with the strip — particularly drawing drafts that will never see publication in Express in which he dreams up “the most horrible, the worst things you could ever do in an advice column. One day I’ll display them.” Till then, he tries to keep the advice column pictures “a little sweeter,” particularly because many of the questions Andrea’s asked are sad.

In contrast, Dirtfarm gives Ben free license to be as, well, raunchy as he wants to be. The comic’s topic differs each week. There aren’t many recurring characters, no gags running from one edition to the next. Part of that is by virtue of the comic only being published once a week, but part of it might also be what emerged over lunch: Ben’s clever and knowing humor.

That humor might also explain why Ben’s strip can be seen in the more adult-oriented publications such as City Paper rather than alongside Family Circus and Beetle Bailey in a more mainstream newspaper’s funny pages.

It’s a humor he’s always had, and apparently it runs in the family. He and his sister have a running gag of getting celebrities to sign photos with the foulest, rudest messages possible. The joke even turned into work for Ben — he once asked Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation to write such a message to his sister, in exchange for some comics Ben had drawn. From there Wil joined the Killoggs site and a little later asked Ben to do the art for a book he published.

Ben’s humor means he’s always observing things, always jotting down ideas for sketches. He showed me two big books of random ideas, so many fragments of potential cartoons fighting for space across dozens of pages and featuring several different styles. Kind of like Professor Henry Jones’ grail diary, different notes and sketches spilling over each other. Impressive stuff.

But he sometimes gets writer’s (or cartoonist’s) block.

Ben told me there are times when he’s close to deadline and staring at a blank piece of paper. “Though I keep notebooks, I’ve never been ahead. I’m always behind. The comic just kind of happens. I’m way more into the writing of it than the drawing of it. I like to think of it as writing comedy. I rip on things, and try to illustrate it as best as possible.”

Inspiration always strikes in some shape or form, so the deadlines are met, even if sometimes it’s pretty tight. And despite drawing hundreds of comics, “As far as I know I’ve only ever told the same joke once or twice.”

Dirtfarm is funny, in a sly and adult style. As Ben said, it’s not really for children. A recent strip featured a muscled gung-ho American eagle named Baldie McEagle boasting to his drinking buddies about how he’d won a trip to Europe and was going to show those soft Continentals a thing or two. When he returns from the trip he has transformed into a self-appointed expert on all things European.

Ben told me the strip came about in part because of his irritation with tourists who visit a place for a day or two and come back sounding like authorities on the best little restaurants or sights to see. It’s a funny strip and the gag is neatly condensed in four big frames.

We’d been talking for so long about his comics that the bartender had failed to get us to order several times. Eventually Ben put in an order for tater tots to start with.

They were nice — crispy and served with barbecue and other sauces. I don’t know if the sauces were homemade or out of the bottle, but it didn’t really matter. It was a simple start to the meal and made for something good to snack on while we waited for the main courses to arrive. I think Ben had ordered the tots for himself, but I forgot my social graces and probably devoured too many of them myself. While shoving the tots down my throat, Ben explained how a series of relocations and eccentric experiences had brought him to Baltimore.

He was born in New Orleans in 1977. He always drew, even as a kid, but in those days preferred more realistic paintings to cartoons. “I never really thought I was any good at it,” he said.

Ben went to high school in New Orleans and then Louisiana State University. While at university he was caught one day for painting trains with graffiti. “I had this big fine that I had to pay. So I took a student loan out to pay it. That’s when I realized I didn’t have to use the loan on school.” He used the funds to quit school and move to Santa Cruz, California.

“I thought Santa Cruz was awesome, it reminded me of an 80s California beach party,” said Ben, who lived in an artistic group house — the kind where different bands would stop by to play each night. “I moved to California quietly but never regretted it.”

After a summer in the Golden State, Ben ran out of money. He had just enough dollars to get to Wyoming, where his sister lives. The plan was to get to Wyoming and get the money to get back to New Orleans. However, at the end of the “two-and-a-half hour drive that felt like it would never end,” Ben found himself in Wyoming for longer than a quick stop, and made it a temporary home.

“It was a really weird place,” Ben said. It must have been good inspiration for sketches, as the small town he lived in meant that all manner of people were stuck together even if they’d never typically socialize elsewhere. So it was that in the local bar he’d see couples like the massive Native American woman and the scrawny 18-year-old guy from the neighborhood, and other atypical pairings.

“I like to call myself a cartoonist

Ben added, “Lots of accidents and crazy things happened there too.” For example, one night he found himself with several local kids who had stolen some horses from a nearby resort and taken them up a mountain. One of the horses died on the trail. “They were supposed to take tourists on the horses the next day. They knew they would get in trouble and had no way to move a horse. It was just too heavy. But there was this one kid who said he had some dynamite,” Ben said, grinning. “They blew it up and buried it. It was all the talk during breakfast the next day.”

Although Ben had a great time in Wyoming, he eventually moved back to New Orleans. “I lived in my mom’s basement. That was pretty awesome,” he said drily, smiling again.

Love was what brought him to Baltimore. He was dating a girl in Louisiana, and when she moved to study at the University of Maryland, Ben went with her. They’re no longer together, but Ben has stuck around the city, and recently moved into a place with a big studio for his work.

Ben said he’s always working. If he’s not drawing cartoons, he’s working on paintings or other art. If neither of those things, it’s practicing a musical instrument like the banjo.

But from the pages of sketches that he showed me, it seems like ultimately it all comes back to cartoons. And that’s how he defines himself. “I like to call myself a cartoonist,” he said.

It’s not a label he uses liberally, because sometimes when he tells people what he does it can spark a conversation about Marvel action hero-type comics or Peanuts-style three-panel strips in daily newspapers. “Which I’m okay with, but I don’t know anything about comic books.”

Despite the lack of comic book knowledge, he managed to get Dirtfarm published.

Before Ben could tell me what turned out to be a slightly nutty but interesting story about getting published, our friendly bartender returned with the main courses.

We’d both gone for the special of fried chicken and biscuits. Big portions and good, tender slabs of chicken. The batter was crispy and made for a nice crunch with each bite, though it didn’t appear to be spiced so no flavors jumped out. But the gravy that coated the chicken and biscuits was sweet, almost more like syrup, and meant that my sweet tooth approved of the meal.

I would have asked Ben for his take on the food, but while our plates were delivered we carried on talking about Dirtfarm unbroken, so I listened to hear the strip’s history. Still, I know that Ben generally approves of the restaurant, as he said he’s a regular there and most of the menu is pretty good.

Dirtfarm came about because Ben was working for the production team at City Paper when he first moved to DC. There was a guy named Buzz who wrote a comic called Stinkfish that ran in the paper, though Buzz signed the comic “P.J. O’Ross.” Ben and Buzz met at a party that Buzz threw for himself when City Paper let him do the newspaper’s cover art one week. Over a box of wine, provided by Buzz, the two quickly hit it off. “He was the giant guy who smelled like he was homeless. Nobody knew what his story was. I became friends with him within a week of working there.”

Stinkfish was rejected by City Paper initially, and so Buzz came back and paid $300 a time to run the comic strip as an advertisement in the paper. He’d pull the cash out of his sock to pay, Ben said. “Nobody wanted to touch it.” This went on for roughly three months. After that, with Stinkfish getting regular exposure, the paper gave him a proper slot and Buzz continued to write his strip for five years.

Alas, Buzz got sick and died. “One of the last things he wanted was to give me his comic space at City Paper, he called the paper from the hospital to tell them,” Ben said.

Daunted by the prospect of a weekly print deadline and of taking over his friend’s comic space, Ben procrastinated for a short while. “I freaked out,” he said. But he overcome his fear, sent in some Dirtfarm strips, and City Paper agreed to give him the slot.

“It’s all in good fun

“If kids ask me how to get started in comics, I say, ‘Well, you meet an old guy. . .’” said Ben, trailing off with a smile and a laugh.

Ben’s is now the only comic strip in City Paper, as the newspaper cut back on running comics due to financial limitations. He now lets the paper run his strip for free, making money from other projects such as portraits or artwork for others. He also works every week at Express taking care of various production duties.

However, Ben’s generosity in letting City Paper run his comic for free apparently riled one of the writers of the comics that were cut, who took to the internet to rant about giving work away for free and devaluing it. “I can understand that,” Ben said. “But for me, it wasn’t like that. I’d rather it be in the paper than not in the paper. That has some value in itself.”

That led into a conversation about commercializing art, and Ben said he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with doing so if it’s done well. “I just haven’t done anything because I’m bad at marketing.” Nevertheless, he hopes to get a book of his artwork together, ideally before the year is out. “It’s all in good fun,” he said.

Ben talked about the joy of drawing and very little about the business side of his work.

It seems that Ben’s artistic interest is his main driver. While he jokes that up-and-coming cartoonists could really succeed if they meet an eccentric man like his good friend Buzz, Ben’s advice for those who want to make a life of drawing is simple. “Just keep doing it.” Draw, draw, and draw some more and circulate work. It seems to be working for Ben.

Ben’s artistic drive is also why the kid who never thought he was any good at drawing now can’t see himself doing anything else. “I want to do this forever,” he said.

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