Monday, July 27, 2009

20 Questions with Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett

Husband-and-wife team Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett produce the very funny Creators Syndicate strip ON A CLAIRE DAY.

Carla also creates humorous greeting cards for several publishers and was formerly one of the SIX CHIX.

Check out ON A CLAIRE DAY at GoComics and enjoy the interview, which has twice as much fun – and twice as many answers – as the regular 20 Questions.

1. Carla, when you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?

C: I always knew I wanted to do something with art and writing. I started off in advertising, then did greeting cards (which I still do) and then sometime in there Henry and I started talking about doing a comic strip.

1. Henry, did you always want to be a writer?

H: Yup - of some sort or another.

2. Carla, you also do a lot of greeting cards. How did you get involved in that field?

C: When I worked in advertising I was pretty broke, so I made my own greeting cards. People seemed to like them (though they were to my friends and family so maybe they were just being nice). So I started making them by hand and went around to stores to sell them. Gradually I started getting more store clients. Then I got laid off from my advertising job, so I had to make my greeting card business work!

3. Describe the process you went through to get ON A CLAIRE DAY syndicated.

C: We spent a couple years working on the idea, and then in 2004 we did our first submission. We got rejection letters from just about everyone (others just simply ignored us). Then we regrouped and made some changes to the strip. It must've been a big improvement because when we submitted again in 2005 we had interest from three syndicates. (King, Creators, and Washington Post).

Creators was the most enthusiastic and liked the strip as is, whereas King and WP wanted to see some changes. We eventually signed with Creators, worked on the launch for several months, and then officially launched in summer of 2006.

4. What’s it like working with your spouse?

C: Kinda hard at first. Always talking about work all the time... breakfast... dinner... bedtime...

But now it's really good. We get along great and Henry is just an awesome person all around. (OK, H-you better say something nice about me!)

H: Carla's can I put it? Just an awesome person all around. No other way to say it. But seriously, the most important thing is realizing that as important as it is that you be right, it's a million times more important that you be able to work together again tomorrow. So we have a rule: if either of us wants to, we can "win" the argument just by saying we want to. Kind of like a positive "veto."

In other words, if Carla feels strongly enough about something, she can simply say, "Well I want to exercise my right to win this one," and she wins. The reason it works is that most creative disagreements don't boil down to "right" or "wrong," but just different ways of seeing things. So if Carla feels that strongly about something, I can be confident that there'll be lots of people who see things her way who'll be entertained too. Hence, in the end, we both "win."

5. What’s your favorite rejected strip or gag?

C: I did a card once that showed a girl in a boat surrounded by great white sharks, and it said something like "When I'm thinking of you, I could be happy anywhere."

It, um, bombed.

H: One of my favorites was an old couple sitting out on the porch of a modest house, on the mailbox reads: "Fannie and Freddie Smith". The old guy's reading a newspaper, and comments, "Well, lookie here. Guv’mint’s gonna send us 50 Billion dollars. ‘Bout time, I say."

6. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

C: I don't understand why it has to be a debate. If you're creating a strip and people are enjoying it who cares whether it's in print or on the web. For us I think it's more a question of are we getting paid for our work? What frustrates us is we get paid literally pennies for having our stuff on GoComics and sites. It's not the readers' faults -- it's just the insane way the web works that gives content away for free.

H: The medium isn't the issue. It's paying people for their work. No one cares if people get paid for anything creative anymore. Everyone steals music, video, news copy, comics. No one seems to give a whit. If we don't stop this somehow, art is going to suck from this date forward. But for the rare genius who does it for fun. But the truth is that most great art doesn't come from some magic genius, but from someone working really hard. In order for artists to have the time to work really hard, they need to be paid.

7. Newspaper comics are considered pretty tame compared to TV and other media. Do you find this limiting or is it a welcome challenge?

C: I don't really mind that we have to be tame. There's so much crassness everywhere else anyway. But it would be nice to see Claire belt out a few good swear words one of these days.

H: (See Carla's answer.) But truth be told, there's a lot of storytelling and jokes to be derived from the tamer parts of life too.

8. Name five of your favorite comic strips or cartoonists.

C: Patrick McDonnell above all. I also love Jean-Jacques Sempe--French artist who used to be on the cover of The New Yorker all the time. Also really like Tony Murphy's strip IT'S ALL ABOUT YOU and THE OTHER COAST by Adrian Raeside.

H: To the above I'd add anyone who's had anything to do with the Simpsons or Pixar.

9. Is it true that Claire’s dog, Bradley, has a thing for Cathy’s dog, Electra?

C: Bradley asked us not to discuss it.H: His publicist hereby neither confirms not denies said allegation. And if you print it, his lawyers Growl, Bitem and Bark, will be calling soon.

10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?

C: We first talk about where the story is going and how we want to approach a subject. Then we both just start jotting down notes. So I guess the words come first, but that's after deciding on a direction.

H: It's always story first, then trying to work out the gag, then refining it. Though (in my biased opinion) Carla is one of the best expression drawers in the business, so if we can work in a place for a good facial expression, we try.

11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

C: Not anymore — used to all the time. But now we have some good systems in place for coming up with ideas. You can't just sit there waiting for inspiration. You could be waiting all day.

H: What she said. As Charles Schulz said (to paraphrase), "What me, writer's block? HECK, no! I've got a dang deadline! I don't have time for writer's block."

12. Who do you want to play Sammi in the ON A CLAIRE DAY live-action movie?

C: Hmmm. I guess someone who plays bitchy really well. Someone like that British girl Keira Knightley.

H: Yes, Keira would be great. Could you get me her number? (Don't worry, I'll handle this, Carla...)

13. What kind of editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

C: Somewhere in between. When they're laissez-faire it's like they couldn't care less about you. When they're too hands on and editing every single comma you want to strangle them.

H: Ditto. It's great to have someone overseeing the process so we diminish our chances of irritating people. Though we know it's neither possible nor desirable to avoid irritating people completely!

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

C: Rushmore.

H: Don Quixote, The Lost Steps, The Simpsons, Most things Spielberg has done, and the best songwriter in history, Jacques Brel.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

C: Wacom tablet; my pen-and -nk days are thankfully over.

H: Wacom tablet, the Adobe Suite, the Internet!

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

C: It's very fulfilling to be doing what you love.

H: When someone writes in letting us know we've touched them/amused them in some way. For me, that's what it's all about. Doing something, however tiny or ephemeral, to make the world a happier place for someone.

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?

C: Patrick McDonnell — I'm sure I scared him the first time I met him at a Reubens because I went off about how much I admired him. When we were trying to get our strip syndicated we got up the guts to show him samples and he actually liked it. He was very supportive and helpful to us during the submission process. We have enormous admiration and respect for him.

H: Ditto. Patrick is an idol not just as a cartoonist, but as a human being. He's one of the greatest people I've met. My cats (and all animals) second the opinion.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

C: Work towards a style of writing and drawing that is true to you. If you try to copy others you'll make yourself crazy. Be yourself in your work. Sounds corny, but it will make your work unique and memorable.

H: If you want to do it for a living, make sure other people are genuinely responding to your work. Make sure you can find a way to keep up the schedule working at a high enough level. But if you want to do it for yourself, just have fun! Anything you can do to bring happiness into your life is worth every effort to do so.

19. How important are awards?

C: Not very, as far as I can tell. When I won the Greeting Card Division award a few years ago, it's not like people started lining up to offer me contracts or bags of money. Right now it's collecting dust on my shelf.

H: I can't think of a single newspaper editor who's said, "This cartoonist won an award, we'd better run his/her strip."

But if recognition by your peers is important to you psychically, then it could be a big deal.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

C: That I really, really need a shower right now.

H: I'm not sure. If I knew of such a thing, then, of course, someone would know it, no?


Benita said...

Great interview, Carla and Henry! Thanks for showing how you two can work together 24/7 so well.

Alec said...

Funny stuff. They should use some of that material in their strip!