Thursday, September 24, 2009

20 Questions with Terri Libenson

Terri Libenson, creator of the very funny syndicated comic, THE PAJAMA DIARIES, is a triple threat: she can write, draw and snap a man's back with a single bear hug. (Okay, so I made up that last part.)

THE PAJAMA DIARIES can be enjoyed in finer newspapers or online at The Daily Ink. Be sure to stop by Terri's most excellent website, too.

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

I always, always drew as a kid. I was such a timid thing, though, that I never got in trouble for it in school like other aspiring artists. Maybe my teachers took pity on me.

I always loved cartooning, but didn’t really know I wanted to pursue it as a career until college. But from then on, it became my driving force.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

In college, I created large-scale cartoon murals for a local pizza place in my hometown. I did it for the whopping sum of -- I kid you not -- $300. A businesswoman I wasn’t.

3. Describe the process you went through to get THE PAJAMA DIARIES syndicated.

I developed the idea in ’04 after reading a lot of literature about the unique stresses of modern moms. Working and having small kids myself, this hit close to home. I modeled the strip after my own family and sent it (originally entitled THE MOMMY DIARIES) to several large syndicates. I took my time -- a good year -- to write and narrow down the 30 strips I wanted to send.

I received the usual rejections (with many hand-written notes of encouragement) until I got a phone call from Jay Kennedy at King. He wanted me to develop it further. After renaming the strip and modifying it to make it more universally appealing, I went through a second audition of sorts. After a few months, I got a wonderful call back from Jay saying he loved it and wanted to launch it. Talk about the stuff dreams are made of.

PD was originally set to launch, fittingly, on Mother’s Day, ’06. But then Aaron McGruder retired THE BOONDOCKS at the end of March, and my launch was bumped up in the hopes of gaining a few of his slots. I remember working frantically to get everything ready for the new launch date – so much for my little cushion of time. In the end it worked out. However, it did take me a good year to feel like I wasn’t bumping right against my deadlines.

I really didn’t enjoy the first months of the launch as much as I should have. This was mainly due to lack of sleep and constant feedback that was careening through the internet. It was a wave of highs and lows. Eventually I found my groove; I think a lot of it stemmed from maturing as a cartoonist and finally feeling comfortable with my own work. Although the launch was exciting, I’m much happier and content these days. I enjoy the lower-key day-to-day creative process and answering emails. Family life gives me enough excitement.

4. You also do greeting cards. How does that process differ from your work on the strip?

The main difference is that I no longer illustrate cards, I only write them. This allows more time to focus on the strip (as well as card concepts), but the trade off is I don’t get to add my signature to any finished cards.

The creative processes actually don’t differ much. I love playing around with visual ideas and/or copy in both cases; sometimes the visual comes first, sometimes the copy comes first. However, the cool thing about cards is that I can do single panel cartoons instead of multi-panel formats. It’s a nice change.

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

I have one that I threw on my blog for fun a few months ago. Not sure if it’s my favorite, but I like it because it completely crosses the line:

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

Newspapers are in a downward spiral. Yet web comics probably aren’t that financially viable yet. So it’s hard to say. I’m guessing someday there will be a merging of print and web comics in some capacity. In the meantime, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong side…everyone’s just trying to find their own outlet.

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

Sort of both. I’ve always gravitated toward risqué writing, but I admit I’ve grown to enjoy the challenge of balancing that fine line with newspaper comics. I do push the envelope sometimes, but I don’t base my writing simply on an off-color joke. With that said, PD does deal with marital sex. It’s something I think deserves to be addressed because it’s an honest part of a relationship and ties in with the stressed-out family syndrome.

My nine-year-old daughter reads my strip. I figure, if she’s old enough to read the comics and ask questions, then she’s old enough to deserve honest answers. Anyway, I use pretty innocuous innuendos, and most of it can be misconstrued with kissing or amorous behavior, not sex… and that’s usually how she interprets it.

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

This is hard, I love so many. Okay, I’ll categorize this way:

1. Charles Schulz (as a kid)
2. Berke Breathed (as an older kid)
3. Lynda Barry (as a college student)
4. Nina Paley (as an indie spirit)
5. Harvey Pekar (as an east-side Clevelander)

9. Who’s hotter, Prince Valiant or Rex Morgan, MD?

For my Jewish mother’s sake, I’ll go with the doc.

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

See question #4

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

I don’t worry about this as much as I did in the beginning. I’ve gotten used to the deadlines and I usually give myself plenty of time to get into a writing mode. I’m not the type to create one strip a day in its entirety (from writing to finished art). Instead, I do everything in groups: first the writing, then all the art. That way, if I have a bad writing session, I can usually make it up the next day.

That being said, I’m going through a nasty case of writer’s block today!

12. Who do you want to play Rob in THE PAJAMA DIARIES live-action movie?

I’m thinking the PC guy from those MAC commercials.

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

I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of girl. I’d say somewhere in between. But of course, my editor’s perfect. PERFECT! (hear that, Brendan?)

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

TV: “The Daily Show,” “Colbert Report,” “Scrubs” and “Lost”

Songs: Hard to say, since the only thing I’m allowed to listen to is either “Radio Disney” or “Free To Be You And Me.” I even listen to the same songs I downloaded seven years ago on my MP3 player. Pathetic, I know. I also like NPR, so I rarely listen to substantial music anymore.

Books: I love reading, and much like comics, my taste is all over the place. Right now -- in honor of my pre-adolescent -- it’s The Wonder of Girls. I also love graphic novels. Haven’t read any in a while, but one of my all-time faves is Fun Home.

Films: I used to be a Star Wars fanatic (the originals). I’ll stop there.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I love my Micron pens. There’s nothing like achieving that perfect thick-to-thin line quality without smudging India ink all over myself. Also, Photoshop. I’m a pretty impatient colorist, so this meets my instant-gratification needs.

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

It’s probably a toss-up between writing and coloring the strip. The writing is fun and intense. The latter is purely relaxing. Also -- I won’t lie -- getting to meet cartoonists I admire is a definite perk.

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

I’ve met quite a few through the NCS and some comics festivals/symposiums. It’s always a thrill, sometimes intimidating.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

I had the luxury of getting published in steps: first just in my local paper, then weekly syndication (with a strip, GOT A LIFE), then daily with THE PAJAMA DIARIES. These steps helped me gain experience and momentum. If it’s possible, I highly recommend aspiring cartoonists to “start small” if there’s an opportunity. It definitely helps with the practice of meeting deadlines and idea-banking.

19. How important are awards?

It’s nice to be recognized, but that’s certainly not why I got into this. Maybe we all deserve awards -- or at least a few token newspaper slots.

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

Not many people know that I’m half-Turkish. And that I have an absurdly long tongue (unrelated, I think). Yes, fine, let the jokes fly.


Benita said...

Terri is a great cartoonist. Nice article.

Scott Nickel said...

Thanks, Benita.

Your 20 Questions will run on 10/5.


DanC said...

I concur with Benita! You know Terri, now I am going to have to ask to see your tongue the next time I see you.