Gregory Benton talks art, universal narratives and 'B+F'

New York-based cartoonist Gregory Benton has had a whirlwind of a year, with his self-published graphic novel B+F winning the 2013 MoCCA Award of Excellence and getting picked up for a joint French/English publication.

However, the ideas for what became B+F were created in the middle of Benton losing almost everything. The characters of B+F ("B" is the yellow dog and "F" is the woman) were first dreamed up by him in the aftermath of a massive storm in 2011 that flooded his studio, washing away years of his most precious art. That very real conflict of man versus nature lit a fire in Benton, leading him to doodle those two characters.

Fast-forward to today and Benton is back on top, with AdHouse Books and Éditions çà et là partnering to publish the mostly worldless graphic novel with its scheduled premiere in a matter of days.

B+F follows the titular dog and human as they trek across an otherworldly landscape of mountains, monsters, and fiery fauna. B and F face many obstacles, and find unique ways to overcome them -- even sometimes involving dying and being reborn.

ROBOT 6 spoke with Benton about the unique path B+F took to creation, and how he won MoCCA's Award of Excellence but was too busy printing the book to attend the awards ceremony.

Chris Arrant: Gregory, how would you describe B+F?

Gregory Benton: B+F is a meandering tale of two friends (a large yellow dog “B” and a naked woman “F”) pulled apart by circumstance and the obstacles they must overcome to find each other again.

How did this world and all the fantastical elements come together for you?

The book is a stream-of-consciousness narrative. I didn’t plot the story entirely in advance of the drawing, and I guess the book reads this way. Essentially, I would draw B+F into corners and try to get them out again. The landscapes they travel through and the characters they meet are based on my impressions of the natural world, somewhat synthesized through my dreams.

Is this a story you’d been tinkering with for a while, or did it all come about pretty suddenly?

B+F are characters I had been drawing in my sketchbooks for a while. They kind of popped up after a storm in August 2011 caused a studio flood that ruined several years of my art. I guess I was ruminating on the theme of man vs. nature. A lot of my comix that I was too precious with were destroyed. I hadn’t released any of this work, and I hadn’t even scanned it. It was very stupid of me. I was more than likely insecure about the comix I was doing, and the destruction of the art turned out to be a mixed blessing … at least I try to see it that way. And it was also positive because it led to my joining Hang Dai Studios with Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner and Nick Bertozzi in November of 2011.

In October 2012, I was contacted by Olaf Ladousse of the ¡Que Suerte! anthology in Madrid, Spain. The theme of the book was nudity and the story had to be wordless. I wanted to do a story with B+F, so I sent him some of the sketches I’d done. I ended up contributing a three-page B+F narrative for the anthology.

I drew the story on DuoShade board, which is a type of drawing Bristol board that has an embedded undeveloped tone. The tone becomes visible when a special developing solution is painted onto the paper. This was a comix technique employed in the past by many old EC and strip cartoonists like Wally Wood and John Severin; examples of it run all through the IDW published MAD/EC Artist Editions. I had some sheets of this DuoShade paper, which had survived the flood. But the developing solution I had was quickly evaporating, and there was no way to obtain any more because the company had stopped producing the paper and the solution. This was the end of 2012 and MoCCA Fest 2013 was just around the corner. I wanted to produce a new book for that show; I wanted it to be B+F; and I wanted to do it full-color on DuoShade board to give this vanishing medium a send-off in the best way I could. The technique I wound up using for the book was pen and ink, DuoShade developer, and colored pencil on top. I realized that I wanted to have actual finished pages at the end of the process.

B+F has quite a pedigree even before this edition was published, winning the MoCCA Award of Excellence. Can you tell us about winning that and the path toward this new edition?

The edition of B+F for the festival was oversized (10 by 15 inches), handmade and limited to 50 signed and numbered copies. Each book was 20 pages and took way too long to print and assemble. I was only able to make 25 copies for the first day of MoCCA and fortunately they sold out. I kept one copy for display and my plan was to go home and print the remaining copies for Sunday. My studio mate Dean Haspiel gave this display copy to Karen Berger, one of the MoCCA Awards judges, on Saturday as she walked by our table at the end of the day. She was actually on her way up to the deliberation room when he practically shoved the copy of B+F into her hands. The book wound up winning one of the awards that night. I was unable to go to the awards ceremony because I was making the rest of the edition for Sunday. I found out about the award when I arrived the next morning, and was presented with the gong by Anelle Miller, the executive director of The Society of Illustrators.

Chris Pitzer of AdHouse books was directly across from my table at MoCCA. In fact, he was the first person to buy a copy of B+F before the doors opened on Saturday. After the book received the honor, we talked about possibly doing something together with B+F. Chris also introduced me to Serge Ewenczyk of Éditions çà et là, who would become the French publisher of the book. It all happened very quickly, and by the next week there was a deal for AdHouse and Éditions çà et là to co-publish an expanded version of B+F. The MoCCA comic is now the first part of the new book that will be in stores shortly. I am incredibly happy and grateful that Chris Pitzer and Serge Ewenczyk allowed the new book to be published in the same oversized dimensions as the festival comic.

Have you published your earlier books in France, or is this a new reach for you?

This is completely new territory for me as a cartoonist. I love the European style and sensibility of comix. For me, it is a dream come true and an incredible test. I hope to be able to keep producing work that will be published and hopefully accepted overseas. It is an honor and I am humbled to have my book in the bandes dessinées shops of France sharing the shelves with artists I have admired for years: Tardi, Mattotti, Chaland, Sfar, Larcenet, Satrapi, Blutch .

You’ve been doing comics as far back as 1993, appearing in World War 3 Illustrated as well as several of DC’s The Big Book Of series in the 1990s. How do you think you’ve changed and grown over the years?

I had distractions that kept me out of comix for a while; the general things, work and life. I had never stopped creating art or comix, though. I just wasn’t producing as much as I should have been. Again, this goes back to confidence. I would make a minicomic every so often, contribute to anthologies and paint pieces for group shows, but I was never ready to let go of the longer work.

The whole of comics has changed tremendously over the 20 years since my first published narratives in World War 3 Illustrated. The emergence here in the United States of accepting comix as a legitimate art form and complete means of expression might be the biggest thing. I find it to be a very exciting time for comix in general. Also, the conventional publishing paradigm is shifting toward a DIY ethic, which in-and-of-itself is not too different from 1993, but the immense reach of social media and crowd-funding changes everything.

I’ve also learned it is better taking the journey with friends. In 2013, Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner and I launched Hang Dai Editions over our mutual dedication to comix art. The imprint focuses on our creator-owned limited edition comix, graphic novels, and art books. It’s just the three of us right now, as we’re trying to figure out the ins-and-outs of publishing, promotion and distribution.

What do you do when you’re not doing comics?

I love playing soccer. I guess I’m a dog at heart; I will chase a ball around forever. I also find that I need to run around and wear myself out to balance a sedentary day at the drawing board. I enjoy getting outside and exploring nature, through hiking or painting or just rolling around in a big pile of leaves.

Related to comics, New York City offers an industry-related symposium, lecture, party, drink-n-draw or R. Sikoryak’s long-running Carousel almost every night of the week. Karen Green puts together great lectures up at Columbia University during their semesters. I try to get out once a week, at least.

With B+F already in the can and just weeks away from a debut, what do you have planned to work on next, comics-wise?

I am currently writing and doing sketches for the next B+F book. With B+F I discovered that I really appreciate the challenge of communicating a universal narrative through pictures alone. I want to continue to explore this means of expression and improve my ability to tell a story in this way. Additionally, there is a lot of room for a reader’s interpretation, and that interplay is an interesting dynamic to me.

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