Ben Becker, Co-Managing Editor of the Cartoonist Cooperative, sits down with Andrew Irvin to discuss his inaugural issue of Paper Medicine, featuring a standalone 26-page story called PIDGIN.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Ben, thanks for joining us today to discuss Paper Medicine. How’s everything going?
BEN BECKER: Everything is going swimmingly!
CBY: That's certainly a fitting way to frame things given the subject matter of Paper Medicine. You described the title as a comic that came into being while the rest of life was going on. How did the initial conceit originate, and did the story shift as you slowly completed the comic?
BB: I conceived of the story, “PIDGIN” as one [of] the potential options for my mini-thesis during my junior year at undergrad, but I instead decided to make Beneath the Rainbow Bridge (which you can read for free on my website), as that story was a bit more manageable to complete with the time I had. The concept (fish disguised in an automaton to break the fish out of the aquarium in an optometrist’s office) was pretty set in stone when I was deciding between starting it or BTRB, but the political elements didn’t come until I began properly writing the script during the summer after I graduated in 2021.
CBY: Beneath the Rainbow Bridge was very endearing, and I liked seeing the story explored in full color, as well. For Paper Medicine, you mentioned Risograph printing in the foreword. The digital copy is monochromatic in blue tones - did you have other ideas for the print run (such as running it off in magenta tones, etc.)? You mentioned the rationale behind printing it using the Risograph method, and I am curious as to what other printing methods you may prefer for other types of projects. How has physical printing factored into your art education beyond your Risograph experience?
BB: The digital version is meant to be as representative of the printed copy as possible, and the comic was designed first and foremost to be printed using a Risograph; I don’t want to incentivise a reader to choose one over the other in terms of one being a better product, but I do think the physical version has the charm and vibrancy that can only come from Riso. Paper Medicine #1 is printed in one-color because I wanted this story to be comparable in clarity to the best black-and-white comics out there, but be a little more fun by using a vibrant blue. I’m very excited to play with using more than one color in future issues of the anthology!
With regards to the printmaking more broadly, Risograph is really the only medium I’ve thoroughly integrated into my practice, but I adore the tactile nature (and smell) of all forms of printmaking. I work fully digitally, which translates very easily to the way Risograph duplicators read files, making it a very easy jump from how I would make more “traditionally digital” pieces. I would love to explore other forms of printmaking more deeply at some point, especially screen printing, but for now, Risograph is the perfect in-between for when I want something with a bit more character than my 100% digital work.
CBY: While you detailed the intended print process you employed, what does your technical process look like when it comes to illustrating and story construction? Did the concept begin with a visual idea, or did the narrative premise originate first?
BB: My comics usually come from me finding a way to connect a formal idea I’m excited about with a narrative one. In the case of “PIDGIN,” the formal concept is likely not very obvious at first glance (also, spoilers throughout the rest of this answer, I guess?): each page’s panel layouts form a letter of the English alphabet in order, hence why there’s 26 pages. What story could I come up with that justified this choice, even if no one noticed what I was doing?
Independently, I wanted to tackle a kind of story I had yet to do, so I was thinking about heists. Also, for some reason I had recently taken notice of the fact that every doctor’s office I have ever been to has a fish tank: so logically I came up with the idea of fish breaking out other fish from a doctor’s office.
If I wanted to tie the form and narrative concepts together, I knew the story had to deal with language in some way. Once I realized I could set the story in an eye doctor’s office, I knew I could make these two ideas gel as one with language being the primary point of conflict.
CBY: Ah, I didn't pick up on the alphabetical panel layout, but now that I look at it again, it was quite ingeniously integrated. You also mention in Paper Medicine your role at the Cartoonist Cooperative. Can you elaborate a bit on how you ended up working there, what the work entails, and how it has helped inform your understanding of comics and cartooning as an occupation and industry?
BB: I found out about the Co-op through one of the founders, Sloane Leong, on… *sigh* X (back when it was Twitter) as the organization was ramping up to launch, back in February 2023. I applied to be a member as soon as applications were open, but I wanted to be as involved as possible. I threw my hat in the ring to be on the Editorial team, and now serve as Managing Co-Editor (along with fellow remarkable cartoonist, Blue Delliquanti). Together, we solicit and edit articles for the Journal on our website, written by members and volunteers at the Co-op.
Despite being around for less than a year, the Cartoonist Cooperative has been an invaluable and extremely welcoming group to be a part of. It’s been astounding to have a network of people ready and willing to share their own experiences and expertise in the industry so we can all be better prepared for what pitfalls it has, be encouraged to make stronger work, and make it a more sustainable and secure place to be. As far as I’m concerned, collective organization and action is the only way to make comics an industry that affords its laborers, the artists, to stay a part of it in the long run without destroying their bodies or their love of the art.
CBY: I think we can keep referring to "X" as "Twitter" (as I similarly refuse to refer to "the facebook" as "Meta"). You've mentioned the subject of the plot, so let's explore how fish tanks are central to this story, as you mention their role in capturing attention of the denizens of waiting rooms of clinics all over. Are you also an aquarium owner with a roster of tropical fish species at home, or was the fascination limited to the hardworking fish out there in medical, dental, and optometrist office lobbies?
BB: I do not have any fish of my own, but I am a proud dad of our cat, Salamander! I am a big animal guy in general, and fish are some of the most stunning (and occasionally terrifying) members of this planet, even while they’re held captive in waiting rooms across the country.
CBY: I’m keen on learning about some of your influences within the world of comics, but alongside your favorite comic books from childhood, growing up, what waiting room literature stands out in your mind as the most memorable? You sit down with half an hour until your name is called - what magazine do you grab from the pile on the coffee table?
BB: My earliest comics were reprints of some of Marvel’s earliest books from Kirby, Ditko, and Lee, but nowadays I make a concerted effort to read works from across the comics medium as much as possible.
I hope this doesn’t come off as dodging the question, but I really don’t engage with the reading material in waiting rooms at this point in my life (as an especially young boy, I was enraptured by whatever toys they had laying around). While I do occasionally occupy my waiting time with my phone, I’m more often just people-watching or hiding away somewhere in my mind palace, maybe thinking about a project or what I wanna eat for dinner.
CBY: Oh, I can't imagine anyone is picking up magazines in waiting rooms these days in the era of the personal smartphone. Now, class consciousness and labor solidarity is a throughline of both Paper Medicine and the work of the Cartoonist Cooperative. With the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike looming large in the public eye, what messages do you want to amplify around valuation of creativity across industry and as a means of generating a livelihood?
BB: I wish this fact spoke for itself, but it bears repeating that creation of any kind, and thus art, is a form of labor. So long as most if not all forms of art have an associated commercialized industry, those who generate monetary value for that industry deserve to live a dignified, stable life, ideally where they can own their respective means of production. Whether or not we are conscious of it, art is all around us and it’s something we all value. Therefore, how could anyone argue that those who make art shouldn’t appropriately benefit from making the things we all want them to make? Of course, this logic applies to all workers who provide direct value for their communities, be they educators or doctors or people in the service industry, just to name a few.
CBY: On a related note, the looming threat of artificial intelligence is creating immense debate around the role of human thought in the creative process - you utilize the concept of a “sapien automaton” in Paper Medicine, which I thought served as an interesting parallel for the interface through which non-human characters interact with the human world. Have you thought much regarding the forthcoming role of synthetic intelligence in the fate of our species, and if so, what sort of scenarios do you envision as possible outcomes for better or for worse?
BB: Generative AI (specifically in the art world) has been a constant burden on my mind this past year. Automation, as a concept, can be a great benefit when it takes the place of labor that is unsafe or undesirable for people to do. Those who want it to replace creative labor, labor that by all accounts should be enjoyable and beneficial for the laborer as well as the audience, are woefully misguided in their intentions and desired outcomes. Despite being a communist, I am not anti-work: I wish only to do work that is personally enriching or beneficial for my community. If someone wants to enlist the help of a machine to make a decision on my behalf, a machine is welcome to tell me the fastest way to drive to visit my parents, or to automatically adjust the settings on my washer and dryer based on what I’m cleaning. But please, stay away from my sketchbook.
CBY: Yes, I think there's a lot of animosity and highly merited criticism towards those attempting to generate creative output without the input of creative labor (or the necessary training to effectively deliver creative labor), particularly as we see people popping up as prompters and trying to undercut actual artists by offering commissions. After delving into speculation on the future of human creativity, let’s bring things back to a personal level - what comics are you excited to share with the world? Can you give us any sort of rundown on what we can expect to see from you next?
BB: Well, actually, to bring it back to AI, Paper Medicine #2 will dive even deeper into my thoughts on AI. Not going to dive into plot details at this time, but if you agree with what I’ve said so far on the topic, please stay tuned!
CBY: That sounds great, and I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Ben, with your role at the Cartoonist Cooperative, you must have all sorts of new comic recommendations to make. Beyond the influences upon Paper Medicine, what other media have you been enjoying lately that you’d recommend our readers check out?
BB: The biggest influence on “PIDGIN” was actually a video game, the fantastic Disco Elysium. Its narrative very proudly wears its politics on its sleeve, and its themes and tones left a deep mark on me and this story. Comics-wise, I just read Joe Sparrow’s Cuckoo, which was breathtaking to look at and such a delightful read. If you want to read some comics by members of the Cartoonist Cooperative, we have our very own curated catalog!
CBY: Fantastic! Thanks for sharing, as I'm sure our readers will be keen to check out new publications. Ben, we appreciate your time and insight into your creative process. Please let us know below what social media and publication links you’d like us to include.