This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 4.
It was practically inevitable that Jonathan Bennett would become a cartoonist: Growing up in Syosset, a suburb on Long Island, he was a comics geek at an early age, reading newspaper strips first (Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Ziggy), then graduating, if that is the word, to shitty Marvel comics at the age of eight or nine. I use the word ‘shitty’ advisedly since Jonathan admitted to loving Marvel’s Secret Wars II series, one of the most incontestably awful comics series ever conceived. But apparently nothing could stop the young Master Bennett, not even a love of Secret Wars II. He became obsessed, as we all did: He wrote and drew his own X-Men stories, would draw his homework assignments in comic book form when he could get away with it, went to comics conventions with his dad, and even took weekend cartooning classes at the age of 10 or 11.
His interest waned somewhat when he became a teenager when music (Nirvana, the Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Frank Black, and even “older” bands, he says, like Talking Heads and the Velvet Underground) and starting a band replaced comics as a creative interest. He kept drawing, just not comics. After high school, he attended The Hartford Art School, where his interest was revitalized when he was given a copy of Seth‘s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, which was something of a revelation (“I was definitely shocked when I read It’s A Good Life. I read it in one evening on a train ride…”). He began to realize the artistic possibilities of comics when he started reading more widely — Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Joe Matt, Dave Collier, Chris Ware, but still wasn’t sure enogh of himself to draw comics full-bore: He drew some sample strips he wanted to submit to the college newspaper but got cold feet and never did. “That was where my comics career began and ended as far as I was concerned in college. I figured I should just be a fan. I’m not meant to do this.”
After he graduated, he and his wife-to- be Amy moved to Brooklyn, where he got a job in a tiny T-shirt factory literally spending eight hours a day silkscreening T-shirts — “exactly one year of horribleness” is how he describes it, but which at least inspired him to try to draw a comic about it. From there he got a job at D.K. Publishing as a designer, and had to devote pretty much all his time to leaning how to design books “while putting up a facade like I knew what I was doing” — doing it and faking it at the same time is like two full time jobs, as most of us know, and leaves little time to actually draw comics, so his comics production as put on hold.
Luckily he got laid off three weeks after 9-11 and, using The Jules Feiffer Career Advancement Method, used the time he was subsequently paid unemployment compensation to buckle down and teach himself cartooning. “It was during that brief month and a half of unemployment when I went out and bought a drafting table and finally researched online and found out what pen nibs to buy and practiced with them and started working really hard at trying to draw like a cartoonist.” Arguably, this worked.
In 2002 he self-published the first issue of Esoteric Tales and the second and last issue in 2003. These two small comics were all I’d seen before I invited him to be part of MOME, and, in retrospect, look like mere warm-ups to the longer, more formally elaborate work that he’s done in MOME. His approach to storytelling has congealed: Jonathan’s work reminds me of Robert Bresson’s in its sparseness, economy, and interiority.
This interview was conducted in late February, 2006 and edited by Jonathan and myself.