Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Washington City Paper’s Ben Claassen III
Ben Claassen III has been creating a regular comic strip for Washington City Paper for years now; he also illustrates stories and created the logo for our annual Crafty Bastards Arts & Crafts Festival, where he's also been an exhibitor. Ben is speaking this Saturday at the D.C. Public Library's free event "Graphic Content: A Conversation with Five DC Area Graphic Storytellers" along with four other local cartoonists and me. Ben and I rushed to do this interview so it will appear before the talk; in spite of the short deadline I learned a lot about our prolific local cartoonist, including that you can see his art on the walls of an Arlington bar. The event on Saturday is at 1 p.m. at Northwest One Neighborhood Library, 155 L St. NW.
Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
Ben Claassen III: I draw the weekly strip Dirtfarm and also illustrate the advice column Baggage Check which runs weekly in the free daily paper, the Express.
WCP: When and where were you born?
BCIII: 1977—New Orleans.
WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?
BCIII: I actually live in Baltimore now (in Hampden), but I used to live in a group house near College Park that was called "The Dirtfarm". I originally moved to D.C. in 2000 with a girl, and then to Baltimore with another girl in 2006.
WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
BCIII: Ha. I don't know actually. High school? I guess my brother and I started drawing to amuse ourselves & tune out certain situations at a really early age, and then for me it just kind of became a coping mechanism for tuning out any and all situations.
I guess I've gotten a lot better at cartooning over the years, or at least have found good ways to cheat. At one point about 10 years ago, I went to Comicon in San Diego for the first time and had the big realization that I'd never really be able to draw as well as 99 percent of the people who can "really" draw comics. That was a big eye opener for me, so I decided to instead focus on the things I thought I could do well, mainly overexaggerating body language and facial expressions, and hopefully, more than anything, try to get better at the writing process, which tends to come and go.
WCP: Who are your influences?
BCIII: I'm influenced by a lot of people, cartoonists and non: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, B. Kliban, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Paul Reubens, Matt Groening, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Gary Panter, John Pound, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson... This list could easily stretch on for several pages.
WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
BCIII: I don't really like to think in terms of regrets. I do like to complain a lot for the simple joy of complaining, but I'm pretty happy with where I am. I can't imagine changing any of the choices I've made, good or bad. All of them have led me here, and here is pretty good.
WCP: What work are you best-known for?
BCIII: Probably the comic. Or for illustrating Wil Wheaton's first book Dancing Barefoot. Or maybe for painting all the paintings that are in the Galaxy Hut in Arlington?
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
BCIII: I'm proud of all of it, but the comic is probably the thing I'm most proud of, even though I usually hate most of them when they're done. I'm amazed I've been able to keep doing it for this long. 5-plus years of weekly deadlines is kind of mind-boggling.
I do end up liking a lot of them later, but usually for different reasons from what was originally intended. Most things seem to only be funny to me for a split second, and then the rest is more like grunt work where hopefully I can keep the original spark of "funny" intact throughout the process. That doesn't always happen. Things get mutated and mangled into other things quite a lot—sometimes with good results and sometimes not.
I guess to pinpoint it though, I'm most proud of the few that still consistently make me laugh—the ones that have been put into a good enough framework in which to make other people consistently laugh as well. Watching someone laugh at something you've made is quite possibly the best thing in the world.
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
BCIII: I mainly just hope I can keep doing what I'm doing. I'm sure my idea of what "funny" is will change over the years, but I hope I can draw the comic forever. It makes next to nothing in terms of money, but that has never mattered much to me.
I guess I've always also imagined trying to make the jump to cartoons and films, or maybe children's books. I don't think anyone hasn't thought about those things though. We'll see...
WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
BCIII: Pull my hair out. Curse at things. Chase the cat out of the room for no reason. Dig through years and years of backlogged ideas that I now hate. Threaten to quit forever. Say "why do I do this!?" over and over...
And then hopefully settle down a little bit, remember more or less why I do it, get totally delirious, and ideally relax enough to say "fuck it" and just see what happens.
Seriously though, I don't think I'm ever not in a rut or don't have writer's block. I think writer's block is the natural state of things. It's the few & fleeting moments of clarity that are rare & make things happen. I have to force it all with deadlines. I wouldn't be able to do anything without deadlines. Everything I do is done a few hours before a deadline, which forces me to live in the moment. I stay up all night and just hope for the best.
WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?
BCIII: Comics and satire aren't going to go anywhere. They'll spill over into whatever mediums the future has to offer, whether paid or not. There will always be something to laugh at, and comics are one of the cheapest, quickest, most effective ways available for presenting an idea. I'm sure people will be drawing comics making fun of the apocalypse as it's happening. I would hope so anyway.
WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?
BCIII: I love DC.
I love the seriousness of it. D.C. has a pretty good mix of intelligent and stupid people, but it seems that deep down everyone has a pretty general love and respect for one another.
I guess my favorite thing about D.C. would have to be the events which bring out a mix of the general public to put all of that on display. Events like Crafty Bastards, outdoor movies, festivals on the mall...
Or how about the night Obama was elected? That was pretty much the most fun night/week ever in terms of the general public going wild. I guess that's actually my favorite thing about New Orleans, or really any other city, as well. I love to see people who probably wouldn't ordinarily socialize with each other get wild and drunk together and high five one other and dance in the streets.
WCP: Least favorite?
BCIII: I guess my least favorite would be all the things that hold back all of the above from happening. I always wished there were more eccentric people in DC, or at least more silly people here, to stir things up & get people out of their little private bubbles.
I also always wished that more things were 24-hours and that bars and the Metro never closed. That's yet another fantasy left over from growing up in New Orleans though I think.
WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?
BCIII: I quite like the echo chamber that's in front of the Canadian Embassy. I used to like to go there in the middle of the night with a guitar.
Other favorite spots include the Value Village on University Avenue, the Astor in Adams Morgan, Negril in Silver Spring, Ben's Chili Bowl, Galaxy Hut, the Black Cat, the 94th Aero Squadron, College Park Diner, Fort Reno, and the bike path that goes from Bethesda to Georgetown.
WCP: Do you have a website or blog?
BCIII: Yup. www.bendependent.com