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May 12 2017

TOON IN: Interview with Ben Passmore

With Toon In, I talk one-on-one with comics artists on projects they are working, how they got into the comics life, and most importantly what keeps them going!

TOON IN: Artist Chat with Ben Passmore

I first met Ben Passmore and his art at the 2016 Small Press Expo or SPX (a great indie comics expo worth checking out–Shout out to creator Sophie Goldstein for the connection!). I remember being blown away by his work “Your Black Friend.” True story: immediately after reading “Your Black Friend” in a hallway at SPX I said out loud THIS IS THE TRUTH, re-read it 5 more times, and later bought 5 more copies online for my friends.

I caught up with Ben in January this year. In addition to talking about “Your Black Friend”, we talked about the indie comics scene, coming up black and punk, the genius of Frantz Fanon, and the fog of art school. And yes, Disney was right (at least about this): It’s a small world after all. It was fun finding out Ben and I have been in the same geographic realms—from the Berkshires of Massachusetts (W.E.B. DuBois, hometown hero!) to the bayous of Louisiana. (Hey Ben, if a young beret-wearing blerd with slightly crooked wire frame glasses hops out of a time traveling DeLorean in 1998 and asks you to the Simon’s Rock alternative prom, don’t be surprised—just sayin’). Whatever the outlook for the year is—I know our 2017 is the better for it with comics like Ben creating. Thank you for your art! -Shadow Scout

***

Lakita: How did you get your art spark, Ben? What helped you gravitate towards the arts as your life’s calling?

Ben: Oh, yeah. I don’t know. Both of my parents drew. I only grew up with my mom, but both my parents were into art. I just always liked it and I was not good at sports or music or school or reading or anything. It was the one thing I was good at. I always loved comics. I used to go to this store, real Norman Rockwell style, and try to read as many comics as I could before they kicked me out. Every day. Every day I’d try to remember my place for the next time I could sneak into the drugstore.

Lakita: That’s awesome.

Ben: It’s cool. I kind of miss ‘that’ Ben. I feel real bougie, just being able to read for as long as I want. There’s no one pulling me by my collar out of the drugstore everyday.

Lakita: Okay, let’s talk about art school. You went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) right?

Ben: I didn’t want to go to college, but I signed up for art school. I wanted to get out of Massachusetts. I went to the South. School…my feelings are very complicated about it. Sometimes I talk to high school and middle school kids in Louisiana who are interested in comics. I’ll be like, “I don’t know how useful college is. It’s very expensive.” You know what I mean? For me, looking back, the education, it didn’t fill my time enough. I ended up teaching myself a lot of stuff.

Lakita: Did you go from Savannah to New Orleans after that?

Ben: Not directly. I traveled and worked in Canada for a little bit. Yeah, about a year after Savannah, I moved to New Orleans.

Lakita: So you spent time in the South for a little bit. Let’s talk about your work “The Gospel of Tug Benson”, that was set in Virginia.

tug benson header

Ben: Yeah. I did that in Savannah. [Tug] was the first time I tried to write something really serious, something protracted. I was into hitchhiking and riding trains and cycling around the country and being to parts of the country I haven’t been before. I was institutionalized in high school, and me and some of the other students got politicized by our experiences there and had a brief insurrection. Then when I went to college, I was reading a bunch of stuff. I got really into unions for a little bit, for a hot second. Which is weird, to be an art school student that’s interested in worker’s union–art students aren’t usually very proletarian.

Lakita: Let’s talk a little bit about the indie scene. Last year was my first SPX. What keeps you coming back to SPX or CAKE or MICE? What is it about that kind of fellowship?

Ben: I think that when I was in high school, I really liked superhero comics and manga. I don’t know who introduced me to more American indie comics. I think it was through me getting politicized and getting into political comics. Peter Kuper and his work on “World World III” was the first kind of American indie comic I really got into. Then I was reading “Optic Nerve” and thinking, “I’m sad and self-involved. This seems cool.” Then I went to college and got exposed to a lot more of it. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do with it, I think I just liked those shows because they seemed more accessible.

Lakita: Do you see the same folks, con-to-con and it’s a bit like a family reunion? What’s the landscape for you when you go to these indie cons?

Ben: It is a lot of the same people. I think there’s a lot of different reasons for that. There are good things and bad things about it. There’s new little conventions it seems like every year. In cities like Providence where there’s colleges, a lot of people who are just starting out will go to those. The Providence comic convention is kind of the sister to the New Orleans one, NOCAZ. There was a lot of other weird black kids at that one. That’s all really cool!

Lakita: Agreed! I think I was either on your site Day Glo A-Hole or Radiator Comics and you had this artist statement where you’re like, “Listen, there aren’t a lot of comics out there by black cartoonists doing stories about police abolition, sex addictions, struggles with radical, utopian ideas, gentrification, inherent classism and art aesthetic…basically, I’m a terribly grim bummer of a unicorn.”

Ben: Right.

Lakita: What is it like being a unicorn creator, doing what you love? What are some of the charms and challenges of that?

Ben: I don’t know. When I left college, I just ended up hanging out with more punks and anarchists, which meant hanging out with a lot more white people. When you hang out with a lot of white people, you become like their access point to black people. I think it’s just the classic push and pull, where you feel both resentful and some responsibility to sort of be representative in this general way, which is impossible.

Lakita: Yes!

Ben: For a long time, I just tried to be hyper specific, because I’m a specific person and felt kind of allergic about writing about things in ways that could be construed a bit for experiences broader than mine. It’s just all weird scifi, or me getting real, just talking specifically about myself, or if it’s general, it’s about the punk scene. Once I did that comic “Your Black Friend” people were like, “Oh, you’re a voice for black people.” It’s like, “I knew it.” It’s just a 10 page comic out of not a huge bibliography, but a kind of a bigger bibliography.

Your Black Friend Cover

Ben Passmore’s Your Black Friend, cover. Your Black Friend has been nominated for The Eisner Award “Best Single Issue/Best One-Shot.”

Lakita: Clearly, they did not read “The Gospel of Tug Benson.”

Ben: Right.

Lakita: After I got “Your Black Friend” at SPX, I ended up going online to get more copies. I actually did not give it to the white people in my life. This wasn’t a “Dear white people, here’s how you can stay woke–here’s your nice little pamphlet” for me. I gave it to my black friends. It was more my way of saying “Look at what this brother is doing in terms of fashioning his armor against micro-aggression.” What’s been the response with the different groups that have encountered your work outside of the ‘helping us stay woke’ audience?

Ben: It was interesting, because black people that interact a lot with white people and have a lot of white friends, I felt they seemed to express that the comic resonated a lot. There were many black people who don’t f– with white people that much, and they were like, “I don’t understand this at all.” An implicit joke was, this is not everybody’s experience. This is to all friends: I think white supremacy affects us all, even if you actively avoid talking to white people.

Lakita: I love the style of “Your Black Friend.” And thank you for bringing Frantz Fanon back to consciousness, which I thought was super great about the work in terms of the structure.

Ben: Fanon’s writing, you probably know this, contributed to the Black Panther Party’s anti-colonialist theory. I’d like to see that s– come back.

Lakita: Word! Let’s talk about your technical approach to “Your Black Friend.” How did you decide to make those palette decisions for it? It just popped. As soon as I opened my copy at SPX, I was like, “Wow.” I didn’t even look at the words at first. What was your process?

Ben: The color palette does feel really inspired by New Orleans at night time, like greens, deep purples, blues, semi-fluorescent colors. That’s just kind of my jam, generally. I like a good triad with a complementary. Your Black Friend…It’s kind of a depressing topic. I at least wanted it to be excited to look at.

In Living Color! "Your Black Friend" palette pops and mic drops.

In Living Color! “Your Black Friend” palette pops and mic drops.

Lakita: That’s what I loved about your work, too. There’s nuance. It’s just that every time I pick it up, I’m picking up on something else. I also get the sense that Silver Sprocket (comics publisher), they’ve been good to you. What’s that relationship been like?

Ben: Oh, yeah. Silver Sprocket is the first publisher I’ve ever worked with. I started out doing tour posters for them and then some merchandise. I was maybe the first non-anthology comic that they published. It’s a very collaborative relationship. It’s more collaborative than it is employer-employee. Growing up, my understanding of the comics industry was really cutthroat and hard to deal with. They’re good people. They get all my punk sub-culture jokes.

Lakita: That’s awesome. What are you working on next? What’s coming up for you that you can share?

Ben: I started working for The Nib. I already did a project about getting arrested at a Klan rally in Georgia this spring.

 

Panel from Ben Passmore's "Letter from a Stone Mountain Jail."

Panel from Ben Passmore’s “Letter from a Stone Mountain Jail.”

 

Lakita: What are you looking forward to in 2017, as a creator?

Ben: Black self-actualization in the face of systematic white supremacy. That’s one.

Lakita: That works!

######

 

 

Keep up with Ben Passmore in the digital space:

Want to kick it with Ben in real life? Ben will also be at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF) May 13-May 14th and the special guest at CAKE Chicago June 10-11th, so say ‘hi’, bring your esoteric punk reference A-game and get his comics!

Smokin' sweet signature from Ben Passmore on my copy of "Your Black Friend" at SPX 2016.

Smokin’ sweet signature from Ben Passmore on my copy of “Your Black Friend” at SPX 2016.

About the author

The Shadow Scout

Lakita’s geek force within was first publicly observed when she bopped to Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” video as a very young child. This same said force was nurtured in adolescence through many weekends watching “Star Trek: Original Series” with her father and VHS binge-reserving “The Twilight Zone” television series from her nearest nerd sanctuary, the public library! Lakita also considers herself a public service “lifer” and supports youth voice inspired and empowered by the arts. A live tweeter and competitive trivia leaguer with dreams of learning esperanto or coding one day (whichever comes first), you can usually find her on twitter: @artshumana

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