[photo of the author]
I was born in 1965. I drew my first comic strip in the late ’70s. Some of my stories have received significant praise within the comics industry. I graduated with one of the hardest majors from one of the most highly-regarded private colleges in Minnesota. I’ve failed as a graduate student and succeeded in sales. I’ve learned a lot about people through computer programming jobs and political activism. I’ve had my heart broken more than once. I’ve led a colorful, eclectic, and fascinating life. It isn’t over yet either.
I’ve recently started doing a online comic strip called MISFIT’S JOURNEY for Webcomicsnation.com. (Click here to read the first episode, “Mistaken Identity”.) The first several stories will cover my life in Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This ended up being a very important period of my life, as I learned a lot about such things as academia, progressive politics, romance, dysfunctional families, the sales profession, and the workplace during this time. Old dreams were crushed and replaced by new dreams.
[the 3d model of my early '90s self that I use for MISFIT'S JOURNEY]
This was a period of time when I was forced by circumstances to reassess myself and what I was all about. In spite of all the turmoil I went through, I was able to maintain my self-esteem and do something I’m sure I’ll be doing for the rest of my life — I reinvented myself for the future.
I’m a complicated and intelligent person. Did you know that I graduated in 1988 from Saint Olaf College in Northfield, MN with a double major in physics and mathematics? Did you know that I scored somewhere around the 90th percentile when I took the Graduate Record Exams? Did you know that I dropped out of a graduate school program for Applied Mathematics in 1989? There’s a lot more about me to discover, and hopefully you WILL when you read my autobiographical comics.
I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota. I learned to read before I started school and quickly became one of those kids known as “gifted” … meaning I got lots of high test scores …. meaning I was a geek, a nerd, and a dexter.
I lived on a farm for most of my childhood, so I often felt very isolated. It’s also fair to say that my family was at least somewhat dysfunctional.
Because of my isolation, I think I craved visual stimulation as a way to make life more bearable. I also developed a very active imagination. It strikes me as being only natural that I became attracted to all sorts of colorful and wildly-imaginative COMIC BOOKS.
And I devoted a lot of time towards learning all about the people who write and draw them.
My First Comics
[The cover of one of my first small press comics. Art is by Dan W. Taylor & Ben Adams.]
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to meet people who were as passionately interested in comic books as I was. I discovered I could interact with these people even while living on a small, isolated farm … through the mail. I discovered comics fandom.
I wrote lots of letters. I wrote a few articles. I wrote and drew superhero comics. I wrote and drew non-superhero comics. Much of what I wrote is downright embarrassing now, but it got me started.
And let’s face it … these people that I interacted with through the mail …. well, they were a lot more fascinating than most of the people who were part of my small town existence.
Many of the people I interacted with would later go on to create comics professionally. I suppose I should drop a few names here. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen. Image Comics founder Jim Valentino. A few people who went on to become inkers at Marvel and DC Comics.
(I didn’t necessarily know these people very well. In fact, in some cases, I really only knew people who knew them. But I could have easily formed friendships with them at this time …. most people in comics fandom were very approachable.)
[Cover to one of my first newave comix. Inking is by Dan Taylor.]
Sometime in my teens, I became a bit bored with the superhero titles that had been my comics of choice up until that point. Fortunately for me, when I did, there was a bit of overlap then between what we call “superhero comics fandom” and the newave comix movement.
The newave comix movement was an outgrowth of the counterculture-ish ’60s underground comix scene and began when the distribution network for underground comix (comprised largely of counterculture-ish head shops, as I understand it) fell apart. Jim Valentino was part of this movement. So was Kevin Eastman. Steve Willis (a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia,WA who knew Simpsons creator Matt Groening) and Cynicalman creator Matt Feazell were also a big part of the this scene.
Another CRUMB type?
As I became acquainted with newave comix, I learned about the underground comix days and read a lot of the work of Robert Crumb, who is of course the subject of a very popular documentary film called … CRUMB.
Around the time I was becoming acquainted with Crumb’s work something amazing and unforgettable happened. I started corresponding with someone who roomed with him.
His name was Marty Pahls.
[A cover from Fantagraphics' COMPLETE CRUMB COMICS series]
Not only did he room with Robert Crumb, but he also knew Crumb’s frequent collaborator and autobiographical comics author Harvey Pekar. (Pekar is now ALSO the subject of a very popular independent film, which –- like his comic –- is called AMERICAN SPLENDOR.) In fact, there was footage with him filmed for CRUMB (it wasn’t used) and he was, for some strange reason, split into two characters called “Marty” and “Pahls” for the AMERICAN SPLENDOR film.
Both my correspondence with Pahls and my later discoveries about him had a huge effect on me. I don’t want to devote lots of space to this now. (This will hopefully be a topic I’ll go into in future comics and blog entires.) However, I do want to mention one key thing Pahls frequently said in his letters.
I was apparently quite a bit like Crumb during my teenage years.
I was shy and sensitive. Perceptive, sensitive, artistic, and talented. I liked beautiful women, and they didn’t always like me.
It turns out Pahls had helped Crumb survive some very difficult times. In this case, history ended up repeated itself. He definitely helped me out too.
[Pictures of the Saint Olaf College campus in the '80s]
By mid-1984, I was a high school graduate. I got very nice PSAT and ACT scores and went away to that private college in Minnesota where a lot of the smart kids go …. Saint Olaf College in Northfield, MN.
For reasons long and complicated, I was attracted to both physics and mathematics and devoted most of my energies towards mastering those two fields. Too much energy actually. One of my big regrets about college is that I studied too hard.
Another big regret is that I didn’t know one thing about myself that I know now … that I’m a very versatile liberal arts kind of person who wants to do lots of different things and doesn’t want to be typecast.
To be sure, I did play around with the liberal arts while at Olaf. I took a number of very interesting literature and philosophy courses. I was also exposed to the work of a budding cartoonist named Ward Sutton, a student one year behind me while I was there. (Sutton has done all sorts of great comix and illustration work that’s highly regarded in both Minneapolis and Seattle. He currently draws a comic strip for the Village Voice.)
Truth to tell, a lot of the movers and shakers of the modern world went to Saint Olaf. I was exposed to a lot of interesting and talented people while going there. (It always makes me feel good to know I went to school with them …. and sometimes got better grades than they did!)
I graduated cum laude from Saint Olaf with a double major in physics and mathematics. I ended up going to graduate school at the University Of Washington in Seattle in Applied Mathematics. I had a teaching assistantship that funded my studies. I signed up for some heady courses there involving mathematical modeling for problems in Oceanography and Aeronautics.
I started to settle back into the same bookwormish life I had at Saint Olaf.
Only I got distracted. I was distracted by a very exciting and interesting city. I was distracted by lots of interesting people who weren’t part of my graduate school department. I wanted to be in Seattle, but I didn’t want to be a bookworm in the Department Of Applied Mathematics.
This came out in my less than fantastic grades. It became pretty clear quickly that I wasn’t going to hold onto my assistantship if my grades didn’t pick up.
They didn’t pick up. At the end of my first year, I decided to leave the department.
However, I soon found a new spark of inspiration when I discovered the world of left-wing political activism and achieved success fundraising for various political causes.
Truth to tell, I became SO GOOD at fundraising that many people advised me to pursue a career in sales.
Eventually, I did pursue such a career and successfully made the transition from counterculture-ish Seattle lefty to suburban software salesman. (Believe it or not, I used to work right next door to Microsoft.) Still later, I achieved success as a software engineer.
Now, while I have achieved some success in both sales and programming, there are many aspects of suburban life and corporate cultures that I am quite uncomfortable with and unhappy about.
[My '90s self-published graphic novel, INFOCHAMELEON: COMPANY CULT, dealt with workplace issues.]
One thing I’ve learned over and over again in my life is that unhappiness and discomfort can be viewed as invitations to learn and ask harder questions about the way things work. I’ve also discovered that learning often involves viewing things from perspectives different than your own.
Furthermore, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to deal with unhappiness and discomfort is to be an artist … or perhaps a cartoonist.
Cartoonist Scott Adams (no relation) has made a career out of dealing with corporate dysfunction with Dilbert. Mike Judge has mined similar territory in the film OFFICE SPACE. (Interestingly enough, Judge -– like me -– also has a degree in physics.)
It’s occurred to me more than once that I could be a wee bit like both of them … although perhaps with a dash more of David Mamet and Robert Altman.
Actually, it occurs to me almost daily why I need to be a writer and an artist.
Returning To Comics
I was intensely interested in doing comics for most of my high school years, but once I went off to college, I completely set them aside. However, shortly after I left grad school, I starting work on writing and drawing a small press collection of comix called DOUBTS AND VISIONS #1, which I later printed at a copy shop. Around this same time, I wrote and drew a few other short comic strips that were printed by other small press publishers.
The dabbling I did in the small press around this time was meant to be a small step forward to bigger and better things. I was hopeful that I could do something that would be picked up by another publisher or publish something myself with a large circulation.
[I published 4 issues of PRISONOPOLIS for the direct market in the '90s.]
Eventually, I started the Mediawarp Comics imprint and published 5 titles for the direct market, the primary market for print comics comprised of specialty comics shops. (More information on this period is in the Past Works section of this site.)
At this time the direct market was undergoing a large contraction due to a variety of factors. Sales were declining dramatically. Promising new talents were having problems getting their self-published works selling. Industry vets were having a hard time finding work, and comics shops were closing.
Around this time, Scott McCloud, who had already written the popular book UNDERSTANDING COMICS, had come out with a new book called REINVENTING COMICS, which advocated 12 different revolutions in the way comics are created, distributed, and perceived with special emphasis on the potential of online comics.
[Scott McCloud's REINVENTING COMICS had a big impact on me when I first read it.]
Many of us who were frustrated with the direct market looked to McCloud’s ideas as potential antidotes to our problems. Rick Veitch (who is best known for his collaborations with WATCHMEN and SWAMP THING author Alan Moore) had founded COMICON.COM around this time, and it proved to be a very popular place to discuss McCloud’s ideas.
Around this time, I purchased a PC and starting downloading and buying all sorts of computer graphics programs — such as Flash, PhotoImpact, Poser, and Bryce. I learned to write HTML and practically lived and breathed the Internet. I became especially interested in using 3d art applications — such as Poser, Bryce, Shade, and Carrara — and digital photography to create webcomics during this time.
I’ve spent a lot of time checking out online comics, Internet animation, digital art, and popular websites. I’ve been meaning for quite some time to become more actively involved in the creation of online comics. I’m very happy that the first episode of my new online strip, MISFIT’S JOURNEY, is now appearing on Webcomics Nation and that I did the art using those 3d apps that I’ve been so excited about.
While writing this essay, I’ve been constantly agonizing over whether I’m going into too much detail or not enough. I’ve led a complex life that’s hard to explain in a few short paragraphs. This is a big part of the reason I want to do autobiographical comics. If I haven’t answered all the questions you might have about me in this essay, hopefully my new comics will!
– Ben Adams, January 8, 2006
(This essay is a reworking of an older essay that was written for an older version of this site on March 13, 2004. The reworking first appeared in October 30, 2005 and was revised in early 2006.)
An interview I did for Top Two Three Films – I talk about digital comics in an interview for the makers of the upcoming film, ADVENTURES INTO DIGITAL COMICS.
My LiveJournal Profile Page – The BenAdamsArts.com blog is now my main blog, but I plan to use my LiveJournal account for networking purposes. This page tells you a lot about my interests.
Podcast Interview Conducted By Joey Manley – Hear what I sound like! In this podcast, I talk with Joey about MISFIT’S JOURNEY. We also talk quite a bit about 3d comics and discuss our old times together creating and publishing small press comics in the ’80s.
Characters and artwork used for this essay are (c) and copyrighted by original creators.