Like many, I first learned of Ben Dewey and his art through Autumnlands, where his luscious brushwork combines with Jordie Bellaire’s colors to breathe life into the animal-populated world. Since then I discovered his work as a cartoonist on Tragedy Series, Meowskertown, and interactive flowcharts where you can decide what kind of adventurer you are and whether you’re a hero or villain.
I was delighted when Dewey agreed to an interview for which we discussed the future of Autumnlands, his traditional comics work, and what inspires him to experiment with his art.
You’ve been drawing comics for a lot of different publishers lately and I’m curious how those come together. Do editors come to you with offers or do you let publishers know you’re looking for a new project?
I bought a house two years back (we got forced out of our apartment by an insane rent increase) and my cost of living went up by a hundred percent. I had to start looking for as much work as I could get. I reached out to editors, friends and other pros. Luckily there were some things that I was a good fit for. I have found that if you cultivate a reputation for finishing things, that matters more than what your level of ability is. Editors are drowning in responsibility and the best thing any artist or writer can do is make their job easier. I really try hard to be helpful, nice and communicative, and for the most part, that has made it possible for me to find consistent work.
A lot of the comics you draw involve personifying animals. Do you feel boxed into that role or do you seek out those kinds of assignments?
It’s a weird time to be a creative professional in the wild west era of the internet age; sometimes it’s amazing and other times present a huge challenge. If I am getting known as an “animal guy” that has benefits because at least I’m known for something! One of the hardest things about building a career these days is getting folks to care. The churn of the online universe almost forces you to have a gimmick of some kind or another. I’ve heard many people say “make good work and people will find it” but that isn’t true in my experience. Most folks, including me, tend to double down on the things we know and like because nobody wants to lose out by betting on a thing they’ve never tried before. We are all risk averse and it’s easy to lose track of a thing you only saw by accident one time. Readers need to be convinced by tastemakers, recurrence of the material or personal interaction that builds trust. Promoting one’s work is a big part of the popularity equation and you need any edge you can get.
If you make self-promotion part of your career-building efforts in a way that feels organic and adds value to people’s lives then you have a shot at longevity as a creator but luck is a big part of that. I tried to avoid being “boxed in” for a long time but I think it may have had an adverse effect on my visibility the industry. Artists and writers who get known and climb the ladder of public favor are people who have “a thing” that they get associated with. I changed my mind about that when I realized that when I buy a record by Slash, I want it to sound a certain way (like dirty, hard-edged 80’s rock) and that I’d be bummed out if I went to see him play live and he was wearing a fedora instead of his trademark top-hat.
If being an “animal guy” gets people to care and invest in me, I’m all for it. I love animals and I love drawing them so sign me up!
Do you keep Autumnlands in mind when scheduling other projects?
I would but Kurt has stopped writing it for a variety of reasons. We have an understanding now that I will come back to work on it, schedule permitting, it when the rest of the arc is written. Part of the reason that I had to scramble and work on a bunch of different things, between buying the house and now, is because I stopped getting Autumnlands scripts about 2 years ago, in late 2016.
Are there any updates about Autumnlands you can share?
I wish. I can tell you that there are two complete issues I did that are just sitting in a drawer here in my studio that Kurt and I filled with delightful and amazing stuff. They’ll come out whenever I get the five following issues. The last page I did ends on a cliffhanger so I’m waiting for the rest of the puzzle myself!
It was a very challenging book to work on but I was all-in on that project. It’s part of the freelancer experience to have stuff collapse but it doesn’t make it any easier to know that. I had some important realizations about what it would take to be an abiding presence in comics when Autumnlands went on a hiatus, and I’m trying to turn that set of hard-earned lessons into positive momentum. I’m now putting real effort towards building my own reputation as a source for good stories, ideas and worlds for readers to explore.
Was it a challenge adapting your art for Beasts of Burden to something that would fit the style set by Jill Thompson?
There will always be people who want you to do exactly what your predecessor on a project has done; you can never get it exactly right, by the standards of some folks, but you can try to make the transition smooth. I tried to keep readers of the series in mind and give them something that won’t be a huge departure from the tone of previous books. Other than that, I just try to be a clear storyteller and serve Evan’s scripts to the best of my ability. Painting comics is a crazy amount of work and it’s hard to get results that can compete with the dynamics of comics that have digital coloring. I learned a lot on the first arc of Beasts (that I just completed) and one of those things is that I do not want to do more painted comics unless it is a huge component of why an audience has a positive experience with a story. I would see reviews where the reaction to the work indicated that someone didn’t know it was hand-painted. It comes down to valuing your own time, the wishes of the readers and respect for previous iterations of the property you’re working on. I hope people have positive responses to my efforts but I can only try my best and hope.
How do you get the word out about your personal projects to readers of books like Autumnlands and Beasts of Burden?
HA! I wish I knew! Finding a self-promotional style that isn’t grating or alienating is a huge part of success but I haven’t found my version of that yet. Just staying above water on my bills and deadlines is exhausting. I’m looking down the barrel of being forty and it’s not getting easier as I gain “wisdom” or gray hair. There’s a weird no man’s land between being a young new, shiny wunderkind on the scene, and being a respected veteran, where you don’t have the value of either Pokémon form. I’m in that valley now and it’s tricky geography to navigate. I keep meaning to do a youtube series where I make videos for kids that show them how to do art projects with stuff from around the house but I haven’t found the time. I think any effort at getting people to notice should add value to their lives at the same time.
I will say that I’ve become way less uptight about the value of self-promotion. I used to think that doing it at all was crass and that “real” artists would rise to the top of the public consciousness on the pure impact of genuinely brilliant work. I wanted to become that sort of artist but as I’ve aged it’s become clear that all that is nonsense and myth-based. Great artists die in obscurity all the time and people don’t have the time to go way out of their usual paths to find your obscure masterpiece. I want to make it as easy as possible now for people to discover what I make because I want to improve their lives and get paid to do so. Letting people know what you do is part of your service when you make art.
What itches does making strips scratch that drawing full comics doesn’t?
Up till this point in my career, I haven’t written my own long-form stories. If you’re always trying to interpret another creator’s words you’re only working artistic certain muscles. Doing comic strips or single panel pieces gives me the opportunity to feel that rush of making a successful sequence of images and words that feel like a cohesive narrative. I love comics as a form and the strip is this great distillation of the mechanics that make the media what it is. They don’t always work out but you don’t have to wait twenty-two pages to find that out. I wish I had more time to do more strips. I’ve got ten more Meowskertown uploads in process right now, and an idea book filled with dozens of others, but I gotta pay my mortgage! So far Meowskertown doesn’t pay enough to take a significant break from my regular schedule. Someday, maybe. For now, I’m really grateful for the folks who support that aspect of what I do via Patreon.
Are you interested in doing a series at Image, Dark Horse, or another creator-owned publisher that doesn’t use the strip format?
Oh, yes. I have a pretty cool idea that is in the nascent stages of development. It’ll be a fantasy project and I plan to shop it around and see if anyone bites!
Right now, my friend Terry Blas and I are working on an all-ages project called Nettles The Witchicorn that will have some really interesting and novel format components.
From what I’ve seen you don’t sell the original art for your Patreon content on your Etsy shop. Do they feel too personal to part with?
All those strips are done in Manga Studio so there are no originals to sell but I kept all the Tragedy Series originals because I fell too attached to them. We will eventually make prints (and probably a zine-collection) of those cartoons but I’d like there to be a bigger audience before I commit to that. Sometimes I spend money to print something and nobody is into it; like most freelancers, I have a pretty thin margin for error so I avoid loss leaders like the plague. I do sell original pages from stuff I’ve done but I have found that unless your stuff has known characters on it, people won’t pay much. I always hold out hope that an independently wealthy Autumnlands reader will materialize who will offer me a million dollars for all the cover art!
What inspired the flow charts you sell on your Etsy shop?
I like the idea of interactive and iterative art that doesn’t involve computers. I started with the “adventurer” chart for Tragedy Series and I did the “hero or villain” piece after that. I’ve got more planned (themes like D&D, electric guitars and the books of Jane Austen) but they take about four days of uninterrupted work to complete so they’ll have to wait until I get a stretch like that again.
They’re rather intricate and, I’d imagine, time-consuming. How much work goes into them?
I do a ton of work and experimenting in my sketchbooks and on the actual page. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep track of all the strands. The toughest thing is when you do a decision tree that involves a thing other people know well. I helped my friend Terry Blas lay out a Drag Race themed chart and it was hard because we knew that it had to make sense to the most dedicated fans of the show. The one I’m working on now has to make sense to hardcore D&D nerds and to new players alike because it’s meant to help people choose the class for their character. At one point I wanted to do them as a regular feature for a webcomic called “epic choices” but I’d end up with 6 a year at the rate I’m currently able to do them. I get why other people haven’t made them.
Lately, you’ve been really diversifying your portfolio. What encourages you to take on artistic projects beyond the standard 20-page comic book?
Most of that is in an effort to find joy again in a thing I stopped feeling positive about but I also want to try to get better paying and more high-profile work. When you get to do comics for a living, you can find yourself in a punishing loop jumping from one deadline to the next, without a break, and without noticing it. Some of the luster that got you excited about the job in the first place can fade. In my case that rough couple of years after Autumnlnds made me reexamine why I do what I do and how I could improve my career while addressing quality of life issues. I agreed to do twelve Dark Crystal covers and the Beasts Of Burden miniseries because I love those properties, got a chance to play in those worlds and I wanted to show folks that I could generate every aspect compelling images from the thumbnails all the way to finished color!
Those gigs ticked all the boxes I want as an artist. An ideal job is interesting, profitable and helps boost awareness of your work. I’m always trying to get that hat-trick with anything I agree to now. That said, If you get a great idea that you just can’t shake, that can be rewarding enough in and of itself. I love when that happens. I was so burnt out on commercial work after doing it for so many years, without a vacation, that the part of my brain that generated joy was mostly walled-off. It happened so slowly that I didn’t notice for a long while. I noticed that I wasn’t laughing, finding joy in the things I usually cared about and began dreading work. Great original ideas or a major life changes can function like a sledgehammer that knocks down the walls you build up around yourself. I am trying to find my place in the world through the things I make and contribute in a positive way to the lives of anybody who supports what I make. My main goal in life now is to do things that contribute to my own wellbeing and that of those around me. I’m starting to find a balance and it feels good to draw again.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at firstname.lastname@example.org.