An Interview with C'est La Vie's Jennifer Babcock by Xaviar Xerexes
Jennifer Miyuki Babcock is the creator of C'est la Vie, a daily comic strip that appears both in the UCLA Daily Bruin and online at Comics Sherpa. Babcock has been posting strips to Comics Sherpa since September 7, 2003. C'est la Vie is currently the highest rated strip at Comics Sherpa by visitors to the site and it is well worth checking out.
What can you tell us about yourself? Your bio at ComicSherpa says you are a student at UCLA where you are also a cartoonist for the campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Do you actually have time to go to class and get a degree with all of the cartooning you're working on?
I'm a fourth year undergraduate at UCLA majoring in history and art history with an emphasis in Ancient Egyptian visual culture. I'm going to be graduating this June, and I still don't exactly know what I'm going to do afterwards. Unemployment here I come!
Amazingly enough, I can cartoon and get my degree at the same time with some free time to spare, which is usually dedicated to presiding over the Art History Undergraduate Association at UCLA, playing with my rabbit, seeing friends, and napping. Once in a while I'll give myself projects to work on â€“ like writing a comic book or short story.
What kind of cartooning work do you do on The Daily Bruin?
C'est la Vie is actually featured in the Daily Bruin as well, although the strip featured there is slightly different than what I provide for Sherpa. The strips I submit to the Daily Bruin are a bit racier and are aimed more towards a college audience.
What was the inspiration for creating your comic strip C'est la Vie? If you were going to describe the strip briefly, how would you do it? Are you like any of the main characters? More like Mona or Donna?
I started writing my comic strip C'est la Vie because I needed to find a niche at UCLA. With over 35,000 students, UCLA is a bit overwhelming and I wanted to do something here that made me feel at home. So I submitted C'est la Vie, which was a spin off of a series of cartons I drew in high school, to the Daily Bruin and was accepted as a cartoonist in 2001.
I never feel like I do my strip justice, but here's my feeble attempt to try to explain what C'est la Vie is all about: I suppose one could say that it's basically about the life of Mona Montrois, a cynical, chain-smoking young Frenchwoman who doesn't see any point to her life, or to existence at all, but has secret hopes that there is something greater in store for her. The strip is about human nature â€“ studied mainly through Mona's introspective thoughts, her relationships with others, and her reactions toward her so- called mundane and dreary environment.
To put it simply: on bad days I'm like Mona; on good days I'm like Donna. Everyone I know thinks I'm just like Mona. I guess I have a lot of bad days. Some people even go far to say that I look like Mona â€“ personally, I don't really see the resemblance.
Your comic strip, C'est la Vie is published on ComicSherpa, a free webcomic service of the Universal Press Syndicate. What made you decide to use the ComicSherpa site as the platform for publishing C'est la Vie? What are the advantages and disadvantages of ComicSherpa for you? Does C'est la Vie appear anywhere else online or in print?
In 2002, an editor from Universal Press Syndicate contacted me saying he was interested in developing C'est la Vie into a feature. Ever since then we have been working together toward making C'est la Vie more appealing to general audiences. When ComicsSherpa was about to launch, he asked me if I'd be interested in trying out. He thought it'd be a good way for me to get feedback from readers, and I thought it'd be a good way to see if I was up for writing a daily cartoon (plus he was going to waive the membership fee for me) so I said "why not?"
I really like being able to publish my cartoon daily on Sherpa without having to worry about maintenance. On top of that, I get thousands of readers and sometimes even fan mail, which I really appreciate beyond imagination. The only downside to Sherpa, which other Sherpa cartoonists have been experiencing as well, are the anonymous unconstructive negative feedbacks and abuse of the voting system. There have been problems in the past where someone just goes down the list and gives poor scores to anyone. We all realize that these scores don't mean much to editors, but it still hurts to see your hard work getting 1s and 2s just because someone wants to be a jerk, you know?
Currently C'est la Vie only appears regularly in the Daily Bruin and on ComicSherpa.
Are you still working with the editor from Universal Press Syndicate and do you have hopes of signing a syndication deal for C'est La Vie?
I am still talking to the editor from Universal Press Syndicate, albeit not on a weekly or even monthly basis. Usually he sends me a long e-mail (based on ~100 strips) with feedback on how to further improve C'est la Vie. It's a long, arduous, and sometimes frustrating journey to what I hope will end in syndication.
Indeed, I would be lying if I said I didn't want a syndication deal for C'est la Vie, though I'm trying to not keep my hopes up. The chances of getting a syndication deal is quite slim, and I realize that due to the "darker" nature of my comic, Universal may be reluctant to sign me on. Nonetheless, I try to think positively and realize that I *do* have a chance.
C'est la Vie is currently the overall highest ranked comic appearing on ComicSherpa (comics are ranked by readers). Congratulations! Do you get a lot of useful feedback from readers through ComicSherpa? Has it helped you to get feedback or notice from editors or syndicate employees?
Feedback has dwindled a lot since Sherpa's early days, but once in a blue moon I get some useful feedback that really helps me. Although feedback is scarce, it's a nice tool to have â€“ I love to hear from readers, whether their comments be positive or negative.
Additionally, I've gotten some feedback from employees at ucomics.com, which is part of Universal Press Syndicate, so it's nice to know that other people there besides from my editor reads and enjoys my cartoon. As of yet though, I haven't gotten any notice from editors or employees from other syndicates.
Did you create C'est la Vie with the idea of getting it into syndication? Have you submitted it for syndication with any of the major syndicates? Do you have a goal of being a working, professional cartoonist?
I never intended C'est la Vie to be anything more than a hobby at first. But after the first few months of being published in the Bruin, I got a lot of positive feedback which made me think that maybe I could take cartooning more seriously, and possibly develop it into some sort of career. They were mainly fantasies though â€“ I was hopeful, but I didn't really think it could be possible.
I have yet to submit my feature to any of the major syndicates. I kinda want to see how things go with Universal Press Syndicate, but my peers have been pressuring me to send my work out to others. I'll probably put a package together this summer, when I'm out of school.
In the meantime, I think I have the potential for being a working, professional cartoonist. I certainly have to desire to be syndicated. There are a lot of things I still have to learn and brush up on, but cartooning is one of those things that I'm willing to dedicate a lot of time working on--which is pretty impressive given my short attention span.
What's your working method for creating C'est la Vie? How much do you do with paper and pen and how much on the computer (if any)?
My working method is pretty rudimentary. I just draw and write out the cartoon on regular computer paper with a mechanical pencil, trace over the drawing on another sheet of computer paper with a crowquill pen (nib size b-6), and then scan in the inked page. From there I basically paint bucket colors in Photoshop and then type in the text, which sometimes changes from the original drawing.
It's pretty embarrassing that I use such nice software to just paint bucket colors and type in text, but I got Photoshop for free, and I might as well paint bucket in style.
Someday I'll learn how to use the software more effectively. Someday.
When did you get interested in comics? What cartoonists are influences on your work?
I think I just kinda fell into cartooning. I had never even thought about being a comic strip writer until four years ago. It's almost an accident that I'm cartooning today. Regardless of what I've just said though, I've always loved cartoons â€“ especially animation. Recently I've been reading more comic books and webcomics.
I admire the works of Jhonan Vasquez, Tim Burton, and Edward Gorey the most. Funny enough though, the biggest influence on my style is early-late 90s feature animation Disney, which is pretty sugary in comparison.
Interesting that you mentioned 90s Disney animation as an influence on your style â€“ I thought of that too when reading the archives. What about that style appeals to you and how purposely have you tried to evoke that in your comic?
I was a kid when Disney had their golden age in late 80s and early 90s with Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King. When I saw I Beauty and the Beast for the first time, I remember thinking, "Wow, I want to do this!" After that, it was a dream of mine, for a long time, to be a traditional animator for Disney Feature Animation. I used to practice drawing in the "Disney style" constantly. In the late 90s Disney was starting to get more expressionistic with their characters â€“ Hercules and Tarzan in particular â€“ and I was immediately drawn to that fluid style.
I don't intentionally try to draw like Disney like I used to though- it's just been ingrained into my aesthetics. In C'est la Vie in particular, I think Donna looks more like a Disney chick than Mona, which I suppose makes sense since Donna's the one that really wants to *be* the Disney princess that eventually finds her prince charming. But again, it's just a coincidence that she happens to look like she jumped out of a Disney flick.
I suppose it's a good thing that I decided that animation wasn't for me before Eisner decided to get rid of the 2D animation program. Although I'm sure that he's squashed many other people's dreams. Good job, buddy.
How did you get involved with the Collective Inkwell project?
David Wright, who writes Todd and Penguin, invited me into the Collective Inkwell. I really liked the idea of different artists and writers coming together and swapping ideas and bonding, and I thought it'd be good exposure for C'est la Vie so I thought I'd join. It's a small community right now, but it will no doubt grow with more exposure.
Do you pay much attention to webcomics? Any favorites that you read regularly?
I don't have time to read a lot of webcomics, because then I'd be wasting all my time reading them instead of doing homework (I'd rather be reading webcomics), but I do read Dog Complex, Cow Tools (another Sherpa cartoon) and one of my favorites â€“ Penny Arcade on a regular basis. Once in a while I catch Wapsi Square â€“ I really like the artwork, and the writing is engaging.
What do you think about the future of comic strips in newspapers? Do you see real opportunities for new talent to get their work into newspapers?
I think newspapers really need to let in fresher, edgier cartoonists into the newspapers. There are a lot of "dead" cartoons that are for some reason still being published, which I think really turns a lot of young people, especially those in their teens and 20s, off from reading the newspaper "funnies."
However, Universal Press Syndicate is doing a good job trying to appeal to younger audiences by taking in newer and fresher cartoons such as Lucky Cow, Pooch CafÃ©, and Mullets, but I still feel that opportunities for new talent to get their work into newspapers is rather limited. Like I said, a lot of the "dead" cartoons take up a lot of space that could otherwise go to new talent.
How do you think comics published on the web will co-exist with the newspaper variety? Is the web on a path to replace the newspaper as the home of the comic strip?
I usually have really bad foresight, but I don't really feel that the web will replace the newspaper as the "home" of the comic strip. Certainly there are a lot of webcomics out there, but there's something different between those and the kind we see in the paper. For one, webcomics tend to be edgier and more specialized; Penny Arcade is a perfect example of that. On the flip side, newspaper comics are a bit more generalized have a wider appeal. I think the two serve different purposes.
Moreover, though syndicates provide services like ucomics.com and comics.com, I see them more as supplementary features to their printed counterpart. It's nice to have access to an archive of your favorite syndicated strip, but I can't really see them phasing out printed strips. The online thing is more of a convenience, but I think people really like seeing the physical thing printed out on paper. At least I would.
Xaviar Xerexes is the Publisher and Executive Editor for News.