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A Conversation With Benita Story

A Conversation with Benita Story, Co-Writer on Johnny Saturn, by Scott Story

Most of you know it by now, but Benita Story is an integral part of the team that creates Johnny Saturn. She is also my wife. What follows is a casual conversation about what she does, and her views on it.

Scott: Benita, how did your role as a co-writer on “Johnny Saturn” come about?

Benita: I’m not really sure, actually. I think we just started tossing ideas around about a story we’d like to tell, and one thing lead to another. I remember a lot of “What if…” and “What about…” and “That’s a great idea, but what if we did…” It’s like the story of twin boys – what one doesn’t think of, the other will. That’s us!

Scott: Well before you assumed the co-writer’s mantle, you were making up characters for the series. Would you tell us about that?

Benita: Ahhh… Dr. Synn. Well, you had this temporary name for the villain of the Johnny Saturn story, Dr. Synn. I liked it and it immediately conjured up the character pretty much as he ended up being. First, though, I knew what he looked like. I remembered a line from the movie “Addam’s Family Values.” They were at a school function (Halloween?) where the kids were supposed to be in costume. The teacher looked at Wednesday, who was not in costume, and asked, “And what are you supposed to be?” Wednesday deadpanned, “I’m a homocidal maniac.  We look like everyone else.” That’s why Dr. Synn is dressed like a businessman in a white linen suite, fedora and walking stick. I wanted him to be able to walk down the street in any city and no one pay much attention to him. I wanted him to be proper and polite, even to the point of leaving a tip in a café that he blows up theminute he’s out of it.

And then, there are Tara and Mollie. You had drawn a picture of a blond girl with cupie-hair in your sketchbook. She just spoke to me and said, I am Tara, the grand-daughter of Karl Wissenschaft. But, the further I delved into her character, the more conflict I felt in her for all her perfect exterior. It was then I realized she was a robot based on the successful experiments Dr. Wissenschaft had done on a homeless girl.  Also, I realized he had done more than based her physical aspects on this girl, but had gone so far as to download the memories and personality of this girl into Tara. But who was this homeless girl? Mollie. She came to me whole and complete as she is. A mutilated survivor of Dr. Wissenschaft’s life’s work. The Yin to Tara’s Yang. And that’s all I can say, because I don’t want to give away some important plot elements.

Scott: Benita, for those who aren’t privy to the process, how would you characterize how you and I work together? Especially, how do we collaborate on the writing?

Benita: Lots of arguing. No, really, we usually discuss new scenes or story lines over Sunday morning breakfast at the local Original Pancake House. We go back and forth with ideas, keeping some, discarding others, keeping some for future uses. Then we divide who writes the scenes based on our strong points. I’m best at interpersonal relationships and drama, and you are best at action and physical conflict. Even after some of the scenes are written, we revisit them, boiling them down to the points that advance the plot, even if it means getting rid of favorite parts. The story is always the most important element.

Scott: Editing a long-running series like this can be pretty intense. Can you explain your thoughts on this, and how you’ve helped guide me in my artistic duties?

Benita: Sometimes, artists are too close to their own work to see it for its true merit. I’ve seen you discussing glowing terms panels that look like a 10-year old drew them, and I’ve seen you dismiss something else that I saw as brilliant. An artist should NEVER edit his/her own work. Also, I can be very honest in my editing. I sometime wince when I know I’m going to say something that might hurt your feelings, or make you redraw something when you are behind schedule and are exhausted. But my name, as well as yours, is going onto the finished product, and I want to give the audience the absolute best we can at any given time. Even though Icannot draw, I have definite ideas of how things should look.

Scott: You’ve developed into a very skilled, and, dare I say, innovative letterer. Can you let me in on the thought process behind this?

Benita: I seriously think about how people talk in day to day life. I listen to rhythms of speech, what words are emphasized by what personality type. I listen to phraseology and terminology. Also, I try to use the word balloons to lead the eye to the next for smoothness of flow. Then, there are the word balloons themselves. If they overlap, then the words are said in quick succession, and the further apart they are the more of a pause there is. I try to convey a thinking process behind the words, much like we think about what we are saying as we talk. Comics aren’t movies, but I want people to see and hear a movie soundtrack as they read. Inflection,tone, etc. It all has to be there for the story to come across properly. People dismiss letterers, but they shouldn’t because the dialog is just as important to telling the story as the art is.

Scott: As the dialogue writer, you manage to find the right voice for each character. Can you tell me about your process here, how the dialogue comes about and how you refine it?

Benita: You know, it’s funny. I don’t decide on the right voice for a character. That’s just how they talk.   Creating a character isn’t all creation, but letting the character be who he/she wants to be. Some are wordier(Utopian), some cut to the chase (John Underhall), some are thoughtful or introspective (to a certain point Greg Buchanan), some are snide (anytime the Taylor talks to Greg), some are bossy (Staff of Life before the War in Heaven), and some are smooth and proper (Dr. Synn). I didn’t decide this, but they let me know that this is how they are. The only thing I do try to do is not let the character get to telling speeches. Utopian is hard to rein in at times. So is Dr. Wissenschaft. I try to think of concise, plot moving elements of what they have to say, then let them say it.

Scott: The Comic Community isn’t the only place you are active. Can you tell us a bit about what else you do,and what those communities are like?

Benita: As much as I love story-telling, I LOVE the fiber arts fields – I even have my own website based on this. When I was a child, I started sewing my dolls’ clothes, which lead to me making my own clothes, which lead to my learning how cloth is constructed. Now, I am an avid weaver, natural dyer, spinner, knitter and designer. My colleagues in the fiber area range from organic farmers and fiber animal breeders, doctors,physicists, college professors, nurses, teachers, etc. And we all have a couple of things in common – a love of creating art and practical items with natural fibers and taking care of our planet. I belong to a wonderful not-for-profit organization called SWIFT (Spinners and Weavers of Indiana – Fibers and Textiles), of which I am the newsletter editor. Also, I am a copy editor for WeaveZine, an on-line weaving magazine ran by Sci-Fi writer, Syne Mitchell. But, in the comic book area, I think I am best known as “The Spinning Lady” because I take my spinning wheel to the conventions and spin another type of yarn as I visit with everyone.

Scott: When it comes to the Webcomic Community, you’ve chosen to let me be the public figure while you maintain our privacy. What are your thoughts on this?

Benita: Well, that’s simple, really. People would rather talk with the artist than the writer. Besides, with the comic industry being your full-time, day job, you are way more knowledgeable with the details than I am. I just want to tell stories. I’d like to get more involved, but my time is very limited. I would like to start a club of sorts, though, of the wives of husband/wife comic creator teams. A lot of times we are overlooked as “shirt-tails grabbers,” but that just is not true. Look at Kaja Foglio, for example. In some ways, her role is more important that her husband’s because it is the writing and story-telling that keep people coming back to their strip.

Scott: In our writing, there is always an ironic or dark twist to the plot. Is that a function of me, you, or both of us as storytellers?

Benita: I think it is a product of both of us. We are both pretty quirky writers, and neither of us enjoys old, over-told plot lines. I think that between the two of us, we keep things original, lively and mind-blowing. My favorite comments always start with “Wow! I didn’t see THAT coming!” Then I know we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.

Also, let’s face it, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the bad people get away. This is part of life, and we just don’t believe in glossing over it. Life can be very ironic.

Scott: We all know that I’m a big fan of Superhero stories, but that doesn’t really apply to you. What are your literary inspirations, both in and outside comics?

Benita: Oh, gee… Within the comic book arena, I love Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise, have enjoyed Fables, think Batman is way cooler than Superman, read webcomics like Phoenix Requiem, Pibgorn, 9 Chickweed Lane, Frazz, Secret Asian Man, Earthsong, Wayfarer’s Moon, Two Kinds, Sheldon and Basic Instructions.

Outside the comic book area, I mostly read mysteries. I love Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Laura Childs, Monica Ferris, Maggie Sefton, Ellery Queen, and Edgar Alan Poe. I also really enjoy the writings of Miss Read, Jan Karon, James Herriot, L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollop, and writers who lived and wrote from the 1950’s back.

Biographies, diaries and journals are another reading passion of mine, which actually can tie back into the comics. Reading about other peoples’ lives gives me an insight to human nature that I can take back into the characters I create for the stories I write.

Lastly, I tend to read lots of books that pertain to the fiber art area. I, always, am trying to up my game in this area, and the more I learn, the better I will be informed and the better I can teach and pass this information forward to others.

Scott: Thanks, Benita! This has been really informative!

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