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A Profile of Ben Jones
posted October 30, 2003
 

"Ben Jones once told me that when he was a kid he would lie with his eyes closed and dream up entire Indiana Jones movies in his head." -- Brian Ralph

Combining straight-faced spiritualism with outsized comedy, at first glance Ben Jones creates comics close enough to those emanating from the late Providence arts collective Fort Thunder that he runs the risk of being lost in the bright light of their reflected output. Yet after more deliberate consideration of his career to date, one can be forgiven for thinking Jones has just as likely a chance of obscuring everybody else. If what you value about comics is humor, almost no one publishing is funnier than Jones. If what you value about comics is idiosyncratic visual language, Jones makes comics that look like nothing else out there. Doing battle with a giant pile of Ben Jones comics and its pen-and-ink onslaught of bizarre laugh lines and touching sentiment is one of the most daunting tasks in comics today, and perhaps the most fun.

Ben Jones's peers describe him as an innocuous-looking artist-type somewhere around 25 years old, often sporting a mullet and handlebar mustache and frequently seen wearing a yellow windbreaker. Tom Hart, who has worked with the artist and claims Jones' comics are "profoundly spiritual," says "Ben is a terrific guy who doesn't seem befuddled by the world, but does seem befuddled or bothered by an over-intellectualizing of the artistic process. He actually seems quite comfortable with the world, like it's all a joke he's in on." The Easthampton resident attended Massachusetts Art in Boston from 1995 to 1999, where he made movies using computers and did his studio work with interrelated media. He says that he never read comics as a kid, but watched an average of six hours of television a day. Because of his lack of exposure to comics, let alone immersion in the arguments made on art comics' behalf, many typical nuances of terminology and valuation seem lost on Jones. "Tom Devlin told me to stop calling comics cartoons, cartoons are Garfield... Well, I own more Garfield books than Chester Brown books," he says. Before seeing the Fort Thunder works, the only comics he recalls reading are from Matt Groening and Ron Rege, although a few comics-related objects make it into a quick and incomplete list of inspirations that includes Far Side books, videogame ads from old comics, Archie, trolls and the First Comics early computer-comic effort Shatter.

A reader can experience much of what is valuable about Ben Jones without ever diving into his narratives. Both his figures and his backgrounds are frequently made up of curves and circles built one on top of the other, like a child creating landscapes out of building blocks limited to the amount of space of which he can control his drawing tools. His use of color on the covers of comics like Thaz 2 and Alfe and in web productions like "The Future Genies of Mush Island" recall children's books (Jones cites Margaret Wise Brown's Good Night Moon as a favorite) more than they do comics, yet still manage to celebrate the garish beauty of four-color print and early videogames. Jones sees the use of color in most comics as developed out of value system difficult for him to understand. "I think in the comic world color is thought of separately (art equals frank miller pencil equals joe dick color equals my wife) anyway, Bizarro DC Comics, or any comic made by any big company in the last 40 years with exceptions (Sin City), is evidence that line and color are off on two different planets, so like obviously, this is the point where I say I am an artist, and I never practiced drawing Superman's bulge, I was busy frame grabbing 'Garfield and Friends' off a QuickTime and using Photoshop to analyze garf's brilliant orange to exploit it in a creation of my own."

Effective as illustration, Ben Jones' comics demand reading. As noted by several of his fellow cartoonists, on no planet should a comic about Simpsons characters Homer and Moe taking a walk, getting high and skinny dipping ("Ho and Mo") work on any level for a single second, let alone be funny and affecting and a touch profound. In the Alfe stories, Jones' most frequent recurring feature and among the first comics the artist tried to sell through Million Year Picnic, Jones uses a sizable, extremely odd cast to pay tribute to simple pleasures and the way kindness and patience act as buttresses against life's intolerable cruelties. Jones is to the idea of friendship what the cartoonist Jack Jackson is to Texas history, its primary comics chronicler.

A worthy analysis of how Jones' comics -- which also include odd explorations of fantasy landscapes and several explicitly decorative pages -- reflect the cartoonist's interest in a certain way of making art would take more space than this magazine has to offer this issue. The history is less complicated. Jones was shown his first Fort Thunder comics by Jeff Konigsberg and several more after meeting Chris Forgues, who Jones says "set the story straight" about the arts collective. Forgues and Jones teamed up to do a weekly comic that became Paper Radio, publishing their friends Keith Waters, Jason Gillis, Ryan Walker, Hillary Iorns, Kurt Wiesman and more in addition to their own work -- Jones claims one issue distributed at Fort Thunder was coated in chocolate. Jones was later invited to take part in the Paper Rodeo newspaper, which shared cartoonists but was unrelated to the earlier, sound-alike publication ("The fact that it was titled Paper Rodeo to this day doesn't really mean anything more than Mat or Leif were trying to think up names and came up with one that is kind of like Paper Radio," Jones says.) Paper Radio went on relative hiatus when Paper Rodeo debuted, returning briefly for a 10-week run as a drawing newsletter, and then slowly wound down as a collaborative platform when Jones and Forgues grew apart as artists. Jones found new creative partners and adopted the fake company name "Paper Rad," as a humorous variation on the previous projects and because "rad" was a word that had appeared in his notebooks since the 4th Grade. Jones compares Paper Rad to being in a band, stressing that his relationships with the group so directly influence his work that the solo mini-comics are more like drum solos than solo albums. He concludes by saying, "I'm sure all this is totally nonsense to you, but there is really nothing normal about Paper Rad and Paper Radio's approach to comics; its a mixture of music, fake white graffitti, America, and peer to peer art."

Highwater Books has a Ben Jones book in the planning stages. Until then, fans of humor and reflection on the funnybook page should seek out his print comics and on-line offerings wherever they can be found.

Many of Ben Jones' projects can be seen through the Paper Rad web site (www.paperrad.org). Some of his minis can be purchased through eventual collection publisher highwaterbooks.com and usscatastrophe.com (they also host some of his Internet work). Paper Rodeo's address is PO Box 321, Providence, RI, 02901; Paper Radio's address is PO Box 913, Providence RI 02901. The closest and most sympathetic comic book shop would probably be Million Year Picnic.

Originally published in The Comics Journal #256.