Gratuitous Self-Promotion!: An Interview with Ben Snakepit

Nov 20, 2005

At first glance, the comics in Snake Pit are charming and unassuming. Every day of Ben Snake Pit's life is distilled into three panels. Many days, he doesn't do much beyond work at a video store, go home, get high, and watch movies. Other days, he goes to parties, where all of the inhabitants turn into monsters. But then something strange happens. Months of his life whiz by, and it's almost impossible to not start caring for Ben. You start realizing that he's an extremely decent guy, cash poor, yet living a life rich in experiences. You start rooting for him when he joins a band, and want to console him when he's having lady trouble. It's those sneaky yet real hooks of empathy, wonder, and enthusiasm that'll make you fly through his self-titled book, which chronicles three years of his life, three panels at a time.

And in case you're wondering why we're running an interview with one of our own contributors, it's because we gave this interview to Clamor Magazine and we have no idea if it ran or not. And also because we're egotistical assholes who like to fuckin' pimp our shit.

Interview with Ben Snake Pit by Dan Glenn Fury

Dan: For the record, what is your name?
Ben: Ben White, but I like to go by Ben Snakepit because it's punker that way.
Dan: Where did you get the name Snake Pit?
Ben: I lived in a punk house in '99 - "00 around there, with a bunch of dudes. It was called The Snake Pit before I moved in there. I don't know why. There was just a big sign on the door. I started drawing the comic and it was originally supposed to be about the adventures of the four dudes living in that house than it was about me, but then we all got evicted so the comic became about me. I just kept the name because it's cool.
Dan: Explain to people what the comic is.
Ben: Pretty much The Onion used to run this comic called Jim's Journal by this guy named Scott Bikkers and it was pretty much exactly what I do. It was four panels a day. I guess he did it every day, but he didn't date it or anything. It was just this guy Jim and it would be, "Today I went to work and came home and sat around, then talked to my friend on the phone," and that would be it. Pages and pages of it. You read it and you get the same feeling that you get from Snake Pit or whatever. I was real stoked on it. It was, like, my favorite thing ever. There are collection books of it out. One day I'm on the internet reading an interview with Scott Bikkers and it's fictional.
Dan: Oh, shit.
Ben: Jim's Journal is fictional. I was like, "Fuck!" It totally killed it for me. I went, "There you go. That's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna fuckin' do it for real." So, I started drawing. I think it was the first day after I had broken up with a girl or something. I was feeling all emo [in an affected voice], "I'm just gonna draw myself a comic strip." It came out really good, and I was like, "This is cool. I'll do it again tomorrow." The first six months of doing it were kind of off an on. I didn't exactly do it every day, and I didn't have the motivation. I just also didn't do the theme song either.
Dan: Explain the theme song.
Ben: Once the beginning of 2001 came, I decided I was really going to do it every day and be solid about it and try to draw as good as I could. In the corner, I used to just write "Snake Pit" every day, and I'd be like, "Why do that? I'm always listening to music when I'm drawing, why don't I write a theme song for every day? Sometimes it's what I'm listening to, and sometimes it's just a song that conveys my emotions for that day or whatever.
Dan: Are there days without songs?
Ben: Nope.
Dan: Are there days that have the same theme song twice?
Ben: They've repeated a couple of times. I think September of '02 I listened to the Ramones every day for forty days in a row. So, it's forty Ramones songs in a row. But, that's really what I did.
Dan: Cumulatively, over three years, you're talking over a thousand songs.
Ben: I've definitely had some repeats, but it's just how it happens. I don't plan it or anything, I just write down whatever song is in my head at the time.
Dan: What unexpected benefit has come from drawing a daily comic? A piece of advice that my grandfather gave to me that I kind of wish I had, is what you're doing. Writing down a journal entry every day, a short one.
Ben: It's kind of like getting to see a therapist for free. Something might happen: I might get evicted from my house, fired from my job, dumped by my girlfriend, or whatever. At the time, it's all, "Oh god, this is the worst. Life is horrible. It can't get any worse. Blah, blah, blah." Then you draw it and there's this little cartoon man [small cartoon-like voice]. It's funny and you're like, "What am I worried about? It's going to be okay." It's very therapeutic in that respect and it's a neat challenge every day. I mean, there's a lot of days where I just didn't do anything. I mean, I went to work, and then I took fucking bong hits until I passed out. And that's really all I did all day. But I've got to come out with at least a third panel. And then on days where I do a lot of crazy, cool shit I have to condense it down into what are the three coolest things that I did that day. It balances out real cool. It's nice to look back over what I've done over the past few weeks or months or whatever and realize that I'm doin' okay and it's not as bad as it seems.
Dan: What filters do you have? What kind of things will you not put in a comic?
Ben: The only thing I don't really put in there... I try to be respectful. Like, if I hook up with a girl at a party and we go home together that night. Usually, if a girl is talking to me, she's probably seen the comic strip. If something like that happens, and we hook up, I usually make sure it's okay with her before. You know, like, "Is it okay if I draw this in the comic?" And if they're like, "No." Then I'll be vague and "I was at a party and hooked up with a girl." I won't show her face - not that you could recognize anyone from my comics. I always run it by them first. The same goes if my friend's band breaks up, or some guy quits his band, or someone's pregnant - any kind of big news like that that I want to put in there. I always check with them first, because, well, I don't want to be a dick about it.
Dan: Why can't you draw yourself on the phone?
Ben: I fuckin' don't know! First, I tried drawing the phone, then, my hand around it, and then my face around it. That doesn't work. Then I'll try my face first, then my hand, and then the phone - nope. Every combination, I just can't get it right. I think if I actually just practiced it, I'd get it, but at this point it's kind of become this little running joke and I kind of don't want to learn.
Dan: You said that you basically want to keep the drawing as "crude" as you do now. You don't want to improve the slickness of it at all.
Ben: To a degree. I don't want to spend any more time on it than I already do. You can look at the book and the comics in the front and the comics in the back are dramatically different from each other just because if you do something every day for a few years, you're going to get better at it, regardless.
Dan: It's like the first three years of The Simpsons.
Ben: Exactly. The first season is horrible. It's like that, but I definitely like the cruder style of drawing, like Maddy Tight Pants. Her first drawings are amazing and I just love "em so much. And now she's getting better at it and it's kind of ruining it for me. It's cool that she's getting better at it, but there was a sort of innocence in the drawing that's lost when you get better. I hope what I don't do is lose some of that innocence in my drawing, but I probably have. I don't know.
Dan: Do you think that you're a romantic?
Ben: Yeah, a little too much.
Dan: Why do you say that?
Ben: It borders on drama queen sometime. Some girls I have a real hard time getting over or dealing with. I kind of end up obsessing about it and I draw too many comics about freaking out about it. I go back and look and see I'm sweatin' this girl too much and I just need to just chill out. But at the same time, being a romantic like that makes the comic exciting. What I like about Cometbus is how romantic it is.
Dan: And honest, too.
Ben: Yeah, I just try to do it like that, I guess.
Dan: I think people sometimes throw in a bunch of big words and try to rationalize way too much and they should just keep it simple. Tell us about your relationship with you mom. There's the photocopy of the letter that she wrote to you.
Ben: My mom is fucking awesome. She has always been completely supportive of Snake Pit. I'd been drawing it for about a year and I had gone to Virginia to visit her for Christmas. I draw my comics in this one sketchbook. I had left the sketchbook at my mom's house - I had gone to visit my dad. While I was gone, my mom picked it up and flipped through it. She didn't even tell me about it. She just, maybe a month later, sent me this letter. She said, "Your comics are so great and there's so much truth in it." She just glowed over it and told me how awesome it was that I was doing it. I thought it was the most - I can't even think of the word - but the most awesome thing ever, to let my mom know that I'm doin' bong hits all the time and getting' wasted and peeing my pants. She reads it and she doesn't like it. She doesn't like the fact that I'm wasted all the time, but she's still supportive of me and still supportive of the comic because at least I'm doing something. I'm not selling drugs or makin' porno movies. I think that's really, really cool.
Dan: What does your mom do?
Ben: She's a seventh-grade English teacher.
Dan: What are some aspects of Snake Pit that take a while to grow on people? When I try to explain it to people, it's kind of hard to explain because, "Well, yeah, he draws three panels a day, he works at a video store, he's worked at a record store, gets stoned a lot, listens to a lot of music..."
Ben: Yeah.
Dan: There definitely is that. There's no getting around that, but the amazing thing is how quick it is to read it. Then, wham, it hits the reader: the cumulative effect of it all.
Ben: That's what I originally got from reading Jim's Journal. I picked up on that, that if you do it every day and hammer it out, the result is going to be really nice. A lot of people, especially when I used to do the little monthlies, there's not really enough in a monthly to get the idea. That's why I stopped doin' those. People would get it and look all confused for a minute and then be like, "Yeah, this is really funny." And I'd be like, "It's not supposed to be funny, but thanks, I guess."
Dan: Well, people are conditioned after years and years of comics...
Ben: Well, the word comic in and of itself implies humor.
Dan: And the format of three or four panels is right there in the Sunday comics.
Ben: Well, Charles Schultz, of Peanuts, is the greatest thing ever in the world. I've loved Peanuts since I was a little kid and Charles Schultz is the biggest influence on me ever. So, I have to kind of remain faithful to that format. Well, I don't have to, but I'd like to.
Dan: Have you ever thought of introducing a character that didn't exist?
Ben: No. The closest is when I draw parties and there are monsters at the party.
Dan: No talking penguins or anything like that?
Ben: Nah. There've been times where, on paydays, I'd draw myself all blinged out with the little dog. "Playa playa." Never like an ongoing character. I would never do that.
Dan: How did you get hooked up with Tod Parkhill of Young American Comics?
Ben: Strangely enough, Tod and I went to college together and we met because we lived on the same floor of the dorm. We were kind of friends. Then I dropped out of school, went our separate ways, and we didn't see or hear from one another for maybe ten years. Out of nowhere one day I get this letter, and I didn't even know that he had moved to San Diego. It was this letter saying, "Open call to all comic book artists for a compilation book that I'm doing." He didn't know that I was drawing comics at all. He just knew me from college and thought I might want to draw comics, so he sent it to me. I was like, "Oh, wow, that's funny," so I sent him Anthology I. He wrote me back and said, "Hey, I wanna publish this for you for real." I was like, "Alright." Purely an accident, but it was a good accident and I'm glad that it happened.
Dan: Who would be the people who you look up to who are currently making comics?
Ben: James Kochalka definitely. John Porcellino. I really like Maddy Tight Pants - she's not really doing a comic, per se, but I love her zine. I'm inspired by zines as much as comics. I like Al Burian's stuff, but some times he comes across as being too pretentious - using too many big words - but that's his thing. I do like it for what it is.
Dan: The criticism I have with most personal zines is that they become so self-absorbed, and the person can't see outside of their own brain. How do you avoid that?
Ben: I always try to maintain. I'm always callin' myself a dumbass because it's true. I'm a total moron. I do the dumbest shit in the world, like a day when I've woken up and I've shit my pants from taking Xanax or something. I wake up and I'm like, "God. What the fuck?" and you're like, "You know what? You're not important. You're a dude that gets wasted and shits his pants." I try to look at it as I'm just this guy doing what everybody else is doing, but I'm drawing it. I think a lot of people will read my comics and see, "Hey, this guy does kind of the same shit I do. I may not smoke as much weed as this guy but I really didn't do anything today."
Dan: It just seems like when I read Snake Pit, you are part of a bigger whole. You're not isolated and discontented with every little thing and overanalyzing everything. I think what I like about it is that you see it through a community, whatever community that may be. You're also interacting with a lot of people at work, at a party, where many people isolate themselves and theorize how people could treat each other, but they rarely actually talk to other human beings.
Ben: I really like putting my friends and people into the comic. Everyone loves it to see how I draw them, even though I draw everyone exactly the same. But everyone likes it. What it reminds me of - and why I like to do it - is I remember a long time ago when I first got into Cometbus and was reading it all the time. At the time I was living in Richmond and Aaron was living in Richmond. I would see him at parties and just talk to him a little bit and then go home and be all, "Oooh I wonder if he's gonna write about me!" Of course, he's not. I talked to him for five minutes, but there was always this thing that if you met the guy that does the zine, that maybe he'll put you in it. So, I want to try to put everyone that I can in there. It makes them feel good and it's not like every panel had to be me. And it's still just a fucking comic strip.
Dan: I don't want to put too much emphasis on this, but if people, such as ourselves, don't document what goes on in our daily lives, who's going to do it? And who's going to do it correctly? Not that we have the definitive answer, but it's kind of like a snapshot of what's going on right now.
Ben: It's definitely how I feel about things at the moment. I might go back and look at some shit that I drew last month and feel completely different about it, but that's what I felt at the time. So, that's what the comic's gonna be.
Dan: You're doing it in the truest sense of the word; journalism, keeping a journal, doing your daily, monthly reflecting on things. Something that covers every day, every week, is so much more vital than someone coming up and saying, "Yeah, ten years ago, that was fucking awesome." Because it's so easy to do. You can romanticize, forget details, forget that the toilet was kicked out, forget that there's so much smoke in the club that you can't breathe, all that stuff. It seems like a lot of people with a lot of free time or that don't have to engage in physical labor a whole lot tend to really steer off course. People talking about communism, socialism - great ideas. Anarchy: fantastic idea. If you work hard every day with your hands and then you can see how people really interact and you can see that those concepts are good, but they don't quite work with the human model. I think it's important to have ideals, to have things that you work towards, but the pragmatic, day-to-day things are what I really enjoy.
Ben: It's like you said, things can be a good idea on paper, but not everyone in the world is going to want to agree. That's the reason that the world is the way that it is right now. Regardless of who we elect or who does what, on grand, huge scales of government, you're dealing with millions of people that range from some nice old granny who would never hurt a fly to serial rapists and murderers and everything that runs the gamut in between and there's absolutely no way that you're going to get everyone to agree on something like that. While it's cool to say "I'm a communist" or "I'm an anarchist and one day there's going to be this revolution. The ten punks in this town are going to overthrow the five hundred thousand rednecks in this town," you kind of have to just live your life and play by the rules that are going on right now. You don't have to necessarily play by the rules in that you don't have to work in an office nine to five, but you do have to have a place to live. I mean, you can bum around. You can be a hobo for a while, but you can't do it your whole life. I think the secret to living a good life and enjoying it is to try your best to just have fun and not fuckin' worry so much about everything.
Dan: Yeah, treat other people nicely is my big thing.
Ben: Just don't be a dick to anybody. That's all it boils down to. Don't be a dick.

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