An interview with Lisa Benson
By S.L. Chandler
The expression about “getting a new lease on life” might not always fall readily into one’s grasp. But when it pertains to the wit and artistry of editorial cartoonist Lisa Benson, you know that a portion of your day has already turned for the better.
Although she came to cartooning later than most (raising four children now 18-26 with her husband, building designer Gregory, as well as caring for ailing parents for several years), she was destined for such work from long ago.
As she tells it, she “grew up in a family of artists, so encouragement was never a problem. My sister and brother-in-law taught drawing at the Art Center in Pasadena and were always supportive of my early attempts at drawing, painting, ceramics, etc.”
She always loved the daily comics page, especially Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” and Jim Davis’ “Garfield.” Then, during the Watergate Hearings (investigating the shenanigans of the Nixon Administration), she “discovered editorial cartoons and rushed home everyday to see the latest Conrad or Oliphant rant.
From that point on,” she reveals, “I was hooked. Who knew a carton could be so thought-provoking and funny at the same time?” An especially generous colleague, today she follows and admires many of her fellow editorial cartoonists, including Tom Toles, Scott Stantis and Mike Lester [to name a few].”
And if she couldn’t be who she is? It’s two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Ramirez (Senior Editor for Investor’s Business Daily) into whose skin she’d like to jump. “He’s a master at combining art, humor and a powerful message.” Who would Lisa choose for a sit-down talk? “The late great Jeff McNelly (with whom she has been compared by GoComics).” “ Hopefully,” she says, the prize-winning creator of Shoe “could share his thought processes with me.”
Her own thought process, she says, is hard to describe. “Like an unpredictable teenager, inspiration likes to sleep in, leave the house without asking and come home at all hours. And every so often, it surprises you.”
Budding cartoonists would do well to follow Benson’s succinct advice. They should pursue this career “only if they absolutely have to.” And her appraisal of the Internet is equally cogent: “I’m still waiting to see a business model for it.”
Lisa recalled, with genuine fondness, “one of my earliest ‘toons. It dealt with city sign restrictions. Panel one: man holding ‘Will work for food’ sign. Panel two: Code Enforcement Van. Panel three: Man holding a very TINY ‘Will work for food’ sign. It was a simple message, and nobody called the paper to complain.” In fact, she has yet to be censored for any of her cartoons: “I’m working on it,” she jokes.
Satisfaction for many of us comes in many forms. One of them for Lisa started “from the very beginning. My editor (Lisa is a member of The Washington Post Writers Group) gave me full creative freedom to express my thoughts on the Opinion Page. For me, this has been very satisfying. For him, it was probably a huge headache.”
Benson’s self-deprecating sense of humor is apparent when she imagines what former schoolmates or teachers would say if they met her today: “Can you explain that cartoon to me?” And true to her appreciation of her fellow artists, on that long ride into space, she’d take “Four editions of the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year – from the 1990’s – and a sketchbook.”
Decades from now, when time and ink and paper have run out, she’d ask the folks gathered to say goodbye: “Where’s my Pulitzer?”
I don’t know under which bushel basket Lisa Benson’s Pulitzer’s hiding, but I do know that the awards she’s already garnered from the California Newspaper Publishers and The Society of Professional Journalists are pretty good indications that more recognition is on its way.