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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Interview with Jack and Carole Bender

Jack and Carole Bender have produced the nationally-syndicated strip "Alley Oop" for almost 15 years. Running in approximately 500 newspapers, it is read by an estimated 25 million readers on a daily basis. I appreciate Jack and Carole for taking the time to participate in this interview. Thanks, guys, and keep up the good work!

Mark: Let’s start at the beginning; when did you each know you wanted to work in comic strips?

JACK: I had always known I would be a cartoonist. I originally wanted to be a sports cartoonist, and have done that much of my life, but you can't make a living at it. I DID make a living as a political cartoonist until I just got tired of it. I moved from Iowa to Tulsa in 1984 and in 1989 learned that Don Martin was looking for an assistant. I auditioned and got the job, which mostly was producing the comic strip, "The Nutheads." When the Nutheads Sunday was cancelled, I sought another Sunday to fill out my art schedule. One of the artists I contacted was Dave Graue, who--strictly by chance--was looking for an assistant on the Sunday Alley Oop. It was just fate that led me to my present career within art.

CAROLE: My entry into comic strips was more accidental. My earliest memories were that I would be an artist, but I always pursued a more serious route, doing oil paintings and calligraphy. That doesn't mean I wasn't influenced by comics, because a lot of my personal drawing practice was copying strips like Alley Oop (seriously), Li'l Abner and Andy Capp, among others. Writing became an interest in high school when getting involved in creative writing clubs and classes. Fate stepped in and the two interests came together when I met Jack at the time when he had just signed the contract to produce Alley Oop. It was a perfect fit, because he needed someone to do the lettering. My years of calligraphy experience enabled me to pick up the lettering style of the strip, and my art talents allowed me to do occasional assisting in the drawing of the strip.

Mark: Did your parents encourage you to pursue it, or was there the feeling that it was just "a hobby" and one day you would get serious about a career in some other field?

JACK: I started drawing at age three, copying Popeye and Charlie McCarthy (a ventriloquist's dummy). My mother had some art ability and encouraged me with paper and pencils. Sometimes she would draw at the same time. I loved to draw. And I had the drive to make it a career.

CAROLE: I was always extremely serious about being an artist. It was always a matter of personal determination. As far as parental support goes, it wasn't so much that they didn't support me as it was a matter of not understanding art as a career. I came from a family that prized musical ability above everything. I think my parents both thought of art as something one did if there wasn't enough talent or intelligence to do anything else. I suppose if I had been a boy they would have come down harder on me as far as discouraging me, but since they assumed that, being a girl, I wouldn't really need to rely on a career of my own for support, they did allow me to continue practicing what they considered a harmless hobby. They were always willing to provide me with paints, canvases and brushes as needed, though. Of course, now, they couldn't be prouder.

Mark: Have you worked on any other strips or comics, or in any other artistic venues?

JACK: Sports cartoonist always. Political cartoonist 25 years. Worked for Don Martin for four years as inker and letterer. This included the comic strip, "The Nutheads," for Universal syndicate, as well as paperback covers and interiors and some pages for Cracked magazine.

CAROLE: Prior to joining Alley Oop, all my artistic work was strictly freelance or related to pre-press work. During the time I have been working on Alley Oop, I wrote a book in 1999, BOB GIBSON: I Come For To Sing, in addition to writing and designing covers and booklets for CDs of Bob Gibson's music. Also until the beginning of 2005, I worked as a graphic artist at two different publication companies.

Mark: How long have the two of you worked on Alley Oop?

CAROLE: Jack started working on Alley Oop as Dave Graue's inker and colorist on the Alley Oop Sunday at the beginning of 1991. ( He continued working for Don Martin through the end of 1992. Doing two strips at the same time was way too much, however.) At the end of 1991, Dave retired as artist of the strip of Alley Oop. Jack wasn't automatically given the job as artist, however. He had to try out with United Media, but he did win the art contract. Dave's and Jack's contracts were entirely separate. They each worked individually for United Media, but it was Jack's job to meet United Media's deadlines. He sent all Oop directly to United Media; Dave never saw the finished product until it was released for publication. Jack's first byline appeared at the end of the 1991 daily and Sunday.

JACK: Carole became the letterer of the strip after I had done it for the first month of my tenure. We wrote a Christmas Alley Oop story in 1997, which United Media sold separately from the regular Alley Oop continuity. That turned out to be our tryout to eventually write the strip as well. We officially took over the writing when Dave retired as writer in April 2001 and it soon evolved into Carole being the sole writer. She still does all the lettering. She also handles all the finish work which happens these days on the computer (and has since 2002). This includes scanning in the original art and then using Photoshop to apply grey tones on the dailies and color the Sundays, and finally sending the strips electronically to United Media. She also produces all the art work for merchandise available online at the Alley Oop store.

Mark: How much do the two of you "feed" off of each other, creatively? Is there a lot of give-and-take?

JACK: There's a lot of give-and-take. It's the greatest advantage of producing the strip together in the same house where we have the option of immediate feedback. While each person's jobs are pretty clearly defined as me doing the drawing and Carole doing the writing and computer work, there is continual overlapping and discussion. For instance, on the writing, subjects for storylines are usually brainstormed between the two, as are ideas for development. Sometimes a story is my idea, sometimes it's Carole's, and sometimes it's a result of conversation. Once the idea is stated, the detail writing, plot development and breaking it down to a script are done by Carole, but I’m always free to change anything as needed for drawing requirements. As for the drawing, I do 95% to 99%, but Carole occasionally draws some vegetation or a background, and on one story she developed the appearance of one character. She also does a lot of period research for costumes or articles to be drawn, and will often do manipulation or cleanup of a drawing once it gets to the computer stage.

Mark: What are some of your future goals, for Alley Oop, as well as other projects you’d like to do?

JACK: We'll keep Alley Oop going as long as we have such a huge fan base. Our readers seem to like the type of story we come up with. V. T. Hamlin liked the time travel aspect of his strip, since he was a great student of history. He liked plots that put Oop in the middle of Cleopatra's reign or in the Trojan War. Dave Graue liked outer space plots. We most enjoy involving our Oop with recent personalities of the last century or so, such as Houdini or Valentino. We also enjoy "explaining" myths and legends using our Oop personnel. We have created new characters for the prehistoric world of Moo, such as Mountain, a rival for Alley Oop, who is considered the strongest person ever on our planet. This gives new perspective and challenges to the prehistoric world that our readers have already visited many times. We like to surprise them and not provide the same old stuff. We also have developed the personalities of existing characters much more than has been done before. This keeps the strip fresh so we never have to rehash old stuff. We are constantly adding readers, just as if we were a brand new strip just being introduced. Oop is a seven-day-a-week job, which we love, but it does restrict any other projects we might consider.

Mark: Last question: What does the recently-established Oklahoma Cartoonists Collection mean to each of you, personally, and what do you think it could mean for the medium of comics and comic strips?
JACK: Oklahoma long has been known for spawning creativity. The list of entertainers, song writers, fine artists, etc., with Oklahoma roots, beginning with Will Rogers, is legendary. Having a collection of comic art produced by Oklahomans focuses on that aspect of entertainment which perhaps has been overlooked by historians until now. We're very pleased to be included in the first collection of works by Oklahoma cartoonists.
CAROLE: The foundation of the Oklahoma Cartoonists Collection is an incredibly important step in recognizing artists and writers in the comics field. It has taken a very long time for people in that field to receive the credit they deserve. While their originals have become highly prized monetarily in the last couple of decades, gallery recognition has been very slow in developing. It is to Oklahoma's great credit that our state is among the first to pay tribute to its artists in that field! I am overwhelmed at being honored to be included.