Friday, March 4, 2011

Interview with Jeff Swenson, Cartoonist,

by D. Jones and A. C. LaMonica

Freethunk - Complete EditionPath of Reason: Besides online publishing, have you gotten your comics published in print? What are some magazines and newspapers that have printed your work?

Jeff Swenson: Yeah over the years I've gotten quite a couple of pieces printed. It's not hard to be printed, it's just hard to get paid to do it. I liked the Bounce Collection that came out of Australia which had my work in it along with several other creators. I've been published in The Door Magazine several times. Early on I was published in Atheist Magazine but for some reason they messed with my lettering and made one of my cartoons look "godawful" (if you'll forgive the expression). I emailed them about it and said I'd continue to submit if they promised not to do that again--never heard back.  

I've been published in 3 books, one of which while entertaining is full of errors because it seems there was no editor and I believe a lawsuit was on its way. The other two are pretty good: "Darwin Day Collection One" and a book on religion called "Reluctant Prophets and Clueless Disciples" by Robert Darden (editor of The Door). 

POR: It's obvious that it takes courage to create this type of art in a society that is hypersensitive when it comes to religion. How often do you receive hate-mail and does it ever make you question whether you should publish something or not?

JS: Early on I received hatemail (I started in 2000), but then I received hatemail for other stuff I did too. The early anonymity of the web somehow made people extremely rude and their Hyde side would always come out. I guess it's that way still to some extent but I just don't get the kind of emails I used to. I think many online Christian folk are more open to having a dialogue/debate or starting their own sites instead of always sending the blasphemous a stern warning. They may have realized that while atheists are in the minority, many of our points are valid ones and are often picked up by those who are "undecided." 

Drawing Freethunk certainly hasn't done anything for my career as a cartoonist but then I don't take myself too seriously as an artist these days with the web comics explosion that is going on. I'm trying to reqroup my finances this year and then see if there's a better way to do my cartooning so that I can enjoy it more. Unfortunately, running your art as a business can often suck the joy out of it unless everything goes just right--and it never does. 

POR: Since you started how much has the community of artists grown? 

JS: Better than I thought. I drew Freethunk under a different title starting in 2000 and there really wasn't too many cartoonists I knew of that regularly did religious humor with a critical edge. Honestly, when I first started the Freethunk site around 2003 it just sat there with a request for people to send in material. I think at one point I was even willing to pay for material but no one answered the call. So about 2 years later artists would pop up here and there like Buck Cash and the guy who does Jesus and Mo' (I'd mention his name but he chooses to remain nameless) and then I'd approach them or they'd approach me. Once I was able to get some actual comics on the site then more artists got in touch. 

Unfortunately, we are at a point where the ideas will dry up unless new cartoonists create atheist characters versus just criticizing religion. I've drawn hundreds of cartoons and covered many of the objections raised on Christianity or tried to find what was funny with The Bible. Sooner or later that is going to get tired. What we need is for artists to create stories based on the lives of atheists or humor based on the lives of freethinkers, etc. I'd like to do more of that, but it's a time issue and often a financial issue. Someone has to be willing to invest money and energy just as the Christian community did with their pop culture. I think that eventually may happen but I'm not seeing it yet with freethinking comics.

POR: Do you think a day will ever come when your type of artwork could be featured in a regular Sunday newspaper or do you feel that America will never be that open-minded? 

JS: The way comic strips are being presented these days is completely different. The Sunday Newspaper is a dying concept unless online newspapers wake up and understand that they all can have their own exclusive web comic strips instead of going to a big media company to get them. There is a comic strip for almost every subject imaginable and my work is no different. 

So no, you'll never see Freethunk next to reruns of The Far Side because while The Far Side pushed some buttons (like the panel that explained how creationism works) Freethunk usually doesn't hold back and will never be mainstream. I've always tried to keep Freethunk feeling a bit mainstream, trying to remember to go for the laugh instead of always doing criticisms so I'm hoping people get a kick out of it in much the same way, however, comic strips often celebrate Americana and part of Americana is favoring religion. I have to admit when I read old comics and religion or church comes up as part of the humor even I get a nostalgic twinge. My childhood--which was filled with religion--was not a bad childhood.  The church activities we did were pleasant and I still remember them with fondness. When you come out with a comic that says your childhood was based on a lie, it doesn't make people feel good--which is why Freethunk won't ever be posted next to Dennis The Menace or Family Circle.

POR: What is your personal favorite subject to cover as far as your art goes? Politics? Religion? 

JS: I honestly love character humor which is why I drew The Cynic at for the last 7 years as a daily. Recently I've had to put a hold on that project due to time constraints. I like political humor but it can often be repetitive with so many cartoonists doing the same gag and it is something you would have to draw daily too. Also I've seen politics rip freethinking groups apart, it can be very divisive which is why I try to avoid much of it with Freethunk unless it's very specific to science or the battle between church and state. 

Religion is fun to do but again there's only so much you can do with a panel series. Even Christians now are putting out funnies that have humor once considered profane, like gags about The Bible and even Jesus Caricatures. I'd like to see atheist and freethinking artists now concentrate on creating atheist characters. It's time we move in that direction.

POR: You mentioned to us that you once tried to join an Eastern Orthodox Church. What are your views on religion and what would you consider yourself as far as a belief system goes? Have you always been that way? 

JS: I was raised "mainstream" Christian which means you adapt your faith to the times. I guess an offshoot of Protestantism would be the best description. Technically speaking I didn't embrace my faith or become born again until I was fifteen and it was because of the Christian metal scene (as corny as that was). I was pretty active in my youth group in high school. I wasn't one of those Sunday Only Christians and wore T-shirts to school that told everyone else they were going to hell, as well as inviting friends to small concerts (such as the one Barren Cross never showed up to making me look like an idiot). Pretty much I was a Jesus Freak Geek, which explains my lack of girlfriends at the time--and wouldn't you know it, all the cute Christian girls were dating nonChristian bad boys so they could change them for God.

When I got out of high school I went to Bible School to become a youth pastor, a really bad career move. I interned at my own church teaching the Junior High Group because no one else wanted to, it's a thankless job filled with criticism from parents and other church leaders. Bible School itself didn't work out very well because I was introduced to Theology, a complex way of saying that no one knows who God is and what he stands for.  At that time I also joined a radical anti-abortionist group and that didn't help matters either with dating because even at Bible School I was considered to be extreme, even though I was always using Bible verses to back up my extreme views and no one could really give a good Biblical answer to what I was saying.

So finally I decided to take off for Art School because I couldn't understand church politics and figured doing something in the media would be more to my taste. That's when, after reading several books by Franky Schaeffer (the film director and famous philosopher's son) I tried to join the Eastern Orthodox Church because apparently it was the true church. While I appreciated the beauty of the iconography and maybe even some of the traditions, Eastern Orthodoxy was hard to join. They didn't seem to care about getting new members. It was kind of like an old men's club with secret handshakes. My best experience was hanging out one night with two nuns and two members of the Christian punk band MxPx (I'm still not sure how that happened).
It wasn't until my last quarter in art school, after reading several skeptical books, that my faith switched off and I had an epiphany: what if God didn't exist? I became an agnostic and then later I started calling myself an atheist or an agnostic-atheist. 

POR: Who are some of your favorite artists? Do you have a specific genre you like best? 

JS: Who comes to mind are the likes of Peter Bagge of Hate fame, Jeff Smith of Bone, Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County, several manga comedy artists like Ken Akamatsu, and the old diehard classics like EC Segar of  Popeye fame and Charles Schulz (his older stuff before it became repetitive). Manga especially fascinates me because of how addictive those little books are. And I'm sure Christian Manga is coming if it isn't already in the stores.

POR: If new freethinking artists would like to submit their work, how would they go about doing that and is there any certain criteria to be met?

JS: Right now, there's no criteria except to be amusing or present something interesting. I've cut back on time for the site for now but hopefully will have some more time for it later when I reorganize. What I'd really like to see is more blatant atheist characters. Think sitcoms or action adventure. Science and humanism is always a good topic too. And while I personally never emphasize politics in my own work I do accept political work, even if it doesn't match my viewpoints. I also would encourage site creators to find ways to create freethinking pop culture--games, videos, creative writing, maybe even group efforts to come up with funds to pay an artist, etc. There are a ton of ideas waiting to explore. Don't wait until you're drowning in Christian pop culture and also Muslim pop culture. Help create the competing pop culture that says they're crazy, but we're not.


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