Ben Snakepit Releases His Manor Threat
New collection of diary comics debuts at Beerland this Saturday
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
12:05PM, Wed. Jun. 8, 2016
Ben Snakepit – who draws an autobiographical comic strip every single day of his life – who’s been doing so, without missing a day, since January First of 2001 – has a new book of the things coming out from Portland’s Microcosm Publishing.
Ben Snakepit – who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and moved to Austin in 2000; who toured the world playing bass with punk band J Church when he wasn’t busy working at I Luv Video or Sound Exchange on the Drag; who adopted his beloved pooch Peeber from the Austin Animal Shelter; whose brief goofy rivalry with Tim “Nakatomi” Doyle is a thing of the past; who drew the latest cover for the Austin Beer Guide; and whose diary-comic work has been mentioned in, of all places, Gentlemen’s Quarterly – is having a music-fueled book release party for his Manor Threat collection on Saturday, June 11, at Beerland.
“It’s gonna be an afternoon show, from 6-10pm,” he tells me. “My band Ghost Knife will be playing, the Hex Dispensers will be playing, and Burnt Skull will be playing. It’ll be free to get in and I’ll have all the books for sale. Old back issues, everything. T-shirts, all kinds of crap. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
“A lot of fun,” says Ben Snakepit.
And you know what?
His name’s not even really Snakepit.
Wayne Alan Brenner: Your real last name is White, right? So you’re Ben White? Like the road?
Ben Snakepit: Yeah, it’s weird that my fake name sounds more real than my real name. Every time I go to the post office or whatever and fill out a form, they’re like, “Ben White? Is that your real name?”
WAB: How long has Snakepit-the-diary-comic been going on?
BS: The first strip I drew was July 21st, 1999. And I was kind of a slacker for the first year or so, but then when New Year’s Day 2001 came around, I decided to fully commit to it. Decided I would never miss a day again. And I have not missed a day since.
WAB: Not a single day?
WAB: How old were you then?
BS: Twenty … eight? [frowns] You’re gonna make me do math, aren’t you?
WAB: Yeah, I suck at math, too. But I’m glad the strip is good and that you can actually draw – because just the not-missing-a-day thing for that long, that’s one of those things that’s impressive in and of itself, it would be worth mentioning just for that. So it’s kind of validating that the thing would be worthwhile anyway. And what sort of events have you covered in it? I mean, like, jobs? Relationships? What major life events have occurred while you’ve been doing this thing every day for the past 15-plus years?
BS: All sorts of things. I met my wife and got married. I bought a house. Moved to Manor, Texas. The newest book, Manor Threat, has all the strips about buying a house and moving out to the suburbs and adjusting to the grownup life. Got a real job with health insurance for the first time in my life, that kind of stuff.
WAB: Did you move out of Austin to get away from the craziness, or is it mostly about the cost of living?
BS: Oh, absolutely the cost of living. You know, my wife and I got priced farther and farther out. Our last apartment was over in Far West – we managed to find the last two-bedroom apartment that was under $2,000 in the whole city. And of course they raised the rent on us. And so we were like, if we’re gonna be spending this much money, we might as well be paying in on a mortgage. And we looked around, and, for what we could afford in Austin, we could get a whole lot more house just 15 miles outta town. And I feel like Manor is gonna be hot. There’s already a lot of cool stuff going on, more and more weirdos and punk rockers moving out there. It’s definitely, of all the surrounding areas of Austin, it’s the most diverse, the cheapest, and kinda the most liberal. So I feel like that’s where everyone’s headed. I hope so, because [laughs] I’ve invested a lotta money in my house.
WAB: How do you make time each day to sit down and do the strip?
BS: I generally do it at night before I go to bed. I draw what happened the day before, because I wanna let the whole day pass. Just in case something amazing happens at 11:59 – because you never know, y’know? So I do the previous day each day. And I just find the time, right after work or before going to bed. Maximum, it takes maybe 20 minutes. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m not the greatest artist in the world.
WAB: No, sure – but it’s solid cartooning, man. And it’s less minimal than, say, John Porcellino: You’ve got some blacks in there. [laughs] What’s the longest you’ve ever spent on a single strip?
BS: That’s hard to say. I always do a giant, full-page New Year’s Eve strip – and those take a lot of time. Because I’ve got the next day off, to be hung over, and I work real hard on those. So they can take several hours.
WAB: Yeah, hung over. Not to, uh, cast any aspersions, right? But from the bits that I’ve read of your comics over the years, … you’re not in AA yet?
BS: [laughs] Not yet! [takes a swig of his beer] And, okay, here’s something that I feel, if people know this about my comic before they read it, they might cut me a little more slack: I don’t use pencils, ever.
WAB: Dude. Really?
BS: Just straight pen on the paper, just one shot. If I throw the first line on the page and it’s wrong? I just have to deal with it and work around it. And there’s two schools of thought behind it. The high-brow version is: In real life you don’t get a second chance. If things don’t go the way you want, you have to deal with it and move on. The real version is: I’m just too lazy. I’ve already drawn it once, I don’t wanna have to draw it twice every day. You know?
WAB: Well, it’s not so much the drawing per se that’s impressive with Snakepit. I mean, drawing skills, you’ve either got that or you don’t, y’know? But it’s the balance, the way you lay out the scene in each panel … and that’s already in your head?
BS: Yeah, yeah. I generally have an idea of what it should look like when I start drawing, but it rarely comes out that way.
WAB: What I really like, besides the glimpse into another person’s life, is the rhythm of your strips. Looking at a whole book, it’s kind of like listening to something by Philip Glass.
BS: Yes, yes! Thank you – you understand. A lot of people don’t get what I’m going for. But there’s a very specific effect I’m trying to get, and that’s exactly it: a repetitive, almost trance-inducing kind of thing. Where the next thing you know, an hour’s gone by, and you’ve seen three years. And this is weird, but my friend Ben Ray who runs Atomic Books in Baltimore, he also teaches at a college and he’s used Snakepit as a textbook – which is very cool. And I had a guy send me – he’d written his college thesis on the perception of time in Snakepit. I was blown away that somebody would do their college thesis about my comic. But it was mainly about the way that you perceive time, because three years condensed into an hour is a weird measure of time. He went into a lot of eloquent details, and it was very cool. And any time I meet somebody who gets that big picture, that it’s really about the rhythm, that’s the most gratifying. Because some people are like, “But, nothing happens.” Well, it’s not supposed to. It’s not supposed to be funny or evoke any emotion.
WAB: Back in 1999, when you started, you probably didn’t think you’d still be doing the strip in 2016?
BS: Right, I did not plan to do it forever.
WAB: But, even so, what got the idea into your head, “Hey, I’m gonna do an autobiographical strip every single day of my life” … ?
BS: Okay, you ever heard of Jim’s Journal? It was done by Scott Dikkers, one of the founders of The Onion. And it was collected in little books, and it was very similar to Snakepit. It was four panels a day, every day,and the format was just a little different from what I do. And I remember the exact time I discovered it: I was in Waldenbooks in the mall, in the Nineties, and I found this Jim’s Journal book. And it had no information about who did it or anything, and I flipped through it, and it just blew my mind. The rhythm – that’s the main thing I got from that. The rhythm of the strips – keep ‘em simple and quick. Because you can tear through this 300-page Snakepit book in an hour – it almost induces a trance, as weird as that sounds. So I was super-stoked on this Jim’s Journal thing at the time, and internet access was pretty limited back then. But in ‘98 or ‘99, I moved into a new house, and my roommate had dial-up internet, and I was able to look up it up. Found out it was by this guy named Scott – and it was fictional. And that just broke my heart. But I was like, “Wait a minute, there’s the opportunity right there: I’m gonna do it for real.” So I pretty much ripped off his idea. But I did a few things to make it my own – and I’ve certainly been doing it longer than he did.
WAB: Where were your first strips originally published?
BS: I just did them fanzine style. I’d go to Kinkos, make 20 copies of them, pass them out to my friends. I did that every month for the first year, and after I had a year’s worth of comics, I put out a big zine with a cardstock cover and everything. And I’d send them out to Maximum Rocknroll and other zines, and people would write in, mail-order them, and it snowballed from there. A guy in San Diego wrote and offered to publish a quarterly issue, and I did those for a while. And then I hooked up with Todd Taylor, the publisher of Razorcake magazine in L.A., and he offered to do a full three-year book. And that was the first one of these.
WAB: What was that called?
BS: It was just called The Snakepit Book. It’s out of print on the Razorcake imprint, but Microcosm in Portland, who puts out all my stuff now, they’ve reissued it. All my books are currently available from Microcosm. I have a really great relationship with them, they’re really good.
WAB: So they take care of the distribution for you?
BS: Microcosm handles everything, as far as I know. Every time I do a convention and I have these books out, someone who knows nothing about me will pick one up and be like, “Oh, these are nice, these are originally webcomics, huh?” And I’m like, “No, no, never on the internet.” And they’re like, “Oh, you’re self-published?” And I’m like, “No, these are real books, they’re in the Library of Congress and everything.” But I have no idea how they’re actually produced. At the end of three years, I just scan all the strips I’ve drawn, put them into InDesign and mail the file off. A month or two later I get a box of books from Microcosm – and that’s the extent of my involvement with it.
WAB: So, aside from samples that we might see on some blog, Snakepit’s not available on the internet at all?
BS: Yeah, not the comics themselves. I’m really against my comics being e-books. Not that I have anything against e-books themselves, I just prefer my comics to be on paper. I like a book, because you don’t need to charge a battery or have wi-fi or anything: All you need to enjoy it is a pair of eyes.
WAB: And so now that you’ve been doing this for 16 years, do you see it going on indefinitely, continuing until the day you die?
BS: Yes. The last strip is either gonna be, “Oh God, having cancer sucks!” or “Tomorrow I’m going skydiving!” [laughs] But, yes, I’ve decided that this is my life’s work, I’m gonna do this forever. It’s actually very nice to already know what I’ll be remembered for after I’m dead. Even if it is just a shitty comic book.
WAB: Are there other diary comics out there that you like to read?
BS: James Kochalka does one that’s similar to mine. And, for the record, I wanna say that I started mine independently, even before I knew he was doing one. Because I’ve been accused of ripping him off, quite a few times.
WAB: Well, sure. Because you do music, too, and Kochalka fucking invented that.
BS: [laughs] I really liked his stuff when I was discovering indie comics in general. I didn’t know a whole lot about indie comics – I knew Superman and crap like that – and I discovered Dan Clowes when I was a teenager, and James Kochalka not too long after that, and Porcellino, too – and it kind of opened my eyes to that whole scene. Porcellino’s aren’t really diary comics, per se, but I definitely like his style the most, the real simple lines. I love Porcellino because he can say a lot with – you know how a picture is worth a thousand words? Porcellino can do a picture worth a hundred thousands words, with just three lines. He’s amazing. But after a while I kind of got sick of reading comics. After drawing them every day, the last thing I want to do is read more. And I’ve had people say that I’m an outsider artist as a result of that, because I don’t really keep up with other comic-book artists. I go to conventions every now and then and see what other people are doing, but I don’t avidly go out and buy new issues and everything.
WAB: When you started out, you were a punk rock musician – and you still are.
BS: Yeah, yeah – [laughs] – a little bit.
WAB: Are you still into music as much as you were?
BS: Yeah, I still love music. But, living out in the suburbs now, it’s a little harder to get downtown and go see shows, you know? When you have to work every morning? So I’ve definitely sold out in that respect. But I remember being in my 20s and going to shows, and there was always some creepy 40-year-old guy in the corner, and I don’t wanna be that guy. It’s one thing to listen to it at home and it’s another thing to participate in the scene. I know it might sound a little crotchety, but I leave that to the kids. My band plays two or three times a year at this point – and that’s enough for me.
WAB: What’s the band?
BS: Right now I play in Ghost Knife, with Mike Wiebe from the Riverboat Gamblers, and Chris Pfeffer who was in J Church with me.
WAB: What can you tell me about your brief rivalry with Tim Doyle back in the day? You guys had, like, competing diary comics?
BS: Yeah, it was, um, it was weird. I like Tim – he’s a good friend, he’s a good guy. And I think we met when I was working at Sound Exchange. He came in and he had a comic called Sally Suckerpunch that I really liked. And we became friends, he got really stoked on Snakepit. And then one day he shows up with this diary comic he was doing that looked exactly like Snakepit. And, y’know, what do you say to that? I can’t be like, “You’re ripping me off!” So I tried to be cool, like, “Oh, yeah, right on.” And we even did a split issue and everything – half Snakepit and half his Amazing Adult Fantasy – and then later he quit and we went our separate ways. And he’s successful with what he’s doing, and I’m doing my thing, and it’s fine. But for a little while I felt kinda bitter about it. But it’s not like I didn’t rip the idea off myself, so I don’t really have any room to talk.
WAB: So when you started out, you were just putting them together at Kinkos?
BS: Yeah, just straight-up cutting them out and gluing them – no computers at all, straight from my sketchbook, Xeroxed the pages, cut them out, laid them out with a glue stick. When I did the first zine, it was a year, 92 pages of comics, and it took hours and hours. If you look back in the first Snakepit, I document the making of it. I counted the numbers – how many glue sticks I went through, the number of hours, the number of actual copies it took to create my masters. It was a huge, involved – it took days. Nowadays, you’re like [makes computery noises, like “beep-beep-beep”] and it’s all done in 20 seconds. I really resisted computers at first, because, you know, I wanted Snakepit to be very organic, classic fanzine style. Then once I learned how to use Photoshop and InDesign, I was like, “Fuck that, man.” It’s easy.
WAB: So every three years, there’s a new collection available through Microcosm. But while we’re waiting, where can we find Snakepit? Anywhere around town?
BS: You can always get them at Austin Books & Comics – those guys are great.
WAB: But where do we find the more frequent zines?
BS: Oh, I don’t do the zines anymore. It’s just these books.
WAB: But, wait a minute, while your life is going on, you’re doing the daily strip, right? So how do we see each day’s output? We don’t?
BS: You don’t.
WAB: We just wait three fucking years.
BS: You’ll get to read about today in 2019.
WAB: So, yeah, you ever get people – you’ve seen The Truman Show, right? – you ever get people who’ve heard about Snakepit and think it’s really cool, so they come around to meet you, maybe fuck with you, just so you’ll put them in the strips?
BS: That’s happened many times – and it’s usually positive. One year during SXSW, I was working at I Luv Video, and these two kids came in and were like, “Are you Ben Snakepit?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And they were like, “We brought some weed to get high with you! We came from Iowa, and the one thing we wanted to do was get high with Ben Snakepit!” And I was like, “Let’s do this.” [laughs] That kind of thing happens a lot – not so much now, but, back in the heyday, when I was partying a lot. You read the new book and you can see that I’ve definitely calmed down on the partying tip. I still drink a beer every night, but I don’t party like a rock star anymore. I’ve gotten older and – over it, y’know? You’re supposed to do that in your 40s, I hope.
WAB: Exactly, yeah. [sips coffee] So, ah, what’s the biggest exposure Snakepit’s had, the biggest media coverage?
BS: There were two sentences written about me in an issue of GQ, strangely enough. And I don’t even know why. This guy contacted me from GQ – at first I thought it was a prank or something. But he was like, “I’d like to write about you, can you send me a book?” And I was like, “Of course.” And when the issue came out, I didn’t even know about it – my mom called me. She called and said, “I found the GQ with you in it, I’m gonna send you a copy!” And I’m mentioned at the very bottom of the article, it’s like one or two sentences at the end of this long thing talking about Bono from U2? It was kinda lame, honestly. But then Wizard magazine named me one of the top three indie comics or something – I can’t remember, you’d have to Google that. And the Chronicle’s been nice to me over the years. In 2003, I think, I got Best Local Comic Book Artist. You guys have been slacking the last 13 years [laughs], but I’ll let that slide. But, yeah, GQ was kinda the biggest one, just outta the blue like that. It’s, y’know, it’s not really my crowd.
WAB: Are you from Austin originally?
BS: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and went to art school at VCU, Commonwealth University of Richmond. And I’ve always been an arty guy, always drew in high school – I was president of the Art Club, it’s always been in my blood. I’ve always wanted to be a musician more than a visual artist, but I never really had a lot of luck with music. Well, I managed to luck into being a member of J Church, which was already an established band, and they were huge, and I got to do all kinds of cool stuff, got to go around the world with them and everything. But any time I tried to do my own band where I wrote the songs, ah, you can just tell when people don’t like something. So now I’m just a bass player in another band, Ghost Knife, and it’s fun.
WAB: Nothing wrong with that, man, doing something because it’s fun.
BS: Yeah, I’ve let the dream die, essentially, and it’s just fun to get up onstage and play a few times a year – and that’s all I need anymore. I get artistic satisfaction from doing the Snakepit books, and the amount of positive feedback, the fan mail – oh, here’s a great story: The second three-year book I did, My Life in a Jugular Vein, that book won an American Library Association award. And I have no idea why, no idea who submitted it, but it won this award and, as a result, Microcosm sold tons of books. And one of the biggest, weird purchases was the U.S. military – they bought hundreds of copies. And, even to this day, I get fan mail that’s like, “Hey, we had a copy of your book in our submarine” or “I’m in Afghanistan in a tent, and we have your book, and we read it.” It’s so amazing to get that kind of response. I’ve had fanzines in Russia interview me. And when I was in France with J Church, we played a big punk festival, and they had a flea-market thing set up, and I found bootleg copies of Snakepit zines. And my friends were like, “Aren’t you mad about that?” And I’m, “No, that is the greatest honor, that someone likes what I’m doing enough to want to steal it.” That’s just super-cool. Well, I was a little bummed that they wouldn’t let me have a free copy, but, ah … [laughs].
WAB: You ever try to remember – maybe this is gonna sound stupid – but do you ever try to remember something that happened in your life, and you wind up checking old Snakepits?
BS: Oh, dude, all the time. When I was first starting out, when it was still fanzines and I was working at Sound Exchange, I had a little Snakepit display on the counter. And I remember I got a raise, the boss gave me a raise, and then I looked and it wasn’t on my paycheck. And I was like, “Hey, the raise didn’t show up on my paycheck.” And my boss was like, “Oh, I didn’t give you a raise.” And I was like, “Actually … “ And I pulled out the zine and showed him – “I got a raise on this day right there!” – and he paid me retroactively, it was pretty cool [laughs]. And that kind of shit happens all the time. It’s very useful, having it all, like, on record. My wife’s sister had a baby a few years ago, and we needed to know when his birthday was, and we just looked it up in Snakepit. It’s a reference book, for sure.
WAB: How did you choose Beerland as the place for the book release?
BS: They asked me. I’ve always had a great relationship with Randall [Stockton] and Beerland. Karen and I had our wedding reception there, and my bands have always played there – I’ve just always loved Beerland. So I was looking for a place, and I wanted to find a warehouse space where I could have a free keg and just make it a big party. But Randall was very adamant about wanting me to do it at Beerland, and he even offered the weird afternoon spot – they don’t usually open at 6pm.
WAB: So to wrap up this long-ass interview – and thanks for your time, man, this has been great – let me ask a final question here. You’re originally from Virginia, you’ve been all over Austin, and now you’ve had to move out to the suburbs. What is it that’s kept you in Texas?
BS: Y’know, I don’t know, really. But I moved here in 2000, and I’ve just laid down so many roots at this point. If I ever do leave Austin, I wouldn’t go far – I’d go to San Antonio or something. I really like Texas, even though it’s hot as shit.
WAB: And you’re a decent human being, too. You’re not, like, some conservative Republican. And you want to live here in Texas.
BS: [nods, smiling] It’s weird, yeah.