Back when Banana Triangle, drawn and written by Beutel (James), began running on GoComics, I had a little trouble getting into the art style, and I really wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that the main characters died half-way through the story and were turned into bony skeletons. Then, about 1 year ago, Greg Cravens mentioned on his site that he’s a big fan of BT, and that got me into going through the full Banana Triangle archives to try to get a better understanding of the comic as a whole.
Basically, we have 3 people, Tom, Scotty and Rosemary, who find themselves on a deserted island, after what seems to be the end of civilization. Initially, the main food source is mangoes, but whatever needs to be used at some point will suddenly be washed up on the beach in a crate. Later, other characters will stagger in (or row up on a raft), and everyone will fight over the limited resources, or the fact that nobody actually wants to do any of the work around there. Tom is the stoic one, and he suffers the most because of it. But, the others get their comeuppances off and on, too. The artwork is good, and the backgrounds will have skulls or bones scattered around sometimes. The gags are dark humored, but usually topical, and the disjointed storylines do make sense if you go back and reread them from the beginning of the arc. Not everyone is going to “get” Banana Triangle, but it is pretty funny if you do.
BC: Who are you?
BJ: I am Beutel (James), internationally famous creator of the webcomic Banana Triangle.
BC: Reveal yourself.
BJ: I feel as though I’ve already said too much.
BC: Why “Beutel (James)”? Are there so many Beutels that you have to serialize yourselves to tell yourselves apart?
BJ: It’s a silly affectation. Nothing more, nothing less.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
BJ: A cartoonist mostly. And aren’t cartoonists artists? Sure they are! So I consider myself that too! But you’d never confuse me with an illustrator. Illustrators get paid for their efforts. An artist cares nothing for money!
BC: How did you get your start then?
BJ: I started drawing cartoons & comic books for my own amusement as a lonely 12 year old. A dozen years later I realized that there are people that actually make a living doing such things and became determined to find success in the world of syndicated newspaper comic strips.
BC: How long have you been at this?
BJ: Here’s where I will start to get a little “long-winded.”
Off and on over a period of twenty years I would find myself with bursts of inspiration and optimism. At these times I would gather up the courage to send my work off to be mostly ignored by the cruel, heartless syndicate editors. Despite their tendency towards cruel-heartlessness I would very occasionally find a kind comment scribbled on the corner of a rejection letter.
BJ: The late Jay Kennedy (one-time King Features Syndicate Comics Editor) was actually frequently “kind” in that way but kept trying to steer me towards publishers of alternative comics where he apparently thought my work would find a better fit. Somewhat later John Glynn (Current Comics Editor-God for one of the remaining newspaper syndicate conglomerates) expressed an interest for a while. I was hopeful and encouraged and… but it ultimately turned out to be a dead end.
BJ: BUT THEN!!!! Dut-dut-da-a-a-ah! MY BIG BREAK!
Seriously… I did get a “big break.” I, Beutel (James), was offered a contract to develop a comic strip for The Washington Post Writers Group! Not only that, but I would be working with Amy Lago, one-time “editor” of PEANUTS!! …of Charles Schulz!! …WOW!! My future was SET!!
So, after a brief period of negotiations (I actually engaged the services of an attorney who specialized in newspaper comic syndication. Yes, such a person exists), and when WPWG mailed me my first modest stipend I set to work at developing the soon-to-be-internationally-beloved newspaper comic: Sunny Hamlet.
BJ: Well, (sigh…) my “big break” turned out to be a big, fat disappointment because after a year and a half I learned my feature was not going to make it to the funny pages. A crushing disappointment that Amy Lago attributed to the current miserable state of the economy (the “crash” of 2008 was in progress) or perhaps she was just making an effort to spare my feelings. (snif! snif!) At any rate I was now free to market my wares if I so chose and I did, sending Sunny Hamlet through the gauntlet once again. Bleh! At the same time I was working on a new (but not exactly new) strip that was by-no-means suitable for the daily newspaper funny pages. And seeing as I was now drawing with a pen tablet and using Photoshop to create what was originally called “The Island” it seemed natural to send it out on the internet. I created www.bananatriangle.com to see if I could find an audience there. Eventually this strip, now titled “Banana Triangle,” made its way to GoComics where it currently updates 3 days each week.
BC: Ok then, what led up to starting Banana Triangle? Do you have any other pokers in the fire?
BJ: Oops! I think I mostly covered this in my response to the previous question. As to pokers, I do have a couple but not much fire. However I would very much like to get my many, many years of Sunny Hamlet out there on the web somehow, but that would require endless hours of tedious scanning. Additionally I hope to wake up one day and discover that someone has made my website look more professional and up to date. I know I can’t do it!
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with?
BJ: Creating Banana Triangle gives me tremendous satisfaction.
BC: But, why Banana Triangle (nee the Island)? That is, what was the process that brought you to the conclusion that cannibalism could be funny?
BJ: There was no “process,” per se. The early days of Banana Triangle were all about establishing the personalities and motivations of the main characters and to do so within the confines of the circumstances in which they find themselves. They wake up to find themselves on a small island with limited resources, i.e. food. They’re hungry…starving! Very quickly “what’s for dinner” becomes “who’s for dinner.” The characters are all thinking about it but one of them simply has no filter between her mind and her voice box. Is it funny? Not really but I try to portray it so.
BC: For readers that haven’t tried it yet, what’s your pitch to reel them in?
BJ: I have no idea. How about “You’ll come for the bucolic sunsets. You’ll stay ‘cuz we ate your legs.”
BC: For readers that ran away the first time Tom got killed (or Scotty threw up bad creamed corn), what words do you have for them?
BJ: Metaphor! Metaphor! C’mon… it’s just metaphor!
BC: Do you have any collections on the market yet?
BJ: Nope! However I hope to one day wake up and find…
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper?
BJ: I don’t have a simple answer for this, I’m afraid. I do find that going for long walks (alone) can be very fruitful.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
BJ: Actually WordPress/ Comicpress, the content management system I use for my website, has the ability to add a small amount of sound/music but I couldn’t get it to work. The “music” I was attempting to add was the sound of gentle waves slowly lapping the shore of an empty beach.
Perhaps one day I shall wake up to find…
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Do you have any dirt on them?
BJ: So many “favorites.” Too many. I’ve never met any, however. I take it for granted that they are all dirty to some degree. Filthy dirty! Some are dead and literally covered with dirt.
BC: What other comic strips do you follow?
BJ: I always check out XKCD. It makes feel smart when I “get it.” I adore Perry Bible Fellowship. I follow Buni on GoComics cuz’ it’s dark and funny and it was launched there immediately before Banana Triangle. David Malki!’s Wondermark is delightful. And Hark! A Vagrant? So clever! Others too!
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
BJ: Initially I am attracted to and/or intrigued by the “look.” From there the wit, originality and depth will keep me interested.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
BJ: See above.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter? How do you think they are changing the face of webcartooning?
BJ: I don’t know if I’d recognize the face of webcartooning if it was standing directly in front of me so any changes just confuse me. Kickstarter? Patreon? Could using these “products” result in Banana Triangle earning money for it’s creator? That’d be nice!
BC: No guarantees…
BC: Do you have any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
BJ: I lead a quiet life.
BC: Coming back to Banana Triangle, could you give us an insight to the motivations and personalities of the four main characters, Tom, Scotty, Rosemary and/or the briefcase?
BJ: Ay yi yi! I probably shouldn’t try. Just know that like me Tom is extremely introverted. And I… No! I’ve said too much already!
BC: How far ahead do you plot the stories, arcs, sub-plots, etc.?
BJ: I generally manage to maintain a six month “buffer” but the story arcs are largely unplanned and I pray that readers will forgive the incoherence that results.
BC: How much of what happens to the trio mirrors something happening in real life at the time you draw the strip?
BJ: More than I am conscious of, I think.
BC: Is Banana Triangle farce, parody, surrealism or just really repulsive stuff (like someone that keeps picking their scabs on live TV and the audience is too disgusted to change the channel)?
BJ: I hope it is a little bit of all the first three things. It would make me terribly sad if it were thought to be the last.
BC: I gave Banana Triangle a second try because of the recommendations by Greg Cravens (The Buckets, Hubris). Any words for Greg?
BJ: Nothing pleases me more than when someone whose work I admire thinks what I do is worthy of attention. So… Thanks, Greg!
BC: Do you have any long-term game plan for the BT trio?
BJ: Survival. That’s what it’s all about!
BC: How would you characterize your readers on your main site compared with the ones on GoComics? Has their reception of BT been positive on the whole? Neutral? Negative? How do you respond to people that don’t “get” BT and the BT jokes?
BJ: My response to this question is largely based on assumptions I make because I don’t have all that many readers who comment with regularity. With GoComics I can see how many people subscribe to have Banana Triangle emailed to them when it updates (a number that grows very slowly) but I have no idea how many additional eyeballs it gets in front of. Every so often a reader there will leave in a huff and broadcast the fact in the comments section. At those times I will feel a brief pang of disappointment.
BJ: On my own website I can track page views and stuff as well as see what portion of those readers are return guests but I have only a few dependable but intermittent commenters. Fewer still are those that hang with it and make (much appreciated) comments along the way as they follow the strip. What seems to happen more often than not is that someone will find Banana Triangle somehow and consume it in its entirety in one or two sittings. Their comments are generally very positive but I seldom hear from them again and I assume they forget about its existence. I can’t blame them because it’s happened to me with many webcomics I’ve read over the years.
BJ: It seems to me that the most successful (measured by volume of readers) webcomics are those that offer multiple reasons for a person to go and visit their site. Certainly more than simply the latest update of the strip. Some readers really seem to value interaction with the creator(s). I don’t see myself doing more of that sort of thing than the small amount I currently do.
BC: Scotty, Tommy and Rosemary vs. Gilligan, The Skipper and the rest?
BJ: Sorry I [can’t] indulge your desire for a Rosemary VS Ginger cage match. I just can’t make it work in my head. I mean… Gilligan’s Island is fictional!
BC: What can we expect in BT in the next 3 months or so?
BJ: Nice try!
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright BeutelJames (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
Poll question: Would you want live on a desert island and eat bloody bananas?