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Comics: Meet the Artist

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Jok Church
Cartoonist, "You Can with Beakman and Jax"
Friday, June 30, 2006; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online once each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin was joined by Jok Church, cartoonist of "You Can with Beakman and Jax."

Church created his comic strip about the world and how it works in 1991 for his local newspaper in Marin County, Calif. "Beakman and Jax" is now in nearly 300 newspapers and Church created the CBS television series "Beakman's World" based on the comic strip.

Join Tobin and Church online on Friday, June 30, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the art of cartooning.

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Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans to a celebration of the 15th anniversary of "You Can With Beakman and Jax." The strip's creator, Jok Church, is joining us from San Rafael, Calif., to answer your questions about science or anything else. Welcome, Jok, and thanks for joining us Live Online.

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Oakland, Calif.: Do you think you get the questions parents fear most from their children? Such as: Who is God? Why are we here? Why did you bring home a baby brother?

Jok Church: First of all, I want to thank Suzanne for having me online. I don't think that parents are afraid of those kinds of questions, like the baby question. I think parents would like help in answering those kinds of questions. You can answer it poetically and truthfully without providing too much information. Such as: "Babies come from Mommies and Daddies being very close together." I think that sometimes the questions that I answer that do frighten people are "How do you make money?" because money is just made out of promises, and that can be disturbing. I also think that when I tell children to go to a quiet, personal space to think about something, that frightens parents because some of them think I'm teaching the children Eastern meditation techniques. And really, all I'm trying to do is teach them to find a quiet place inside themselves. I think that parents enjoy being able to get to "Aha!" with their children, and I think that's why Beakman and Jax is read by people of all ages.

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Who?: Whose hair was first? Beakman's or Marge Simpson's?

Jok Church: It was actually Marge Simpson. But the blue hair is really more of a tribute to Superman than to Marge, as much as I do love Marge. Superman/Clark Kent's hair was always black with a blue sheen to it. Superman was my first comic back in the '50s, that was me under the bedspread with the flashlight reading comic books. It seemed like every issue there was a different color of kryptonite...green, red, blue, white and it was just fun seeing how it would affect him and how he would overcome this massive struggle. I saw a really funny book in a bookstore, just the cover, and it had Batman and Superman sort of posing for one another and the name of the book was "Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat?"

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Harrisburg, Pa.: If you were not a cartoonist, what other career would you like to, or perhaps still might, pursue?

Jok Church: First of all, I don't think that other cartoonists regard me as a cartoonist. They see me more as a graphic artist. I don't really know what I am. My friends accept, as a matter of faith, that this is what I do for a living. I think that the career that I embrace whenever I'm in the car listening to Eric Clapton is that in my other life, I AM Eric Clapton. But I have absolutely no musical ability at all. I played the piano as a child and a saxophone in the high school band, but for me the band was more about the marching than the music.

I think that I have enjoyed videotape editing and the editing of sound and have made an LP and a friend of mine named Richard Bolingbroke is an artist, and I have been videotaping him creating his art, and I love that it combines the editing and reporting skills that I acquired when I was a radio newscaster. I think it's interesting that children that study music grow up with seemingly unrelated talents and gifts such as a higher understanding of spatial relationships and higher mathematics. So, I think I'd like to continue my filmmaking career, because the Beakman and Jax once birthed a TV series, and I really enjoyed that. The 96 episodes of Beakman's World are going back into syndication this September and I'm really excited about that.

If you'd like to look at the film I mentioned earlier, you can go to www.rbolingbroke.com and click on "Studio Video."

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How did you get the name Jok?

Jok Church: My parents wanted to name me Jacques, but my mother was very much interested in becoming an American (my parents were born in Romania). In fact, my mother was obsessed with it. She thought that noone in the U.S. would understand the spelling of that name, so my father proposed Jock, my mother said that that would be obscene, so she suggested taking the c out to make it clean. So I ended Jok.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm wondering if you ever hear from your child questioners after they become adults. For example, have you inspired anyone to enter the science field?

Jok Church: Yes I have heard back from a number of them. It's always quite thrilling. The letters usually begin, "I grew up on you," and having someone say that to you is really lovely, it's intense and makes me feel really good. One of my readers became an aerodynamic engineer at a company that builds jet airplanes. And I've heard from a number of them who have become science teachers. And one who's become a cartoonist! I get asked often "How do you get to be a cartoonist?" And I always tell them "You do it because you NEED to do it. And keep doing it and eventually someone will know it. Basically, do it for yourself.

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A big fan: Just wanted to say how I enjoy your cartoon every weekend and how you make complex subjects understandable to even this 54-year-old. Thanks!

Jok Church: You know they have to be understandable to me -- this 56-year-old. People tend to think I already know the answers to these questions and one of the reasons I pick a question is because I DON'T know the answer. So I investigate and find out and when I can understand it, then I can write it in a way that is understandable. I try to distill it into its simplest components. So I'm learning along with my readers. And I guess that's why the job never gets dull.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Your cartoons have a consistent quality. What program do you use to create them and do you have various templates that you use?

Jok Church: I started Beakman & Jax on a Mac back when they looked like a food processor, those little teeny ones. I was working at a printing plant and clients would bring me in their files on little floppy disks. And the program that the pros were using was the most difficult to learn. So I decided that was the one I needed, which was Illustrator '88. Back when they were using the year to name the program. I loved my computer, it's a tool. A tool increases your mechanical advantages. It allows you to use your strengths and talents to greater advantage, and that's what tools do and that's what my computer does for me. It's not my toy, it's my tool. I'm now using Illustrator CS, and I don't use templates and I don't use clip art. I draw it all myself.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hello Jok -- what is the question you have received the most often over the years?

Jok Church: There's a kind of question that thrills children and it usually has to do with something that's dirty or nasty. They want to know things like "Why do we fart?" "Why is poop brown?" and "Why does your pee have a different color when you take a vitamin pill?" And I've answered all those questions because you can see that kids really want to know that and I think they want to try to shock me. And I respond by telling them that those are all legitimate areas of inquiry. The favorite questions that I have are more like poems or haikus. For instance, "When the snow melts, where does the white go?" Another one was not even a question, it was just a little girl writing in to tell me that "I love sititng in Daddy's chair, and leaning back, and having the floor turn into the ceiling." For me, that's about human perception, and it's also about having a really good daddy, and it sounds good to me.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: Dear Jok, I quite often hear high school students say that school bores them. They never say that learning bores them. You seem to have a formula to make learning fun. What suggestions do you have for high school teachers to help them make learning in school a non boring thing?

Tim Montesonti

Jok Church: I don't really know that I could suggest anything to a teacher. I hold then in awe. I think they do the most important job that our society offers people, which is the opportunity to open doors in our children's lives. I could suggest that subjects not be so abstract. Like "How do you do make money? How do you make coins? The watermarks in bills." That can morph from physical science into social studies because, as we discussed earlier, money is just made of promises. And a really unhappy truth that most people don't care to embrace is that the peoples that have the biggest armies are the ones who can keep the promise of their money better. But, by and large, what I'd like to see more in education is less abstract and more concrete. That it relates to their real world and their real life.

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Philadelphia,, Pa.: Do have some favorite among your works? If so, what are some that are most memorable?

Jok Church: I really enjoy when I'm asked questions that leap from the physical world and the material world into our hearts. A child wrote me to say, "I'm moving and I don't know how I'm ever going to make new friends." That was one of my favorites. Another was from the man who wrote to tell me that he'd become an engineer in a jet airplane factory. He wanted to know what turbulence or chaos was. And this was important to me because it coincided with the Columbine killings. Some people like the young men wearing the black coats called out the word "chaos" as a kind of slogan and they confused its meaning. Chaos does not mean total disorder. Chaos means a multiplicity of possibilities. Chaos is from the ancient Greek words that means a thing that is birthed from the void. And it was about that which is possible not about disorder. Another favorite question was "What are the laws of the universe?" And as far as I could tell I saw four of them. The first is that the universe works to be balanced. Another was there is no such thing as darkness, there is just more or less light. The other two at the moment escape me. It's physics, but it's also poetry.

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New York, N.Y.: Why do old people have hair in their noses and ears?

Jok Church: When I turned 40 or 42, hair began to sprout everywhere from my body and, you know, I don't know why. This is one of those questions I'll have to investigate and find out why. I know that every place we have an opening from the inside to the outside we have these really sophisticated protections. Keeping the inside inside and the outside outside is what these protections are all about. And hair in places like ears and noses, probably have something to do with making that protection more robust. Why is where we get to eventually, not where we begin. I'm about what and how, and those are kind of the tinker toys of the material world. And you have to have those together and be stable--you have understand those--before you can move on to why. Why is philosophy. I can explain how the sky is seen by us as blue. I can explain what is happening. But I can't tell you why that happens. That's philosophy. One of the things that I hope for the world is that people will have what and how fully grasped before they tackle philosophy. Because they are an awful lot of people who are jumping into philosophy who are causing a great deal of damage right now.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What a great topic for a chat!

My son, who is almost 13, is a budding comic artist and is very serious about pursuing a career in cartooning. What advice can you give a youngster who wants to succeed in this field?

Jok Church: Go to the library and ask the reference librarian for the Editor and Publisher's Yearbook. Look up the names of newspapers and you'll find the feature editors listed. It's sort of like a phone book. Mail them your cartoon every single week, don't stop. I did it for a year without any pay at all before Beakman and Jax was picked up by a syndicate. And a syndicate takes over selling your cartoon for you. But I would like to refer back to what I mentioned earlier: that you keep doing this because you NEED to do this.

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Washington, D.C.: I read on a blog that your partner recently died from AIDS. Has that changed your work, or how you work?

Jok Church: Adam Kazimir Ciesielski died on Nov. 25, 2005. I shared 34 years of my life with him and feel lucky to have done so. He did not die of AIDS. He had AIDS for 23 years. I think he won his battle against it. Unfortunately he died of bladder cancer. As to how it changed my work, your spouse, over time, creates you as their work of art. And I created him as my work of art. All the people that I love have that job, but Adam was the primary contractor in the creation of Jok. And so he changed my work by creating me. And I miss him horribly. People wanted to send me sympathy cards, and what I really wanted was a card that said "Congratulations! You got to spend this much life with that man."

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Jok Church: I think I'd like to close by thanking my readers for helping me write Beakman and Jax. I really take as a blessing that I can depend on children's curiosity. I know it will never end. I know it's endless. Some people have to depend on market forces for their job, and I get to depend on something that is actually dependable and once again, I'd like to thank the editors of The Washington Post. I feel a special honor at being in The Post. I feel like it's a newspaper that saved the nation.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thank you, Jok, for joining us this afternoon. I hope everyone will join us again in two weeks, when Terri Libenson of the "The Pajama Diaries" will be our guest.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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