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Jok Church
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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Jok Church and Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Cartoonist, "You Can With Beakman and Jax" and Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, May 30, 2003; 1:00 p.m ET

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by Jok Church, whose cartoon, "You Can With Beakman and Jax" appears in the Sunday Comics section. The strip helps kids learn about the world around them with at-home experiments that enable kids to discover the answers to all kinds of questions.

Tobin and Church were online Friday, May 30 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the art of cartooning.

Church created his comic strip in 1991 for his local newspaper in Marin County, Calif. "Beakman & Jax" is now in nearly 300 newspapers. Six Beakman & Jax books are best-sellers. Church created the CBS television series Beakman's World based on the comic strip, and helped create the museum exhibit that has toured science centers and museums continually since 1998. Church is also the author and narrator of classroom CD-ROMs from the National Geographic Society on plant life, systems in the human body and on sex education. He consults as an early education specialist for clients such as Apple Computer and Leap Frog.

The transcript follows.

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: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Jok Church, creator of "You Can With Beakman & Jax." Jok is joining us from his farm in central Tennessee. Welcome, Jok, and thanks for joining us Live Online.

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Jok Church: Well, thank you, it's wonderful to be here. I look forward to speaking to our readers.

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Washington, D.C.: Jok, what was the impetus behind creating "Beakman & Jax" and did you ever have any idea that it would be so successful?

Jok Church: I was a newswriter for radio news. And did that for 10 years, and moved into answering childrenís mail who would write in about the Star Wars films, for George Lucas, at Lucasfilm. I put the two together in creating the comic strip. The newswriting combined with the power and clarity that I saw in the childrenís letters. I was pretty overwhelmed by how brave children are with their questions. They have not yet learned to not ask. As for did I ever think it would be that successful, I donít know that it is. If you measure it by the fact that Iím an artist who is able to earn my living with my art, then it is enormously successful. Most artists never get to do that, and I feel very blessed. But if you measure it against something like Dilbert or Doonesbury, which are in thousands of newspapers, Iím not that successful. I donít have an income large enough to buy property in Northern California, which is why I spend half my time on a farm in Tennesseee, which I can afford to buy.

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Arlington, Va.: If you put together a piece and heard from someone who was an expert in that area that you had some inaccuracies -- how would you handle that? Do you ever print retractions or corrections?

Jok Church: Yes, indeed I do. Iíve been doing this for almost 13 years, and there have been a few mistakes. Iíve sent letters out to editors asking that they print a correction. The correction can not be printed in the comics, because comics are printed long in advance of their publication. Experts are where I go to get the information to begin with. Iíve worked at museums in Exploratorium, the nationís first interactive science museum in San Francisco, and I go to my friends who are educators there. Iíve also met people in the process of doing the comic on whom I rely as sources. The other thing is, I also have a library card, and a library is one of the places Beakman was born. Libraries are societyís treasure houses of ideas, opinions and information. And something doesnít have to be good to be in a library, it just has to be important. It just needs to be something that we have decided is a resource. And anything you want you can find in a library. And the cool thing is librarians absolutely love to help you find it. They do! It gives them a high!

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Washington, D.C.: Who have been your scientific mentors? Have you ever thought of doing a strip on key scientists? Like the recently deceased Stephen Jay Gould. Sort of like some talk about his work and an experiment around one of his findings.

Jok Church: I think that one of the people that I just love and have read extensively is Buckminster Fuller. The reason that I like him is that I think his approach to the world is about developing a new way of thinking. Back up, and look at the situation or problem with wider eyes. Another is Stephen Hawking. Clearly, he is a genius. But for me the part of him that's a genius is that he's able to think in pictures, and his mental pictures are of a timeline of when and how the universe was born. I also rather enjoy Thomas Alva Edison, who I would not really call a scientist. Thomas Edison invented market research more than anything else. He decided what things he or his company could sell before they were invented. It was not pure research. It was research to reach the goal of a product he wanted to sell. And I rather respect that.

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Washington, D.C.: Beakman reminds me of Beaker from "The Muppet Show." Any relation there?

Jok Church: No, there's no relationship. Beaker was the assistant of the scientist on "The Muppet Show" and my Beakman is no one's assistant. The relationship that does exist is that "The Muppet Show" and "You Can With Beakman & Jax" are not written for children. They are written for an audience that includes children, but not exclusively children. They're written for a combination of adults and children. And different portions of the audience take different things from the creation. For example, "Rocky and Bullwinkle." "Rocky and Bullwinkle" when it was created in the '60s, adults saw it as biting political satire of the Cold War. Children saw it as a fun cartoon. The Muppets reaches audiences in the same way. That is to say that just because the child didn't get the joke, they're not offended by the fact that they didn't get the joke, they're delighted and enlightened by what amuses their parents. It's those kinds of programs that teach children what's funny to their parents. That's why the TV show, "Beakman's World," is written the way it is. It's written to build a bridge between children and the adult members of their family. Not only do they get to learn how something works, that is to say not only do the get an "A-Ha!" they get to learn about each other. This used to be called quality time.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you deal in your strip with the way that science is under attack in some states by creationism? I'm thinking of the Kansas case a few years back. Have you received any heat from creationists?

Jok Church: Well, how do I deal with it? I guess I don't deal with it in the strip, I deal with it personally. I get hate mail every week. Every time I mention the speed of light or entropy or the age of the planet earth or the size of the knowable universe, (which, by the way, is called the "Hubble Bubble," which is a name that I love), every time I mention one of those things, I get a letter full of indignant fury about what it says in the Bible. I also think that people who use the phrase "just a theory" have no idea what a theory is. A theory is a scenario, an educated guess, that can be supported by experimentation. It can proved or disproved by doing something other than the action in the theory. If it could be directly observed, we would call it empirical knowledge. A theory is about honesty. It is about saying that we cannot directly observe this, so here is the evidence that supports what we think is going on. As soon as an experiment, which is directly tied to the theory, fails, then the theory is disproved. Entropy has to do with Newton's Laws of Thermodynamics. It basic says that the universe is moving toward a disordered state. Now as physicists use this phrase, "disorderly" or "disorderly state," what they mean is that it's uniform and without separate distinctions. Creationists are, nonetheless, offended by the word "disorderly," and think it means "messy" and that God does not have a "messy" universe. I think that they just aren't prepared for the beauty of how complicated the universe is. That in and of itself is a simple kind of beauty. There's a lot of gray in the universe, and that's what entropy is, it's moving everything toward a gray. If you have a glass of ice tea beside a cup of hot coffee eventually the coffee and the ice tea will be the same temperature, and the room will be the same temperature. That is entropy. That is a disordered construct. It is not messiness.

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Bethesda, Md.: Were do you get most of your resources for answering the questions?

Jok Church: I asked the people who need to know to make their living. For instance, if it's about a toilet, I'll ask a plumber. If it's about brain freeze, I'll ask a neurosurgeon. I also love that these days, you can get most research papers right online. You just have to know how to look for them. I'm not suggesting that people think of the Internet as the purveyor of "the truth." Because anybody can put something on the Internet. But I am suggesting that once you focus and tighten your search, using Boolean logic, you can find almost any research paper you want right on the Internet.

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Washington, D.C.: What did you think of the TV version of Beakman's world?

Jok Church: I loved it and it was created by three people and I was one of them. "Beakman's World" was a TV program that ran from 1992 to 1996. The first year we were syndicated. The second year CBS was then under the gun to provide instructional programming for children, and they picked it up for their Saturday morning lineup. We thought that that would be good for the show. It was not. They didn't promote it. They had it on the air just to satisfy the law. They didn't ever regard it as a resource. I really think that CBS Television at that time would have broadcast show of children eviscerating their pets if they thought it would get ratings. They had absolutely no interest at all in their audience. There was not one promo EVER broadcast for "Beakman's World." We created the show to be like a live action cartoon. There are over 1,000 sound effects in every show. And that's because cartoons do that. Every time anyone starts or stops in a cartoon, you hear it. It's why you hear Beakman's arms and finger as he moves. Jax, who is Beakman's sister, by the way, did not make it into the TV show. And the reason was money. It is my one disappointment with the show. To have leading actors, would have required two leading actors' salaries. And the budget would not support it. People were already working for half of their usual fees. And the reason they were was because they loved the product, they loved "Beakman's World," and they loved being a part of it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you do any speaking engagements or appearances for children?

Jok Church: I go to science museums and I show pictures of things taken around the house, shown through an electron microscope. Things like carpet and teddy bear fur and hairballs and dog poop. And we examine why it looks the way it does. But since 9/11, science museums haven't been asking a lot of people in for speaking engagements. That business pretty much went down the toilet at that point. It's not yet recovered, and I don't know that it ever will. It has to do with travel of the speakers to the different museums, it has to do with the fact that membership and donations are down, and it also has to do with security. It also has to do with fear. A lot of educational conferences, workshops at universities, people don't want to attend them, and they're being cancelled. And when that happens, I lose my speaking engagements.
Call your local science museum and tell them that you want me to come, and I'll be there.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I am glad you mentioned Buckminster Fuller. His ideas about the geodesic domes being a way to undergo construction have turned out to exist in the natural world. I am glad they have named Buckyballs after him. Thank you for mentioning him. What was it you admired about Buckminster Fuller?

Jok Church: I'm glad I mentioned Buckminster Fuller too. I think he was really far out. I think he was far out in the Frank Lloyd Wright kind of far-outness. As a matter of fact, this Tuesday, June 3, on my farm, I and a friend named David and Blue and Kaz, are building a 30-foot model of the molecule "buckminsterfullerene," which is a recently discovered form of carbon. I just love that there's things left to be discovered. People were aware of a form of carbon that has 60 atoms of carbon in the molecule, but nobody could figure out what shape or structure that it had. It had to follow the rules of carbon bonding, how carbon atoms attached to one another. The story that I've heard is that one of the researchers was working at home when one of his children's soccer balls rolled into his office. A soccer ball has 60 corners, and it follows all the rules of carbon bonding. It was named "buckminsterfullerene" in honor of Bucky and his observation that the smallest unit that a sphere can be broken down to is a triangle.

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Arlington, Va.: When I did a search on the Internet, I saw you wrote a piece about the artists Christo and Jean-Claude? Do you know them personally? And how did you get involved with them?

Jok Church: My partner, Kazimir, and I were a part of The Running Fence in Marin and Sonoma Counties, Calif. in the mid-1970s. I used to work as a news director of a radio station there and an artist was a subject of many public hearings on a work he wanted to build. People said that he was a crazy Romanian and, my parents are from Romania and I had been called crazy more than once, so I had to be there. Christo and Jeanne-Claude called it a subversive work of art. They meant that it subverted the paradigms of a work of art. Like, what is a work of art? It was an 18-mile long fabric curtain that ran over the hills of Northern California and into the ocean. It carried the wind and the light. But I just loved the word subversive. I mean it was the 1970s, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War and Watergate. So, after the permits were finally approved, Kaz and I showed up at the construction site, and as our subversive act, we snuck in. We pretended to be construction workers. And it changed our lives. It changed how we relate to the environment. We can drive through the site of The Running Fence 25 years later and still have it appear in our minds and hearts. And ever since that time, we become friends with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and worked on many of their projects. We also run their Web site, christojeanneclaude.net. (There are pictures of the running fence on the Web site.) The project that they're working on now is The Gates in Central Park. Thousands of fabric gates will be erected on the sidewalks in Central Park in February of 2005. It will be breathtakingly beautiful and I will be there helping. And I suggest you be there too.

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Easton, Md.: Jok -- Thank you so much for Beekman and Jax. I'm 56, and I learn as much from the strip as my 8 and 5-year old godchildren. Doing some of your experiments together has been great fun for all of us -- and kept us all learning new things. Keep up the good work!

Jok Church: Thank you kindly for the compliment. And thank you also for "getting it." This is all about people doing things together with people, to get that "A-Ha" together, and where you learn something together at that time. Life is a series of steps, and if I would remember the step that taught me how a light bulb works, and remembered that I took that step with my godfather or godmother or parent, that would be something that I would value in my life. I think that when we take these steps together, I think it can be very wonderful and I'm glad I can be part of that. It's one of the best parts of my life, that I do get to be a part of that.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How did you come up with the idea for your strip? How did you sell the idea to your local paper, and how did it then grow to be what it is today?

Jok Church: Well, back when I was at Lucasfilm, I was working on a kids' show that answered children's questions and the project did not move forward. But I still loved the idea. I thought children would always have questions and at the end, because it didn't move forward, I needed a job. So after looking for work for about two years, I got a job at a printing plant and the Macintosh computer had just been invented. Shortly after that, a program called Illustrator 88 was written. I used it to create a comic strip that did a lot of what I wanted the TV show to do. I could not create a TV show on my own, but I could do a comic strip. I couldn't draw a straight line, but with my Macintosh computer, I could draw a crooked one, and adjust it. I didn't have the money to buy one of those computers, but I was working at a printing plant where there was one. I also didn't have the money to buy the output color prints from a computer. They were $5 a page. This was years before the invention of the inkjet printer. I decided the best way to do this was to have it printed in a newspaper, and then send editors clippings of it. So I made a pitch to my local newspaper. I created six comics, that answered real questions from real children in my neighborhood. And I gave it to them for free. Thirteen years later, the same paper, the Marin Independent Journal, still doesn't pay for it. On Sundays, I put my ladder in the back of my truck. I would drive to the printing plant. I would put my ladder up to the dumpsters, which were huge, they were the size of railroad cars, and I would crawl into the dumpster to search for my comic strip. And I pull out 60 or so copies. Sometimes they were a little messed up, I mean we were in a dumpster, so I'd iron them when I got home. Then I would mail them to newspaper editors and ask if there was a place for me. I got the list of editors from the library. There are directories called Editor and Publisher Yearbooks and it lists all the editors and the newspapers circulation and that's who you send stuff to. And I sent it to them every week, even after they said no. I mean I was out of a job, what could their "no" possibly do to me? And I gave myself the goal of 10 papers in a year. Well, Universal Press Syndicate picked me up and within a year, I was in over 100 papers. I encourage you to send your stuff too.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you compare your work to that of Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes? How about Mark Twain?

Jok Church: Thank you very much, I'm enormously complimented that someone would speak my name and Bill Watterson's in the same sentence. Mark Twain, well, YOW!

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Falls Church, Va.: First, I wanted to say that your column is about the best thing in the newspaper, especially the upside down line on the bottom; it tends to be one of the few subversive things one can consistently find in Washington anymore.

Second: Am I right in remembering that you spent some time working for Christo? (Or was that a co-creator of the TV show or something like that?) If I'm right, I'd be curious to hear how he influenced you, what you think of him & his work, etc.

Jok Church: Thank you. I put the upside down line in the comic because I want someone to have to do something. I want them to have to turn the paper upside down. And I'm glad you like it.
I think I addressed my work with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in an earlier question. I think that Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and I don't ever speak of them separately, I think their influence is much like the influence Buckminster Fuller had on me, in that it's a new look at an old thing. The artists alter one element of an enormous environment and it allows us to see the entire environment in a new way. And I think that Buckminster Fuller did much the same thing, but he said, "Let's take a different way of looking at the world." It's all about beauty and new ways of finding it. And I think that understanding is a part of that. I think that when we are not intimidated by the world through which we walk, that we are able to find and create beauty. And understanding is how you get there. And I thank the children who ask the questions who open the doors for us all.

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Boynton Beach, Fla.: Hi! I'm well into my 20s and I still enjoy Beakman and Jax. Since we've heard who your scientific heroes are, let's look at the other side. You're printed in the comics page... do you have any cartoonist heroes?

Jok Church: Walt Kelly is my cartoonist hero. He did "Pogo." And the aforementioned Mr. Watterson is my hero as well. The thing I loved about "Calvin and Hobbes," is that it was never an "either" or "or" thing. He was a stuffed tiger and he was also Calvin's best friend. He was both. And I loved that in the last frame of the last comic, it was an empty frame. It was white newsprint. It was about the possibility of that which will come. It made me cry.

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks so much, Jok, for joining us here today. It was extremely enlightening, and I'm sure I speak for all your readers when I say it's a pleasure to keep learning each Sunday along with Beakman & Jax. I think it was Katharine Hepburn who said that so many people, once they get to be adults, stop learning, and that that is an enormous shame.

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Jok Church: And it was Auntie Mame who said, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death. Open a door, doors you never dreamed existed." And thank you for letting me be in The Washington Post.

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© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company