OPPORTUNITY doesn’t knock so much anymore. These days, it e-mails.
And so Carolyn Belefski monitors that inbox like a freelancer at the open window, peering out for that professional opening. “Sometimes I just keep refreshing my inbox looking for the call to greatness,” says Belefski.
Then: “The moment happened.”
Hello, this is the White House.
“The White House Office of Digital Strategy reached out to me … ,” says Belefski, a Washington-area illustrator and creator of the comic “Curls.” “They approached me via e-mail with the idea of working with me on health-care comics.”
Seems the administration was looking for new ways to engage the public over the president’s Affordable Care efforts — seeking new optics, as D.C. power brokers like to say, to get people to sign up through the window of HealthCare.gov ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline. And what’s literally a more inviting and friendly optic than a cartoon?
“The people who work there [in Digital Strategy] are multi-talented creatives and they wanted to attempt a project with visual storytelling,” Belefski tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “These comics for the Affordable Care Act are a way to show these visuals, and try something new to make people aware that having health insurance is important.”
Belefski didn’t make opportunity knock twice. “I was immediately happy that the White House would be open to using cartoons to reach out to the public,” says Belefski, whose impressive portfolio ranges from comic-book covers to webcomics. “It’s like one of the e-mails you get where you open it up and smile. … I said, ‘Yes, I’d be interested.’ ”
Interested, yes, but as an accomplished freelancer, Belefski — who will appear at Awesome Con D.C. in May — had a few keen queries before saying yes to the president.
“After the initial e-mail, there were a couple of concerns I had in the beginning, before my pencil hit the paper, so we had a few phone calls and e-mails,” the Virginia-born artist says. “They were able to answer my questions. I weighed the options and asked myself: ‘How many people get asked to create art for the White House? This is really a great opportunity. No one should turn this down. I should go for it.’ ”
Now to set about settling upon a style. Clearly the White House creatives liked something they’d seen.
“Once we got started, I had them select examples from my portfolio of the styles they preferred. They liked the ‘semi-flat style with hints of dimension.’ Specifically, my comic strip Curls and the comic-book cover I did for Adventure Time. We agreed on a limited color palette to keep things simple, and I really like the colors I selected,” says Belefski, who got her BFA in Communication Arts and Design from Virginia Commonwealth University.
The agreed-upon approach to this visual storytelling was through the use of character types — individual comics that whimsically spotlight a bearded hipster, say, or an athlete or a daredevil.
“The White House had the character personas all ready to go,” says Belefski, who has also edited the D.C.-based comics newspaper Magic Bullet. “Since cartoons are a great way for stereotyping, I can see that a hipster would wear glasses, have a beard, etc. The daredevil would have slightly messy hair blowing in the wind and a superhero cape. The caregiver would be someone you could trust with a loving smile.
“If anyone has a problem with stereotypes, I always say they are there for a reason. The people that break stereotypes are the ones that change the world,” says Belefski, noting that she still faces occasional calcified prejudice as a woman webcomicker. “Sometimes people can’t believe that females can be cartoonists. It boggles their minds.”
What should boggle the mind instead is the degree of warmth and whimsy that Belefski is able to infuse into just a few limited-text panels. Her cute and quirky people pop off the page.
“I really think we nailed the characters,” Belefski says. “There is a lot of activity going on. I enjoy the subtle hints that say to me: ‘Even healthy people need health insurance in case an accident happens.’
“The characters live their lives and participate in activities they enjoy, which is what makes them who they are,” she continues. “I can look at the characters we created and truly believe these people are trying to be the best they can be, even if some come across as narcissistic in this modern world of selfies and hashtags. That’s what makes them characters! They are not boring. They are all people I’d like to know.”
Once the White House decided they liked the characters, too, Belefski experienced one of two major positives to taking on this mission: No inked-line item vetoes. “It was so great working with this client because I only drew a simple sketch of each character, scanned, sent to them and got approval. No edits! No rejections!”
As smoothly as this assignment went, all of Washington should work so well. “There is the approval process [with freelance work], which depending on the client, can sit on someone’s desk for months, or there is a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’ design-by-committee situation. Working with the White House had a great flow and no hold-ups.”
(Now there’s an endorsement you don’t hear as much from, say, Congress.)
When it comes to health-care comic benefits, this government gig came with another one: the massive exposure that a White House web page can provide.
“This project has been the first time something I’ve done has gone viral. I was so excited to see that Michelle Obama released the athletic comic on Instagram and Twitter,” says Belefski (noting that agrees with the first lady’s stances in promoting exercise and healthy eating). “In one day, that image had over 16,000 ‘likes’ on Instagram. That’s only likes. I wonder how many people saw it!”
(“One site mentioned that the cartoons are an effort to make Obamacare seem cool,” Belefski says. “To me, that is a high compliment because my cartoons are cool!”)
The White House, in other words, is stimulating the health of at least one cartoonist’s career — this time on purpose.
“When it comes down to it, I create comics for myself, but also I want an audience to read and see my art,” Belefski says. “My hope is that another opportunity will come around where many people can enjoy what has been created for them. I like to make people smile. The rewards are the smiles.”
Belefski reads some of the comments of criticism that are part and parcel with creating pictures for a political effort. Her antidote is her belief in the effectiveness of her art form.
“There are the people who say cartoons are for kids. I know the health-care debate is hot from all sides, but sometimes I wonder if people have hearts,” Belefski says. “Even if you don’t read comics as an adult, was there ever a time even in childhood where you enjoyed reading newspaper comics or an animated TV show? Cartoons can be all-ages. Adults can enjoy them, too. Cartoons can be educational. They are a different medium to get a message across.”
And beyond message, the artist applauds the administration’s choice of medium.
“Some people are better visual learners. I think this is The White House’s way to reach a new audience and to be experimental with discussing what could be dry subject matter and turn it into a clever announcement,” Belefski says. “Take away the words, and almost everyone would agree that these cartoons are a blast.”