Cartoonist and author Jim Benton has a living-room-sized studio at his home in Bloomfield Township — plus another for his two artistic kids. (Neal Rubin)
Jim Benton hates sleeping. Hates the whole concept of it. Wishes he could stop.
“It’s preposterous,” he says, “that one-third of the time, you’re good for nothing. Would you buy a car that stopped working 10 days a month?”
So there’s one insight into one of America’s most successful cartoonists. Sleep. And here’s another:
When he and his wife were building their house in Bloomfield Township six years ago, he fetched a glob of mud from the backyard and showed it to the decorator entrusted with finding tile for the rear entryway.
“This color,” he said. As long as the kids were going to track muck inside, why not make it all match?
The house, it should be noted, is about 10,800 square feet. Benton is a very successful cartoonist, not to mention author and merchandiser.
The house has 6˝bathrooms. It also has three swings hanging from the basement ceiling, because there was space and a convenient hidden I-beam and who doesn’t like swings?
There’s a lot of little kid in Jim Benton, who remembers riding his bike to a print shop in Birmingham so he could scrounge drawing paper from the dumpster.
There’s also a wide swath of genius and a remarkable knack for understanding what people like, be they the collegians who used to wear his “Drunken State” T-shirts or the third-graders who clamor for the next book about Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist.
Benton, 53, has 9 million books in print and a fresh collection of cartoons, lyrically titled “Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats” (NBM Publishing, $13.99).
“I kind of Forrest Gump a lot of business decisions,” he says, but he estimates that he’s put more than a billion items on the market worldwide. Even if a lot of them are just stickers or It’s Happy Bunny buttons, that’s a billion more than most of us.
Basically, he’s a living testimonial to what all the career gurus say:
Recognize what you love, and figure out how to make a living at it. Follow your dream. And do plenty of jokes about flatulence.
Benton originated the enduring line, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten.”
He was working for a T-shirt printer, so he didn’t cash in. But it was his first brush with immortality.
Since then he’s crafted a parade of memorable characters, most recently the sardonic smiling rabbit of It’s Happy Bunny.
“The voices in your head are not real,” the bunny says in one cartoon. “But they still have some really great ideas.”
“Dog Butts and Love,” the greatest hits from the cartoons he posts on Reddit.com, touches on some of his other favorite characters and topics, including aging, Satan, and toying with words.
For instance, there’s a panel about Edgar Allan Poe and a passive-aggressive bird. Quoth the raven, “Nevermind.”
What else fills out a quick sketch of Jim Benton?
There’s this: He drives a 2002 Honda Element, because it’s quirky and he still likes it. His wife, Mary K, who he met when he hired her at the T-shirt company, drives a minivan.
He’s had New York Times bestsellers, shelves of awards, a Fox Kids animated series and a Hallmark movie, but he remains self-deprecating and eminently likeable. The movie was based on his “Dear Dumb Diary” series for preteen girls, which manages to be simultaneously snarky, recognizable and endearing.
His books have been printed in 15 languages he can’t speak. He notices everything — it’s what makes the cartoons work — but struggles with the math on restaurant tips.
The assistant who handles his licensing, Kristen LeClerc, says she’s never seen him stuck for an idea. He says he just hides his failures well, typically in the nearest trash can.
He wakes up every morning at 6 and starts drawing. It’s all he has ever wanted to do.
“Laughter is the best medicine,” says Happy Bunny in one of the books, and it’s working for Benton. Oh, but there’s more:
“So if you meet somebody with broken ribs,” the bunny says, “make sure to tickle them.”