Conversation with Terri Libenson, Creator of The Pajama Diaries

April 30 2008

    Breaking into the comics market is tough. The new trend leans toward trials in newspapers, putting readers in the inspection chair. No matter how popular with the editors, some strips are left in the dust in the fans' eyes, unable to make the essential connection. Others tickle the funny bone, touch a soft spot, and soar. The Pajama Diaries by cartoonist Terri Libenson met the difficult challenge. The comic strip is taking flight, landing in newspapers across the United States with great success.

    Syndicated in 2006, The Pajama Diaries is a family-oriented strip, featuring the central characters of Jill Kaplan, her husband Rob, and their two daughters. The strip "chronicles her life [Jill] with a mix of journalized thoughts and dialog," Terri said on The Pajama Diaries site, and is "a sounding board for modern, multi- tasking women and their families." Not set in a permanent time-frame, the characters age and evolve, providing new avenues for humour at every turn. And it's a lot of fun, too.

    A Fine Arts graduate in 1992 from Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, Terri had always enjoyed drawing and sketching, and knew early on that she wanted to be a cartoonist. She found work with American Greetings as humour writer and illustrator, creating her own popular card line titled"Skitch". Her cartoonist background includes a weekly comic for King Features Syndicate - "Got a Life" that ran from 2000 to 2002.

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     While caring for her two young children, Terri started to ponder on other comic strip ideas, something about family life and stressed out mothers in the modern world. Much like her own life. The delightful The Pajama Diaries debuted on March 27, 2006.

    The Pajama Diaries is a treat for fans: the art is expressive and professional, drawn with an experienced hand. The characters could be someone we know and love, and the writing is a genuine chuckle. The comic strip is charming and hits home with readers, women especially, of all walks of life.

    Recently, this busy working woman, wife, mother and successful cartoonist found time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Cartoonists. Let's jump right in to the conversation with Terri Libenson:

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Do you have time to continue writing for the Greetings company or has cartooning taken a full-time position?

    I work for American Greetings as a part-time contract humor writer. I no longer illustrate for AG, except for theoccasional freelance project. Pajama Diaries takes up most of my week days. I usually write cards a few nights a week or on weekends. It's tough but manageable.

How many newspapers publish The Pajama Diaries?

I don't have an exact number since the amount fluctuates (nature of the beast), but I think it's nearly a hundred.

Do you find that your characters are gradually changing over time, both art-wise and personality-wise?

My characters have changed, partly because they continually grow older; I try to make them age-appropriate in looks and personality. More so with the children, of course, although Rob's hairline subtly recedes each year. I should probably make Jill's hips expand to even things out, but I'm still in denial.

I've subconsciously changed the art over time. I actually posted some images that document this in my blog. The strip's only two years old, but I'm amazed at how much the art has evolved. The characters are now a bit more naturalistic, the colors are toned down, and the line quality isn't as heavy. Also, my joke-telling has changed. I don't use overtly risqué humor like I used to. It's still edgy without being coarse. And the strip has become more about the parents, less about the kids.

Has your view of the cartooning business changed since you first began publication of this comic strip in 2006?

It has. Cartooning is such an isolated business, so it's hard to find others who go through the same experiences. When PD first launched, I felt very alone and extremely vulnerable to every comment about my cartoon that came out in the blogosphere. I never really realized the impact of that. My husband forced me to stop reading everything because it was affecting my work. When I finally talked to other cartoonists, I realized I was not alone. I'm learning to accept that when I put my work out there, I open myself up to everything.

Luckily, I hear so much positive commentary these days, and I'm thankful for that!

Do you have an assistant or office staff to help with the art or business side of cartooning? Do you have a studio at home?

Does my 7-year old daughter count? I do all the creative work myself, with a little help from my kids when they're restless and want to bother mom (thank goodness Photoshop allows for editing).

I have an office at home, but I work all over the place. I usually start out by writing for a few days in the office until I go stir crazy, then I hit the coffee shops for a change of scenery. I do my penciling and inking at my kitchen table, then I end up in my office once more, where I scan in my work and color/shade in Photoshop. I love the coloring, it's completely relaxing. I don't know if I'd ever want to hire a colorist.

I'm fortunate to have a few writer friends who help edit my strips in their preliminary stages. It helps because my strip can get wordy, and they have a knack for narrowing things down.

My husband helps me run the website. He's the techie in the family, and his knowledge is so valuable. He also has good business sense and is helping me on the book publishing end. I also run my finished strips by him before sending them out.

Will the Pajama Diaries be published in book form some time soon? Are you considering merchandise?

A book anthology of strips is definitely something I'd like to pursue. I'm just starting to look into it now, and I'm hopeful I can get a book out within the next year or two. My days have been so hectic, it's been hard to make that a priority... but I'm ready to put in the time.

Merchandise something to consider. As a veteran card writer, I think PD would be a natural for humorous greeting cards. The characters have warmth and a relatable nature that I think would appeal to consumers. Plus, they can cross over many different captions.

Is there anything you would like to add to the article, perhaps words of advice for struggling cartoonists?

Sure. I know it's cliché, but if you really want to pursue syndication, you have to keep at it. It took me ten years, on and off. Luckily, it happened in baby steps for me. I had a college strip that didn't make it (but acquired helpful feedback), another strip that became syndicated weekly, and then even Pajama Diaries went through a "second audition" where it was developed in a broader scope to make it more widely appealing (originally, it was called "The Mommy Diaries".

I'd also warn cartoonists about the nonstop deadlines. They're incredibly relentless, so you reallllly have to make sure you love cartooning and you're not just in it for the sake of getting syndicated.

I've been fortunate to have had enough experience to know that this is what I love and want to continue to do. It's time-consuming, but incredibly cathartic.

Thanks so much for giving some of your busy time to The Cartoonists , Terri! Best of luck with The Pajama Diaries for a long and joyful career in the Funny Pages!

Terri Libenson lives with her husband, Mike, an IT Project manager, and their two daughters near Cleveland, Ohio.

For more about Terri Libenson and her engaging comic strip, visit The Pajama Diaries.

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Images are courtesy and Copyright Terri Libenson.

© Susanna McLeod  2008        
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