The Herstory from 3 1/2 Hours and Five Cups of Coffee says the idea of the character evolved while Jen was sitting behind a hospital information desk and reading a biography of Marie Curie. Can you elaborate on that? Was Manya a nickname of Curie's? Was the character always intended to be a comic character?

BENKA: About a decade ago I was doing what many graduates with liberal arts degrees do - working as a temp. I was assigned to an information desk receptionist position at a major Milwaukee hospital. In between directing visitors to patients' rooms, answering phones and updating the birth and death logs, I read biographies and doodled. I was most struck by a biography of Marie Curie written by her daughter Eve. Marie was originally from Poland. She went to Paris as a young woman to study science at the Sorbonne, married her professor, Pierre, and changed her name from Manya Sklodovski to Marie Curie. She adopted a French identity in name and culture. She didn't want her two daughters to feel as torn between two countries as she did. Marie's life was at the same time incredibly tragic and full of profound discoveries (she discovered radium, which won her the Nobel Prize and an early death from cancer). Her creativity, discipline and dedication were awe-inspiring to me.



Marie Curie, née Manya Sklodovski.

While on a phone call giving directions to the hospital for the zillionth time, I started sketching out a comic strip with a funky female character. There was no question her name would be Manya.

What's the deal with the play "Manya and Marie"?

DRESEN: I saw it and enjoyed it. It was weird to see the characters as real people, though. I had nothing to do with this so I'll let Jen explain it.

BENKA: My background is in Theatre and English Literature, so when I write the text for the Manya books, I approach the writing more as I would if I were writing a play or screenplay than a book. I'm concentrating on dialogue more than visuals - in fact I leave that aspect entirely up to Kris. I plop down at the Fuel Cafe, take out my legal pad, and with a vague idea for a scene, let the characters talk to each other. They talk their way from plot point to plot point. Then Kris works her magic and makes it all make sense. I'm the writer and the actor, she's the cinematographer and director.



Program from the stageplay Manya and Marie,
based on the fourth Manya book.


When I finished "Manya and Marie" I knew that it was the next Manya book, and also a performance piece.

With very little adaptation to the text, I pulled together a group of performers, and we ran the show for a weekend in an empty storefront space in Milwaukee. It worked really well.

Is Manya distributed through [America's largest comic-book distributor] Diamond? How does it get around?

DRESEN: Manya was distributed through Diamond once accidentally when Falling, the third book, came out. We were soliciting the books through Capital Cities when Diamond bought them out. We prefer to use Cold Cut, FM International, Last Gasp, and Slab O' Concrete because stores who buy from them are looking for books like ours - we don't get lost in the superhero swamp and they're all extremely supportive of our books. We do quite a bit of mail order. Every time a review or plug or article about Manya and/or us surfaces we get a flood of orders. We also seem to get significant amount of word-of-mouth buzz. We do one or two conventions a year and hear "Hey, Manya! I've been looking for this!" a whole bunch.

What have the print runs been on the various Manya books?

DRESEN: 3000 each. Not a lot, but it sure seems like it when the boxes are stacked up in your apartment. And it really seems like a lot when you have to MOVE them from one apartment to another.

Was Manya ever intended to be a syndicated strip? Or a bookstore-type book? What are your ultimate ambitions for Manya?

DRESEN: No. We've dabbled with the idea of adapting it as a syndicated strip, but I don't think it would work. Plus, syndicating - even in alternative papers - puts restrictions on language and content. Who needs that? But we're moving into putting out longer, graphic-novelesque editions of Manya out beginning with the next book, Map to the Moon. To try and squeeze what Jen writes into 32 pages is an insult to her and the character. And we refuse to do the "to be continued" ruse. Manya books will always be self-contained. Publishing bigger books will allow us to be in bookstores and be much more available to those who have heard of the book but don't have a decent comic shop near by. I think we want to publish like popular novelists and comic strip collections do - a book or so a year. And it would be pretty darn neat if we eventually wound up on the New York Times best-seller list.

BENKA: I don't think we originally intended Manya to be anything other than Manya, the offbeat gal in the offbeat - sized books. But as we've produced more books and received lots of support, interest and positive feedback, our aspirations have grown. We're working on a collection of the first books which will be distributed to bookstores, and have been experimenting with some strips and greeting cards. I can't speak for Kris, but I'd say that part of our ambition is to get Manya more widely distributed and known. We think the character has a lot of potential. Ultimately, I'd love to see her have her own talk show.

Was the first issue of Manya published through a Xeric grant? What was the chain of events leading up to that?

DRESEN: Yeah, 3 1/2 Hours was funded by the Xeric Foundation - and we are forever grateful to them. I'd been aware of the grant for some time. I think I told Jen about it, she sent for the info, wrote the proposal, had me sign the appropriate documents, and three months later we got the grant. I honestly don't recall much other than that.

BENKA: Prior to that Kris and I would send photocopies of our drafts to our friends and try to feel fulfilled.

What percentage of Manya is autobiographical? Does Kris contribute story ideas, or is it all Jen? How do Manya stories get written?

DRESEN: I never tell Jen what to write. I don't know what's next until the script arrives in my mailbox. This is how we work: Jen writes a script that is primarily just dialogue - no scene descriptions, no panel break downs, just flowing dialogue and narration. She may occasionally note that Manya is in a certain location, but that's rare. When I get the script, I go through it a few times and figure out how I'm going to break the text into panels. I also start to formulate ideas on what the visuals will be. Jen and I never discuss what the other is doing. I don't edit her text and she doesn't mess with my art. The idea is that this is a true collaboration and to toy with each other's work would taint that.

BENKA: Manya is autobiographically inspired. The degree to which is entirely different on each page. In some cases, I borrow a piece of my past or current musings and elaborate or exaggerate. In others, I simply think of a location (bookstore, art gallery, Las Vegas) I've been and let the plot emerge. The stories come from me, but would be incomplete in their telling without Kris's input; her images.

It takes me on average about 6-8 hours to write a Manya book. I write in coffee shops, on legal pads, in long-hand. I revise and re-write the entire book two times, then send it to Kris.

Does Jen see thumbnails or the pencil stage? Or is the finished artwork the next thing she sees after scripting?

DRESEN: Ummmm, well, I don't thumbnail. Or pencil. Jen sends me the finished script, I do the panel layout, then breakdown the text, letter the pages, go through and do quick little squiggles - and I mean squiggles - for figure placement and then jump in with ink. I make it up as I go along. I fax Jen pages as they're completed. If you're asking if Jen gives any art direction, then the answer is no.

BENKA: Kris sends or faxes me sneak previews along the way for my viewing pleasure. Kris and I don't play a direct part in each other's process. But for the most part, when I complete a script, I let it go and it comes back as a finished piece.

Does Jen draw?

DRESEN: Although I'm sure Jen will deny it, yes, she does. Really beautiful, simple and eloquent line drawings. There's nothing she can't do!

BENKA: In my own special way I do, but I have no talent for comic art. I'm happy to provide ancient renderings of Manya to further attest to that fact! I do some line drawings and some lead and charcoal stuff that very few have seen.




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