FEATURE — Summer 2008
   

 
Terri Libenson, B.F.A. ’92, creator of The Pajama Diaries, reads to her two daughters, Nikki Davis, age 5, and Mollie Davis, age 8, who are inspiration for the children in her comic strip. Another inspiration, her husband, Michael Davis, is not pictured.
Two Kids and a Comic Strip

Alumna Terri Libenson draws from real-life ups and downs to create the funny and thoughtful syndicated comic strip, The Pajama Diaries

By Kristin Tennant

Life for young parents today is a balancing act. Just ask Terri Libenson, B.F.A. ’92. A mother of two young children and the creator of a daily syndicated comic strip, Libenson spends her days balancing a constant jumble of roles. If she’s not actively writing, drawing, or spending time with her kids, she’s folding laundry while brainstorming new story ideas for next month’s comic strips or trying to call the sitter so she and her husband can go out.

Ever juggling, Libenson has become a master multi-tasker. Perhaps her most brilliant technique? Allowing the very craziness of her life to serve as fodder for her comic strip, The Pajama Diaries, which is syndicated with King Features Syndicate.

In one strip, titled “The Annual ‘Multi-Tasking Mom’ Triathlon, 2006” Pajama Diaries’ main character, Jill Kaplan, a freelance designer and mother of two small girls, competes in events like these: “Eat lunch, call client, and pick up birthday gift in under 30 minutes,” and “Complete entire pilates session while preparing dinner and helping child with spelling homework.”

“While trying to relate to others, I’m also trying to disassemble the ‘Superwoman’ myth,” Libenson says. “Modern women need to let go of ‘doing it all’ and focus more on doing their best.”

In the midst of crazed schedules, Libenson says friendships and other support systems often get squeezed, in a classic “Catch-22” manner: The less time you have for support and comic relief, the more you need it.

Pajama Diaries can act as a support system, in a way, because it demonstrates you’re not alone,” she says. “Many women carry a lot of guilt as they try to marry feminist notions with traditional roles. Just writing the strip is cathartic for me. It’s like a diary within a diary!”

Terri Libenson says that although her characters aren’t based solely on her family, members provide an endless supply of material.

Although many themes come from Libenson’s own life, she also draws ideas from stories her friends and fans share, as well as from books, articles, and blogs she reads. Developing the idea for Pajama Diaries, after the birth of her second child in 2002, Libenson began reading a lot about what she calls “the plight of modern, stressed-out mommies.” As she watched early episodes of Desperate Housewives and read books—from the funny novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, to more serious nonfiction titles like Myth of the Perfect Mother—Libenson realized she had a strong foundation for her comic strip.

Now two years into its life, Pajama Diaries runs in nearly 100 daily papers, in cities from Sacramento, California, to St. Louis, Chicago, and Albany, New York, and even overseas. Libenson hears from many fans who write comments such as “I feel as if you have a camera in my head!”

Pajama Diaries isn’t all humor, though. Wanting the strip to be socially relevant, Libenson addresses sensitive topics such as a sex life that needs rekindling or being prescribed antidepressants. Sometimes her comic strip even attracts angry comments, which don’t “roll off” as easily as she’d like.

According to Libenson, getting the right ideas across in subtle, humorous ways is one of her most challenging tasks.

“I have a dual personality,” she jokes. “I’m a people-pleaser at heart, but I also have a real drive to make a statement. I guess I can’t be relevant and get all happy comments.”

Getting the right ideas across in subtle, humorous ways is one of Libenson’s most challenging tasks. Her process, which tackles a month’s worth of strips at a time, separates the writing from the illustration. In a typical month, she first spends six or seven days writing down her story-line ideas and a “gag-a-day.” After writing a rough draft of the copy, Libenson puts on her “illustrator hat” to rough out the comics. Her goal is making her ideas legible enough to show to her husband and maybe a friend or two. Then, with feedback in hand, she lays out the entire month’s worth of strips on the floor. After she’s pleased with their order, Libenson begins drawing the comic strip in pencil, then ink, before it gets scanned and colored on the computer.

“I have a very linear personality,” she says. “Producing a daily strip is relentless, so I have to stay orderly and on top of it. If one of my kids is home sick, I go into panic mode!”

When Libenson was growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, her mother worked part time in her father’s paper supply company. Libenson says she was always drawing and was fascinated by cartoon characters. A product of the ’70s and ’80s, she started with Snoopy® and Woodstock® before branching out to create her own characters.

“I was a quiet child, which made drawing a perfect pastime for me,” she says.

When Libenson entered Washington University in fall 1988, she knew she wanted to study art but didn’t know what form. After considering fashion design, she settled into illustration, with a minor in art history.

“The further I went with illustration, the more I noticed my work becoming more and more cartoony,” she says.

“People need humor… My goal is to make my work some- thing that people will cut out and hang on the refrigerator.”

Her senior year, Libenson put together an independent study with St. Louis cartoonist Steve Edwards, B.F.A. ’87. She also created a strip called Zero for Student Life, which she sent to King Features and other places in hopes of getting syndicated.

“Though the strip was too college-focused, I got a lot of nice encouragement,” Libenson says.

After graduation, Libenson moved to Cleveland for a job at American Greetings—first as a humorous card writer, then moving into a combination of illustration and writing.

Pajama Diaries can act as a support system, in a way, because it demonstrates you’re not alone,” Terri Libenson says.

While she doesn’t think she was particularly funny as a child, Libenson says her father and brother were.

“I’ve always gravitated toward humor and have always been surrounded by funny people,” she says. “My own sense of humor is more observational and comes out more on paper.”

As Libenson’s own children grow, so will Jill Kaplan’s children in Pajama Diaries, even though the characters aren’t based solely on Libenson’s own children.

“There’s an endless supply of material,” she says.

Her goals now involve staying on top of her Pajama Diaries schedule, continuing her contract work for American Greetings, publishing an anthology of her work, getting her comic art into exhibitions, and carving out more family time.

“I think there can be a misconception that a freelancer’s life is more freewheeling,” she says, “but I have to put in extra time just to give myself a day off.”

Libenson observes that the comic world has become much more diverse in recent years, in terms of characters and topics. And as newspapers lose readership to Internet sources, the comic strip form must evolve.

“The medium is definitely changing. I don’t see how it can avoid moving online,” she says. “But there will always be a place for comics. People need humor, and they need to know others can relate to their lives. My goal is to make my work something that people will cut out and hang on the refrigerator.”

Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.


The Main Characters

Jill Kaplan – a wife, mother of two young children, and freelance graphic designer, who tries to maintain her own identity. Her blog reveals daily humor.

Rob Kaplan – Jill’s husband and steadfast best friend. He’s not always aware of Jill’s dilemmas but is eager to help.

Amy & Jess – Jill and Rob’s energetic little girls. Amy is in grade school, and Jess is a young preschooler. Their roles as leader-of-the-pack and sidekick create interesting fun in the household.

Bobby – Amy’s favorite companion, a raggedy stuffed elephant.

Grandma Sophie – Rob’s grandmother. She reminds Jill of the duties of being a homemaker.

Nanci, Deb & Lisa – Jill’s circle of close friends. A part-time career woman with two kids, a former party girl turned “Mother Earth,” and a stay-at-home mom of three, respectively, Jill observes them in her blog.