Gentle psychedelia marks Aussie cartoonist’s Froggy & Friends
It feels right that Australian musician and cartoonist Ben Montero’s comics surface every so often in my Facebook feed. Montero’s adorable little characters feel like old, dear friends. Their simple, gently psychedelic adventures have appeared on Vice and across many social media platforms. Montero is currently working on the first collection of his Froggy & Friends comics to be released by Captured Tracks.
Montero is also a musician (he recently toured with Mac DeMarco), but his Froggy & Friends comics set him apart with their blend of sweetness, kindness, sadness, and joy, especially in a time of political division and anger. I asked Montero about what the Froggy & Friends characters mean to him and where they came from.
Will Wellington: You did a couple different series for Vice, but you seem to have zeroed in on the Froggy & Friends characters as your main focus. How did the Froggy & Friends characters develop?
Ben Montero: I’m not sure! They just seem to pop up when it’s the right time. To be honest, it’s all playing out in real time for me, just as it is for anybody viewing them. I don’t know any more or any less. I only do what’s right. I don’t sit down and think, “It’s time to do a froggy or a wormy” or whatever. It’s just what my subconscious calls for at that time. [The characters] developed in their own independent way. Slowly and naturally. Just as a subconscious necessity to keep me company, I think, when I was traveling around Europe alone. They just slowly forced their way out and took shape at their own pace.
WW: How did they become your focus?
BM: At some point, I didn’t want to do anything in parody or irony form. I got tired of trying to show how clever I was, because, honestly, I’m not that clever. When I stripped everything away in terms of [my] motive and target, I found that all I was left with was a feeling of complete loneliness. That’s when things got simpler and the characters became true friends that weren’t going to play tricks on me. I get lost in tricks. I’m not smart enough for satire and I just needed basic raw healing from what I was drawing. Smiles, tears, and warmth.
WW: Why do you think they’ve become so popular?
BM: Maybe there are lots of people hurting who have a lot of warmth to give and receive. The current state of the internet is great and all, but can leave you feeling empty when the lights go off. It might just be about connection. I talk to a lot of kids and we all just want to share. We’re not invincible.
WW: You also seem to be focusing recently on a square, four-panel layout, a really classic format. What draws you to this layout?
BM: Ha. Originally, it was just a good format for Instagram, but now I really like it. It’s good to be able to have limitations to work within, I found. Like a haiku. Also, I have a really short attention span.
WW: Your comics often lack conventional punchlines. Do you worry about each particular strip having a point or a conclusion?
BM: I try not to think about a punchline and just feel an overall cosmic balance without worrying about where it’s going too much: just based on feel, but still with some form. I find punchlines to be such a let down so often.
WW: Your comics often focus on personal, emotional moments, but sometimes you make an explicit political statement. How do you know when the moment is right to get political?
BM: It’s hard. I’ve been more blatantly political in the past, but I feel it ends up clunky and awkward and two-dimensional. There’s no scope for the complexity of emotions. Emotions aren’t political, but kindness can be in a subtle way. I come from a long family line of outspoken left-wing activism, so I’d like to think the basic idea of generosity seeps through to whatever I draw without the limitations of visual politics. There are lots of people who can do it a whole lot better than I could anyway. It’s not my strong point.
WW: I know you’re a big fan of R. Crumb, but are you a fan of any of the classic newspaper strips, like Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, and The Far Side?
BM: I love The Far Side! I took the visual aspect of drawing glasses without the eyeballs directly from The Far Side. I don’t know enough about Calvin and Hobbes, but I’m gonna check it out!
WW: Going back a few years on Instagram, your comics are a lot more vulgar and coarse. You used the word cunt a lot — there’s even the occasional swastika. Your new comics are a lot sweeter, happier, more innocent. How did that change come about?
BM: I was a lot more ready to battle and challenge what was frustrating around me [back then]. I was living in Melbourne and I found the music and indie scene very suffocating and oppressive. I used to channel my frustrations out through comics. It finally got to a point where I offended someone and I realized my targets didn’t need to be targets and were doing good in the community. It was just me lashing out. As for the word “cunt,” it’s a very popular word in Australia that’s used casually to refer to anyone. It’s not like the way Americans say it, as a derogatory, sexist word. Having explained that, I don’t use it anymore living away from that context. I needed to do a lot of growing up and self-reflection and work out where the hurt and anger was coming from. The answer was usually loneliness. I’m trying my best.
Art by Ben Montero