Pismo Beach woman trades bugs for art

Benita Epstein is one of six cartoonists who collaborate on Six Chix strip

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comOctober 5, 2013 

After working as a scientific researcher for 20 years, Benita Epstein surprised her husband and fellow scientist with a life-changing announcement.

“My husband was in Fiji, doing research,” Epstein said. “He was gone for a couple of months, and when he came back, I said, ‘Guess what — I’m going to be a cartoonist!’ ”

Drawing people with funny noses and beady eyes was a far cry from studying mosquitoes that carry yellow fever. But Epstein made the transition smoothly, quickly selling her work.

And today, two decades later, the recently relocated Pismo Beach woman is one of the artists behind the syndicated comic Six Chix.

“My parents encouraged me to do anything,” she said, her 6-year-old pug, Harley, on her lap in a home with ocean views.

Epstein is one of three currently syndicated cartoonists living in the county. Jerry Scott, who writes for Baby Blues and Zits, lives in Arroyo Grande, while Rubes cartoonist Leigh Rubin lives in Nipomo. Roger Bradfield, a children’s book author who penned the syndicated strip Dooley’s World in the 1970s, also lives in Arroyo Grande.

Clearly, though, Epstein had a much different path to syndication. Growing up in Southern California, she developed an affinity for bugs. When asked why, she quickly volleyed back with a laugh, “Why doesn’t everybody study bugs?”

Then she elaborated, “Since I was little, maybe 10, I’ve collected insects. They’re still fascinating. I don’t understand why they creep people out.”

She went on to study entomology at UC Davis. After earning a master’s degree, she went on to work in research labs, studying subjects such as lung surfactant, autism, photosynthesis and mosquitoes. While her mosquitoes carried yellow fever, Epstein is quick to defend the bloodsuckers.

“They don’t all transmit diseases,” she said, noting that it’s only the females that suck blood. Each project she worked on was funded by grants, which entailed instability.

“A lab gets a grant for about three or four years,” she said. “And if it doesn’t get renewed, everybody gets laid off.”

If the instability wasn’t enough to force her to reconsider careers, working under someone else’s direction – in a potentially dangerous workplace – was.

“You’re working with dangerous chemicals. You’re working with biohazards,” she said. “I was the person who did all the experiments by somebody else’s direction, so it’s not that much fun to work for somebody else’s career.”

During her last project – studying autism and arthritis in 1991 -- Epstein attended a workshop on how to become a cartoonist. And, in her early 40s, she decided to shift careers – from lab researcher to cartoonist. Providing needed inspiration, she quickly found a ready-made audience – one she could relate to.

“I sold my first cartoon to American Scientist, and I continued to sell to them over the years,” she said.

With keen insight into the scientific world, she often sold gag cartoons for use in science newsletters, classes, seminars and conferences. She also landed her work in Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal, textbooks, trade journals and — after many rejections — The New Yorker.

“I spent seven years sending weekly submissions to The New Yorker,” she said.

Meanwhile, early on, she continued to travel the world – as she’d done during vacations as a researcher — with her husband, a now-retired biology professor who studied subjects like geckos, birds and natural history.

“One thing he studied was these particular iguanas in the Gulf of California,” she said. “And we’d take a Zodiac out in the middle of the sea to these uninhabited islands.”

When Kathryn LeMieux, one of the Six Chix writers, dropped out in 2009, King Features, which syndicates the strip to 100 newspapers and online outlets, asked Epstein to join. In a field dominated by males, Six Chix is a strip that features six different female cartoonists with a variety of art and writing styles.

“One’s more political, one’s more romantic, one’s more edgy,” said Epstein, who continues to freelance as well. “They’re all different.”

Each of the Chix has a designated day — Epstein is Friday — and they rotate Sundays. While most of the Chix live on the East Coast, they do occasionally meet for conferences. Epstein had no problem fitting in with the others.

“Each week we get a proof of everybody’s work, and I’m always anxious to see what Benita has to say,” said Stephanie Piro, whose “Six Chix” comics are published Saturdays. “It’s a really good team. We’re all friends.”

Despite their different backgrounds, ”Wednesday Chick” Rina Piccolo said she easily related to Epstein.

"I don't have to know Benita personally to understand her cartoons,” she said, “but when I did get to know her, and got a chance to spend a little time with the woman behind those quirky gags, I said to myself, ‘Of course — she's slightly neurotic about things, like me!’ ”

Piccolo said Epstein has a particular style that “digs deep into science, human relationships, turtles, and everything in between.”

While Epstein has often drawn from her science background — scientists, doctors and nurses have frequently appeared in her work — her panels and strips also deal with relationships, animals and workplaces. And, yeah, bloodsuckers do appear from time to time.

“I like to draw mosquitoes in my cartoons,” Epstein said.

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