Review: The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics

The_CartoonistAnother library rental, and a very enjoyable one at that, The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics is a 2009 documentary about local boy made good, Bone creator and fellow Columbusite, Jeff Smith.

As you would expect with any documentary, this one charts Smith’s career, from his childhood doodles to his college days, animation career, and self-publishing Bone. Along the way, we’re treated to interviews with Smith himself, as well as a friends and fellow cartoonists like Paul Pope, Coleen Doran, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, and Terry Moore. Oh, and of course Lucy Caswell, of the Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum, who was one of Smith’s early supporters and mentors.

There was a fair amount of time spent on Smith’s seven years with Character Builders, the animation house he co-founded with two friends after graduating college. It was fun seeing snippets of commercial animation from the trio, including an opening sequence for a planned Jack Hanna animal show called Super Safari, as well as ads for Warner Cable (featuring the superhero Warner Man) and White Castle (in claymation, no less!). Smith credits the discipline learned from years of doing animation, both in terms of craft (learning to draw every character consistently and with varying emotions) and business (heeding deadlines, interacting with customers and vendors professionally) as one of the reasons for his success as self-publishing.

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Smith himself talks about his early influences (Carl Bark’s Uncle scrooge, Walk Kelly’s Pogo), as well as the seminal comics from 1986 that opened his eyes to the potential of the medium: Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns. (Quick digression: I was lucky enough to catch a talk by Smith at CCAD about 10 years ago, where he spoke passionately about his love of comics, and incorporated dozens of images from the aforementioned books in his presentation to explain the intricacies of the craft.) Parts of the interview are also set in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, specifically Old Man’s Cave, wherein Smith talks about the influence of that specific geographic region on his art and the settings of Bone.

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Smith’s wife, and business partner Vijaya Iyer is also featured. In a humorous clip, he explains how he talked her into quitting her promising Silicon Valley job to help him make comics. In another interesting anecdote, talking about the genesis of his new series RASL, Smith mentions coming up with the basic premise back in 2001, and running it by his friends Paul Pope and Frank Miller. At one point, they were going to work together on a science fiction anthology called Big Big, with RASL being Smith’s contribution. Alas, scheduling conflicts kept the project from ever materializing, but that would have been a trip, no?

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Oh, and on a personal note, it was cool to see my local comic shop of choice, The Laughing Ogre, featured in several of the shots in the documentary. Ogre employee Lloyd even makes an appearance in a segment set at the Smith/McCloud talk at OSU’s Mershon Auditorium. Speaking of which, most of that talk (which I had the pleasure of attending) is included on the DVD as a bonus feature. There’s also a mini-feature where Smith discusses his new series, RASL, talking about his research into both the real science and fringe science that makes up the backbone of the story.

For fans of comics, Bone and/or Jeff Smith, I’d definitely recommend this documentary. It’s professionally produced, well written, and contains good interviews, with some clever bits as well (like incorporating black & white film footage as humorous interstitials).

(A version of this review originally appeared on my Ferret Press blog, February 2011.)

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    Indie Cover Spotlight: Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of The Here and Now #5

    While originally slated to adapt just one of Cory’s short stories for this IDW mini-series, I ended up getting a third issue due to IDW Editor in Chief Chris Ryall’s busy schedule (he had planned on adapting this story himself). So issue #5 became mine, adapting “I,Robot” (Cory’s version, not Asimov’s)

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    As per the previous issue, this one featured another top talent doing the cover: Ashley Wood. Interior art was by Erich Owen, and it shipped in February, 2008.

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      Indie Cover Spotlight: Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of The Here and Now #3

      After turning in the script for issue #1 (Anda’s Game), IDW liked my work enough to offered me another one of Cory’s short stories: Craphound.

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      This time, one of my all-time favorite creators was on cover duty: Paul Pope.

      Paul Friggin’ Pope, covering my second ever paying gig. The book shipped in December, 2007, which made it a great Christmas present for me.

      And the interior art was by British artist Paul McCaffrey, which was a joy to behold:

      Craphound-p2-lo-res-749454

      Next: I,Robot.

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        Indie Cover Spotlight: Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of The Here and Now #1

        In honor of my own birthday, I’m going to be completely self-serving by spotlighting my own comics all week on ICS, specifically my first professional paying gig: the IDW adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s short stories in comic book form.

        After the publication of my Lifelike graphic novel, Chris Ryall at IDW called me up and asked if I would be interested in adapting Doctorow’s short story “Anda’s Game” for their new limited series. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity! Imagine my delight when I found out that the cover to the first issue was by none other than the great Sam Kieth:

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        The book came out in 2007, and featured interior art by Esteve Polls. I had a chance to communicate with Cory via email and ask him a few questions about what he considered the emotional beats of the story, since there’s always some amount of cutting that needs to happen when adapting prose into comics. He was very gracious with his time, and even more accommodating by telling me that he wanted me to put my mark on the adaptation, and not follow any instructions from him. When the book came out, he was equally pleasant in his positive review of it.

        Next: Craphound.

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          Mark Waid on being a freelancer

          This blog post by writer (and editor, and publisher) Mark Waid has been making the rounds, but I wanted to link to it as well because it’s essential reading for anyone thinking of a career as a freelancer in the comics biz. or, really, any creative medium.

          Don’t let anyone scare you. Don’t let anyone bully you, ever. Some will if they think they can, but you teach people how to treat you. You can be confident and show integrity without being argumentative. And for God’s sake, don’t be so afraid to explore your options that you keep turning in work that makes you wince; no good decision was ever made primarily out of fear. You can always walk away from any monkey house if you have drive and talent. There are still plenty of places in comics to do work-for-hire without being poorly treated, and there are huge opportunities to self-publish and build a faithful paying audience through the web. It’s hard work, but it’ll be better work, and it’ll be the work you’re remembered by.

          There’s really not much to add to this. Right now is one of the lowest points in creative/editorial relationships at the Big Two, especially DC Comics. And while there are a lot more opportunities available at indie publishers and as self-publishers, the money is obviously scarce. It take serious cajones to make it as a freelancer, and my hats off to those folks. It takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and luck. But obviously you can increase your odds of success by going into it with your eyes open to all the pitfalls and challenges.

          By the way, Bleeding Cool has a roundup of various comics industry professionals’ reaction to Waid’s editorial here and more here. Here are a couple of examples:

          “I’ve had the special joy of opening a comic to find the editor made changes to suit random whims. Whee.” — Sean McKeever

          “If I hadn’t already quit Marvel and DC years ago, I’d quit again. There are so many other, better opportunities for creative people out here today.” — Kyle baker

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            China Miéville on Dial H

            Omnivoracious features a short essay from novelist and Diah H writer China Miéville, wherein he discusses his history with the DC Comics property Dial H For Hero:

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            “For a long time, Dial H for Hero and its successors have been my comics obsessions. No other title, I’ve long explained to any of my poor friends who’ll listen, combines childlike joy in superhero-creation, a neo-surrealist faith in the aleatory, a post-Vertigo focus on the erosion of identity, and an opening into one of the few utter mysteries left in the history of the DCU.”

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              Jeff Smith interviewed by fellow cartoonists

              The Tell Me Something I Don’t Know podcast on boingboing is “an interview podcast featuring artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creative people discussing their work, ideas, and the reality/business side of how they do what they do.”

              In episode #7, indie comic creators interview Columbus’ own Jeff Smith.

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              There’s a wealth of great material here, including talking about business plans, selling to retailers, and much more. I like his stories about how much resistance there was in the early days toward trade paperback collections and graphic novels from the likes of Wizard magazine and retailers. Well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in the business side of comics and comics history.

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                What makes a character “relatable”?

                There’s an interview over at Comic Book Resources with Marc Guggenheim, comic book writer and executive producer of the “Arrow” TV series, and in this bit he talks about the factors that contribute to a character becoming “relatable” for the audience:

                “The advantage we have as a television show over the comic book version is that we created a whole cast of characters around Oliver to help him be more relatable. Truth be told, in the comics Green Arrow’s basically had Black Canary, and that’s been the extent of his supporting cast — he’s had Roy, but we went to great lengths to give him a sister, a best friend, a mother, [and bodyguard] Diggle. He doesn’t have any of those things in the comics and when you talk about what makes a character relatable, I’d say it’s the people around him,” Guggenheim said. “If I were to tackle the comic book as a writer the first thing I would try to do is give him a supporting cast. That would help elaborate on his character.”

                Here, he’s referring to the latest Green Arrow series (the “New 52″), which has already gone through 3 creative team changes in less than 20 issues. And I think he’s absolutely right. Whether you like the TV show or not, there’s no denying that they have built up a very strong set of supporting characters, through whose eyes we see Oliver in different lights. This allows them a greater opportunity to explore his different sides, and show his changing attitudes and motivations.

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                  Joe Kelly on his X-Men experience

                  Writer Joe Kelly talks about quitting the high-profile gig of being the writer of the X-Men comic, back in 1999:

                  The final straw was when it was time to do the ‘Hunt for Xavier’ story. We hammered that out and again it wasn’t what they wanted, and we had problems. By the time we’d come up with something we could all agree on it was time to do the next big crossover story, which was this Magneto arc, and we were basically called up and told that the main office was gonna write the overall story for us and we were just going to execute it in the books. There are situations in which that works fine: soap operas and television series do it all the time. Except, that’s how it has to be from the start. To go from, ‘Hey, we want you guys to lend your voices to these books and make them different and unique’, to ‘We’re gonna write the stories for you’, you know you can’t go any lower. We had to quit. It became a self-respect issue. This was a fight that we knew we couldn’t win, because who do you argue with?

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                    Selling comics at a gaming con

                    Over at Comic Book Resources, Brigid Alverson has a fascinating (to me) look at PAX East, the gaming convention started up by the Penny Arcade webcomic guys. While not a fan of their work, I’ve been quite impressed with their business acumen, and especially the success of their PAX conventions. Just check out these photos, which document a show that easily rivals some of the comic book world’s biggest conventions:

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                    After reading the article, two things struck me. First, shows like this can serve as a great middle-ground for the general genre fan to be exposed to comics and graphic novels. Smart comic book publishers with books that will appeal to gamers are already at the show, introducing their products to a whole new audience (and market segment)”

                    At the publisher’s booth, Oni’s Director of Business Development George Rohac presided over a wide range of books; people are often drawn by the Scott Pilgrim books, he said, but then Oni’s other titles, such as The Sixth Gun and Sharknife, catch their eye.

                    At the Udon Entertainment booth, video-game art books and Street Fighter graphic novels were moving briskly; at the end of the weekend, Marketing Director Christopher Butcher said he had sold almost his entire inventory.

                    Gaming fans are just like comic fans: they love to spend money on ancillary products based on the games they like. We buy Batman statues and Spider-man hoodies, and they do the same for products based on the characters from their favorite games. So why not sell them comics based on their games? Or at least, in the same general wheelhouse? And in turn, if they happen to like the comics, they may continue to seek out more works by the same creators, or same publisher. The way I look at it, this is a perfect example of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” or as they like to say in the jargon-obsessed business world, a “win-win.” The comics publishers can expand their marketplace, while the game publishers expand their brand and licensing potential.

                    But what if as a publisher or individual creator, you don’t have the funds or the quantity of products to be able to field a (presumably expensive) booth at a show like this? Well, that’s the second thought that came to mind: here’s a niche for a smart, enterprising person to fill. You could potentially make a business of being the middle-man for parties interested in selling their comics at a convention like this, but who are limited by their finances, geographical location, or simply don’t have that many different books to make getting their own booth a viable option. You pay for the booth, have your clients ship you the books, sell them at the show, and take an agreed-upon cut of the profits. Theoretically, you make money, and your clients make money (or perhaps they just break even, but they consider the exposure and awareness boost a reasonable return on their investment).

                    Granted, there are logistical and practical problems galore, not the least of which is whether this scheme would even be profitable. But hey, that’s the job of the entrepreneur, right? To figure out how to make money from an under served (or ignored) niche market, and to take the chance.

                    So there you go, consider that a free business idea from me to you. Just remember me if you ever put this idea into practice, and give me the “friends” discount rate for your services, OK?

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                      Cliff Galbraith on comic cons

                      The Beat has a nice interview with indie comics creator Cliff Galbraith on founding and running the relatively new Asbury Park Comicon. I especially liked this quote:

                      What’s your personal philosophy behind Comic Cons?

                      CG: Don’t be boring. Don’t be predictable. Don’t call yourself a Comic Con and fill the bill with wrestlers, actors, and other people who have nothing to do with comics. Respect and honors those who make comics, especially those who came before us. I see a lot of bullshit at cons and I just don’t get it. If somebody wants an autograph of somebody from Twilight or some guy who played a storm trooper 30 years ago — that’s their business, but it really has nothing to do with comics. It detracts and devalues comics as something that is supposed to be celebrated. My feeling is if you’re not here for the comics then shove off. Go to a horror con, go to a sci-fi con.

                      Amen, brother.

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