Practitioners 38: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith was born in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1960 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he now lives.

The Valley (Bone, Jeff Smith, 1992)

Smith learned about cartooning from comic strips, comic books and animated television shows. He has cited Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts as a very early influence on his understanding of comics, some of the style of which are highly visible in Smith’s tome Bone, now a classic of the medium. He has also named Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which he discovered at the age of nine, as his biggest influence in writing comics. Smith began to create comics with the ‘Bone’ characters as early as 1970, at about the age of 10.

Smith graduated in 1978 from Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, where he was a classmate of Jim Kammerud; later on in 1986, Smith and Kammerud would co-found Charcater Builders, an animation studio in Columbus where Smith worked until 1992. After high school. Smith attended the Ohio Stae University where he created a comic strip called ‘Thorn’ for the Campus Newspaper ‘ The Lantern’ which included some of the characters from the Bone series.

In 1991, Smith created his company, simply entitled, Cartoon Books, in order to publish his comic book series Bone. Smith published 55 issues of Bone between 1991 and 2004, blending influences from Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and J.R.R. Tolkien. The black and white tale of Bone, Phoney Bone and Fone Bone into the mysterious valley populated by the Great Dragon, talking mammals,a beautiful young girl named Thorn, her grandmother and a horde of carnivorous fur balls named Rat Creatures, among others proved popular in individual format of 55 issues and 9 volumes were collected to present them. However, its the Bone saga in its entirety that reveals the depth and clarity of vision (as well as the lunacy and oddity) of Smith’s vision. Broad mythical themes play to Warner Bros cartoon physics (the snow falls out of the sky in a blanket in one go instead of as snowflakes and old ladies can outrun cows) in a story of immense scope and no shortage of silliness. Smith dotes on his characters, allowing each one to breathe and develop independently of all others, blending disparate characteristics and even dialogue styles to forma complete, populated and diverse world filled with giant, flat insects, giant mountain based wild cats and mysterious warrior cults (no, seriously).

The artwork begins with luxurious pencil and ink work and develops into fine line and detailed vistas and events, Smith’s style visibly developing over a very personal project.

Two additional volumes, Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails and Rose, collect a number of Bone prequels created by Smith, working with collaborators.

Following from Bone, Smith has developed Captain Marvel series for DC; SHAZAM! The Monster Society of Evil, published in four prestige format issues in 2007 and later collected into a hardcover. In 2008 he released RASL ‘ a stark Sci-fi series about a dimension-jumping art thief with personal problems.’ In 2008, a six issue preview was shown at the San Diego Comic-con, origianlly intended to be released in an oversized format. Onlookers and advisors were unanimous in their warnings about selling an oversized book so Smith, seemingly happy to oblige and accept advice reduced it back down as a black and white, normal sized comic book. However, the first trade paperback ‘The Drift’ is out in the original oversized format.

If anyone had any doubt as to the importance of Bone, Smith’s art featured in a pair of Museum shows during 2008. ‘Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond,’ at the Wexner Centre of Arts and Jeff Smith: Before Bone’ at the Cartoon Research Library of the Ohio State University. That’s right. The Cartoon Research Library of Ohio. It’s real. In 2009, Smith was featured in The Cartoonist, a documentary film on his life and work.

In a new 32-page graphic novel released in 2009, specifically released through the children’s book line launched by Art Spiegleman and New Yorker Art Editor Francoise Mouly, for very young ‘emerging readers’ called Little Mouse Gets Ready, Smith noted that it featured another character Smith created in his childhood, ‘a little grey mouse with a little red vest.’

Bone alone won 10 Eisner Awards and ten Harvey Awards. In 1995 and 1996 he won the National Cartoonists Society’ss award for Comic Books. Smith’s 1332 page single-volume paperback was named one of Time magazine’s list of Top Ten Graphic Novels of All Time.

To get any clear idea of comic book history you have no choice but to pick up Bone. It is simultaneously a quiet delight and a seminal work and belongs firmly in the annuls of comic book history as a timeless piece of visual literature and BLAT! sound effects.

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