The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics
With a subject sure to appeal to family members of all ages, this new documentary was as a DVD and television special.
|Filmed in high definition, the program tells the inspiring story of Jeff Smith and the creation of his epic comic book, Bone, which has been hailed by critics as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. The documentary discusses Smith’s early years, influences and philosophies, and provides a look at a unique business and industry that continues to change and evolve.|
First drawing his Bone characters at the age of five, Jeff Smith left behind a successful animation business in 1991 to focus on creating his small, black-and-white, self-published comic book, telling a story that he describes as “Bugs Bunny meets The Lord of the Rings.” Today, the story has found an ever-growing audience, especially since it began being published by Scholastic, the highly acclaimed publisher behind the successful Harry Potter series. With a huge following both here and abroad (the book is published in 25 countries), Bone is currently in development at Warner Brothers as an animated feature film.
The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics tells the story of one of the most successful journeys in independent comics. In his acclaimed graphic novel Bone, described as “Bugs Bunny meets The Lord of The Rings,” Jeff Smith set out to write and draw the kind of book he had always dreamed of reading.
|Inspired by the work of Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and others, Jeff’s dream of telling a spellbinding adventure story with wall-to-wall humor and brilliant drawing began in the earliest imaginings of his childhood. The Cartoonist takes us down that road with Jeff and his characters, through his early years, college comic strips, detours into animation and attempted syndication, and finally toward the decision to self-publish.||
Through interviews with cartoonists and experts — including Harvey Pekar (American Splendor); Paul Pope (Batman: Year 100, Battling Boy, THB); Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics, Zot, Reinventing Comics); Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil); Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo); Steve Hamaker (Bone colorist); Lucy Caswell (Curator of the Ohio State University Cartoon Library and Museum); and others who share their insights on the creation of this comic book epic, as well as their thoughts on the comics industry, which has changed dramatically since the Senate hearings of the 1950s when comic books were considered a leading cause of juvenile delinquency — The Cartoonist provides an inside look into the art and commerce of creating comics independently.
In Jeff’s work, alongside his colleagues’, the trials and demands of self-publishing helped forge a movement of independent vision in comics that continues to expand literacy and personal expression throughout the world.
Scott McCloud and Jeff Smith in Conversation
More than 80-minutes long, this conversation between two icons of the comic book industry is always entertaining and insightful. Jeff Smith and noted comics authority Scott McCloud trade observations and quips on a wide variety of topics. Jeff talks about meeting the great Mad magazine cartoonist, Don Martin; his Captain Marvel comic, Shazam: Monster Society of Evil; the value of maintaining a relationship with his readers – and MUCH MORE. In addition, Scott and Jeff discuss current comic book trends and offer advice for aspiring comic book creators.
In this DVD extra, Jeff Smith talks about his newest comic creation, RASL, a more adult-oriented comic about a dimension-traveling art thief, a tale that draws upon real science, “fringe” science and film noir storytelling techniques.
All told, The Cartoonist DVD contains nearly three hours of material, making it a “must-have” for fans not only of Jeff Smith, but comic books and graphic novels in general. (And if you’re a game player, you’ll also enjoy the challenge of searching for the hidden “Easter egg” buried within the DVD!)
“It’s fantastic! The movie really gives you a feeling for Jeff and the BONE books and how groundbreaking they have been in the comics world. Wonderful work.”
David Saylor, V.P. Creative Director, Scholastic Inc.
“Incredibly well put together, at times fun and humorous, covered the topic well and proved to be a highlight of my day… If you are a Bone fan, owning this film is a must.”
Comic Related (Chuck Moore Blog)
“I suggest anyone and everyone interested in the comic book arts check this out — its a fantastic look at the behind the scenes growth of a legendary creator and series!”
Panels to Pages (Victor Horton Blog)
“Inspiring … the undeniable feeling even non-artists (myself included) have after viewing the film.”
The Super Librarian (Blog)
“It is a treat … If you are a teacher searching for a movie that explains the creative writing and art process of comics and graphics novels, I suggest you consider adding ‘The Cartoonist’ for your collection.”
Kevin’s Meandering Mind (Blog)
“The chance to get to know their hero a little better makes it a must-see for Bone fans.”
The Other Paper
|“I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It was such an inspiration.”
Indie Cartoonist Nate Bramble (Blog)“Awesome. Pick it up if you can.”
Life at the Light Table (Randeep Katari Blog)“The story is a pretty great one.”
Newsarama (J. Caleb Mozzocco Blog)
“I’ve watched it many times… and I really enjoy it. Once again Jeff Smith is an inspiration to keep going and to keep drawing and to keep doing comic books.”
Sean Tiffany Art and Illustrations (seantiffany.com)
“A wonderful film about making your dreams come true… informative, funny… I enjoyed it every much.”
“‘The Cartoonist’ is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen. Jeff’s story is really interesting and inspiring!”
Ben (Boneville Blog)
“‘The Cartoonist’ simultaneously illustrates the power of comics and the genius of Jeff Smith. This is essential viewing for comics fans, as it provides a well-rounded picture of what it takes to create an enduring classic.”
Out from the Comic Shop (Blog)
“Every library in the country will want a copy of this DVD.”
A Year of Reading (Franki Sibberson Blog)
“A wealth of material.”
Comic Book Resources
Jeff Smith learned about cartooning from comic strips, comic books, and watching animation on TV while growing up in the Midwest. In 1991, he launched a company called Cartoon Books to publish his comic book Bone, a comedy/adventure about three lost cousins from Boneville. Against all odds, the small company flourished, building a reputation for quality stories and artwork. Word of mouth, critical acclaim, and a string of major awards helped propel Cartoon Books and Bone to the forefront of the comic book industry. In 2005, Harry Potter’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic, entered the graphic novel market with a full-color version of Bone: Out from Boneville, which has sold millions of copies through its nine-volume run as it brought the underground comic to a new audience and a new generation. Bone has won ten Eisner awards during its publication, has been translated into 15 languages and has been adopted as an important literacy tool by teachers, librarians and parents. TIME magazine selected Bone as one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time. Between projects, Smith spends much of his time on the international guest circuit promoting comics and the art of graphic novels. More information on Jeff and his work is available at www.boneville.com.
Lucy Caswell is Professor and Curator of The Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum, the world’s largest treasury of cartoon art. Lucy founded the Cartoon Library & Museum in 1977 with a collection from Milton Caniff [Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates]. Most recently, the library acquired thousands of original Dick Tracy drawings, a storyboard done by Walt Disney for one of his first Mickey Mouse cartoons, and the Mort Walker collection [Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois]. She is the author of several books on cartooning, including Illusions: Ethnicity in American Cartoon Art (Ohio State Libraries, 1992) and Arnold Roth: Free Lance (Fantagraphics, 2001).
Colleen Doran is an illustrator, film conceptual artist, cartoonist, and writer whose clients include The Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm, Sony, Time/Warner, Harper Collins, Readers Digest, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics. Her credits include: Amazing Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Colleen has spent most of her life devoted to her epic science fiction/fantasy tale A Distant Soil, the first graphic novel solely produced by a female creator. She began writing the tale when she was 12 years old, and has now produced four graphic novel collections and nearly 40 comics.
Marty Fuller is a story artist and animator who has worked on over 20 feature-length films with Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Disney and others, contributing most recently to Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who! and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs for Blue Sky Studios. Shortly after graduating from The Ohio State University with a film degree in 1983, he joined a studio collaboration with Jeff Smith and Jim Kammerud, which opened roads toward becoming a sought-after animation and story artist in his own right. In his spare time he enjoys his family, music, and writing.
Kathleen Glosan is the Production Manager for Jeff Smith’s publishing company, Cartoon Books. She keeps all the plates spinning in the day-to-day, detailed operation of the studio and its varied publishing, products and public relations activities. In addition to appearing in The Cartoonist, Kathleen coordinated many requests and resources between Cartoon Books and the film production team.
Steve Hamaker is the creative force behind Bone‘s dramatic transition from black & white to color. Born and raised in Michigan, Steve graduated from the Columbus College of Art & Design in 1997, and worked as a toy designer until 2000 when he began working for Cartoon Books. After having learned to color digitally on the Bone comic book covers, he was given the epic task of coloring Jeff Smith’s 1300-page Bone story, published by Scholastic Books. Steve has been nominated for the Eisner Award three times in the Best Coloring category. Steve continues to work closely with Jeff Smith at Cartoon Books creating and publishing new comics, including RASL. When time allows he self-publishes his own comic book series called Fish N Chips, and contributes to the comic anthology series Flight.
Vijaya Iyer orchestrates the business behind Jeff Smith’s publishing empire as the President of Cartoon Books and, not coincidentally, is married to Jeff. Vijaya graduated from The Ohio State University and was enjoying a successful career as a programmer for a software company when, in 1992, Jeff convinced her to join the company as partner to handle publishing and distribution, licensing, and foreign language publications. Today, Vijaya is enjoying the challenges of bringing Bone to new generations of fans worldwide, and managing releases of Jeff’s newest comic creation, RASL.
Jim Kammerud is a director, writer, and producer of animated feature films. Most recently, he directed Disney’s funny and heartwarming musical, The Fox and the Hound 2. Jim made his directorial debut in 2000 with The Little Mermaid: Return to the Sea, wrote and directed the animated sequel 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch’s London Adventure, then co-wrote and co-produced Tarzan 2. Jim has either been a writer or developed the story for all the motion pictures he’s directed or produced. A successful entrepreneur, Jim is the sole owner of Hot Donut Productions, the studio he started in 2004 to create the story reel and pre-production for The Fox and the Hound 2. Previously, he was president and co-founder of Character Builders, an animation studio with a reputation for high-quality feature animation, earning credits on over a dozen films, including Space Jam.
Scott McCloud is a cartoonist and theorist on comics, best known for his 1993 Understanding Comics, a wide-ranging exploration of the definition, history, vocabulary, and methods of the medium of comics, itself in comics form. He followed in 2000 with Reinventing Comics (also in comics form), and released Making Comics in 2006. His latest work is a comic book that formed the 2008 press release introducing Google’s new Web browser, Google Chrome. Scott was born in Boston, Massachusetts and obtained his B.F.A in illustration from Syracuse University.
Terry Moore is a comic book author, graphic novelist and illustrator. He created the popular series Strangers in Paradise, and was involved in the founding of Homage Comics. Following the example of independent comic creator Jeff Smith, he decided to publish Strangers in Paradise himself through his own Houston-based Abstract Studios imprint. His work has won him recognition in the comics industry, including receiving the Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story. Terry’s latest self-publishing venture, Echo, first appeared in March 2008, quickly becoming a top seller.
Harvey Pekar was a true American original. This Cleveland native was the creator of American Splendor, the popular comic book series that also inspired a critically acclaimed film of the same name. American Splendor is the autobiographical story of Harvey, a working-class everyman (also first-class curmudgeon) and comic book writer who chronicles the ordinary and mundane in stories both funny and touching. In the 2004 film, Harvey is played by actor Paul Giamatti as a frustrated V.A. hospital file clerk who is inspired to create comic books based on his own life. Harvey passed away July 12, 2010.
Paul Pope is an alternative comic book artist best known for his well-paced, deftly-shaded combinations of science fiction, hardboiled crime stories and lost romance. Pope introduced THB in 1995, the same year he began work for Kodansha, Japan’s best-known manga publisher. In 2006, he received an Eisner Award for Best Short Story for Teenage Sidekick, and in 2007, won two Eisners as Best Writer/Artist and Best Limited Series for his Batman mini-series, Batman: Year 100. Born in Philadelphia, Paul grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, with stops in Columbus, San Francisco, and Toronto. He now lives and works in New York. Paul’s first art book, Pulphope: The Art of Paul Pope, came out as a 224-page hardcover in June 2007.
Graphic Novels and Comic Books as Gateways to Reading
Back in the day, comic books were high-order contraband in America’s public schools; only the most brazen smuggler would risk sneaking Archie and Jughead behind a textbook during algebra class, else an alert teacher swoop in and confiscate it. That form of literary vigilance was warranted, after all, since the U.S. Senate had conducted a 1954 investigation into whether comic books stirred up juvenile delinquency.
Teachers today have a different philosophy. Comic books are now thought of as a wholesome way to encourage actual reading, drawing and writing. School librarians not only stock their shelves with them, but demand usually outstrips supply by a wide margin.
Before your head explodes about kids reading comic books when they’re supposed to be studying Dickens, know that comic books have changed as dramatically as ways to teach reading in school.
In the spiffed-up format of “graphic novels,” these beautifully produced hardbound books cover every genre — from science and biography to the Holocaust. If you’re still thinking Superman and Wonder Woman, yes; those, too — but also graphic novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics: The Red Badge of Courage, Beowulf, Greek myths, and the Adventures of Robin Hood.
In 2007, the Printz Award, an American Library Association honor for the most distinguished book for teens, went to the graphic novel American Born Chinese. Jeff Smith’s Bone is perennially on the favorites list for teachers and librarians and publisher Scholastic supports in-class instruction with a teacher-friendly guide.
Comics morphed from contraband into curriculum because educators — facing a video-saturated generation soaked with TV, Internet and video games — found comics are irresistible kid-bait to lure readers. Graphic novels are the magic bullet for boys especially, who seem to have a natural immunity to books.
Librarians and parents like the dialogue by wholesome characters and the fact that these comics can be a bridge between picture books and chapter books. A comic book’s combination of pictures and text holds a child’s attention longer than blocks of print, and speech balloons develop an understanding of the role of dialogue in a story. Many comics readers wind up wanting to create their own, promoting not only literacy, but creativity and self-expression.
Those of us old enough to remember trips to the principal’s office for smuggling Scrooge McDuck are savoring the irony that comics have evolved from brain-rotting regression from the written word to now providing a bridge into it.
When the American Library Association invited acclaimed comic book artist Jeff Smith to its annual meeting in 2002, he was taken aback when the librarians professed that they already were in love with comics and wanted more. “I’m like, ‘Hello? Is there a gas leak in here?’” says Smith. “We were used to being told comics are bad.” Librarians lavished kind words, saying the books were teaching kids — especially boys — to read and getting them excited about literature. In fact, comics and their book-length cousins, graphic novels, were the only books for which circulation was up. (USA TODAY, May 4, 2005)
Bone is an example of the kind of book publishers are increasingly seeking out, as it appeals to readers of all ages. It’s the kind of book a child might borrow from the library, only to find he has to arm-wrestle Dad to get some time with it. It is also sophisticated enough to rise above the widely held perception that much illustrated fiction for kids is “junk food.” (Publishers Weekly, Feb 19, 2007)
Almost as if responding to a distress call, a new type of book has come onto the scene: the graphic novel. This revitalized genre has not only saved the day for recreational reading, it has also turned out to be a heavyweight in the teaching of advanced themes in literature and visual literacy. (ALAKnowledge Quest, Jan/Feb 2008)
Jeff Smith’s popular Bone series from Scholastic has recently been collected in one incredible volume [Cartoon Books, 2004] that provides an easy, if hefty, point of entry for readers. The series follows the Bone cousins as they wander though a world with echoes of classical mythology and Tolkienesque lore. (English Journal, September 2008)
Teachers, librarians and researchers have found graphic novels or comic books to be of great use in increasing library circulation, creating new readers, helping English language learners, motivating male readers, and even assisting gifted and talented students. (Leadership, March 2009)
I’ve seen the future of graphic novels — hey, they’ll be vamping their way into our cell phones any minute, just like everything else — and I know there’s a generation coming of age for whom sequential art will seem as familiar as video games. (The Washington Post, August 24, 2008)
Ken Mills – Executive Producer, Writer and Director
What is it about Bone and Jeff Smith that deserved a documentary? Why is The Cartoonist a story that needed to be told?
I’ve known Jeff for quite a while. I first met him when he was starting his animation company in the late 80s, and I always thought he was a fascinating guy — creative, witty, fun, articulate and a great spokesman for his craft. He was a guy that everyone admired and everyone enjoyed being with.
I remember when he left his animation company to begin work on Bone. It was something that felt fairly risky at the time, and as the years passed, I was pleased to see the recognition and the level of success he achieved. I was proud to say, “Hey, I know that guy.”
I kept track of him on and off over the years, and I found his story compelling on a number of levels, and I thought his many fans, as well as fans of comic books in general, would find it fascinating, too.
There was the fact that he first began drawing these characters at age five.
There was the fact that the story took about 13 years to complete, becoming this 1300-page, epic graphic novel that combines both comic and fantasy elements. It really is, as he describes it, “Bugs Bunny meets the Lord of the Rings.”
I was fascinated by the fact that the book now has this huge following of children around the world, and yet he never intended it for kids.
And perhaps most importantly, I thought his personal story was inspiring, especially for anyone ever thinking about entering the field of cartooning. He’s a great example of the real challenges of creating and, more importantly, sustaining a creative business venture like this.
For Bone fans, The Cartoonist is almost required viewing. But for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Bone phenomenon, why would they want to see it?
If a documentary is to do its job right, it takes people into a world they don’t experience everyday — and the inside world of comics is its own hidden universe with its own culture and celebrities. In our documentary, Jim Kammerud, a close friend of Jeff, called them “demigods that walk the earth.” The Cartoonist gives people a chance to venture into that world and see what it’s like — up close. This is a film for everyone, not just cartoonheads. During production, we were interviewing cartoonist Paul Pope, who said it well – “Oh, this documentary will be aimed at civilians then.”
The Cartoonist is obviously of interest to Bone fans, but more than that, it’s a re-entry into the world of comics for anyone who stopped reading them at some point. And for anyone remotely thinking about going into cartooning, this is a lesson on the intricacies of entering and surviving this business.
The more I learned about the comic book business, the more I realized how massively ignorant I was about the field. I’m a bit older than Jeff, and I had really lost touch with what was going on in comics. I needed to provide some context for his story, and yet the deeper I got into the research, the more I realized that when you start to talk about comic books, it’s like opening Pandora’s Box. It’s a huge topic that could go in hundreds of different directions. During editing, an earlier cut had a longer section on the past and present industry – but it slowed the film down. The trick was finding just enough context to help people understand it.
All of the people that we interviewed were extremely bright and engaging speakers – just great storytellers. They had the crew and me completely enthralled when they spoke. And, if the DVD version of the documentary is successful, we may eventually release a two-DVD set, with several hours’ worth of unused interview material from the various cartoonists. As I sat listening to these folks, it felt like I was attending a master class on the business of cartooning.
As someone who’s known Jeff Smith for years, what surprised you? What did you learn as you worked with him on The Cartoonist?
During the production, I gained a new appreciation for the challenges Jeff faced getting Bone off the ground and turning it into a real business – and what it takes to run it successfully. That’s impressive.
Another revelation is the respect that comic books and graphic novels have gained – not only as art forms, but also as literature. In libraries, graphic novels are one of the true growth areas. Educators and librarians who really understand the value of comics and graphic novels know that, for “reluctant readers,” comics are the gateway to get kids to read, and Bone is highly recommended by many teachers as a book worth sharing with students.
Researchers are finding that when you’re reading a comic book, your brain works differently – both hemispheres of the brain are working at the same time to process the words and visuals, plus the brain has to fill in between the frames. Who knew that comics were such sophisticated stuff? That’s a big departure from the days when getting caught with a comic book in class got you sent to the principal’s office.
Another interesting discovery is the worldwide reach that Jeff Smith has – Bone is possibly even a bigger hit overseas than it is here. I got a taste of that accidentally when my wife and I were on vacation – and ran into two Chinese/Canadian couples from the Toronto area. When conversation turned to the documentary project I was starting to work on, the reaction was, “Jeff Smith and Bone? We just bought that for our grandson!” Later, I was able to get them an autographed book. But the revelation was that Bone is worldwide, and that people enjoy it as family-friendly reading. Bone is a story with a moral point of view – a story that says important things about life’s big, moral questions.
Jeff’s latest comic is RASL, the story of a dimension-travelling art thief. Do you discuss RASL at all?
Since the completion of Bone, Jeff has worked on a variety of interesting comics including Shazam!, a retelling of the Captain Marvel story for DC Comics; Little Mouse Gets Ready, part of a line of graphic novels for kids; and RASL. But we tried to keep the story focused on Bone. That’s the one that he started when he was a kid, the one that took the biggest part of his career, and the one that’s had the greatest impact at this stage. It was a matter of keeping the story focused.
RASL is a real departure for Jeff. It’s more adult-oriented, but fans of RASL will be pleased to know that there’s a special feature on the DVD devoted solely to Jeff talking about RASL.
Any particular challenges working on this project?
One of the greatest challenges was just getting on Jeff’s calendar. He’s an incredibly busy guy, with a busy travel schedule, still trying to meet the deadlines that are constantly facing him for his newest projects like RASL and Little Mouse. And his associates are very protective of his time. He has a tendency to make them nervous, because deadlines are looming, and they’re still waiting for his finished pages.
I remember talking with Colleen Doran about the challenges of being a cartoonist, and she spoke about how careful she has to be about not getting sick. The whole enterprise revolves around the cartoonist’s ability to turn out the product on a regular schedule to meet the deadlines. I don’t think people realize just how difficult that is.
In addition to getting on Jeff’s schedule, I had to learn a great deal about the subject of “fair use” of copyrighted material. Jeff had a lot of creative influences in his life, and any reference to well-known properties raised the issue of what is “fair use,” a topic that can be incredibly confusing. After floundering around for a while, I spoke with a friend of mine in Dallas who makes documentaries, and he directed me to some real legal experts in the field. That helped me immensely.
Beyond those things, if I’m being totally honest, a major motivating factor for me taking on this project was the fact that more and more of my time is taken up with the daily chores of running a business, and I just wanted to get back to the creative side. That’s my real passion, and I was finding that I missed it. Unfortunately, my “day job” didn’t go away, so working on this film was like taking on a second job. But for the most part, it never felt like work. Working on this in the evenings or weekends was always a pleasure. I love getting lost in the process of trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
Executive Producers: Ken Mills and Cameron James
Co-Producers: Mike Meyer and Martin Fuller
Written and Directed by Ken Mills
Narrated by Beth Emery
Associate Producer: R. J. Cavallaro
Directors of Photography: Scott Myers, Jason Hambach, James McCullars, Andy Marshall and Mike Meyer
Additional HD Videography: Martin Fuller and Nate Manges
Opening Animation: Ben Brown
Edited by Mike Meyer, Ken Mills and Jeff Drake
Post Production Sound: Mark Snider, Mark Abrams and Chip Houze
Studio and Post Production Facilities: Mills James Productions, Columbus, Ohio
Copyright © 2009 Mills James, Inc. and Cartoon Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.