Last spring Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts and Cartoon Library collaborated to present Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond, a huge gallery show of Smith’s work, paired with original art from many of the artists who influenced him. It was accompanied by a secondary show dedicated to Thorn, the pre-Bone version of Bone that ran as a comic strip in OSU’s daily school paper, and a series of events including a talk with Scott McCloud and presentations by Paul Pope and Terry Moore.
If one were going to make a documentary focusing on Smith and his work, the show was no doubt an irresistible opportunity to gather material, as Smith, some of his cartoonist friends and peers, his family and friends, a bunch of his fans, and the show’s curator (and someone Smith refers to as his mentor) Lucy Shelton Caswell of the Cartoon Library were all hanging around off and on for a few weeks.
Well, that thought also occurred to director Ken Mills, the co-founder of Mills James Productions, which, like Smith’s Cartoon Books and OSU, is also based in Columbus. Sitting down Smith, Caswell, Pope, Moore, McCloud and plenty of others for interviews, Mills made 76-minute documentary The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone and the Changing Face of Comics.
The film will have it’s world premiere tomorrow night at—where else?—The Wexner Center , where both Mills and Smith will be on hand to introduce it. If you live in or around Columbus, you can check it out for yourself then (ticket info and suchlike here).
If you don’t but are curious about the movie, well, I could tell you about it.
As the title itself indicates, it’s a very flattering image of Smith that emerges, flattering to the point of hagiographic. Of course, now that I stop and think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who actually had anything bad to say about Smith’s work (or Smith himself). He seems like a genuinely talented, super-hardworking artist whose signature work has garnered universal acclaim and somehow managed to avoid the sort of backlash from some corners that usually accompanies that sort of success.
If the film’s subtitle seems suggest too close a connection between Smith and “the changing face of comics,” the facts certainly seem to support such a connection. Part of it may have to do with Smith being in the right places at the right times, but he was inarguably an early adapter of the graphic novel format, blazing a trail that the rest of the publishing industry has just within the past few years started rushing down. The market and the way the world sees comics were completely different in 2004, when he completed Bone, then they were in 1991, when he started it, and certainly Bone played a large role in many of those changes.
In addition to talking to Smith himself (a couple times, based on the changing length of his hair) and the comics folks mentioned above, Mills also includes interviews with Harvey Pekar, Colleen Doran, Smith’s wife and business partner Vijaya Iyer, Bone colorist Steve Hamaker and Smith’s lifelong friend Jim Kammerund, who worked on comic strips for the OSU Lantern with Smith in college and worked with Smith at their post-college animation studio, Character Builders.
The story is a pretty great one. Smith grows up drawing, drawing, drawing, creating a character with a bone-shaped face and a Phoney Bone personality when he’s five, and drawing stories and comics featuring the bones throughout his life, absorbing lessons from favorite cartoonists like Carl Barks and Walt Kelly.
As a kid, he found himself wishing there was a Scrooge McDuck adventure that didn’t end so quickly, but which would be truly epic, the length of War and Peace—“an Uncle Scrooge story that was 1,100 pages long.”
In college, he learned about comic strips by doing a daily one for the school paper and haunting the school’s Cartoon Library (where he met Caswell). After college, after some unsuccessful attempts to syndicate a strip, he and some friends launch their animation company.
After the one, two, three punch of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus in 1986, Smith turns to self-publishing his ideal story as a comic book, his experience in strip work and animation giving him a rather uniquely perfect background.
And then, slowly but surely, Bone conquered the world, finding a much wider audience that Smith expected or intended, as he was essentially making a comic book for people like himself: people who dug Lord of the Rings and Looney Tunes and Pogo in equal measures.
If you’re a fan of Smith’s, or have seen him speak before, you’ve probably heard a lot his story before. The film version offers a pretty unique chance to see parts of that story in addition to hearing it.
Mills shows plenty of images of Smith’s childhood work with Bone-like characters and a few examples of his little-seen Thorn strip and, perhaps most welcome, several clips of the work-for-hire animation work Smith and friends did, including Claymation White Castle ads, the intro for a Jack Hanna show, and a commercial in which a little green germ character burrows into a tooth, which Smith provides the voice for. And Mills also films Smith at the Old Man’s Cave area in Southern Ohio’s Hocking Hills, the landscape in which Smith set his story.
Kammermund, who calls his friend “the greatest living cartoonist in America,” handles the brick-like, one-volume edition of Bone and notes that Smith finally got his Uncle Scrooge-the-length-of-War and Peace comic book.
“Drop it on a table just listen to the thunder as it falls,” McCloud says. Smith made the exact book he wished existed, and all it took was 12 years of work.
A DVD version of The Cartoonist will eventually be available, and there’s a chance it may screen elsewhere before then, so if you can’t make it to the Wexner Center tomorrow night, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever be able to see it—you just might have to wait a bit. Smith’s Boneville blog is probably the best place to check for future announcements.