Exclusive Interview: Jeff Smith on Living in the Age of the Cartoonist

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

If you don't know who Jeff Smith is, you're not reading good comics. I had the chance to talk via email with the creator of Bone, RASL and the upcoming TUKI about assembling the world-class talents of The Best American Comics 2013 and his idea of how we are living in the Age of the Cartoonist. I think this makes for fascinating reading; I hope you agree.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How did you approach choosing the comics and excerpts to be included in this collection?

Jeff SmithJeff Smith: The series editors, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, would send me boxes of comics. These are comics that came through submissions or were picked up during the year at conventions and comic shops. Matt and Jessica are very thorough, so the amount and range of work was impressive. At first there's nothing you can do except start reading. Pretty quickly, you start setting aside the good ones.

CB: What were the rules you set for yourself - for instance, to make sure to include some self-published comics along with books from major publishers?

Smith: I had no quotas per se for any particular format. If it was good, it was in. We ended up with famous cartoonists next to first-timers; webcomics next to major graphic novels. To me, a comic is a comic, and only needs to stand on its own merits.

CB: As a tremendously skilled and acclaimed cartoonist yourself, how do you judge the quality of other cartoonists' work?

Smith: I tried to be a reader first, and a cartoonist second. So if a piece succeeded in pulling me in, that was great. But I can also appreciate the choices that were made to construct it. Making a good comic is complex. Timing, mood, emotion, impact - - all these are built with careful decisions and a lot of hard work that involves staging and composition, not to mention hours of drawing.

Art by Jesse Jacobs

CB: In your introduction you mention that your office was filled with stacks of comics and related material. Were there times when you regretted taking on this role?

Smith: No, not at all. Sure, there were moments when deadlines for Best American Comics and my own work on RASL got a little hairy, but it was always fun to pull the next book off the stack.

CB: Were there any artists whose work really surprised you when you read them?

unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Smith: Many! Jesse Jacobs, Michael DeForge, Sophie Goldstein, Leela Corman, just to rattle off a few.

CB: Any new discoveries that you'd never heard of but that impressed you?

Smith: Sam Alden's webcomic The Haunter surprised me. It's impossible to start the thing and not keep reading. It really flows.

Sam Alden's the Hunter

CB: How did you approach deciding on the inclusion of work by industry friends?

Smith: I tried to be impartial, but who knows how that honestly shakes out. I know so many people in the biz that avoiding everyone on principle would've been impossible.

CB: In retrospect are there any stories that you wish you had included?

Smith: Sure, but at some point you start running out of pages and have to make painful decisions.

Michael DeForge comics

CB: The 30 or so stories and excerpts here are very diverse, but do you see any commonalities between them as well?

Smith: Quality. Everyone in the collection showed a higher than normal grasp of the tools and syntax of panel-to-panel progression. All had a strong, well developed individual voice, and the chops to get it on the page.

CB: How do you think working on this book has influenced your cartooning?

Smith: It excited me! I was wrapping up RASL, but I immediately got the urge to plan a new project that relied on some of the qualities I was seeing. I wanted to create a comic that relied on the art even more than I usually did, and to try new layouts. Be more open. I wanted to explore the world of web comics. TUKI, my new comic, is the result of my working on Best American Comics 2013.

Concrete Park

CB: One inspiring comment you make in your introduction is that we're in the Age of the Cartoonist; can you elaborate on what you mean by that idea?

Smith: Simply that a cartoonist is someone who writes and draws their own work... who functions as an author with his or her own unique voice. Comic books hold an unprecedented place in our culture now that hasn't been seen since the original burst in the 40's. Hollywood is in love with superheroes, but it's the work of cartoonists that have earned the respect of literary critics. With those two factors moving forward arm in arm, I'm comfortable saying were in a new golden age. When I started drawing Bone in 1991, comics were only available in hobby shops, and the suggestion of selling a comic on-line or being reviewed in literary magazines and newspapers was a non-starter. Women reading, let alone drawing comics, was rare, and kids were even rarer. Now, with the opening of distribution to schools, libraries, big box stores and on-line sales, along with the possibilities of the web, cartoonists are freer to pursue their projects than ever.

I just finished up three months on the road promoting RASL, and I saw a lot of 20 and 30 year old cartoonists - - male and female - - at shows like SPX and CAB. What struck me is that I don't think it even occurs to them that being a cartoonist is anything other than a normal career choice. That alone makes me very happy for the future.

CB: As someone who read so many comics last year (I imagine you like Scrooge McDuck swimming around in his money vault), you have as broad a view of this art form as anyone. What's your opinion on the state of comics?

Smith: The sky's the limit! Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for my morning swim in the comics vault.

Jeff Smith is the author of the New York Times Bestsellers Bone, RASL and The Best American Comics 2013. His new webcomic TÜKI Save the Humans starts today, Monday November 25, 2013, and can be read free of charge at Boneville.com

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