Another Modern Master: Jeff Smith

I don't read all that many interviews these days. There's too many of them and they all look alike. They're promotional things hammering home the same bullet points and same anecdotes I've heard before. Yet I still love the interview format, with its back-and-forth conversational nature. When an interviewer clicks with the interviewee, it can be magical for a comic book fan. Sadly, those few solid ones are drowned out by the rest.

One of the sources I rely on for interviews that are entertaining and interesting is TwoMorrows' "Modern Masters" series of books. Two dozen have now been published, each with a worthy artist giving an overview of their career before a healthy gallery section in the back rounds things up. Eric Nolen-Weathington is the force of nature behind these books, each lasting approximately 80 - 90 pages of densely illustrated Q&A. With previous books devoted to the likes of John Romita Jr., Alan Davis, Mike Wieringo, Walter Simonson and Guy Davis, a "Modern Masters" book is more than an ego rub for an artist. It's a nice career milestone marker and a worthy recognition of an active artist's place in the world of comics.

This month saw the publication of volume 25, devoted to Jeff Smith, creator of "Bone," "RASL" and a White Castle claymation ad. The book covers it all, complete with pictures of a younger Smith positioning a clay dinosaur for the cameras. Devoted Smith aficionados have seen 90% of the art in this book and likely heard 90% of the stories and anecdotes, but that's OK. For the rest of us, it's a nice retrospective with a breezy feel that doesn't feel overly glossy. Smith comes across as open and honest throughout the volume, self-deprecating at times, but without ever white-washing things. He has a point of view and expresses it calmly and clearly. And, key for a book like this, he remembers things as they happened and doesn't leave it up to others to fill in the blanks. He comes off as a nice guy who's done good work and prospers due to it. About the only thing the book side-steps is the Dave Sim drama of a decade ago or so, but who could blame him for not wanting to drag that back up again? A Google search ought to sate your curiosity.

Nolen-Weathington walks Smith through all aspects of his career, discussing Smith's role as a self-publisher in the world of 90s comics to the final straw that soured him on comic strip syndication. It's the latter thing I'd like to find out more about. Smith tells the story of a syndicate that passed on his strip, only to offer up a similar one to newspapers by someone else a little later. I'm guessing from the context that this was as early as 1985/1986. Does anyone have a clue what strip that was, or if it ever got picked up by a single newspaper? This is the internet. Isn't everything digitized by now from the last 30 years?

Reading the whole thing makes me want to go pre-order the full color complete edition of "Bone." This is shameful to admit, but I never finished reading "Bone." At some point about two-thirds of the way through its run, it had gotten so serious and so filled with storylines that I found it too easy to lose track of things. I decided to read the series with collected editions -- probably the first series I ever trade-waited -- but then fell out of the habit and never wanted to spend the time catching up. That is a lot of reading to do. Maybe if I did a journal of my experience reading (or re-reading, for the most part) the series as I went, I could justify reading the whole thing as a business expense?

But if you're a "Bone" fan that doesn't know much about the series' creator, this is a lovely and sometimes lively chat about artistic techniques, the grind of self-publishing, the joy of creation, the business of starting your own creative empire and the evolution of a long-form comic.

"Modern Masters: Jeff Smith" is available today at better book stores and the usual on-line retailers. For $15.95, it makes a nice companion to the "Bone" series.


  • "The Mission" #1 was a high concept comic released by Image Comics last month that I thought held some real promise. Mix up "100 Bullets" with a little heavenly mythology and you wind up with a reluctant protagonist forced into a scary murderous world. That first issue raised all the right questions -- Was this for real? Was he capable of killing a man? -- and gave us the series hook in an entertaining fashion.

    Sadly, the second issue doesn't stick the landing. It's a let down on multiple levels. First, the decompression kills the book. Aside from a dramatic confrontation with Gabriel near the beginning of the issue, the rest of the issue drags like molasses to the finale, which doesn't give the protagonist anything to do but play his "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

    How bad is it? One page is devoted to Paul, our main character, walking into a seedy hotel. It's three panels of him walking off the street, past a prostitute and then into the door. She solicits him, he declines and that's it. What's the point? I hope the prostitute figures into a future story somehow. Otherwise, it's a waste of ten seconds of reading time. By the way, this is one page after the "dramatic" full page splash of Paul standing in the parking lot across the street to look at the hotel.

    The series still has plenty of life left in it. The question is whether the creators can sell us on their story and use the page space more effectively. Even at $2.99, the book feels overpriced.

  • Remember when we were talking about the new digital edition of "Wizard" magazine? Even on internet time, that was a quick half-life before the silence about it became deafening. Just for the record: the fourth issue is now out, though late. It devotes a full page to the up-and-coming "literary ladies" of comics. There's a full page devoted to showing someone's con sketch by Charlie Adlard. And then there's two pages of cosplay from Wizard's recent convention in Toronto. Also: Lots of silly toys talking, action figures, TV and movie stuff ("Star Trek" this time), video game stuff, Wizard stuff, useless filler.

    Have you heard anyone talking about the magazine? Of course not. Besides being an ultimately vapid piece of work, it's also non-linkable. You couldn't link to a given page or story if you wanted to. If you want to share an article with your Twitter or Facebook friends, the best you could do is point them to the URL of the page that has links to the downloadable content. You can't give them a fast pointer to the article, itself.

    Welcome to the Link Economy, Wizard. It's only been the dominant system of marketing on the internet for a decade. Someone, please buy Gareb Shamus a copy of "The Cluetrain Manifesto."

    Also in the magazine comes a defense of the movie version of "Mars Needs Moms." As it turns out, that movie is Berkeley Breathed's gift to cinema: Thanks to that movie, Hollywood doesn't want to do motion capture movies anymore. Thanks, Mr. Breathed!

I reviewed "Mars Needs Moms!" here in Pipeline four years ago.

Where else I hang out: AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com

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