The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, & the Changing Face of Comics

Today at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, director Ken Mills and "Bone" creator Jeff Smith will present the debut of "The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics." The trailer can be viewed here, and the first five minutes can be viewed here.

The documentary, filmed in large part at last year's "Bone and Beyond" exhibition at the Wexner Center, features interviews with Smith as well as self-publishing and indie comics artists Terry Moore, Paul Pope, Harvey Pekar, and others. CBR News caught up with Mills to discuss the film and its central subject.

"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," Ken Mills told CBR. "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," the director continued. "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.'"

Mills said the distinctive tone, style, and subject matter of "Bone" made the series a compelling focal point for a documentary. "I was fascinated by the fact that the book now this huge following of children around the world, and yet he never intended it for kids. Further, I thought [Smith's] 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."

Despite the wealth of material in "Bone" itself, the documentary does take in the perspectives and experiences of other contemporary self-publishing cartoonists. "Jeff Smith and 'Bone' have so much back story at so many different levels that getting the story focused was a challenge in itself," Mills explained. "To narrow the focus, I just wanted to concentrate on 'Bone,' yet it needed some background - how does this fit all together? 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."

Mill continued, "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, calls them 'demigods that walk the earth.' 'The Cartoonist' gives people a chance to venture into that world and see what it's like. 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.'

"So '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."

In speaking with self-publishers like Jeff Smith and Terry Moore, Mills got some a sense of how these creators were able to successfully find an audience for their material despite the challenges of the industry. "Each self publisher and cartoonist had similar stories, and yet there are distinct differences from one cartoonist to the next. For example, Harvey Pekar is in the film, and many people know his story from his 'American Splendor' comic books and the biographical movie that was made about him," Mills said. "I think at some level Harvey still feels like it's a constant struggle to find an audience, and he's doing some fascinating work, with comics on such topics as the history of the Students for a Democratic Society, the history of Macedonia, and the history of the Beat Generation.

"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. It would be like attending a master class on the business of cartooning."

In the case of "Bone," one way that Jeff Smith was able to keep excitement going for the material long after the series ended was to offer new collected editions in several formats, in recognition of different audiences' needs and preferences. Mills said that these volumes, including the "Bone One-Volume Edition" and the Scholastic volumes in color, represent one component of "Bone's" enduring success. "It's interesting to hear Jeff talk in the documentary about the decision to do the Scholastic volumes in color," Mills said. "He worked very hard to make the original comic work as a black and white comic, and yet it was Art Spiegelman, creator of 'Maus,' one of the most famous black and white comic books in the world, who convinced him that the Scholastic volumes should be in color, something Jeff resisted at first."

"The Cartoonist" was shot during last year's Bone exhibition at the Wexner Center, where the film will premiere today. "The Wexner Center people have been just great to work with and helped us a great deal when the Bone exhibition appeared there last year. At that time, we were able to get shots of Jeff with his fans, get comments from some of his fans, and shoot a great conversation that Jeff had with Scott McCloud onstage at Ohio State," Mills said. "Portions of that conversation are sprinkled throughout the documentary. However, practically the entire conversation will be included on the DVD as another special feature, and I think fans of both Jeff and Scott will find it incredibly engaging and fun.

"It was actually the Wexner Center's idea to have the premiere of the film there, and we were totally pleased and honored, because the Wexner Center is so highly respected throughout the country," the director added. "The screening there will be the first public screening, so I'm anxious to see how the audience reacts to the film."

Mills said his film does not go in depth about Smith's new series, "Rasl," though it is touched on very briefly toward the end of the documentary. The DVD release, however, will see Smith discussing his current series in a special feature. "I think fans will find it pretty fascinating, since 'Rasl' is such a departure from 'Bone,'" the director said.

"The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics" will be released on DVD in June, and Mills is in the process of coordinating screenings across the US. "We're also exploring our television options, and we're leaning toward a public television release in the fall. We should know more about television in the next month or so," the director added.

A website for the film, www.thecartoonistmovie.com, is expected to go live sometime in the next several weeks and will include links to purchase the documentary DVD and updates about screenings. Information on the premiere can be found at http://www.wexarts.org/fv/index.php?eventid=3853

Avengers: Endgame's Epic Final Battle Gets an Equally Epic 16-Bit Remake

More in Movies