Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jeff Smith and Scott McCloud talked comics; I took notes

There may not be a better illustration of the unique place Jeff Smith occupies in the history of comics—spanning the end of the black-and-white self-publishing boom and the beginnings of the current graphic novel boom—than the audience that showed up to see he and Scott McCloud speak this Saturday at Ohio State University.

The talk was held in the Mershon Auditorium, and drew a crowd of a few hundred. These ranged from grade school-aged boys and girls to grandparent-aged adults; there were college-aged boys and girls; there were bald men, balding men, men with long hair, men with ball caps and men with cab-driver hats; there were kids who looked like their parents dragged them there, parents who looked like their kids dragged them there, and, most remarkably, families in which both the grown-ups and the kids wore Bone t shirts and seemed equally excited about flipping through the books they purchased on their way in.

It was easily the most diverse comics-related audience I’ve ever seen in Columbus, and it was striking how so few people in the audience even thought that was at all unusual. Several times during their discussion, Smith would mention how much comics had changed—“Can you believe the acceptance [comics] have? Just in the last five years. It’s ridiculous!”—and the fact that it was nice to see so many women attending events like this and comics cons and reading comics in general.

Each time he seemed awed by the presence of women, the audience laughed, until at one point he clarified that, “No, I don’t mean that to sound lecherous or anything,” there was just a point where the only people Smith and McCloud would see at comics events were 35-year-old men. (He related an anecdote about the line for the bathrooms at San Diego, which were the reverse of typical events; long lines to get into the men’s room, none at all outside the women’s room. They both regarded lines for the ladies’ room at SDCC as a great indicator for how far comics have come).

The talk was part of OSU’s Wexner Center for the Arts and Cartoon Research Library’s summer-long exhibit of Smith’s work, Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond, one of several such events over the next few weeks.

Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator for the cartoon research library, took the stage first, standing at a podium off to the right to explain how they had decided on the format. McCloud was on campus in ‘07 as part of his family’s nationwide tour (and a few years previously to give a speech about manga in coordination with the library’s celebration of Osamu Tezuka and Astro Boy), and Smith, a Columbusite and OSU grad, was there. The two started talking comics, and Caswell said the grad students present were just in awe of the men’s conversation on comics. So the idea was to replicate that format, “and give us all an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation between these two old friends, ” Caswell said.

Smith and McCloud then took the stage, sitting in a pair of chairs in the middle of it. Behind them was a projection of a color Bone panel featuring Grandma, the Bone cousins and Thorn peering over a rock ledge (That’s it at the top of the post).

Smith’s longish dark hair was combed back, and he wore a grey/green long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, leaning back in a chair facing the audience.

McCloud’s appearance always shocks me in real-life, as he doesn’t resemble the highly-abstracted, 2D avatar of himself that I’m used to spending time with in Understanding Comics. His hair is now all gray, and wavy in the back, and his glasses aren’t at all opaque. He wore black pants and an unbuttoned black, short-sleeve shirt, alternately hunching forward and leaning back while asking Smith questions.

Upon first sitting down, he brandished a sheet of paper and announced that, despite Caswell’s intentions, he was going to “kill any possible spontaneity” by only asking questions he had previously written down.

That plan didn’t last long, however, as he often held the sheet of paper at arm’s length and squinted at it, mumbling into the mic clipped to his shirt, “That’s not a very good question…I already asked that, not going to ask that, I’ll ask that later…”

McCloud started by asking Smith about having lived in Columbus his whole life—parents were from Worthington, he moved to German Village in ’78, attended Columbus College of Art Design, switched to OSU where Bone began as a Lantern strip entitled Thorn—and about drawing as a little kid.

Smith explained that his father got him started drawing. While he wasn’t an artist per se, he knew how to draw a very good, very detailed Donald Duck. “I still remember him showing me, here’s the white of the eye, and here’s the pupil,” Smith said. “I was only four or five, but I remember it really vividly.”

“It was Mickey Mouse!” his father yelled from the fourth row or so in the audience.

“Yes, I remember it like it was yesterday,” Smith deadpanned at the correction, looking down at the table where their water bottles (and McCloud’s questions) were positioned.

Smith was, like all kids, pretty fascinated by cartoons and drawing (McCloud’s specialty at age six, he shared, was the Lost In Space robot), but it was at age 9 that he settled on his desire to be a cartoonist.

That was when he saw one of the three or so books that would have a profound effect on his career path, a collection of Walt Kelly’s Pogo strips.

He was nine-yeas-old, and a girl at his school knew he was into cartoons and, after the airing of a half-hour Pogo cartoon special, brought her father’s book of Pogo strips in.

“And I thought to myself, ‘She’s never getting this back,’” Smith said. “It just had some of the best drawing I’d ever seen. It looked like a Mickey Mouse or a Bugs Bunny cartoon in a comic book form. And I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do.’”

Young Jeff Smith was enraptured by the book, and loved everything about it, right down to the lettering. He even went to the library as a kid and asked the librarians to look at the book and tell them how it was made.

By the time he was at OSU in the early ‘80s, he was making a comic strip, the proto-Bone Thorn, which was his attempt at a fantasy continuity strip of the sort that stopped being popular decades ago (“I think the only one left is Mary Worth,” Smith said, prompting McCloud to choke on his sip of bottled water, “Which almost made you do a spit-take.”)

He spent a few years trying to sell the strip to the syndicates, and got far enough that he was being flown into New York for interviews and asked repeatedly for six-week batches of examples, “but something was missing.”

It was a frustrating time for him, but makes for amusing anecdotes now, as he was being given such suggestions as, “Just lose all the human characters and the dragons, and focus on the Bones in Boneville,” or “Have the Bones talk in thought balloons,” because that’s what Garfield did, and, at the time, Garfield was at the height of its popularity.

Then came the next book to influence his move to comics: Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, which was, at the time, gaining mainstream newspaper attention, an extremely unusual occurrence back then.

“I’d never seen anyone deal with a comic in such a cinematic way. He didn’t have any of that, ‘Meanwhile, in Commissioner Gordon’s office,’ he just cut to a different scene, and suddenly it was daylight and you were in a different place,” Smith said. “We’re a very visual society, we all go to the movies and watch TV, we understand cutting to a different scene. I was used to comics treating you like you were retarded.”

“And that lead to the brief period where you portrayed the Bone cousins as these dark, aging vigilantes,” McCloud deadpanned. “The Dark Bones.”

Then came the final book that set his course, given to him by his mother

She was New England for some reason, and was in a comic shop for some reason—“I’m not even sure what she was doing there,” Smith said. “What were you doing there?” he asked, looking to the audience.

Again his father shouted to the stage, “Because we have a son that likes comics!”

There she bought a copy of The Tick #1, a comic that “changed it for me,” Smith said. Here was a comic that one guy was doing all by himself, and it was hilarious. So he thought to heck with the gatekeepers of the comics pages telling him to have the Bones talk in thought balloons because Garfield does, he was going to make comics.

The Tick lead to Love and Rockets, Cerebus, Fantagraphics, Beanworld, Zot! and “this whole underground that’s not doing Spider-Man.”

(In a nice bit of symmetry, his interest in cartooning began with his father, and interest in self-publishing comic books began with his mother).

Sitting down to try Bone as a comic book instead of a comic strip, everything else fell into place, and Smith discovered the infinite room of the comics page. Instead of doing Bone in four panels, wasting the first panel each time to catch reader’s up, know he could tell a joke in three panels. Or five panels. Or six. Or 20. Or 20 pages.

And we all know where it went from there.

Caswell re-emerged to open the talk up for questions, at which point McCloud snapped up his list of questions to hurry through a few more.

“Okay, desert island question,” McCloud said. “If you were trapped on a desert island and had to choose between the complete works of Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly or Carl Barks, which would it be?”

“Oh man, I’m going into the ocean,” Smith said. “How about you?”

“Oh, I’d probably go with Tezuka,” McCloud said, and Smith settled on Kelly.

“I’ve gotta ask about RASL,” McCloud said, getting to the last question on his list. “Is it ‘wrassle’ or ‘razzle’?”

Smith shrugged indicating it was up to him, and then nodded, “Wrassle.”

“Okay, that was my only question about it. No, why did you go back to the magazine format instead of a graphic novel?”

Smith explained that the model of selling comic books serially before re-publishing and selling them as a graphic novel makes some sense economically, but the main reason was he enjoyed the instant feedback he’d get from readers, which in some ways would shape the future narrative of Bone or, at the very least, keep working on it fun and exciting.

He contrasted working on Bone with working on his Captain Marvel comic for DC. For that, he wrote the entire 200-page script, showed it to DC to have it approved, and then spent the next year and a half drawing it and then it started coming out. It wasn’t an experience he enjoyed as much as the work-in-progress nature of serial comic-making.

Then McCloud turned question-asking duties over to audience members, and those lining up in the aisles before two stand-up microphones again demonstrated the wide breadth of Smith’s current fan base. About a third of the questions came from grade-school aged boys, a few from college-aged kids, at least one from a white-haired man.

One boy asked about the backgrounds in Bone, and Smith told the kid, who was from Columbus, to have his parents drive him down to Old Man’s Cave in the Hocking Hills area, which is where Bone is mostly set.

Another asked him why he decided to use dragons and “made-up stuff,” to which he responded he’d need to see the boy’s ID. The dragon, he said, is based on Doonesbury character Zonker (Hey, you can kinda see it in the eyes! A Doonesbury influence is more evident in Smith’s Thorn version of Bone, which we’ll talk about tomorrow).

A twenty- or thirty-something asked about Smith about online comics, to which he turned to McCloud, author of a book on the subject (Reinventing Comics) ) and a longtime proponent of comics’ online future (earlier Smith said McCloud was advocating online comics before there were online comics, and, when talking about the new crop of web cartoonists and how their end goal still seems to be print, he turned to McCloud and pointedly said “for the time being” as if to cover himself).

“Oh, you don’t want to open Pandora’s Box,” McCloud laughed and, despite some prodding, resisted taking off his interviewer hat and putting on his theorist hat. They both marveled at the talent of the current generation of cartoonists, online and in print, and the infinite space the Internet offers them.

“I haven’t quite figured out how you make money on the web,” Smith said. “Me neither,” McCloud sighed.

Another asked the fairly perennial what advice do you have for aspiring artists, and Smith bluntly said that for the most part, everything he and McCloud had learned about the industry no longer applied, since things have changed so drastically since they were breaking into it.

One thing that hasn’t was the need to know as much as you can about comics, who makes them and how they’re made, something Smith started doing when he was only nine. I was quite amused to hear Smith suggest reading Tom Spurgeon’s, which, after only a few days of reading, will give you a good idea on all of the players in the comics industry (McCloud also suggested Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat and Dirk Deppey’s Journalista). You hear that kids? Want to break into comics? Read comics blogs!

They also noted that in the old days, there used to be publishers and syndicates, but more and more there seem to be communities of artists who help each other out on the path to publication.

One person asked about the ending of Rose and how much of it was Charles Vess, another about Smith’s current dealings with Hollywood, and another about why he decided to do Shazam! (“The honest answer is I just thought it would be fun.”)

The final question was from a woman who mentioned that she has relatives who are ages seven and 11 who love Bone, but their four-year-old sister hasn’t been allowed to read it yet, because of some of the violence and how intense it is. She wanted to know what audience Smith intended Bone for when making it.

“That is a really, really good question,” he said. He then turned to McCloud: “Why didn’t you ask that?”

He explained he was writing it for himself, and perhaps other “cartoon head adults;” adults who grew up digging and still dug Chuck Jones and Carl Barks. “It was the book I wanted to see since I was a kid.”

He explained that it really started becoming a book for the all-ages demographic when librarians started embracing the trade paperbacks he was printing, as early as 1995. “We never claimed it was a children’s book; parents and children claimed it as a children’s book.”

With the question and answer portion over, the crowd dispersed, some to buy books and have McCloud and Smith sign them, others to wander around campus to check out the Bone and Beyond exhibit in the Wexner Center (which includes original Smith pages and the works of some of his favorite cartoonists) and the Before Bone exhibit in the Cartoon Research Library, which consists of Smith’s Thorn strips from The Lantern.

Come back tomorrow night for a discussion of the exhibits themselves.

In the meantime, here are some links to the rest of the Jeff Smithstravaganza:

Exhibition info

Show curators Caswell and Dave Filipi to give gallery talk

Some photos of the exhibit set-up from Boneville’s blog

The catalog for the exhibit is on sale

Info on the Before Bone exhibit

Terry Moore!

Paul Pope!

Smith to introduce his favorite Chuck Jones Looney Tunes (You’ll need to buy a ticket for this one)


Mike Lorah said...

Sounds very cool. Wish I could've attended.

veghead said...

Wow, you took detailed notes. That's exactly what happened. How'd you do that?

(I saw some guy sitting near the front taking notes and figured that must be you)

Wild Goose said...

I was heartbroken because I had to miss out on this yesterday. Thanks so much for covering it in such detail!

SallyP said...

Thank you so much for being there, and bringing the experience to the rest of us. It sounds fantastic.

Anthony Strand said...

Oh wow. Thanks for the report. I was sitting around in North Dakota wishing I could have been there.