Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: Jeff Smith Documentary -- "The Cartoonist"

"The Cartoonist" is a feature-length (76 minutes) documentary on the career of Jeff Smith, creator of the series of Bone comic books (which, as I've written before, I use in my seventh grade Language Arts classes). "The Cartoonist" is essential viewing to any teacher of Bone, or any fans of Jeff Smith's work. Light-hearted, informative, and entertaining, this documentary provides insight into Smith's creative process through interviews with friends, family members, and comic creator contemporaries. In this review, I'll focus on the documentary's usefulness as a supplement to the study of Bone and comics creation.

Smith's Influences

Smith talks extensively about the influence of Walt Kelly's Pogo, Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck. As many students may be unfamiliar with the work of these master cartoonists, "The Cartoonist" therefore offers some additional reading for students who love Bone-like cartooning. (Note: Smith also mentions Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' The Watchmen as influences, books which may not be appropriate for junior high school students due to their mature subject matter.) Students will learn by viewing this documentary that as a youngster, Smith loved Barks' Scrooge McDuck so much that Bone was, in essence, an attempt to create an 1,100 page version of a McDuck story. Of course, Bone became much more than this, as Smith admits.

A Secret Fantasy

Though a lover of epic storytelling like Melville's Moby Dick (referenced quite often in Bone) and fantasy literature like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Smith understood that 1,000 page tales of elves and fairies often turn off a certain segment of readers. Therefore, by creating a cartoon-version of The Three Stooges in the Bone cousins, Smith explains how he was able to "sneak in" an Odyssey-like epic story while keeping his dialog light-hearted. Smith reveals that like many works of literature, water plays a key role in Bone, as it often signifies an important moment in his characters' lives. Hopefully, students can take this kind of insight into the creative process and apply it to their classroom reading, both retrospectively as well as in future reading.

A Real Risk-Taker

Much of "The Cartoonist" is devoted not specifically to Bone, but to Smith's career path. Drawing versions of the Bone cousins as early as age five, Smith always knew that he wanted to be an artist. Smith's career path from animator to full-time comic creator and publishing company owner is traced (no pun intended) through interviews with childhood friends and business partners (including his wife Vijaya). Though not particularly useful to students, these segments do portray Smith as a dedicated professional, with a single-minded vision of getting his art into the hands as many people as possible. Through footage of various comic conventions, it is evident just how many people Smith has reached.

The Rise of Comics

Of particular interest to comics enthusiasts are the final chapters of the documentary, in which comics contemporaries like Paul Pope (Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo), and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) explain the rise in popularity of independent comics during the mid-90s. This popularity gave legitimacy to non-superhero comics, which, in turn,(in this teacher's opinion) gave legitmacy to the use of comics in the classroom. (Pekar perhaps sums it up the best by saying, "Science Fiction doesn't dominate book sales; why should Science Fiction dominate comic book sales?") Through interviews with the above creators as well as Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum curator and professor Lucy Caswell, teachers will find particular joy in the discussion of the potential of comics. Japanese comics (manga) are highlighted as an example of what can be done with the comics medium, as they are highly profitable and and are offered in wide variety of genres. Caswell also speaks about the complexity of reading comics (deciphering both words and images) and the importance of developing students' visual literacy. If nothing else, this provides comics educators with more ammunition to bring to discussions of comics' place in curriculum.

The Impact of Jeff Smith and Bone

Artist Scott McLeod (author of the indispensable Understanding Comics) perhaps sums up the impact of Bone most succinctly; he describes Bone as a classic, in that once you have read it, you can never remember it not existing. Footage of children as young as five lining up to have Smith autograph their copies of Bone proves that it is indeed a rare feat of comics; a series that though never originally intended for children has reached across all age groups and many cultures.


"The Cartoonist" simultaneously illustrates the power of comics and the genius of Jeff Smith. This is essential viewing for comics fans, as it provides a well-rounded picture of what it takes to create an enduring classic. For teachers of Bone, it may spark supplemental lesson plan ideas such as research into Smith's influences, as well as provide insight to the symbols present this masterful work. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in reading Bone or any of Jeff Smith's work, please visit My Amazon Store. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. What a great review and journey into the documentary. I'm glad you liked it and I intend to show it to my own students this year.


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