Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Vampires and Typewriters: an Interview with Jess Smart Smiley

The one and only Jess Smart Smiley in his natural habitat.

Jess Smart Smiley is a real piece of work. Not only does he have the nerve to produce wonderful, engaging comics for readers’ worldwide, he then turns around and treats people with genuine friendliness and respect. I know, right? What a jerk.

In all seriousness, he’s a great guy, and we’ve been eager to interview him pretty much since we reviewed his awesome graphic novella A Map in the Dirt earlier in the year. Recently having his all-ages vampire story Upside Down snapped up by Top Shelf for release next Halloween, we thought now would be the perfect time to take advantage of his gentlemanly nature and collar him for a chat.

Immensely creative, Jess currently supplements his funnybook work by writing and performing music, and is even undergoing the herculean task of writing a novel. Infuriatingly multi-talented, with an obvious, deep love of storytelling, read on for Jess’ thoughts on Upside Down, his upcoming all-new self published comic, his process, his love of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, as well as an anecdote featuring the most charming act of plagiarism you’ve ever heard of.

Firstly, congratulations are in order! Both on getting Upside Down signed up by Top Shelf and on the (very) recent birth of your daughter! It must be a pretty good time to be Jess Smart Smiley.

Thanks! Delivering the book was much easier than the baby. Top Shelf has been a favorite publisher of mine for years and I'm still reeling to have something that I've made in their catalog.

'Upside Down': don't mess with Vermillion if you value not being a newt.

Although Upside Down is (at first glance) a vampire pastiche, it soon becomes clear that it’s more about the mystery and impetuous adventures of childhood. What lead you to write this particular story?

That's a great way to put it. I wasn't looking to write any stories about childhood or vampires, but I quickly scribbled a vampire in my sketchbook last year around Halloween and felt a strong connection with the character right away. I wanted to get to know the drawing and character a little more and see what he was all about. "Where did you come from?" "How did you get into my pen?" "How are things?" Once I started learning about who he was, I started feeling a little sorry for him and a little excited to know him. It didn't take long for me to see that Harold had a lot to say and that's what's become Upside Down.

The consensus between us at the blog was that one of our favourite things about the book is the way you take several archetypes of folklore, horror, and children’s stories and wrap them all up together – the dangerous allure of candy, vampires, witches, the mad scientist and more. Was this something you intended when writing, or does this madness come naturally to you?

Upside Down definitely pulls a bunch of otherwise unrelated things together (candy, a mad scientist, a catchy song, frogs, etc) and, combined, they make a new story! I think I start to question stories when they're too focused on any one thing, because it reveals the fact that someone made it up and expects me to go along with it in a certain way. I've always liked stories that cross genres or mix up familiar storytelling patterns and it's something I try to do in my own work. Mostly, I just wanted to make a very serious story fun. I liked having Vermillion (the last witch on earth) and Harold (the boy vampire) knock heads and go at each other, because vampires and witches occupy the same realm in fantasy, but never quite meet up.

Prose and comics collide in 'A Map in the Dirt', showcasing both Jess' ability as a writer, and the more technical, restrained side to his illustrative style.

In the work that I have seen, there seem to be two main stylistic modes in which you work as an illustrator: the more structured, detailed line-work exemplified by A Map in the Dirt, and the more fluid, outwardly expressive cartooning as seen in Upside Down. What draws you to vary your approach so much?

Thanks for noticing. It's important for me to vary the style and technique from project to project for a number of reasons:

1) Drawing very loose, expressive pictures and then switching to a more detailed, time-intensive approach is very practical---it keeps me aware of the way I'm working and helps me be more sensitive to the quality and focus of the work.

2) Each project has a different voice and message and, therefor, each has a different look and feel to it. Upside Down would be really boring if it had been drawn like the pictures in A Map in the Dirt. It would be less like a fairy tale and more like an instruction manual. On the other hand, A Map in the Dirt is a very serious story; I even hope it's important in it's own way. If the drawings in Map looked like the cartoons in Upside Down, the story wouldn't be as believable. Each project needs a different face.

3) Switching styles and techniques is a great way for me to learn new ways of working. There are so many ways of doing things and I'm constantly searching for different ways to do make pictures and learn new aspects of picture-making and storytelling. Each style uses a different set or different application of techniques, and even different media. When I was drawing the detailed animals in A Map in the Dirt, I drew on illustration board for the first time and with a different kind of brush for inking. The combination of the paper, pen and ink helped create the kind of image I was after. When drawing Upside Down, I also used illustration board and ink, but the computer played an important role in adding color and I learned all sorts of new things in Photoshop while simply adding a single color to the book.

Do you feel there are certain elements (be they in theme or in process) that unify all your work, narrative and visual?

Hmmm...Well, I don't think I've ever gotten any idea worth using while working on the computer. My ideas for stories and and pictures come from drawing. Drawing is something I've done my whole life, so it's pretty easy for me to connect with ideas I had as a child, because they're still there, in the act of drawing. When I'm drawing a lot, it's easy enough to make stories with nothing to go from---the act of drawing is my closest and longest friendship, so I rely on my memories from drawing and my present projects to inform my work. When I get to the point that I'm no longer searching for a good idea for a story, that's when the best ideas are more likely to come.

Awesome. I didn't even answer the question. I think that drawing unifies my work. Drawing connects me to that part of me that makes me think in terms of pictures and stories worth making.

Click to enlarge: The inimitable Poppa Wheelie runnin' things in CHAIN GANG, Jess' upcoming self-published 1000-page (!) serial.

Upside Down’s sense of humour could best be described as part Roald Dahl and part James Kochalka. Who inspires you in the creative world, both in terms of this specific project, and more generally?

Can I just tell you what a big fan I am of Roald Dahl and James Kochalka?! Two of my favorites right there! Johnny Boo and Dragon Puncher are kings and Roald Dahl doesn't have a boring book to his name.

There are thousands of creators that I find absolutely fascinating and could spend my life with their work. Some favorites, from off the top of my head are:

Comics: Doug TenNapel, Ghostshrimp, Sammy Harkham, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith, Ron Rege Jr., Lynda Barry, Craig Thompson, Aaron Renier, Gipi, Paper Rad, Jordan Crane, Alec Longstreth, Chris Ware, Nick Bertiozzi, Jeffrey Brown...

Writers: Mark Smiley, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Dave Eggers, Yamm Martel, Pablo Neruda, Stephen Gashler, C.S. Lewis, Michael Pollan, Betty Smith...

Pictures: David Hockney, Mitch Parker, JJ Harrison, Alex Bigney, Kent Wing, Picasso, Matisse...

Music: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sam Davis, Sufjan Stevens, David Byrne, Paul Simon, Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Dr. Dog, Peter and the Wolf...

We’ve spoken a little in private before about the influence that Quentin Blake has had on your work, and I was wondering if you’d like to extrapolate on that a little in this interview. Does your appreciation of his work stem directly from a childhood love, or is it more of a direct stylistic appeal?

When I was in third grade, I devoured Roald Dahl's and Quentin Blake's books. I read Matilda and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory books, The Twits, The BFG, and a book called Esio Trot. I checked out Esio Trot from the school library and instantly loved it. I knew my family didn't have money to buy the book, but I wanted a copy of the book for my own. So, everyday at school during lunch, I went to the computer room and typed, word for word, as much of Esio Trot as I could, picking up from where I had left off the day before. If I couldn't buy a copy, I'd make my own! One day the computer teacher saw what I was doing and told me that what I was doing was illegal and that I had to stop. I was absolutely heartbroken, knowing that I wouldn't get my own copy of Esio Trot.

I definitely have a childhood love for Quentin Blake's work, but it's enriched. His drawings have simple skins, but are colored with rich and subtle experience. I still get just as excited, looking at his pictures now, as I did then. The pictures are so rich and deep beneath their simple skins that they have just as much to offer a 28 year-old as they do a 9 year-old. The style is great, too, but there's something about his pictures that make them full of life, and that's what I love.

'Upside Down (Book 1)', set to be released Halloween 2011. It will be worth the wait, believe us.

A person only has to know you for a short amount of time before realising the scope of your creativity is quite wide: outside of comics and illustration you perform music, and you’re currently writing a novel, All Got To Climb Some Mountain. Taking into account your overall drive to make things, what draws you to comics in particular?

When I was little, I liked to invent things. Drawing was a way for me to show my inventions and how they worked, and I was fascinated with the ways a drawing could at once be factual and also fantastic. It didn't take long for me to like drawing other things and I started coming up with my own creatures and characters. When my dad introduced me to his comics, I was hooked.

When I would come up with characters, they had a history and a personality that couldn't all be shown or pointed to in a single picture. Comics, on the other hand, were like breaking up a picture into a hundred pages and learning more about it. What a great excuse to draw the same character a hundred times! Comics are so versatile and can be so many things at once that it's hard for me not to draw comics.

The actual release of Upside Down is Halloween 2011, almost an entire year from now – which must be pretty frustrating. You’re staying busy though, with a strip in the next HIVE anthology, your book, and planning two more volumes of Upside Down. What we most want to know more about though is your upcoming comic Chain Gang. What can readers expect from it?

A year is a long time to wait for a book, but it'll be worth it! In the meantime, I'm making a comic that is probably the closest thing to the ridiculous comics I made as a kid.

Chain Gang is going to be a serialized 1,000 page ULTRA COMIC about a group of unwanted, unloved and unruly misfit bicycles (led by Poppa Wheelie) that are out to cause trouble, wreak havoc, and make you spend money til you sweat! These bikes will stop at nothing to show how tough and bawdy they are---they hop fences, mess up neighborhood dogs, ride backwards on housetops, scare children and eat whales, then do tricks inside their rib cages.

Starting January 2011, you can read all about the adventures of Poppa Wheelie, Crash, Stretch, Train, Spiderweb, the Twins, Rusty, Rocket and the rest of the Chain Gang!

Finally... What was your Halloween costume this year?

Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Purveyors of "ice" everywhere, tremble in your boots, Jess the Bounty Hunter is coming for you! We'd like to offer Jess a BFG sized thank-you for taking some very valuable postnatal time out to talk to us. Whilst we're all waiting for Upside Down and Chain Gang to be released, mosey on over to his official website to buy a ton of Smiley swag, or even commission your very own $20 portrait (do it!). Jess informs us that he's quite likely to launch a Kickstarter project to raise funds for the Chain Gang project soon, and you can be sure that we'll be here to cover news of it as soon as it appears. Poppa Wheelie 4 life!


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