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Modern Masters Volume 25: Jeff Smith

A book review article by: Morgan Davis
Jeff Smith is a rather unique artist in comics. Seemingly successful in his first at bat with the beloved Bone, Smith has been able to pave his own way through the industry--first with self-publishing and then with highly lucrative partnerships with other entities, including Scholastic and DC. The Modern Masters series doesn’t exactly shatter that illusion in its 25th volume, but interviewer Eric Nolen-Weathington does reveal just how carefully and meticulously Smith crafted his signature creation over the years.

From the time he was just a kid, Smith had a profound interest in comic strips and comic books--taking an early interest in such artists as Neal Adams and Walt Kelly. By the time he was ten, Smith had already created what would go on to be his most enduring character, Fone Bone. Weathington compiles some of Smith’s drawings from that time and it’s remarkable to see how developed Smith’s vision was even then. The early Bones look slightly goofier and more elongated than their eventual design, but it’s still quite easy to recognize them.

The friendly, conversational nature of Weathington’s interview grants the volume an entertaining, affable tone that can sometimes be missing from interviews like these. As Weathington discusses Smith’s early work with him, from those childhood sketches to his work on his university paper, Smith’s love for the medium is always present--showing that the creator is still quite possibly as excited about Pogo and its brethren as when he was an impressionable youth. Where other artists may have developed their signature creations through years of strife and artistic confusion, Weathington shows that Smith’s phenomenally clear vision and passion for comics helped him land a little more safely than others.

Not that Smith didn’t have his fair share of hurdles. In fact, as Weathington shows, it was the constant rejection that Smith faced from syndicators that arguably led to his eventual success. After working for some time as an animator at a studio he helped found, Smith decided to use his savings to publishBone on his own.

His struggles with syndicators were mainly over the fact that his intention with the strip was to tell a full story rather than a series of gags and punchlines. At the time, that style of comic strip wasn’t en vogue, so Smith was met with either constant rejection or requests that he alter his style to fit the fashion of the time.

However, newspapers’ loss was everyone else’s gain as Bone didn’t take long to become a hit. Part of the thrill of the interview comes in Smith’s discussion of how steadfastly he stuck to what he wanted to do, refusing to change anything to match the fickle whims of newspaper readers. It’s arguably that abstinence that helped make Bone so popular as Smith used all the influences he loved as a kid instead of bowing to any trends. Also aiding Smith were the skills he picked up as an animator, specifically a keen directing sense and a knack for pacing.

Hearing Smith speak about how he used all of these tools in his work is both inspiring and enlightening. He may have a relatively small body of work, but the devotion to craft and the attention to detail he brings all his creations is notable on its own.

This volume of Modern Master may not offer much in the way of dirt (outside of some vague mentions of a feud with Dave Sims, but who doesn’t feud with Sims these days?) and Smith’s intense focus on his style from an early age means that the interview is short on the kind of uphill battles that career-spanning conversations often have. The only big failure Smith speaks about is the apparent fiasco that was the attempt by Nickelodeon to make a Bone animated film. Even that misstep, though, is acknowledged by Smith as more than partially his fault, thanks to his perfectionist nature.

However, even with that lack of climactic struggle, for Smith fans and creators who are feeling unsure of their style, Modern Masters Volume 25 is a necessary addition to the library.

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