Practitioners 38: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith was born in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1960 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he now lives.

The Valley (Bone, Jeff Smith, 1992)

Smith learned about cartooning from comic strips, comic books and animated television shows. He has cited Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts as a very early influence on his understanding of comics, some of the style of which are highly visible in Smith’s tome Bone, now a classic of the medium. He has also named Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which he discovered at the age of nine, as his biggest influence in writing comics. Smith began to create comics with the ‘Bone’ characters as early as 1970, at about the age of 10.

Smith graduated in 1978 from Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, where he was a classmate of Jim Kammerud; later on in 1986, Smith and Kammerud would co-found Charcater Builders, an animation studio in Columbus where Smith worked until 1992. After high school. Smith attended the Ohio Stae University where he created a comic strip called ‘Thorn’ for the Campus Newspaper ‘ The Lantern’ which included some of the characters from the Bone series.

In 1991, Smith created his company, simply entitled, Cartoon Books, in order to publish his comic book series Bone. Smith published 55 issues of Bone between 1991 and 2004, blending influences from Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and J.R.R. Tolkien. The black and white tale of Bone, Phoney Bone and Fone Bone into the mysterious valley populated by the Great Dragon, talking mammals,a beautiful young girl named Thorn, her grandmother and a horde of carnivorous fur balls named Rat Creatures, among others proved popular in individual format of 55 issues and 9 volumes were collected to present them. However, its the Bone saga in its entirety that reveals the depth and clarity of vision (as well as the lunacy and oddity) of Smith’s vision. Broad mythical themes play to Warner Bros cartoon physics (the snow falls out of the sky in a blanket in one go instead of as snowflakes and old ladies can outrun cows) in a story of immense scope and no shortage of silliness. Smith dotes on his characters, allowing each one to breathe and develop independently of all others, blending disparate characteristics and even dialogue styles to forma complete, populated and diverse world filled with giant, flat insects, giant mountain based wild cats and mysterious warrior cults (no, seriously).

The artwork begins with luxurious pencil and ink work and develops into fine line and detailed vistas and events, Smith’s style visibly developing over a very personal project.

Two additional volumes, Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails and Rose, collect a number of Bone prequels created by Smith, working with collaborators.

Following from Bone, Smith has developed Captain Marvel series for DC; SHAZAM! The Monster Society of Evil, published in four prestige format issues in 2007 and later collected into a hardcover. In 2008 he released RASL ‘ a stark Sci-fi series about a dimension-jumping art thief with personal problems.’ In 2008, a six issue preview was shown at the San Diego Comic-con, origianlly intended to be released in an oversized format. Onlookers and advisors were unanimous in their warnings about selling an oversized book so Smith, seemingly happy to oblige and accept advice reduced it back down as a black and white, normal sized comic book. However, the first trade paperback ‘The Drift’ is out in the original oversized format.

If anyone had any doubt as to the importance of Bone, Smith’s art featured in a pair of Museum shows during 2008. ‘Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond,’ at the Wexner Centre of Arts and Jeff Smith: Before Bone’ at the Cartoon Research Library of the Ohio State University. That’s right. The Cartoon Research Library of Ohio. It’s real. In 2009, Smith was featured in The Cartoonist, a documentary film on his life and work.

In a new 32-page graphic novel released in 2009, specifically released through the children’s book line launched by Art Spiegleman and New Yorker Art Editor Francoise Mouly, for very young ’emerging readers’ called Little Mouse Gets Ready, Smith noted that it featured another character Smith created in his childhood, ‘a little grey mouse with a little red vest.’

Bone alone won 10 Eisner Awards and ten Harvey Awards. In 1995 and 1996 he won the National Cartoonists Society’ss award for Comic Books. Smith’s 1332 page single-volume paperback was named one of Time magazine’s list of Top Ten Graphic Novels of All Time.

To get any clear idea of comic book history you have no choice but to pick up Bone. It is simultaneously a quiet delight and a seminal work and belongs firmly in the annuls of comic book history as a timeless piece of visual literature and BLAT! sound effects.

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Practitioners 27: Frank Cho

We here at Beyond the Bunker hope to list the greatest and best creatives in the history of comic books. In a continuing series (available every week on Tuesday) the most innovative, inspirational and important comic book visionaries will be appearing here. Check on the link below to see if one of your favourites has been included yet.

Frank Cho is a controversial character in current comics. In a market where female depiction has been maligned at times and mistreated, female characters often portrayed as goddesses or weak and endangered victims. Some have broken these rules and if considered more carefully, Cho has in some ways. You will not see a continually weakened or needy figure in a woman but neither will you see a dominant and removed amazon at all times. His female characters dominate with their looks, exposing most of all the weaknesses in the surrounding male counterparts and the effect a beautiful woman can have. Not always sympathetic, at times mysoginistic in its post card humour level of nudity, Cho’s work hails back to older (and not entirely gone) ideals. While women now can (and should) enjoy all the same rights as men in society why can we not still marvel at their appearance as an ideal? While both sexes obsess about the ideal image of women in society, Frank Cho has decided on his and he loves them dearly – and frankly would like us to too.

The second of three children, Frank Cho, born Duk Hyun Cho, he was born near Seoul, Korea in 1971, but moved to the United States at the age of six, raised on Beltsville, Maryland. After graduating High Point High School in 1990, he attended Prince George’s Community College where he got a scholarship to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which he declined because he disliked the school’s academic focus. Cho ended up transferring to the University of Maryland School of Nursing, which he says was his parent’s idea. Cho eventually graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in 1996. None of this is relevant however because his education never impacted on his art work.

Cho received no formal training as an artist. Looking at his work this defies belief as his line work and control of layouts, composition and detailing is level to the most advanced draftsmen.

He got his start writing and drawinga cartoon strip called ‘Everything but the Kitchen Sink’ in the weekly Prince George’s Community College Newspaper ‘ The Owl’ where he was also comics editor. He then started drawing the daily comic strip University2 for the Diamondback, the independent student newspaper of the University of Maryland, College Park. After graduation, Cho adapted elements of his work for use in a professionally syndicated comic strip, in the form of Liberty Meadows, in which Cho created a comedic comic strip about the activities of the staff and denizens of the titular animal sanctuary / rehabilitation clinic.

In it Cho mixed up his styles freely borrowing Walt Kelly’s (classic American animator and cartoonist) style of drawing anthropomorphic animals, throwing in savage muscle men, apes and dinosaurs in an elaborate homage to multiple illustrators, including Frank Frazetta and Barry Windsor-Smith’s original Conan the Barbarian run. Cho even referenced other comic strips in his own with cameos by Calvin and Hobbes, Lil Abner, Hagar the Horrible and Dilbert. He created a weird little world he found personally appealing and others did too. He made cultural references from Michelangelo to the movie Deliverance and adverts for Crest Toothpaste.

But it was Brandy Carter – a beautiful animal psychiatrist and Jen – Brandy’s roomate. A sexy Rocket scientist who enjoys toying with men, the central characters that caught the affections of most of the readership. Many assume Cho began with Good Girl art as he is second only perhaps to the legendary Adam Hughes in reknown for his versions of vaguely realistically depicted (if unrealistically proportioned) beautiful ladies. In this respect, Cho borrowed predominantly from Dave Stevens, the creator of the lavishly designed Rocketeer comic book who died in 2008. His good girl artwork was part of what made Rocketeer a massive success, thanks to clear, beautifully rendered anatomy (male and female) and exaggerated bomber art style.

Cho signed a fifteen year contract with Creators Syndicate, an independent distributor of comic strips and syndicated columns for daily newspapers. Cho has since admitted this seemed a long time eventually but blamed it on ‘having a bad lawyer.’ Getting tored of Newspaper censorship, Cho severed his contract with Creators Syndicate and converted Liberty Meadows to a monthly publication. It was during this period that Cho came into contact with Marvel comics as part of more wide professional material he has worked on independently over the years. For Marvel, in 2005, he completed a 7-issue run of Shanna the She-Devil. His Shanna series was supposed to feature ‘mature’ artwork, including nude drawings of the heroine, but Marvel baulked at the last moment and decided to have Cho censor his already completed pages for the first five issues and the final two featuring no nudity. Cho has since hinted that Marvel plans to release a hardcover version under the MAX Imprint, which’ll contain his uncensored artwork.

Frank Cho pencilled issues 14 and 15 of New Avengers for Marvel Comics. These issues include trademark Cho-isms; the character of Wolverine is depicted wearing a t-shirt that bears the logo “Beltsville”, and many Liberty Meadows characters make cameo appearances.

Cho frequently makes use of absurd or anachronistic elements in his work, such as dinosaurs, pin-up girls, and Pogo-style anthropomorphic animals. He also enjoys breaking the fourth wall, frequently inserting himself into his work in the guise of a talking chimpanzee, and on several occasions he has drawn strips that feature his characters interacting with other popular syndicated features (for example, a character stuck in a pipe being ejected into a nearby panel apparently taken from Blondie).

To dismiss Cho as a good-girl artist is to fail to acknowledge his sheer ability. The most talented artists are always reknowned and gain success by doing what they do best and Cho is globally reknowned for drawing exceptionally beautiful women. For as long as men like ladies, men like Frank Cho will excel. If his words are as much to bring forward a beautiful female form then all the better. No one reads a Frank Cho book for plot or insight. His is a world populated by Garfield and Hagar. What he presents and represents is not a depiction of a world as it is (or as it should be) but as we like it on a page. Frank Cho’s depiction of the female form has become the reason to read Frank Cho works and the reason is that it is art that is worthy of acknowledgment. If you have to alter a plot to incorporate a Cho femme then you will. Much in the same way that you would alter a plot for Frank Miller to incorporate muscle. Cho is not a limited artist that is at his peak, he is an incredible artist that has been limited by popular demand. His good-girl art so strong that a Cho work without a strongly built, busty beauty inside it is an enormous disappointment. Frankly, I’m sure its an expectation that Cho is willing to bare.

He illustrated the first six issues Marvel Comics’ 2007 relaunch of Mighty Avengers with writer Brian Bendis. He is the plotter and cover artist of Dynamite Entertainment’s Jungle Girl. Cho drew issues 7-9 of Hulk, which were published in 2009.

Middle-Earth Remixed!

It seems the Hobbit isn’t the only fine piece of Tolkienish film being produced at the moment. Australian remix artist Pogo has used footage from the three Lord of the Rings films to produce this rather wonderful mix entitled: Murmurs of Middle-Earth. I’m a fan of autotuning films at the best of times but it’s especially nice when somebody uses it to actually produce an great piece of music as well as a fun novelty. Jackson’s mega-movie may still be a way off but the creativity of fans and artists like this ensure that we never have to wait too long for our next hobbit fix. Top stuff.

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