A Review of “The Cartoonist”

My son and I bundled under some blankets this rainy weekend to watch the documentary on Jeff Smith, creator of the very popular Bone comics/graphic novel. The documentary is called The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone and the Changing Face of Comics and it is a treat. The video features extensive interviews with Jeff Smith and friends and admirers, and tracks the evolution of Bone in Jeff Smith’s fertile mind.

Here are a few things that really jumped out at me:

  • Smith notes that he remembers making some of the characters that are in Bone back when he was five or six years old. He says he drew all the time, everywhere, and talks about the evolution of the Bone characters over time. He uses three main characters, who are archetypes for Smith himself, and notes that he got one of the names for Fone-Bone from Mad Magazine via Don Martin’s site gag comics. I chuckled over that one.
  • Smith was interested in using the comic concept to create a long-form story (a 1,000 page book, as he put it) in the vein of The Odyssey or Moby Dick. From the start, he knew the story arc that would take place over time — in this case, more than 10 years of comics that told one big story. If you have ever held the collected Bone book in your hand, you’ll see that he has succeeded. It’s huge and hefty and rich with story.
  • Smith got his start in commercial animation — there are some scenes of he and his partners making “cells” of animation, which are overlays — and the documentary notes how his experience in moving pictures seeps into his comics, through the use of movement across frames and consistency of characters.
  • Smith explains how he uses symbolism, imagery and allusions in his Bone stories and one interesting scene shows Smith hiking through a forest area with waterfalls and streams that are depicted in his Bone book as the epicenter of the story. My son said, “That’s just like in the book!” Smith also notes how important the symbol of water is to storytellers and how he uses it himself in his book.
  • At one point, Smith notes how much the audience for comics and graphic novels have changed. It is no longer 30 year old men in comic shops. Now, there are kids (again) interested in comics and graphic novels, and he notes that librarians understand this shift. While book lending is mostly down in libraries, the one stack that shows constant growth is the graphic novel/comic stack. And the film notes that librarians and teachers see the use of graphic novels for engagement of young readers in text and can be a “bridge” to novels and other forms of reading.

All in all, The Cartoonist is a wonderful look at the man behind Bone, and the life of a comic book artist. Smith is engaging and open and excited to be where he is, and when you see the lines and lines of people of all ages waiting at conventions and book signing just to shake his hand or get an autograph, you realize just how much effect Smith and others are having on our views of literature when it comes to Sequential Art.

What I wonder is: what impact will these graphic novels have on young writers and what will the results of that influence be when we look at the field in 10 years? I can’t wait.

If you are a teacher searching for a movie that explains the creative writing and art process of comics and graphic novels, I suggest you consider The Cartoonist for your collection.

Here is a clip from the documentary:

Peace (in the comics),


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