By Marty Mulrooney
Jess Smart Smiley is a graphic designer, illustrator, author and graphic novelist living in the US state of Utah. His first graphic novel, Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, was published by Top Shelf Productions in October 2012. AMO has wanted to feature this multi-talented individual for quite some time and is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Jess Smart Smiley!
Thanks for inviting me in – I was starting to get a little cold out there.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
Sure. My name is Jess Smart Smiley and I make rad pictures with my bare hands. I love telling stories and drawing pictures, and find comics a very comfortable and rewarding place to share my work.
Have you always enjoyed drawing and telling stories?
Always! I have boxes filled with drawings and stories from my childhood. I can still remember making certain drawings from when I was very young: where I was when I made them, the time of day… There is a real memory and education in telling stories and it’s been enough to occupy my mind for the last 30 years.
Your illustrations, designs, and comics have been included in books, magazines and websites all over the world. How would you describe your drawing and writing style?
Most of my work is very playful – it looks like something out of a children’s book or a cartoon. My writing tends to be playful, too, with shades of darkness. There is a focus on line quality and on strong characterisation, and I tend to mix silly stories with meaningful questions.
Your first full-length graphic novel, Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, was recently published by Top Shelf Productions – congratulations! How does it feel having your very own book on the shelves?
Thank you! It’s very exciting to have a book out, and to share shelf space with some of my favourite comics, like Blankets, American Elf, Owly, and the Alec books. I had started making several graphic novels before finishing Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, so it’s a relief to finally have finished something!
What’s Upside Down: A Vampire Tale all about?
The book stars Harold, a boy vampire who loses his teeth. He runs away from home and makes friends with a couple of mischievous bats. Harold and his friends end up crossing paths with an absent-minded professor and the last witch on earth in a magical, spooky-fun adventure for all-ages and tweens.
Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is aimed at children – can adults enjoy it too?
I like to think so. I’ve mostly been hearing from adults who have enjoyed the book. Most of them think it’s pretty bizarre, but they tend to enjoy it and have even read it out loud to their children. I think there’s a little something for everyone who dares to read a silly vampire tale.
What makes the book’s protagonist, Harold, different from other vampires?
Well, Harold is a friendly vampire. He loves candy in all forms and he’s eager to please his parents, but ends up running away because he’s worried about disappointing them. He’s as much a little boy as he is a vampire.
Upside Down: A Vampire Tale uses a limited yet striking colour palette of black, white and green. Was there any particular reason behind this decision?
Yeah, everything is either black, white or green, throughout the whole book. The palette came to me in a dream and I had never worked with a limited set of colours before, which made for a unique challenge when making the pictures. I’ve since made a bunch of mini comics using only three colours. You should try it some time!
How was Upside Down: A Vampire Tale drawn?
With Higgins Black Magic ink and a brush on 11×14″ bristol board. After working through the story, I roughed out the entire book in a sketchbook, and then sketched each page in blue pencil before inking them. I added the green to my scanned pictures in Photoshop.
How long did it take to put the book together and what obstacles – if any – did you have to overcome?
It was really difficult just getting into a routine, but then the writing and drawing got easier as I went on. It took three months to draw the book, and a month to touch-up and colour everything.
What do you think will appeal to readers about Upside Down: A Vampire Tale the most?
Another tough question! I think that the fun illustrations and unique story will draw readers in and keep them reading the full 144 pages. It’s a really easy read, too, so it makes it easier to enjoy the story and art on their own terms.
Will there be a sequel to Upside Down: A Vampire Tale?
Yes! I’ve actually finished the rough draft and have been working on the second book. Since making the first book, I’ve learned a lot about storytelling and what goes into making an entire story. I’ve really tried to put all those skills to use in the second book, and I’m liking it a lot more than the first!
Who inspires you creatively?
Oh, there are far too many people to include them all here, but there are a handful of musicians, artists and storytellers that keep me going and focused on doing what I love most. Have you heard of the book Talking to Tesla by Alex Bigney? It’s not a graphic novel, but it’s an incredible experience for the artist, or individual who wonders about their place in the world, or what they have to offer, or if their work is sincere. These are things that I’ve always thought about and I’ve found a good friend and teacher in this book.
Do you have a favourite graphic novelist/graphic novel?
I’ve been following Doug TenNapel’s graphic novels for 12 or 13 years now, and I’m really taken by Gipi’s comics. Jeff Smith’s Bone was the adventure of a lifetime and it gave me permission to make my own stories when I was 12 years old. Aaron Renier’s The Unsinkable Walker Bean does the same thing for me now.
Being a freelance artist can be tough – what do you think of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter?
Being a freelance artist just might be the only thing I can do. I love to write, draw, design and organise in a variety of media and formats, and freelancing allows me to be involved in all sorts of projects, like t-shirts, album artwork, wedding announcements, animation, games and books. I don’t know of any company that would pay me to do all of these things for them and I love it.
Kickstarter has really changed over the last three years and, now that more and more people are getting involved, there’s a great opportunity available to creators who are looking to build/communicate with an audience, and make-believe for real. Actually, keep watching Kickstarter – I’ll be running a new project soon!
What’s next for you Mr Smiley?
That’s it! I’m all done, now that I’ve made a book. Just kidding – I mentioned that I’ve been working on the second book in the Upside Down series. I’m also going to be launching my very first web comic on January 1, 2013. I’m very excited about this story, and am thrilled to finally be able to share it with others! Check out jess-smiley.com to find out more – you won’t want to miss it.
Thank you for your time! I’m delighted that Upside Down: A Vampire Tale has finally been released and I can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate it.