The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone and the Changing Face of Comics DVD
Mills/James Productions
Release Date: August 2009
Price: $19.99
Creators: Ken Mills
Run Time: 76 minutes
Format: Color; Widescreen
Age Rating: All Ages
ICv2 Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5

The Cartoonist is a real treat for fans of Jeff Smith and his Bone saga.  This straightforward 76-minute documentary traces the origins of Smith’s 1300-page masterwork back to the cartoons he was drawing in grade school, which contained figures that look a lot like the three Bone cousins from his mature work.  

The documentary includes portions of numerous interviews with Smith, whose wholehearted cooperation with the project is evident throughout.  Smith discusses his major artistic influences that include Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge), and Walt Kelly (Pogo), and he also pays homage to Lucy Shelton Caswell, who heads up the Cartoon Research Library and Museum at Ohio State University where Smith went to college and drew a daily comic strip for the student newspaper.  After college Smith spent 7 years creating commercial animation, and his work as an animator imparted a profound fluidity to his comic book art style.  But tiring of the other-directedness of ad work, Smith took a bold gamble and gave up his career in advertising in order to found Cartoon Books and self-publish Bone, a project that had been percolating in his mind for years.  

As much as Bone fans will thoroughly enjoy this film, it could be even more important to future cultural commentators looking into the rise of comic book culture who will find in this documentary a treasure trove of insights into the self-publishing phenomenon.   Key creators in the self-publishing movement including Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Paul Pope (THB), and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) all weigh in with tributes to Smith’s work and his role in championing self-publishing.  

The Cartoonist also includes two great “extra” features, the complete 82-minute conversation between Scott McCloud and Jeff Smith conducted before a large audience at Ohio State University, and a ten-minute segment in which Smith discusses another of his independently-published projects, RASL.

--Tom Flinn