Interview: Jess Smart Smiley

titlejessJess Smart Smiley is comics artist living and working in Provo, Utah. His first illustrated short story, “A Map In The Dirt” tells the tale of a group of mythic animals on the run from hunters in an Old West milieu. Here, Interrobang sits down with Jess to talk about “Map,” his influences, and the impact of social media for young artists.

Interrobang Magazine!?: How long have you been doing comics?

Jess Smart Smiley: I started drawing as a way of communicating the inventions I came up with at four years old My dad was into superhero comics and I got into them when I was 6 or so, until 12 and then I discovered indie comics – Jeff Smith’s Bone. Maus came out around the same time and I really liked it. It was refreshing and felt important.

I can see that. I also get a Nate Powell vibe in the tone of your work, if not the linework specifically.

Yeah, I’ve heard him mentioned before, but I don’t know his work. I would draw the pictures from Bone with a pen and try to make it look like brush work. I always wanted to draw for a living

In looking at A Map In The Dirt, it’s very rooted in folklore, Native American imagery, and oral tradition. What was the inspiration for that?

Yeah, it is. It came out of my love for the land and for the ways we all support each other.

So not part of your personal cultural template then.

Nothing directly Native American or anything like that. It was a combination of a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for years – they all kind of came together at once. Like the role of the storyteller and how it goes so much deeper than just entertaining a crowd. The role of the storyteller is to inspire and preserve, to nourish and to strengthen.

Deer speaks almost as if a prayer for that reason. It’s a sacred role, I think.

“The stories are your calling,” right? That’s pretty meta, in a way.

Yeah. And it’s nothing really deep or anything. I’ve just given the idea a different face. It was new to me at the time and still is. Plus, the other roles are sacred, too. This just focuses more on the storyteller, because I feel it’s me trying to give a voice to what I feel I’m supposed to do.

Speaking of faces, why anthropomorphize the main characters? They’re humans (or some shape thereof) wearing animal masks.

In the story, as in life, the animals are an extension of people. They are a part of us and we are a part of them. That’s how the story portrays the issue and that’s how I feel about it.

When we destroy a species, we destroy a part of ourselves. When we support a species, we support a part of ourselves. They are both alive in each other.

The sense of cyclicalism runs deep. Especially with the ending.

Yeah, and the cycle gets stronger when both parts help each other. If I had just made it people versus people, it would have been a different story. By giving the animals human bodies, it hopefully shows a connection between the people and the animals.

That last page seems so heedless and brutal. It also returns to something Deer says in the beginning about “those creatures” [the hunters] “holding nothing sacred.” Would you draw a distinction between the “masked animals” representing the “essential” part of people, while the hunters representing the technological/disconnected? Or is that too much of a stretch?

Yeah, that’s a good connection. It’s representative of my view that the majority of the world thinks a certain way and uses logic to trump all other reasoning, when there are, in fact, millions of other valid ways to solve problems and to think through things.

By cutting off one part, you limit the whole. It’s like a heart without a body.

One thing I liked a lot, but didn’t completely get, is what happens to Bear at the end.

Cool. Which part are you wondering about? Just where he takes on a smaller and different form?

Yes. He unravels and becomes a tiny bear, no longer a man-in-a-mask, but a pet-sized ursine.

That’s actually where the story started for me, when I was brainstorming.

It started with this dialog of a great bear that shrunk and become the size of a rat. It’s supposed to be a little ambiguous, but it just refers to something breaking within the bear, because of the humans’ actions. Because he now fears or doubts the humans, he becomes less than what he once was.

A Map In The Sky is your first published short story, and it seems like you’re off to a good start. I saw you raised quite a few funds through kickstarter.com [an internet service that allows readers to pledge money to fund art projects – Eds.]. What was that experience like?

Yeah! Crazy, huh? It was a really good experience and I learned a lot about the influence of social media and the impact that images and words really have. I mean, no one saw more than a few pages from the story, yet a mere description and a few pictures sealed the deal for 49 backers!

It makes me really wonder about the power of words and images. If I had put up different pictures, or altered what I used, the response might have been completely different.

In another era, you might have been self-financing and running off Xeroxes until you got lucky.

Yes! I’m extremely grateful for everyone’s efforts. This is case in point, where the whole wouldn’t have happened without all the right parts working together.

That’s a nice bit of synergy – sequential art narrative mirroring your personal narrative.

JSS: Well, honestly, I don’t have any other story to tell. If I can tell the story, it means I’ve experienced it to some degree. Not that this story is anything deep, but most of my stuff is just fun and playful. It’s quite a bit different from anything else I’ve done.

It has a point to make, but not over-bluntly, which is impressive considering the third-person narration. You could have fallen into that trap pretty easily.

JSS: Oh, good. That’s a relief! I keep looking back, worried that it comes off as propaganda. I wanted to make something important, even if it was small. Something with a message, but not preachy.

See more of Jess’s work at jess-smiley.com, and look for his graphic novel “Upside Down,” coming from Top Shelf Comics in 2011.