Modern Masters: Jeff Smith

Modern Masters: Jeff Smith cover

The usual Modern Masters subjects are most famous for their superhero work, with volumes on such well-known names as George Pérez, Alan Davis, John Byrne, and more recently, Chris Sprouse, Mike Ploog, and Mark Buckingham. While there have been fantasy artists featured in the past (see book 11, dedicated to Charles Vess, for example), the artists covered are still best-known to denizens of comic shops, with success within the direct market.

This volume on Jeff Smith is thus something of a departure for the TwoMorrows audience, as explained in the introduction by editor and interviewer Eric Nolen-Weathington. It reads a tad defensively, as though the text was taken from a memo justifying the proposal for the book to a superhero-centric editor:

Jeff Smith is an anomaly. … He became a success in the comic book field long before he drew a single page for DC or Marve. That is a rarity in this day and age, though it is becoming somewhat less so.

… So what makes Bone so special? There aren’t any superheroes, and the main characters are weird looking. … The art is so cartoony. In other words, it has every ingredient that typically kills the sales of a comic book in the direct market. And yet Bone sold quite well in the direct market.

Modern Masters: Jeff Smith cover

It goes on to talk about how many kids know and love Bone, Smith’s signature work, and how popular it is. (Another piece of evidence, not covered in the introduction, is that it’s become its own franchise, with other people now working with the characters and their world.) Later in the book, they go into more detail on how Bone broke through: as books, especially once it was picked up and republished by Scholastic.

I’m curious to know (although it’s none of my business) how well this book does. Smith is an unusual choice for the series and may indicate a more diverse direction (which I’d welcome). He’s very talented, and it’s always a pleasure to look at the pictures he creates, but do his readers want to know more about him and his other work? Or do they just want more Bone? Is focusing on his art going to satisfy the TwoMorrows audience, who may not be as familiar with the basis of his success? (Note the volumes are numbered, driving the obsessive to collect them all.)

This is all quibbling, mainly because I don’t have much to say about the meat of the book. If you’ve seen any of the Modern Masters volumes, this is another strong entry in the series. Typical of the format, it contains a lengthy interview that focuses mostly on facts — biography, schooling, technique, inspirations, career path — accompanied by previously unseen art. Smith’s work on Captain Marvel and his new title, RASL, are also covered, plus there’s a 32-page art gallery, eight of which are in color. There’s nothing controversial or opinionated here, because it’s intended to be a reference and a visual treat, not something that provides new insight into what makes Jeff Smith tick.

I’m still not sure who the audience is for this. The younger Bone fan will be bored by all the copy. The type I think of as the usual TwoMorrows reader (which is likely unfairly limiting on my part) may not care about Smith as a person. They might enjoy hearing Smith’s stories about how he treated his work as a business, and the steps he took to build it, but all that, informative as it is, is no longer relevant to the market today.

I’m probably overthinking it. Like Bone itself, this is a unique story, capturing the making of a modern classic. Smith’s a very strong cartoonist with worthy inspirations, and his work is worth learning more about. If nothing else, the book is a time capsule about one of the direct market’s last individual success stories. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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