Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE And The Changing Face Of Comics (2009)

Today Unseen Films is starting a series of reviews taking a look at art and artists. We're going to start with comic creators and then move on from there . I've set this up on a kind of progression over the first three weeks, and then ever more outward to cover a variety of arts and artists. There is a reason as to why I'm doing it in the order I've chosen, at least to start. The series is going to run in the Wednesday "matinee" slot starting today. The plan is to have the series run for the next several weeks, and see how it goes. If the pieces turn out the way I'd like them to we'll continue on and see where we end up.

First up; The Cartoonist, about comic book artist, cartoonist, and animator Jeff Smith.

I'm beginning this series with The Cartoonist because it's actually the perfect documentary to start with when looking at comics or art.

This look at artist, author and animator Jeff Smith (best known for the comic book Bone), is a good place to start if you want to get a sense of what the current state of comics is like. I should add, lest my friends in the comic field come to my house and beat me up, it is not the complete picture. It is a gateway into the subject, which considering that movies and TV are increasingly turning to comics and comic creators for ideas, is a good thing to know a little bit about.

Playing like a PBS documentary, the film looks at Smith, his career, and his influence on the comic community. It’s a loving piece about a man whose work is rapidly becoming a classic of comic literature. And thanks to the reissue deal with Scholastic it's likely to become a classic of “children's” literature as well.

At this point I’m going to get a bit schizophrenic as I talk about the film. On one hand the film is the perfect place to start any look into comics, but on the other hand I have a few reservations.

First and foremost this is great place to start looking at comics. It gives you a nice overview of the medium and the fan base. The film also is a great look at Smith and his work, so if you’re a fan and never had the chance to meet him in person this is a good substitute until you can meet the man himself.

On the other hand the film has a couple of problems that will keep it from being something you watch more than once.

First off it is very much an entry point. It’s a great place to start looking at comics, but on the other hand once you know the subject you’re not going to want to see the film again. (An aside: on the third hand you WILL want to have the DVD because there is an 80 minute interview of Smith by Scott McCloud that is worth the price of the DVD alone. It’s very much rewatchable, especially as you learn more and more about comics. Frankly they should have put out the talk as the film and made the documentary as the extra, especially since the interview is longer than the actual documentary.)

The other problem with the film is it’s way too in love with its subject. The film is a loving puff piece on Smith that is so saccharine as to almost give you hives. I like Smith and his work, but this is overkill. It’s an inflation of his importance in the comic world. While I will freely admit, as I said at the top, that his work on Bone is destined for classic status both in and outside of comics, I don’t think he’s quite the god or titan that this film makes him out to be. (If you want a real titan come back next week for a look at Will Eisner.)

Reservations aside, if you want to know about comics and its related fields and don’t know anything, start here. If you’re a fan of Jeff Smith, Bone or Rasl (another of his works), likewise give it a shot. If you already know comics or don’t like Smith and his work, still pick up the DVD; just watch the interview with Smith by McCloud since that’s where the real meat is.

And as I said come back next week for the second part of this series on art and artists, as we look at Will Eisner: Portrait Of A Sequential Artist.

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