Introduction:Jess Smart Smiley is living the dream. He is a freelance artist based in Utah and has created comics and worked as an author and illustrator. He just released his first graphic novel in the form of Upside Down: A Vampire Tale being published through Top Shelf Productions that is geared for kids and lovers of goofy spooky fun. The digital comic is available now and the print version is being released in November of 2012. I got a chance to interview Jess and talk about how Harold the vampire came about, the puzzle that became Upside Down, his inspirations, and much more. Read on for the full interview.
Interview:Aaron Albert: Tell me a little bit about how Upside Down: A Vampire Tale came about. Was there an inspiration behind it?
Jess Smart Smiley: The whole story came from one little doodle in my sketchbook. I drew this scribbly, scratchy vampire holding a trick-or-treat bag and then I just kept drawing him. I thought it would be kind of funny and kind of sad if he lost his teeth somehow, and then the idea just took off from there.
You changed a lot of what we think we know about vampires for Upside Down. Without giving too much away, what are some of those changes?
Vampires don’t suck blood–gross! They’d rather help themselves to a handful of candy. And, while some vampires choose to sleep in coffins, most vampires find more comfortable or convenient places to sleep—like in the top of a professor’s piano!
Why a vampire for a main character?
A while ago I had scrawled a silly-looking vampire in my sketchbook. He was a smiling boy vampire and, though he looked enough like a vampire, there was something very different about him, and I wanted to know more. I named him Harold and just kept drawing him, finding out more and more about him, until I stepped back and realized that I had just worked out an entire story about this friendly vampire.
Although Upside Down is meant for kids, there are certainly some clever jokes and moments that will appeal to adults as well. Do you try to weave elements for both audiences? How do you go about doing that?
My goal was to make a book that I, as a reader, would enjoy. Even when I was making the book, I’d be looking at the pictures and reading the dialog as a reader, so that I could inform the writer of which parts needed to be funnier, or what plot point failed to make sense. It was a lot of fun, appealing to both the child and the adult in me.
How hard was it to turn the monsters from a horror genre into a kid’s comic and still maintain some of the spooky and scary qualities of those monsters? Was it always a kid’s comic book idea? Talk about that process.
It was an exercise in instinct, I guess. I just went with my gut, which just so happens to contain plenty of monsters. I just wrote and drew what came naturally, and then I let my inner editor take over and fine-tune what I had done.
In the comic, you only use three colors – black, white, and Halloween green. How difficult was it to stick to those three colors? Was that a conscious decision from the beginning?
It was a real trick! had never worked with a limited palette before, and had only seen a few logos and book covers with 3-5 colors. I thought that black, white and green were perfect for the story, and it gave me an added challenge in creating the book. Every panel and every page became a little puzzle, where I had to make each color work properly within the constraints of the comic. The color also becomes a kind of story in and of itself.
I’ve heard that Bone was a big influence on you growing up, what do you think about kids today reading your work and being inspired by it? Do you feel a sense of responsibility with it? Talk about that full circle experience of going from a receiver of a good comic to a giver of a good comic.
I’m such a sucker for Bone. My Dad introduced me to the comic when I was 12 and I still have dreams where the comics shop calls to let me know that I have a new Bone comic in my hold box. The story did so many great things for me as a reader, writer, artist, and as a person, and I’ll forever be grateful to Jeff Smith--above all else--for giving me permission to pursue my own dreams as a writer and illustrator. I take my responsibility as a storyteller seriously (even when my work is goofy), because I’m sharing very personal things with the reader. Putting ideas into people’s heads can be a very powerful thing, so I spend a lot of time with my ideas before I share them. Hopefully there is a 12 year-old out there, that can find in Upside Down what s/he has been looking for.
What do you hope kids who read Upside Down will take away from it?
My hope is that they will enjoy the story and get to know their own imagination a little better.
Since this is book one and there are sketches for book two, what kind of adventures can we expect Harold to get into? Do you have plans for bringing in other creatures of horror?
I can’t say too much about book two right now, but you can plan on seeing more creatures, more action, and more spooky-fun adventure from Harold and his friends.
I read in an interview that you committed to drawing this book in one years time and didn’t stop until you were finished. Since this was your first graphic novel, what kind of difficulties did you face in trying to get it done?
You’ve really done your research! I had started about ten different graphic novels and just decided that this was it. I was going to make a complete graphic novel, from beginning to end, and not do anything else until it was finished. It was really difficult at first and I was really nervous because I had so many unfinished projects behind me, but once I set out a schedule to write, draw and color, it was something I looked forward to working on each day, and it got easier with each page.
Is there any advice you would give budding comic creators in light of your current success?
Do it. Now. Stop thinking about it and just make it happen. It’s not about what pen and brush and paper you use. It isn’t about the computer program or scanner you have. It’s about putting to work what you already have. There will always be time to edit, but now is the time to create.
I’ve seen that you have used different ways to produce comic books such as Kickstarter, using traditional publishers, and self-publishing. It seems that now is a great time to be a comic creator as there are so many avenues to get your work in the hands of fans. Would you agree? Do you find yourself gravitating towards one over the other? Why so?
It’s a fantastic time to be a comic creator! There are so many ways for us to share our work and even to connect with other comic makers. Traditional publishers are great, because they are always looking for another amazing book to publish. Since they handle the printing, distribution, marketing and advertising, the creator can just focus on their work. Then again, there are so many ways for a creator to publish their own work through web comics, e-books, print on demand, crowdfunding platforms, etc., that we can spend more time worrying about creating comics, rather than finding ways to share them.
Thanks for the opportunity to interview you Jess, good luck on the book!