Hey gang. I’m pretty excited to present to you an interview Estevan and I worked on about Jess Smart Smiley, whose first book, Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, released early this month of October. Also, consider this article an entry for the Halloween month. Estevan had fun creating a comic to accompany the interview I did with Jess, so we both hope you enjoy reading this piece as a whole. Big thanks to Jess Smart Smiley for doing this with us!
DW: Let’s kick this off with an easy and annoying one. What is Upside Down: A Vampire Tale all about?
JSS: It’s about 144 pages. Get it? (Insert rim shot here) Okay, seriously — Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is about a friendly boy vampire named Harold. Harold isn’t the neck-biting kind of vampire, but a chocolate-chomping, syrup-sipping, candy cane-crunching vampire. In fact, he loves candy so much that he ends up losing his teeth and running away in shame. He meets up with Vermillion, the last witch on earth, and she just happens to hate vampires. There are also bats and a mad scientist that keep the book rushing toward the exciting ending!
DW: Your style of illustrating is colorful, simple, and extremely charming, so it naturally fits with the style of the children’s comic you’re readying to publish on Top Shelf Comix this October. Were there any kind of tweaks you had to make in your style or illustrating for readying up for this project, or did you always have a children’s story planned in your head to publish all along?
JSS: Thank you! I’m always looking for new and better ways to draw things and add to my visual vocabulary. When I decided to work on Upside Down I had a three-color palette in mind that I wanted to try out. I asked myself, “What if the entire book was colored in black, white, and halloween green?” It made me look at my drawings a little differently, knowing that placing one green object next to another green object wouldn’t be as striking as placing green next to black, or black next to white would be. Each panel and page was like a little puzzle, figuring out the best way to place colors. It helped me see that comics are as much about design as they are about the drawings.
I also kept the drawings simple and playful because they seemed to fit the overall tone of the story, which is dark, but really playful. If I had drawn everything photo-realistically, it just wouldn’t have the same impact. Imagine Scott Pilgrim drawn in the style of Watchmen, or Batman drawn like Spongebob Squarepants. Bob are valid forms of drawing – but it just wouldn’t be appropriate.
DW: What is the best part about using comic books as your outlet, especially with children in mind?
JSS: Comics are a great way to tell stories, while still leaving room for the imagination to fill in what happens between panels and pages. I love the immediacy of comics – how readily a message can be communicated in a panel, and still leave plenty of room for subplots and foreshadowing.
DW: What was your personal planning process for Upside Down: A Vampire Tale? Did you have the story planned out already or did you work another way around tackling it?
My one goal for the year I made Upside Down: A Vampire Tale was to finish the book completely, as best I could, and to send it out to my dream publisher, Top Shelf Productions. I had never made a comic longer than 20 or 30 pages before, so I knew that I had to break down the book into manageable pieces in order to finish it.
In a nutshell: it all started with a drawing of a vampire in my sketchbook. I wasn’t looking to make a book or do anything with vampires – I just thought it would be funny to draw one that lost his teeth. I started coming up with more ideas and picking the ones I liked best, and connecting them in ways that built a rough story arc. I wrote out all the main action for the book, and used that as a reference for writing and drawing the rough draft for Upside Down: A Vampire Tale. Once I had worked out the action, dialog, story and composition of each panel on each page, I moved on to the final. It was one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever taken on, but after the drawing the first page in ink with a brush, I got into the flow and drew, drew, drew. I scheduled a few hours each day to draw the book, and I drew every single day, until I had finished drawing the last page. I scanned everything into the computer and spent some time coloring everything in black, white and halloween green, and then looked over the book several times before sending it to Top Shelf, to make sure everything looked right.
DW: It’s noted that this is book one in the series for Upside Down. Do you already have all the future books planned out, or are you still unsure of when to end it all?
JSS: Ah! You noticed that this is book one. Ten points for the Drawn Words crew! Yes – when I was talking with Top Shelf about Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, they asked if I had more stories within the Upside World that I wanted to make. I’m not sure how much I can share about the book, so let’s just say that Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is just the beginning for Harold and his friends. (Suspenseful music!)
DW: The Tattoo Club is such an incredibly cool idea, and I’m very glad people are still keeping the spirit of temporary tattoos alive. I love the idea of different artists contributing to creating new temp tats. How did the idea first come about?
JSS: Right on! I really like Tattoo Club, too. Earlier in the year I was making some temporary tattoos for my Comics Grab Bag (collection of short comics), and illustrator Julia Green made the comment that she had always wanted to make her own temporary tattoos. I thought it was a shame that such a thing didn’t exist, and I immediately started thinking about other incredible illustrators who would undoubtedly make phenomenal drawings that could be used as temporary tattoos. Julia and I launched the project on Kickstarter, in the hopes of getting the needed funds to make it happen, but we didn’t reach our funding goal. I think a lot of people really dig the novelty of the idea, as well as how collectible the tattoos could be. We’ll see if we’re able to revive the project in the months to come.
DW: I’ve seen some talk about you seeing UFOs/aliens via your Twitter and other interviews. What’s with all the sightings?
JSS: At the risk of sounding like a complete weirdo: aliens are real. I’ve had a series of interesting experiences with them and I can verify that they are real, they are green, and they fully intend to take over our planet. Even in my own encounters I had never seen a UFO — until recently, and it was the strangest thing. I was in a parking lot, talking with my friend, and this object came out of the night sky and into the light of a street lamp. It must have been 30 or forty feet above us and it looked like a paragliding chute, but without any lights and without a passenger. It moved just slowly enough that we could see what it looked like, and then it slipped back into the night, straight on course to its unknown destination. Bizarre.
DW: Is there anything for fans to look forward to in the future of Jess Smart Smiley?
JSS: Not really. I’m ready to pursue a career in electrical engineering. Just kidding — I’m working on my first children’s book right now (to be published next year), and am developing a brand-new comics series that I’m just aching to share.
You can check out my blog to get some behind-the-panels looks at the making of Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, as well as my thoughts on other creative processes. There’s also a facebook group for Upside Down, where I’ll be posting downloads and goodies for fans of the book. Thanks!