Elwood Smith’s most vivid childhood memory is of crawling across the
Sunday comics, his fat baby knee bones smudged with images of Krazy,
Pogo, Mickey, Popeye, Barney Google, Snuffy Smith and the incorrigible
Katzenjammers. They seeped into his bloodstream like a virus.Symptoms
appeared early on. Hats began flying from hairless heads. Talk balloons
materialized to encircle exclamations like ‘Yow’ and ‘Huh?’ Hence, as he
became increasingly preoccupied with clown shoes, white gloves and
stinky five-cent cigars, the only suitable remedy available to him was
to become a humorous illustrator. Laughter is, after all, the best
Sandbox World– Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat have
inspired me the most over the years. These strips are different in
almost every way, but their worlds captivated me. Looking back on them, I
think they can teach us something about comic strip potential.* These
were the words of Bill Watterson about the cheapening of comics. Your
work as an illustrator has always captured my imagination. I always
found it to be a comic strip out of the box from comic strip panels,
like a single frame from a film. George Herriman’s shadow does cast in
your brilliant work and most kids don’t know the origins of your work.
What message do you want to send to kids with your art ? Do you feel
that comics have been cheapened? *Bill Watterson The Cheapening of the
Elwood H. Smith– George Herriman’s Krazy Kat has
been very much an influence on my work. Herriman died in 1944 and I was
born in 1941. I’m not certain, but I seem to have vague memories of
observing Krazy Kat while crawling across the pages of the Sunday Comic
Pages of the Detroit Free Press. Hearst wisely decided to let the strip
die when Herriman died. Anyhow, I rediscovered Krazy Kat when I began
digging into my early influences and applying them to my own work in the
late ’70s. Finding my own style, my personal voice, was a slow process
and I was nearly 36 by the time I began developing my current style,
drawing upon the work of Elzie Segar (Popeye), Billy DeBeck (Barney
Google) and Herriman. I’m a slow, but steady learner. I don’t
consciously attempt to send a message of any kind to my audience. I
don’t show extreme violence and my characters are not vicious. They tend
to me more like me, I suppose–worried and nervous, expecting an anvil
to fall from the skies at any moment. I don’t follow comics that much,
so I don’t know if they’ve been cheapened. From what I see out there,
the humor is not great and the art seems to be less stellar than that of
past masters like Walt Kelly (Pogo) and more recent artists like Bill
Waterson (Calvin & Hobbes). I’ve been more interested in the output
of various animators and, of course, contemporary illustrators. I do
like Dilbert. Very funny stuff and Scott Adam’s art style is good enough
to tell the story. He wisely doesn’t overreach, trying to draw real
perspective, etc., keeping it nice and simple.
Sandbox World– There are many book publishers out
there bringing back in lavish bound new editions of the old strips back
to live or the rights to them have become very cheap. (Popeye, Krazy
Kat, Walt and Skeezix, Dick Tracy, and new ones coming out each month)
Do you think kids will ever appreciate these classic comics that you
grew up with? E.H.S.- I hope so. If younger cartoonists and illustrators
are exposed to those old masters, I’m pretty sure they’ll come to
appreciate their art and their crazy, original inventions. Sandbox- Are
there any new illustrators/cartoonists that caught your eye?
Elwood H. Smith– Oh, yeah, I am very excited and
inspired by newer illustrators, like Gary Taxali & Mark Matcho and
amazing cartoonists like Chris Ware. Sorry to name only three of the
many younger (and older) talents out there. And I’m very excited about
animators like Gianluigi Toccafondo, Chris Hinton and David O’Reilly who
are, in my opinion, real innovators. Of course I love more mainstream
animators like Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” and the stop-motion gems
like “Wallace & Gromit” from Nick Park.
Sandbox World– Not many illustrators such as
yourself from your generation are using the latest in computer programs
to express your art and music in different forms. Are there any programs
out there that you wish you had more time to learn or which one really
frustrates you. Ever consider using Painter instead of real watercolor?
Elwood H. Smith– I am continually frustrated that I
don’t have enough time to devote to learning all the great new software
out there. I wish I could be at least three people. I am learning
Apple’s Motion 2, which is not easy, but fairly intuitive (like all the
Apple stuff), but I’d love to learn to use Final Effects, which I have,
but can’t seem to get into. GarageBand is wonderful & so is iMovie.
I’ve had Final Cut Pro for some months now and I still haven’t begun to
learn it. My wife and rep, Maggie Pickard and I really like the
Lynda.com tutorials–her QuickTime movies have helped us learn much of
what we know. I do use Painter but, again, I don’t have the time to
devote to really learning it. I’ve mostly used it to paint over short
movie frames for my animation projects. As far as watercolor (and pen
and ink) goes, I am so comfortable with traditional tools, that I favor
them, especially when a deadline looms. I’d love to learn more about
Flash, but I tend to use Toon Boom Studio because I know it better and I
love the rotating light table feature, which is unique to TBS. It helps
me draw with my Wacom tablet/stylus in a more natural way. Still, I do
wish I had more hours in each day to spend on learning new electronic
Elwood H. Smith-Robert Crumb, Dan Piraro, and
yourself are musicians as well as cartoonists, of all the cartoonists
you know which one has had a balanced career in both and which
cartoonist do you know is a closet musician that we do not know of?
E.H.S.- Hmmm. Well, Crumb’s “Cheap Suit Serenaders” cut about 3 superb
albums and he is one of the most famous cartoonists of all time, so I’d
guess he’d be a good first choice for having a balanced music and art
career. That is, if you can call Bob “balanced”. Did you see the movie
“Crumb”? I’ve been in touch recently with the very talented illustrator,
Mike Moran (he’s on the Drawger blog) and I just found out that he is
an excellent songwriter. Back in my New York City days, I was in an
all-artist band called “Ben Day & the Zipatones” with illustrator
great, Lou Brooks, primo cartoonist, Mark Alan Stamaty, ex-National
Lampoon art director Skip Johnston and designer, illustrator and
cartoonist, Leslie Cabarga.
Sandbox World– Has the web helped you in your
career? Do you think it has hindered many in your industry to some
degree or made them better artists?
Elwood H. Smith– I’m not sure the web has helped my
career. It sure makes it easier for art directors, editors and designers
to access my work. The business has changed in recent years for all
illustrators, so it’s hard to gauge the impact the web has had. It makes
research a whole lot easier, that’s for sure. No more trips to the
library or rifling through my morgue for scrap. I love the web, but I
can’t really answer either of our questions. There is still lots of bad
art out there & plenty of great stuff, too. Like it’s always been,
Sandbox World– If there was one book you had a yen to illustrate or commissioned job that got away that you wanted back, or regretted some?
Elwood H. Smith.- Nope. I have no regrets. Well, to
be honest, I wish I’d socked away a ton of money so I could relax and
focus solely on my moving picture and music projects. But, for a
curmudgeon, I’m pretty happy with the way my life and career have
Sandbox World– You just discovered Renaissance
music, many well know musicians are returning to the roots of music
contradicting their rock roots. Your growth as a musician and audiophile
has that made you a better artist or do you find yourself drifting more
to music than art itself?
Elwood H. Smith.- Actually, I discovered Renaissance
music way back in the 60′s when my first wife brought back a 7-course
lute from England. I wasn’t a particularly good lutenist, but it was a
great experience playing simple John Dowland & Thomas Robinson
tunes. To my mind, music is the most powerful art form. Instrumental
music is completely abstract and, when I listen to a Mahler symphony, I
am transported to a near-spiritual plane. I am in awe of musical sounds
of all stripes. Most, not all, but I have a wide range of musical
appreciation. I don’t think music has influenced my art or the other way
around, but I am ever grateful to have all the arts available. Sounds
and images are apples and oranges, both delicious and nutritious.
Sandbox World– Do you feel that you have reached your zenith as a artist, if not what is that one thing that you want to accomplish still?
Elwood H. Smith– I hope I haven’t reached my zenith.
I do hope I live long enough to make a handful of small, excellent
motion pictures. With my music, of course! We have little choice on that
matter. I feel like I’m at the beginning of the most creative period of
my life. We’ll see.
Sandbox World– Since you are doing cartoons with
Flash and Toon Boom Studio, is there an animator from the past that
drives you? Is it a hard process, I myself just find it to be a long
grind. Do you like the recent crop of CGI movies, personally I prefer
the old 2D ones. It seems it’s always the same formula, big actors,
toilet humor, and big bucks. What happened to story?
Elwood H. Smith -As I said earlier, I’m still in the
learning process when it comes to animation. When I began, I was trying
to learn the basics of animation, that is working on getting a good
“walk cycle” and a convincing “squash & stretch”, but I’ve chosen to
approach it differently now. I don’t intend to do traditional
animation, so my intentions are to create “moving pictures”, avoiding
the term animation as much as possible. I’m merging live action, art and
photo stills and animated stuff into some other thing. I’m not sure
what the hell I’m doing, but I’m having fun and I feel like I’m tapping
into real creative juice down there. That’s much more important to me at
this stage of my life & career than becoming a true animator. Like
you, I tend to prefer 2D animation, but when I see really great stories
and wonderful drawing like exists in “The Incredibles”, I like 3D as
much as anything. Still, I’ll take a work like Toccofondo’s “La Piccola
Russia” over anything out there. Personal taste, of course.
Sandbox World– I would like to thank you for your
recent kid books out there, you are putting many smiles on my son and
daughter’s faces and made them aware there is more to poop and pee.
Thank goodness I don’t have to read to them Dick and Jane. As you know
soon you will be running out of bodily functions to do topics for books
or they may be too bawdy in nature. Any plans for the next kids’ book?
Elwood H. Smith– Thank you for letting me know how
much you and your family enjoy my illustrations. Susan Goodman (the
author of “The Truth About Poop“) and I not only collaborated on that
book and on “Gee Whiz“, but we are about to begin another book for
Viking. I’m not sure I can tell what it is at this point, but it won’t
be about vomit or snot. I’ll let you know when it becomes a reality.
Sandbox World– Thank you for coming to the Sandbox.
E.H.S.- My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.