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KUED's online series exploring creativity

Comic Artist Jess Smart Smiley

Jess Smart Smiley is a writer, illustrator, designer and comic artist. His first publication, Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is a graphic novel whose protagonist is Harold, a young vampire who loses his teeth because he eats too much candy. This first graphic novel launched Smiley into teaching comics workshops.

“I love teaching because it reminds me that I’m accountable and responsible for the information I’m giving, so I'd better know what I’m talking about,” says Smiley. “And I love that because I love learning about writing and drawing.”

Smiley started teaching writing and comic workshops to children and teenagers, first in Utah and now in various cities around the nation. His workshops have evolved to include classes at juvenile detention centers, prisons and to refugee groups. His classes include “Making Mini Comics”, “Making a choose-your-own-adventure”, “Story Structure”, “How to ‘Read’ Pictures”, “Comics Activities” and others.

“When I show up and say we’re going to be making comics, you see them light up,” says Smiley. “It’s serving some sort of function that they don’t get out of other aspects of daily life. If they can sit down with paper and a pencil and start telling a story, ultimately it ends up being their story in one way or another.”

Creating sequential art, the process of combining pictures and words together in a timeline to tell a story, is a true talent. A comics artist has the option to add elements like sound effect words such as Bang! and Boom!. Drawn elements can imply motion and feelings, like sweat beads on the character to further develop the tone of the story. If you’ve ever read a comic or graphic novel, your mind is subconsciously filling in information to augment and complete the story.

When asked what he sees most kids struggling with when making comics, Smiley said two things come to mind: Kids not being able to finish a story and kids feeling like they need to be better at drawing. A big part of what Smiley focuses on in his workshops is writing a story rather than making it look perfect.

“What’s challenging for me as a teacher is a comics workshop is not a drawing workshop; it’s not an art class. It’s about using text, dialog and pictures to tell a story, and that can be challenging for kids to step back from thinking they need to be a good at drawing. Part of my job is showing how accessible comics are,” says Smiley.

Among Smiley’s works are a monster look-n-find called Rumpus on the Run that harks back to Where’s Waldo, an activity book called Let’s Make Comics! and picture books like 10 Little Monsters Visit San Francisco. He’s currently working on a choose-your-own-adventures comic.

To see more of Jess Smart Smiley’s work, visit his webpage, his blog or his YouTube Channel and check out his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds.