HIS OWN BOSS
GROTH: In 1986 you co-founded Character Builders, which was an animation studio?
SMITH: Right. I liked animation as well. To me cartoons are cartoons — I like Bugs Bunny cartoons, I love comic books, I love comic strips — to me they’ re all the same art. The technical means for achieving them are different, but to me the lines between the mediums get really blurry. So I used to do animation just for fun with a friend of mine, Jim Kammerud, who has been my friend since fourth grade. He was going to OSU with me and was doing political cartoons. It’s a lot of drawing. But when you see the drawing move, it’s a kick. It’s an unbelievable thrill to watch the drawings walk across the screen.
GROTH: When you say you did them just for fun, did you actually paint them on the film?
SMITH: No, we did pencil drawings with a Super 8 camera that was mounted and pointed at the floor. Very simple. Just hobby stuff. Then we met a guy at OSU, Marty Fuller, who actually had pulled an animation camera stand that OSU had out of the closet. He dusted it off and got it up and running, and somehow we crossed paths. We all started thinking, “Wow! We’re the only three people in the state of Ohio that are jamming on animation. What are the odds that we’d all meet?” Obviously there were other people in Ohio into animation, but we ignited each other and started doing jobs for fun. An advertising guy would want a tiny spot, and we slowly got rolling until we finally decided to just start a company and do it. And that’s what we did. Basically we did local television commercials, and public service announcements. We slowly started doing more regional commercials, bigger and bigger spots, then we started to take farm-out work for feature films out of Hollywood. The first one we did was for Paramount working on Rover Dangerfield, which was Rodney Dangerfield being the voice of a dog. A really bad movie. We worked on a lot of those, but it was fun. Once we got the job, they sent us a big stack of model sheets to show us what Rover looked like from all different sides. We would have to do storyboards from the script, they’d approve them. Sometimes they’d do the key frames and send them to us to fill in between; sometimes we did the key frames and sent them somewhere else. As the project went along, they gave us more responsibility. It was a lot of fun. The movie was terrible, but it was exciting for us.
GROTH: When you started the company, didn’t you have to buy a reasonably substantial amount of equipment?
SMITH: Yes we did, but not right at first. We first started up on a shoestring. We called an animation studio in Cincinnati and we drove down to shoot it on their animation stand, have it developed overnight and look at it — that was how we tested our animation! Anybody that’s in animation will know that’s ridiculous! You can just buy these video pencil test machines. You shoot the penciled animation on video and see it immediately. But we of course didn’t have $5,000, so we’d have to drive down. And if you got your pencil test back and it was no good, then you’d have to start the process over. It’s the kind of thing that when you’re young it doesn’t bother you as much.
GROTH: Right, because you don’t know what you’re doing so you don’t know to get pissed off about it!
SMITH: [Laughs.] That’s right! And you have the energy to stay up all night.
GROTH: I assume you did a lot of the drawing. Did your partners end up doing any of the drawing as well?
SMITH: Yeah, they’re all very good.
GROTH: So all of you drew.
SMITH: Yeah, it was definitely a group of artists.
GROTH: How long did this last?
SMITH: It’s still going. Character Builders is still a going concern and we still work on Hollywood films.
GROTH: And you’re still one of the owners?
SMITH: No, I sold it after Bone got going. I had a lot of fun doing animation, but animation calls for a huge amount of money, a huge amount of cooperation from a lot of people. I wanted to do my own stories, my own characters, and there’s no way to do it in animation, there’s just no way. You could do your own movie conceivably, but you’d have to get a million dollars just to put it into development! And you’d have to find a whole bunch of people who would believe that you could make a movie. And why would anybody believe that? [Laughs.] I kept looking around for a market to do what I really wanted to do, which was a 10-minute Bugs Bunny-type cartoon, but the only market that exists is the festival circuit.
GROTH: That doesn’t sound like a terribly lucrative market.
SMITH: It’s not. It’s about like self-publishing. And when you’ve got employees and overhead, it’s difficult to be too altruistic about it. So we all bit our lips and got executive haircuts and put on suits so we could make sales calls at the advertising agencies. I lost my beard and earrings.
GROTH: So you actually shaved and cut your hair and became respectable-looking?
SMITH: I had very short hair, wore a suit and tie, I had a briefcase, and I used to make sales. So then we’d finally get the job and go back and I’d direct or animate on the project, and unfortunately, we’d all be so busy working on the project, that no one could go out and sell another job because it was an overwhelming amount of work to do an animated 30-second spot. Nobody ever gave us enough money or enough time. So it was always a panic. Then as soon as the job was over, you panicked again because we didn’t have a new project to work on because we were all working our asses off. So then everybody put their suits back on and went out and tried to make another sale. It was a real roller coaster. But that’s what happens when it’s all artists running the shop.
GROTH: Right. You needed to hire a suit.
SMITH: Yes, we did. We were in a vicious circle where we didn’t have enough money to hire a suit. I believe “hiring a suit” is the exact term we used too.
GROTH: How painful was kowtowing to the corporate environment?
SMITH: For me personally it was very painful. It doesn’t come naturally to me at all and I wasn’t very good at it. What I am good at is, I could go into the office and I could talk to the V.P. of Creative and figure out where he’s coming from, and I could talk that way: if he talked loud, I would talk loud; if he would talk soft, I would talk soft. That I can do. I would try to say nice things without ever laughing at his sexist or stupid jokes. There was a little line that I had for myself that I wouldn’t cross. But I still had my face way too far up his ass for my comfort. I remember being exposed to the corporate culture, and seeing other people running around this executive in fear that they wouldn’t be allowed to stick their head up his ass! It was very uncomfortable for me. It’s part of why I had to leave that situation. There I was, the owner of my own company, but I still had to do my share of ass-kissing.
GROTH: Did you also have any misgivings about doing this animation for the corporations? You were then helping this corporate culture.
GROTH: Putting a human animated face on it, so to speak.
SMITH: Yeah, but not so much that I couldn’t do it. I could still look at it and say, “Well, I’m still doing animation, and it is fun,” and the environment we had created there at Character Builders was something wonderful. All these guys had similar tastes, all dedicated to cartooning, and we had a great time. So doing the commercials, which to me isn’t art, became art when it was away from the client. We would stay up late at night, the five core people, and we’d do our pencil tests and talk about them, and it was exciting for us. But in the end, none of us really liked working on commercials.
GROTH: Something designed to sell something to someone?
SMITH: That they don’t want or need! A lot of times it’s manipulative and I don’t really like that kind of stuff. It wasn’t flat-out evil; I was able to do it, but it wasn’t something I was comfortable with. I wanted to go back to storytelling. In the summer of ’88 we started working on a campaign for Warner Cable. They wanted a superhero spokesperson. I came up with a typical big-jawed superhero parody, Warner Cable Man. My mom, who had seen some of the drawings I was working on, spotted a copy of The Tick in a shop window while she was in New England. She brought it home for me and I loved it! This book was hilarious. What really jumped out at me was that I could tell that the guy doing it, Ben Edlund, was having a real good time.
Now at this time, there was a huge gap in my knowledge of comic books. I had no idea what had transpired in comics from ’72 to the late-’80s. Someone had taken me to a comic book store in Columbus in the midst of Dark Knight, that was ’86, and I knew about this one store, but I thought it was an old headshop and it was kind of cool that they had comics. I thought it was a one-of-a-kind thing. I didn’t realize that every city had 20 comic book stores and that there was a direct market. But this Tick comic made me curious and I started to explore. Once I found out about this whole market, I started looking around and saw Dave Sim’s stuff, here’s a self-published book … And then somebody at the office brought in a copy of The Comics Journal with a Lynda Barry interview. For years I had been looking for a market, I couldn’t find a market, and all of a sudden, a market shows up.
SMITH: Maybe. [Laughs.]
GROTH: So all that stuff really impressed the hell out of you.
SMITH: Yeah. Because like most people who are interested in doing newspaper strips, I had an attitude about comic books, kind of looking down my nose. Earlier, a couple of people had asked me why I didn’t do comic books, that there are things happening in comics now, people can do it on their own. But I never looked, I didn’t listen to them, I didn’t want to know. “No, no, no, I’m not that desperate yet. I haven’t been rejected by everybody in the newspapers!” But then I read that whole issue of The Comics Journal cover to cover and I thought, “Holy cow, this is a whole other way of thinking about comics. It’s the way I think about comics.” Still, it took me a while to turn the corner from thinking that comic books were second-class citizens, so to speak, to actually opening up some and finding out what they’re capable of. When I sat down to do the first issue of Bone, I don’t think I was prepared for the explosion of space I was about to get. After years of trying to force jokes into four miniature panels, it was clear that as a canvass comic books are far superior! As a writer, I find it so much easier to let conversations between characters flow naturally and if someone says something funny during the course of it, so much the better — as opposed to the set-’em-up-rim-shot approach demanded by the newspaper strips of today.
GROTH: Yeah, newspaper strips are so compromised by the demographics.
SMITH: That too. Talk about corporate culture again. Around ’84 or ’85 I started to get a little interest from a couple of the newspaper syndicates about the Thorn strip. They were very honest that what they were interested in were the plush toys that you could make out of the Bone characters. They didn’t hide that. They just said, “These are going to make great toys! OK, kid, now here’s what you gotta do …” They can’t look at a comic strip and say, “This is good! Let’s go for it!” because there’s a lot of money involved and they have to watch their ass. Instead, they look at marketing statistics, to see what the newspaper editors will buy. Strips about professional, single women – Cathy is popular, and that’s what editors perceive as their demographics. So they can pick a professional, single women’s strip and it doesn’t matter if it bombs because, “Look! My ass is covered! The marketing sheet said they were looking for a professional, single women’s strip! That’s what I gave them! It’s somebody else’s fault.” That’s part of the corporate culture that I just can’t stand. It allows people who have no creative ability to have authority over those who do.
The marketing departments of the two syndicates I was talking to told them to be on the lookout for a kids’ strip at the time I was shopping Thorn around. I went through months and months of meaningless aesthetic changes and suggestions they were making to make the strip better, which were in essence to make the strip a kids’ strip. They wanted to take out anything that would make it adult. They wanted to take all the humans out, take the dragon out, take the adventure strip out, make it “Smurfs,” make it just the Bones in Boneville. I tried to trick them and make it look like a joke-a-day kids’ strip without tearing apart any of the elements, thinking in my head, “Once it gets in, if it catches-on or keeps going, I can slowly work it back to what I want.” But they didn’t fall for that. [Laughs.] The straw that broke the camel’s back was a meeting in Bill Yates’ office. Bill was the editor at King Features then. He had yet another change for my strip.
“Make all the Bones talk in thought balloons.”
“Because Snoopy and Garfield talk in thought balloons!”
That was it.
GROTH: Is that what he actually said?
SMITH: He actually said that! That is a quote. I just looked at him, and I realized at that very second that I was not going to work in comic strips. I didn’t even want to anymore. It was actually a very crushing moment for me. My whole life I wanted to do comic strips, and here was one of the handful of guys in the world who have control over what actually makes it into the papers and here it turns out he didn’t know anything about comics. These people decide who gets the work out there, and in what form, and they didn’t know anything about it! I was very depressed by that. But I knew right then it was over. That’s about the time I really dedicated myself to animation.
GROTH: Sounds like you were hit right in the face with a reality skillet.
SMITH: [Laughs.] Yes! My head was round and flat just like Tom the Cat’s!
GROTH: It’s pretty horrifying.
SMITH: It was bad. And it wasn’t just King Features, I was also talking to Tribune Media Services. Same thing. I will say one thing to be fair to them: I look back at the work I was doing then and it wasn’t going to light the world on fire, OK? [Laughs.] But they were just destroying it. They were just hacking it apart. Part of it was the wearing you down because they need you to throw your rights away. That negotiating thing of, “We’re going to start negotiations at below ground level.” They need to make you feel like you, as a creator, have no really important value. So they just wear you out and grind you down and keep you in this low position the whole time. It was miserable. I don’t have words for it.
GROTH: So you sought refuge in animation.
SMITH: Yeah. By then I had already started the animation company with Marty and Jim and I just said one day, “That’s it. Animation will just have to be it.” Until I found out about comic books.