Making Comics with Cartoonist Jess Smart Smiley

I met Jess Smart Smiley, cartoonist, illustrator and designer, on a plane from Salt Lake City to Boise, where he was a guest at the Boise Comic Arts Festival. He turned around in his chair and introduced himself right away, striking up a friendly conversation. He seemed to be genuinely overjoyed and grateful to be out and about, but it was more than the typical post-pandemic restlessness. When we reconnected some weeks later, I came to understand why he was the happiest I’d ever seen anyone on a plane. 

Utah Cartoonist
photos/illustrations courtesy jess smart smiley

“I turn it into a game to teach writing, drawing and storytelling. We play a game where we make a comic together,” says Smiley, the author of Let’s Make Comics! An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons, which lets people play the “game” on their own and regularly tops best-seller lists on Amazon. Smiley is based out of Utah with his wife and four kids and, in addition to attending comic conventions, used to visit schools, libraries and museums to teach making comics and hold five-day comics workshops and camps. “Then it all stopped abruptly when I had this injury. I couldn’t go anywhere.” 

“I had this bizarre, abnormal nerve injury,” he says. “It took 65 doctors to get a diagnosis.” While visiting all of those doctors, trying to figure out what was wrong, Smiley was basically stuck in bed for three years. The way he applied his art had to change. “I thrived off getting to share what I’ve learned with people who are interested, and I couldn’t even do virtual visits or workshops during the pandemic because of my other contract work.”

Still, Smiley continued making art through it all. “It’s something I’ve never questioned and something I’ve always done. I feel more complete. I learn more every time I do what I do. It’s fulfilling.” Smiley wrote and illustrated two choose-your-own-adventure graphic novels. The genre presented a fun challenge. “I get to tell so many different kinds of stories in so many different ways, instead of limiting myself to one. Some can be funny, some adventurous, some spooky. The tricky part is, once you get so far down, like 25 pages into a storyline, I feel the momentum of where it is going, but I have to connect to all of these other storylines to make it work.” The series is aimed at young readers, which is where Smiley found his niche, organically. “I wasn’t necessarily pursuing only that, but I’ve always drawn friendlier characters. They tend to skew younger and cartoony and cutesy. I’ve always had that in me.”

Smiley has always worked his stories out the same way, too. “I’m a big sketch booker. By that I mean, I use a paper sketchbook with anything—highlighters, micron pens, Crayola markers, fountain pens, whatever I can get my hands on—and think out loud on paper.” The habit started when his dad gave him a journal when he was 8-year-old, which he used to practice drawing, even though he also had a separate sketchbook. He would start a drawing in his journal and work it out. Then, once he had it down, “I’d do my best drawing of it in the sketchbook and show it off like I had just sketched it out and acted like it wasn’t a big deal.” As an adult and a professional, he says, “It’s not just for practice and fun, but how I work out ideas.” Many of his books started from doodling or free writing in his sketchbooks, which he hangs onto. “I think I’m on sketchbook number 86?”

Nowadays, Smiley is getting back to the sort of work he thrives off of. As it happens, a world-renowned specialist in Smiley’s rare condition lived in St. George, of all places. Smiley had surgery, went through rehab and started physical therapy. When he was well enough to travel again, Boise Comics Art Festival was one of Smiley’s first comic conventions back. “The pain is still very bad,” he says. “I’m on my way out of it, but I still have to be very choosy about going out or doing anything.” And by “choosey,” he means, “why don’t I go on a tour of schools, teaching comics, across all 50 states?” Smiley started his tour in November 2022 and plans to visit schools and libraries throughout the 2022-2023 school year. He says, “I’m working on new stuff and have books coming out soon, so I thought, ‘Let’s make a big deal out of it. Let’s hit all 50 states.’” 

Utah Cartoonist
Smiley illustrations

Smiley is organizing the 50-state school tour himself, and any schools interested in becoming a stop on his tour can contact him through his website,  

More From Jess Smart Smiley

What Happens Next? Talent Show Troubles
(Macmillan, April 2023 release)

What Happens Next? Science Fair Frenzy
(Macmillan, June 2023 release)

Let’s Make Comics! An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons (Watson-Guptill, 2018)

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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