Jeff Smith loves librarians.
The comic book writer and artist grew up during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when his favorite “Archie” and “Batman” comics were sold at drug stores and disparaged by his elders.
But around the time he was making his name as a comics creator, comic books were beginning to evolve to the point that they were no longer the “ephemeral pamphlets” of Smith’s youth, but magazines and graphic novels with substantial plots and thoughtful writing.
And although a lot of different factors went into the legitimizing of the comic book form, Smith gives most of the credit to librarians.
“In the ’90s, there was a wave of (comics artists) in my generation who wanted to do more, but we couldn’t get our work into libraries, into Barnes & Noble,” said Smith, 53, best known for the “Bone” comic book series. “It was the school librarians who broke down the wall for us, who put these books where kids could get at them.”
And it was librarians, says Smith, who helped comics creators like him get on The New York Times Best Sellers lists.
So it’s appropriate that Smith will be speaking at the Portland Public Library on Saturday as part a of the fifth annual Maine Comics Arts Festival. Smith will appear along with Rick Parker, artist of “Beavis and Butt-Head” and spoofs of the “Harry Potter” franchise, and Raina Telgemeier, creator of “Smile” and “Drama” and artist for the “Babysitter’s Club” series.
On Sunday, the main part of the festival — known lovingly as “MECAF” by its fans – will be held at the Ocean Gateway terminal on Portland’s waterfront. In addition to panels and workshops, it will feature more than 100 artists displaying and selling their work while they sketch and talk casually to fans.
The festival is different than most comic conventions, says co-organizer Rick Lowell of Casablanca Comics in Portland and Windham, because it focuses on artists and comics creators exhibiting their work rather than comic book vendors and adventure games.
Of all the writers and artists scheduled to be at the festival on Sunday, Lowell estimates that a third or more are people who make their living from comics and are well-known to comic book readers. Others are still trying to make it the business; many are from Maine and other New England states.
In addition to Smith, Parker and Telgemeier, some of the better-known comics creators scheduled to appear include Brian Wood (“Star Wars,” “Mara”), Sean Gordon Murphy (“Punk Rock Jesus,” “Hellblazer”), Dave Roman (“Astronaut Academy,” “Teen Boat”) and Ming Doyle (“Popgun Anthology”).
“The main thing about this festival is that people can interact with the creators, talk, watch them sketch,” said Lowell. “As a fan, I just think it’s more interesting to talk to the creative people. We’ve dealt with (artists) for years, and they’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Smith’s best-known work, “Bone,” is basically one long story about cartoon characters who are essentially pieces of bones. It was published as a comic book in the 1990s and 2000s, and later collected in book form.
Smith first drew the characters of “Bone” when he was about 10 years old and reading a lot of “Peanuts” and other comic strips of the day. He began to wish that comics like “Archie” or “Uncle Scrooge” could be as long as “The Iliad” and have “real consequences.” That’s why he made “Bone” one long story that kept going over the years.
“I remember reading “Peanuts,” and Charlie Brown was always 7 years old and he never changed his shirt,” said Smith, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “But I thought it would be cool to give comics a ‘Moby-Dick’ structure. That was my big idea.”
“Bone” has won numerous Eisner awards — named after legendary comics creator Will Eisner and considered the equivalent of the Oscars in the comic book industry – as well as several Harvey awards.
One of Smith’s newer projects is a hardcover edition of his story “RASL.” He had serialized the work in black and white, but has now turned the story into a full-color book that follows the exploits of a thief/ex-military engineer as he pursues a potentially world-changing scientific breakthrough. The book is due out in September.
Smith says it’s very different than “Bone.”
“‘Bone’ was a comedy, but this is sort like a Dashiell Hammett story with hard science mixed in,” said Smith.
His newest project is an online comic “Tuki Save the Human,” which will be available as a free download. It’s set 2 million years ago during one of the first ice ages, and focuses on the first man to flee.
Smith has known Lowell for years, and has wanted to come to Maine for events like MECAF in the past, but the timing never worked out until now. He likes coming to festivals like this one — where the participants are mostly comics creators — because of the energy and spirit.
“I like comics that are written and drawn by the same person. Some comics that come out of the corporate structure — where an editor assigns a writer, an inker, a penciler — can be very good,” said Smith. “But generally, when you have one author, there is a different kind of organic interaction between words and pictures that I think makes the work move and come alive.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: