Pen Pals Interview: Comic Artist and Children’s Book Illustrator Jess Smart Smiley

An interview series featuring notable people whose lives intersect with the world of pens. Jess is a quirky comic artist and illustrator who loves to tell silly stories and make people smile!

Pen Pals Interview: Jess Smart Smiley
Jess Smiley’s art portfolio and personal blog

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure! I’m about 6’2″ and have a big nose, which I try to minimize with my thick-rimmed glasses. I work as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer in Utah, not too far from where I grew up.

How did you become an illustrator?

When I was younger, I used drawing as a way of explaining inventions and ideas I came up with. My drawings would visually describe how something worked, or what it would look like.

When I looked at other pictures in books and paintings, I was taken by the way that a bold line or a distinct shape could emphasize or clarify certain aspects of the message. I started mimicking the characters I saw in comics and on television (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Tiny Toons, the Simpsons, etc) and I came up with my own characters and stories.

My love for storytelling, drawing, and comics has only grown deeper over time.

What are some of the best stories from your artistic journey?

Failure: In 2001 I paid for my first full-color photocopies at Kinko’s. They were the first 10 or 15 pages from an 850-page choose-your-own-adventure comic book I had rendered in ballpoint pen and colored pencil, and I sent it to Top Shelf Productions, hoping they’d be interested in publishing it. A month or two later, I received a rejection letter with my returned photocopies. I was devastated, wondering if I even had any future in comics and illustration.

Success: In 2010, I finished a completely different and much smaller graphic novel (144 pages) and sent 15 pages to Top Shelf, hoping they’d take a chance on me this time. It worked! I got a call from the publishers the next morning to set up the contract and Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is now read by children and adults all around the world!

Tell us about your recent projects and artworks!

Speaking of Upside Down, I recently got the go-ahead from Top Shelf to make a sequel! You can expect to see Upside Down: A Hatful of Spells in stores Fall 2015. I’m also happy to announce the release of three new books for young readers:

Rude Dude’s Book of Food (Written by Tim J Meyers, Illustrated by Jess Smart Smiley) This book is filled with histories and interesting facts about some of our favorite foods, including chocolate, pizza and pasta. I got to draw Rude Dude, his friends, and loads and loads of food!

10 Little Monsters Visit Oregon (Written by Rick Walton, Illustrated by Jess Smart Smiley) This book is exactly what it sounds like–10 little monsters that visit the state of Oregon. The playful (and informative) rhymes gave me the opportunity to draw cutesy-quirky monsters in a variety of Oregon landmarks.

Spooky Sleepover (Written by Dave Scheidt, Illustrated by Jess Smart Smiley) This is a book that the 10 year-old inside me thanks me for over and over again. The book features three spooky-silly comics for all ages, including: The Terror of the Toilet, Ghost Bike, and Dinner and a Werewolf. I had so much fun drawing this book and can’t wait for people to finally see it in print!

Which artists do you personally admire?

So many! I’ll never name them all, but I love the work of Doug TenNapel, Ghostshrimp, Ryan Cecil Smith, Vincent Pianina, Akinori Oishi, Mike Mignola, Aaron Renier, Lynda Barry, Nick Bertozzi, Emma T. Capps, Chris Ware and Craig Thompson.

Any words of advice for aspiring cartoonists and animators?

Something that’s helped me is to commit to a project and decide to finish. Anyone can come up with ideas, but it takes a different set of skills entirely to finish a project. Try it!

What JetPens tools and supplies do you use most often in your art?

Here are some of my go-to tools, which I use with a Moleskine Sketchbook:

Akashiya Bamboo Body Brush Pens
Zebra Disposable Brush Pen - Super Fine
Sakura Pigma Micron Pen - Size 05 - 0.45 mm - Black
Sakura Pigma Micron Pen - Size 08 - 0.5 mm - Black

More fun art from Jess Smiley’s Portfolio! Click to see full size images.

You can find more art over at his Portfolio, Blog, or Tumblr!

Ever wonder how artists use JetPens products? JetPens showcases artists every month and interviews them to see what their favorite JetPens tools are. Please send any suggestions for Artist Interviews to penpal(at)!