This past Thanksgiving, Jamie Smith was carrying food down a steep driveway to a friend’s house when he slipped on the ice and fell, sending the prepared dishes hurling to the ground.
“The only thing I could think was, ‘Ha! It knocked the stuffing out of me!’” Smith joked. “Because there was stuffing everywhere.”
The popular Fairbanks cartoonist told this story to highlight how his daily experiences frequently filter into his long running strip, “Nuggets.” “People ask me, where do you get your ideas,” he said. “Well, I’m not saying my life is a joke, I’m just saying the material is there.”
Smith’s cartoons have been a fixture in the News-Miner since 1988, and his work appears in many other publications, as well as on T-shirts, posters, promotional materials, in books and more. His vision of Alaska is filled with wildlife, crusty sourdoughs, dry cabins, cats, dogs, and not infrequently himself.
The jokes rely heavily on pratfalls, sight gags, and most dependably, bad puns. All of it revolves around life in the Last Frontier, which can be ecstatic in one strip, and cursed by misfortune in the next. In other words, it’s a lot like Alaska itself.
Smith, recently named artist of the year by the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, is originally from Upstate New York, where, he said, his future course was set in several ways. “I was brought up hiking the Catskills, Adirondacks, Allegheny National Forest, those places. So Alaska pulled me up.”
Meanwhile, the impulse to draw cartoons was also honed in those days. “My father taught Latin, English and French, and would use Asterix as a teaching tool. He’d leave these books lying around. They’re so well drawn that you can come up with your own story, or read the story just from looking at the silly pictures. You don’t have to understand the words. And that’s what planted the seed for me.”
Growing up in the 1970s, he was also a fan of the favorite publication for most adolescent boys of the era. “Mad Magazine was pivotal,” he said. “I look at some of my characters and still you can see some of the DNA comes from Don Martin. And Jim Henson. These Muppet-like characters.”
B. Kliban and Gahan Wilson were other early favorites. He was such a relentless comic geek that when he’d sneak a peak at Playboy magazine, he’s go straight to the cartoons, not the pictures.
Smith came to Fairbanks in 1986, and the following year made his first local appearance in “Alaska Today,” a magazine then being produced by the University of Alaska journalism department. The following year he scored the weekly gig in the News-Miner. Initially his strip was titled “Freeze-Frame.” Later he renamed it “Nuggets.”
Smith lived a dual life for a while. At UAF he pursued a bachelor of fine arts, but all the while, he was cartooning on the side. This was during a period when comics were still looked down on as an inferior art form, something that is no longer the case.
He said, “I am so glad to have been around long enough to see the paradigm shift from comic books being something that will be taken away from you and thrown away because it’s trash, to being required reading.”
By the time Smith snuck away for a couple of years to earn his master’s in fine arts from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, comics were being taken seriously in art departments, and his thesis argued that single panel cartoons qualify as sequential art. With MFA in hand, Smith beat a hasty retreat back to Fairbanks, where he’s remained ever since.
In addition to his creative output, Smith has become an in-demand instructor in Fairbanks, teaching in the university art department, at the Summer Visual Art Academy, and also doing artist residencies in local schools. He especially enjoys working with children, he said. He sees comics as a valuable tool for promoting literacy — his most treasured cause — and wants to encourage kids to enjoy reading and creating them., “My mission is to give kids something that I didn’t have, which is somebody else saying, this counts. It’s legitimate.”
Which isn’t to say he takes himself seriously. Reflecting on the art form in general, Smith said, “The unwritten rule for gag cartooning is a good joke will sell a bad drawing.” But when discussing the development of his own skills, he added, “I can draw so much better now, but my jokes are getting dumber. I’m more happy with a dumb gag than something sophisticated.”
While he laughs at himself, Smith said comics require broad skills. “All of the aesthetic components that go into a work of ‘quote’ fine art are present in a little panel,” Smith said. “Composition, line weight, texture, value. It’s all there.”
Cartooning and comics are also highly democratic art forms, he added. “One of the things I love about comics and cartooning, you don’t need to take classes, you don’t need a million dollars of equipment, specialized gear ... Anybody can do it. There’s not much left in popular culture or entertainment that one person, by themselves can do, with just a pencil, ball point pen, line paper, sharpie, whatever. Its accessibility is so empowering.”
For Smith, reaching people through the common language of humor is the best reward, one of the reasons that most of his work steers clear of politics. “To give somebody just a ten second laugh, even if they don’t laugh but just smile, it makes things better,” he said.
And he’s forever spotting those things we can all laugh at. “Only Alaskans will understand what it’s like to wrestle an extension cord into a vehicle. Nobody else understands that. Forget about the plugins. Everybody is like, ‘Wow, the plugins are so weird.’ Well what’s weird is when you’ve got this 30 foot extension cord that’s frozen, and you’re trying to get it back in your car.”
Jamie Smith’s recent work, including pieces he dubs “edits” (meaning unsuitable for print in a newspaper) is on display this month at Ursa Major Distilling. His website/blog can be found at inksnow.blogspot.com.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.