OREM — Jess Smart Smiley drew his first comic-style illustration when he was 7 years old. It was of a pair of glasses, which replaced one of the temples with a pencil.

“My dad couldn’t see far away, so he’d have his glasses,” Smiley explained. “And then when he would write something … (up close), he didn’t need his glasses. So I (thought), well, if you don’t need your pencil when you’re looking far away and you don’t need your glasses when you’re up close, maybe you combine them.”

Smiley has been using words and pictures to communicate ever since. Smiley graduated from the Utah Valley University illustration program in 2008 and published his first comic book, “Upside Down: A Vampire Tale,” in 2012. His latest book, “Let's Make Comics!: An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons” (Penguin Random House, 96 pages, ages 7-10), debuted as the top release on Amazon in four categories.

A page from Jess Smart Smiley's new book, “Let's Make Comics!: An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons.”
A page from Jess Smart Smiley's new book, “Let's Make Comics!: An Activity Book to Create, Write, and Draw Your Own Cartoons.”

And yes, Smiley is his real last name, although Smart is not — “Jess Smart Smiley” is another childhood invention. Smiley’s real middle name is Mark but as a young kid, he genuinely thought his middle name was Smart.

“Mark” didn’t mean anything, he said, but he knew what “smart” was. Smiley rediscovered his self-given middle name as a college student listening to an old family tape.

“I was working toward making picture books and comics for all ages, and it just resonated with me,” Smiley explained. “Little me came through.”

Smiley, who lives in Orem, sees his new book as an invitation to collaborate.

“These other (comics) I’ve done have been really fun, but it’s me telling this story one way and you just kind of have to accept it,” he said. “I think that’s fine but I also wanted something that was more conversational. … I started making these comics, (but) they only work if you finish them.”

The idea for the new book began forming shortly after “Upside Down: A Vampire Tale” was published. Higher Ground Learning, a tutoring group in Salt Lake City, invited him to teach a weeklong comics workshop. Smiley didn’t want to just lecture a group of teenagers all day, so he came up with activity pages where students would finish a comic that Smiley started.

Sometimes he got to test these pages on parents who accompanied their children.

“Seeing parents that are in other occupations and different kinds of lifestyles that maybe otherwise wouldn’t ever think about comics, seeing them get excited about it and make their own comics was amazing,” Smiley said. “It felt like a conversation. It felt like we were both participating in this thing, both playing this game called comics.”

Jess Smart Smiley (top left) poses with adults and children who have illustrated their own comics after a workshop.
Jess Smart Smiley (top left) poses with adults and children who have illustrated their own comics after a workshop. | Jess Smart Smiley

Craving that conversational impact and opportunity, Smiley eventually came up with enough activity pages to fill a book, which became “Let's Make Comics!” He hopes adults and children alike find the cartoons simple and accessible.

It doesn’t matter if you can “draw,” either. Smiley loves the question “What if I can’t draw?” because it lets him talk about “the power of stick figures.”

When teaching, Smiley asks his students to imagine what it was like to create the widely-recognized school zone sign, featuring two stick figures crossing a road. He describes what he wants the sign to communicate and points out that putting a bunch of words on a sign isn’t helpful. He also says that having a photograph, or a detailed picture, wouldn’t get the message across quickly enough. Stick figures, however, communicate all the necessary information.

“It doesn’t matter if you can draw, what matters is what information you’re choosing to share and how you choose to share it,” he explained. “If you’re drawing stick figures, make a story that’s appropriate for stick figures.”

Comics are for everyone, Smiley insisted. They can be used to tell a variety of stories in a way that just words or just pictures can’t.

“Make a four-panel comic,” Smiley said. “About anything — about (yourself), about a character (you’ve) made up, something that happened yesterday — and just see what happens.”

If you're new to comics, Jess Smart Smiley recommends:

"Bone," by Jeff Smith

"Hazardous Tales," by Nathan Hale

"The Unsinkable Walker Bean," by Aaron Renier

"Smile," by Raina Telgemeier

"Hilda and the Troll," by Luke Pearson

"Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea," by Ben Clanton

"Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller," by Joseph Lambert

"Calvin and Hobbes," by Bill Watterson

"The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo," by Drew Weing

"Owly," by Andy Runton