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June 11, 2015

Visual Thinking: Muppet Fan Artist Smig

Filed under: Art,Feature,Interviews — Tags: , , , — Dave Hulteen, Jr. @ 10:45 am

As an avid Muppet Fan Artist, I’m always inspired and often jealous of my insanely talented peers. Where do they come up with their ideas? Their unique styles? Their secret techniques? I wanted to find out who the artist is behind the art, and ask questions as one illustrator to another. The following pieces of art may be pictures you’ve already seen and enjoyed, so now here’s some of the stories as to how they came to be and the creative influence Jim Henson and all his creations have on the creative industry.

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A true Muppet fan artist isn’t a flash–in–the–pan, one hit wonder. They have to have longevity that not only shows their creative and artistic growth, but their commitment to the brand. That’s Christopher “Smig” Smigliano. Unless you’ve never been to ToughPigs before, you know that he is one with this site. If one were to make literary associations with ToughPigs and The Matrix, once you assign Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus to any arrangement of Danny, Joe, and Ryan; than Smig is “The Architect”… no wait, that’s a horrible comparison! He’s the Michael Frith to Jim, Frank, and… no, er, uh… Don Martin to, well… Okay, let’s be honest, you know his art and sense of humor: Smig is an original through and through. He’s fast, funny, and one of the top reasons why I personally keep coming back to ToughPigs!

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ToughPigs: When I think ToughPigs, your name is synonymous with it. You’ve defined the whole atmosphere of the site as far as I’m concerned. I know that you started by working on MuppetZine with Danny Horn and I assume just switched over when ToughPigs went live. Can you share some backstory how the two of you met and started what is unarguably the most popular Muppet website on the whole world wide web?

Christopher Smigliano: I appreciate what you said there, but honestly, I have to say I only defined SOME of the atmosphere. I may have defined the VISUAL level, but it’s Danny, Joe, and Ryan who’ve contributed the bulk of the atmosphere and the attitude of ToughPigs.

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As for the backstory, it was simple, really. From 1990 on, I was a contributing cartoonist for the (sadly, no longer published) Comics Buyer’s Guide drawing panel gags with superheroes and most notably my own feature, For Art’s Sake. I was leafing thru the classifieds section of one of the issues when I noticed a small ad announcing the start of a Muppets fanzine and you could mail for a copy (I think he offered the first issue free). So, out of curiosity more than anything else, I sent away for one, and shortly I get issue one in the mail, and frankly, I was so impressed by both the zine and Danny’s work, I drew up a couple congratulatory sketches and sent them to him. Danny not only used them in the second issue, he encouraged me to send him more. Every issue since, I sent things like single panel cartoons, illustrations, multi-page stories, and even came up with logos.

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When Danny did the switch from MZ to TP, I had to hold back a bit at first. I think Danny was a bit concerned (my memory may not be the best in some indications, so I apologize in advance—and to Danny, who was never anything LESS than supportive towards me—he really started what modern Muppet fandom is today in my opinion, and I’m sure has better recall than I do) about using outright Muppet images on the site, so we came up with alternatives like the original TP logo: the realistic pig in a dress and wig. Thankfully, that got relaxed. It’s hard to be a Muppet fansite artist if you can’t draw Muppets!

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TP: It’s clear Danny knows talent when he sees it! Between the zine and the site, you must have received some great feedback over the past 20+ years from fans. Have you ever heard anything from any Muppet/Henson related people?

CS: If anyone there had anything to say about my zine work, I usually heard about it thru Danny. I think Mike Frith commented favorably towards my art, and Jerry Juhl liked the Treasure Island takeoff, and the Muppetfest Memories cover got some good response while Danny was at a Sesame presentation, but I never really heard from any Muppet people directly about MZ until MuppetFest when I actually met some of these people in person that they said they heard of me from MZ and really liked my work. Attempts outside MZ, however: a packed fan letter got me great responses from the Muppet Workshop, Jerry Juhl, and Richard Hunt. I made Jim Lewis’ life a nightmare from constantly sending him ideas for Muppet Magazine, and he’d always send me a nicely written rejection letter (still have those).

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TP: One thing everybody can agree on is that good fan art captures the essence of the Muppets. Simply drawing them to look exactly how they are supposed to doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exemplifying their anarchist sense of humor. Not only do you do that, but you also write very Muppety. I imagine being a professional cartoonist/comics writer helps, but where do you get your ideas for such funny and clever ideas for your Muppet art?

CS: As Walt Kelly (another influence of mine) stated before when asked if he need help with Pogo, he didn’t need help with the drawings, the hard part was getting the ideas and no one could help him with that! I don’t really do that much in the way of stories, if anything I’m more of a gag man writing-wise.

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But one thing I definitely thank the Muppets for is beginning to think in terms of characterization—a character’s personality, how he may think, he may react—not simply just adapting or altering the characters to another media, like Carl Barks did with Donald Duck in the comic books (in that case, it was an improvement) or say the old Road Runner comics where the Road Runner had three kids and spoke in rhyme. I try to keep as true to the characters as I can, based on what I’ve seen them do through the years, and even then, that’s based on speculation because I have to do it from the viewpoint of an outsider and not an actual Muppet writer or performer.

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All I can do is hope I come close to the target, if not the bullseye. Idea-wise, though, I think it helps if you take an irreverent tone with the Muppets, put them in situations you wouldn’t normally expect. (I don’t simply mean “plug and play”.) How would Kermit react? How would Fozzie? Every character is different, opening up endless possibilities. And let it build up in my head from there. I also LOVE pairing off Muppets from different shows, which sadly, isn’t likely to happen without a lot of litigation these days. And of course, some of the quality of the work may depend on the mood I’m in generally. Plus chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

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TP: For me, and I’d imagine the ToughPigs audience in general, your work is very appealing because of how adult some of it is. The humor can get very dark and edgy and reminds me of Jim’s earlier stuff before the Muppet Show. Then you are able to go to the sweet and cuddly side of them as well which a lot of younger people feel is their only side. Have you ever gotten any negative feedback for embracing that cannibalistic Muppet humor that younger generations don’t get?

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CS: No, not really. And frankly, I admit that I’m biased towards Jim’s early days of either eating, exploding, or both [other Muppets]. That period was so deliciously weird. I think using the Muppets works best if you keep some kind of edge to them, some element of danger. If you go totally sweet and cuddly, you run the risk of becoming antiseptic to the point of embarrassment.

*CoughBarneyCough*

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TP: One thing that Joe and Ryan have impressed upon me consistently is your speed. You are able to crank out work incredibly fast, most likely because of your work as a cartoonist working with intense deadlines. In fact, you’re touching tribute to Jerry Nelson of the cowboy boots defined by his characters in the stitching, was the first notification I saw about his death. How do you come up with a concept like that so fast?

CS: In the Jerry Nelson tribute case, it was timing. I happened to be on Facebook that night soon after the news of his death was posted. My favorite Jerry Nelson line; “I became a puppeteer ’cause I lied and wore cowboy boots” immediately came into my head, and I thought of something along a pair of boots with his characters embroidered in the leather. I drew it up straight on my Wacom tablet and added the guitar to symbolize his musical talent. Maybe I drew it up TOO quickly. But I was amazed at how much response it got. I think it came kind of fast because being a Muppet fan, you do learn a bit about these people and their characters, and that information just helps the idea process. In my editorial cartoons for the Salem News, for example, I have to do a little reading and research first. But in the end, the actual time it takes to develop an idea/cartoon varies. As for “Intense Deadlines”, I wish! That’s what you get if you’re a successful cartoonist! I’m downright lousy at running the business end of a career. I can crank out work fast because I have the time to! After I get home from my day job, that is!

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TP: Well let’s stay in the vein of tributes for a second, and then I want to touch on your work with the Salem News. My favorite piece you’ve done shows Jim in heaven sitting next to Jesus as Jerry Juhl and Richard Hunt admit confusion over who’s who. It’s beautiful, touching, AND funny! Where does an idea for something like that come from?

CS: Frankly, I’m not sure, and I’d probably be too scared to say if I was! But I think part of that definitely came from a comment a friend of Jim made while they were skiing together. Jim ended up covered in snow and his friend said he looked like “Christ on the Alps” or to some effect like that. And then, since I needed someone to remark on the similarity, it only made sense to put Jerry and Richard there, rather than some random angel. It may have been rather nervy to draw that in the first place, given my beliefs tend to run agnostic these days, but I just felt it was a good idea to draw.

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TP: So seeing as you brought up the Salem News that you do strips for, you’ve slipped in the Muppets a few times in your cartoons (as you do also in your own strip “For Art’s Sake” and of course “Playing with Dolls“). How do they (Salem News) react when something like Beaker making a commencement speech is turned in or do they just expect it from you at this point?

CS: I can’t say. I very RARELY get any feedback from my editors, and for that matter, the readers. My best gauge of approval is that if they like it, they’ll print it. I’ve gotten no reaction, negative or positive, when I use the Muppets. And I try NOT to do it often.

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But some instances, like the “MEEP” controversy at Danvers High School that led to the commencement speech cartoon and the recent concern over zoning chickens in Salem, well, in those cases there’s just no avoiding that. As long as I keep to the point editorial-wise, I can do a lot of things. Same was for For Art’s Sake. As long as I kept the focus on comics or comics–related material, I could pretty much put in the occasional Muppets cameo IF it had any relevance to it. I haven’t heard of ANY cartoonist that didn’t slip in a tribute or acknowledgement of their inspirations now and then. But it’s not like I’m DELIBERATELY looking to stick a Muppet in my news work. It’s just as they say sometimes, “Them’s the conditions that prevail” And I’d rather be more original with my editorial cartoons.

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TP: Speaking of Beaker, is he your favorite Muppet or just your favorite Muppet to draw? Because he shows up a lot in your work with some absolutely brilliant gags.

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CS: Favorite on both counts. Beaker is one of the most unique Muppets ever, in both his simple-yet effective design and his brilliant performing by Richard and Steve. If Tex Avery and Chuck Jones had gone into puppetry together, they may have come up with Beaker. I know some people may feel Beaker may have been overexposed during the past number of years, but my main complaint is that sometimes they tend to rely on the “Oh no! Mr. Bill” type gags too much. When I use him, I try to downplay the pain angle a bit and try to find other ways to get humor with the character. Referring to an earlier question, I guess I’m trying to do a “Carl Barks” with him to some degree, but I’m not trying to outright change him, either

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TP: Back to Tough Pigs, I recently found a different version of Strangepork, Piggy, and Link that you did that can be seen on the “About Us” page that I really just adore. The biggest difference between that and the actual TP logo is Piggy’s attitudy-Judy look and tube top. Was this an alternate version that Joe the Communist shot down or what?

CS: When Joe asked me to draw some extra icons for ToughPigs, I looked at the first logo drawing I’d done and thought maybe I can improve on that, so I sent an updated version. I guess Joe and Ryan like the simple charm of the original, though I think I drew Piggy a bit stiff. Amazingly, I find Piggy the hardest Muppet to draw, next to Gonzo. (It’s hard getting that nose right) I also find Joe being a Communist as believable as Fox News being news.

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TP: Ah, you beat me to the punch on my next question (not about Joe being a communist) about struggling with drawing certain Muppets. I’m in total agreement with you though about Piggy being the hardest to draw. What about creative interpretation though? I’ve always really loved the way you draw Waldorf in particular.

CS: I see where you’re going, but I shudder at the term “creative interpretation”, I’ve seen WAY too much Muppet fan art that qualifies as “recognizable by default” You have to find that compromise between their style and yours, and that sometimes takes work. You may be able to take a few liberties because drawings can go beyond the limitations that the puppets have, but there are some set rules I believe you do not violate. One, for example being that Beaker NEVER smiles. It’s physically impossible for him. If I want him to seem happy, I try to pose him in a certain way so that his body language gets the message across, but I will NEVER draw him with a smile. I’d rather work around it if it helps me keep it true to character. (And don’t get me started on those Little Muppet Monsters animated segments! Jim was smart to yank those!)

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In a way you have to take an animator’s standpoint. As there were many versions of Bugs Bunny through the years, the Muppets have also gone thru many changes in appearance. I think many fan artists tend to use their favorite versions as their “model sheets.” My version of Waldorf, for example, is based on the frumpier, dumpier frizzled-hair version of The Muppet Show’s first season, rather than the smaller, better groomed version of later years. I think my versions of everyone else come from the show’s third season era.

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TP: What do you think makes the Muppets such an appealing subject when it comes to art? And where you do you stand on the idea that maybe Ryan is a communist?

CS: What makes the Muppets appealing? Well, a-first, set out-a several bananas, and then stand-a back… But seriously, I think the Muppets work because besides, being such wonderful characters, they are so weird, so unique, so different, you can adapt them into pretty much every style of art imaginable, every medium.

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From Realism, to Surrealism, to Dadaism, to outright Abstraction. A great example of this would be the Kermitage collection. That works on so many levels. As for Ryan being a communist, I can’t really say I can discern Ryan’s political stance. To me he doesn’t lean to the right or lean to the left as much just sag in the middle. (Well, you said you wanted me to try and keep it funny, and I tried. I didn’t promise I’d succeed!)

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TP: Do you have a personal favorite Muppet piece you’ve done?

CS: Now that’s a real stumper. I’ve done so much Muppet fan art over the years that’s it’s really impossible for me to pick and choose. In a sense, I’ve never really considered it. I just do a piece the best I can then move on.

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TP: Well I have a few favorites of yours. My favorite Smig master work at the moment is a piece you did where Kermit is meeting with the characters of the comic strip Pogo, which was Jim’s favorite and most likely a huge influence on his sense of humor when developing the Muppet Show. It seems like such an easy connection to make but you’re the first artist I’ve seen make these two worlds interact. It’s a magical piece. It really captures Jim’s spirit. What are you going for exactly when you do a piece like that?

CS: Well, thank you on that. I thought it came out rather nice, too. I’ve heard the Pogo/Kermit connection alluded to thru the years, but I think it was especially apparent in much of the work of master artist Michael Frith, reaching an apex in his Fraggle Rock designs. The Fraggles are like modified versions of Pogo Possum (though Frith also adds a touch of Seuss in the mix). I think the main idea for the piece came when I happened to think about some remark Kermit may have stated about how he likes to go back to the swamp now and then to get away from it all, then the Pogo connection came in again. When you think of it, the Okefenokee Swamp is the Walt Kelly version of the Muppet Theater! How would Kermit get any peace and quite in a place like that? I figured Kermit commenting on that irony would make the piece work. I inked the piece in brush, in order to emulate Kelly’s style as best I could (NO ONE can handle a brush like Kelly) I also decided to keep this one black and white to give it more of a comic strip feel. As to what I was going for… well, not to sound selfish, but since this wasn’t a paid piece for a client, I was trying for a tribute that first pleases myself, and if it ends up pleasing others, that makes it all the better.

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I hate to seem self–centered but I think that’s one way art works. And I admit I like getting feedback, and I like it when other people enjoy what I draw. To paraphrase Kermit in The Muppet Movie, “A dream just gets better the more you share it with.” Well, the art is my dream, and I share it through Facebook. (Gawd, did I just type THAT??) As for “capturing Jim’s spirit” I think that depends upon whatever emotions and reflections the finished piece evokes from each person who sees it afterwards, and their own feelings towards Jim.

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TP: You seem to draw (literally) from a vast and eclectic well of old school pop culture, from Hanna-Barbera to Sid & Marty Krofft. Who else besides Jim has been an inspiration to your work?

CS: My top influences were Walt Kelly, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Albert Uderzo (“Asterix”). The rest is literally a mishmash of other cartoonists whose work I’ve admired over the years. Johnny Hart, Dik Browne, Batton Lash, Murray Ball, Larry Feign, Roger Dahl, Lise Myhre, Bill Holbrook, Gilbert Shelton, Fred Rhoads, Bill Watterson, Ken Mitchroney, Phil Foglio, and of course, Charles Schulz. I haven’t been the biggest Peanuts fan, (which may sound like blasphemy, but sometimes his treatment of Charlie Brown was just too much for me to stomach) but I believe there isn’t a cartoonist alive that hasn’t been influenced by Schulz to some degree.

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And of course, there was MAD magazine and its stalwarts like Sergio Aragones, Don Martin, and Antonio Prohias. There was also a French strip called Carmen Cru that I tried to emulate in my inking, and there’s even recent additions like Steve Troop and Jay Fosgitt. I think you tend to absorb a little bit of each one into your work. And yes, to some degree, Hanna-Barbera and the Kroffts, (though the only Krofft series I really liked were Pufnstuf and Lidsville) And there’s probably even more, but I don’t know how much space Joe is allowing you on the website. If there’s anyone I should have mentioned, I apologize!

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TP: You’re clearly on a much higher plane creatively than most, Smig. If you didn’t have art, how would you express all those zany ideas?!

CS: I’d probably be raving away incoherently on my own YouTube channel, like all the other lunatics who don’t end up working for Fox News or the Westboro Baptist Church.

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Click here to make Beaker smile on the ToughPigs forum!

by Dave Hulteen, Jr.



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