Sooner or later you'll probably send some sort of publication about life in Alaska to someone you know who's never been here. The problem is, which book do you choose?
If you walk into a bookstore, you'll be faced with an array of choices. There are wildlife photography books depicting scenes most of us never witness because we're too lazy to go out and find them. And there are hypersensitive memoirs written by authors who "found themselves" in Alaska's wilds and then promptly returned to their comfortable homes in Anchorage.
Worst of all are those glossy volumes purporting to show the wonders of life in some Alaska town (Fairbanks, for instance) that are happily promoted by civic boosters despite the fact that they are little more than abject propaganda on a level that would make even the most cynical Soviet functionary blush.
If none of these books strike you as offering a true look at life in Alaska (and who could blame you for feeling this way), then I suggest that you instead send your friends and family members a couple of Jamie Smith's cartoon collections. (His panels appear weekly in this section of the News-Miner). Because, more than anyone else that I'm aware of, Smith understands what life in Alaska is about.
Take, for example, the third cartoon in "Nuggets," one of two new Smith books recently published by Ester Republic Press. A dour and somewhat unkempt individual who bears a strong resemblance to Smith himself sits in a darkened room and stares forlornly at a very dark ring on his hand. The caption reads, "The Alaskan mood ring Š stays black for six months."
Been there? I thought so. But fortunately for all of us, winter does eventually end, and Smith has the joys of that change of seasons covered as well. In another cartoon that appears to feature himself, he sits in his outhouse with a frown on his face and his eyes at half-mast while mosquitoes swarm about. "Hooray Š" the caption reads, "it's spring."
Smith is a darkly funny and very talented cartoonist whose work appears regularly in the News-Miner and the Ester Republic. I've enjoyed his cartoons for years, and these two books (the second is titled "Freeze-Frame: It's Gonna Be a Long Winter") contain many of my recent favorites.
Smith's cartoons take a warped perspective on northern life. In one, a man drags a passed out pooch across the snow, with the caption reading, "forgot to plug in the dog last night." Another shows a young man with half of an arm missing standing between a moose and a bear and reads, "family fun at the Alaskan Petting Zoo." And then there's the drawing of a moose standing along an appropriately littered Alaskan roadside with several cars and trucks painted on his hide, a la those plane stencils found on the sides of fighter jets.
One of Smith's all-time best (in my opinion, anyway) shows a young boy and his grandfather sitting at a table with mugs in their hands, snow in the window, and hooded parkas. The grandfather's face is the exact same one as seen on the tails of Alaska Airlines' jets. The boy says, "Mmmommmm Š grandpa's making that creepy face again!"
Smith is more than willing to say things that most of the rest of us think but try to keep to ourselves. Hence one cartoon shows a plane flying over a quartet of dead wolves while a man with a gun leans out the window. "Alaska!" it reads, "The one state which actually promotes smoking a whole pack." Another shows a beaver that has hung itself in view of a huge man-made river dam and simply says "progress."
A cartoon about "the Alaskan fair: renowned for its giant vegetables" shows two overgrown cabbages alongside a fat guy in a chair with a beer and a remote. And another showing a pair of overweight tourists swarmed by mosquitoes reads, "the first to emerge in the warm weather are the really big, slow & stupid ones."
In another one of his best cartoons, a white professor declares, "We must act now to eradicate any non-indigenous invasive species! Once established, there's no telling what havoc they will wreak upon the natural order!!" To this, an Eskimo man replies, "OK, get out."
Of course, it's not all politics and social commentary. Mostly, Smith is just poking fun at life in the far north. Among the scenes that spring from Smith's questionable imagination are these: a man returning home with fresh fish and meat while his kids stand in a circle with their faces pointed upward and their mouths wide open, just like hatchlings in a nest; an old sourdough prospecting in a shopping mall fountain; the secrets of successfully living without running water revealed by a cabin dweller whose dog is licking his dishes clean; and a beaver who has dammed a bathtub.
Smith's artwork compliments his cartoons nicely. His drawings are never too busy, the humans and animals who fill his sketches are full of character and emotion (bewilderment is a common expression), and the details look like Alaska: trees in the boreal forest are scrawny and misshapen, the snow is featureless, the nighttime scenes are dead dark, and mountains and valleys often fill the backgrounds. These renditions are evocative and lots of fun to look at.
Jamie Smith is one of Alaska's finest cartoonists. His work, even when it gets political, doesn't get dated. Cartoons that made me laugh long ago still do when I see them reprinted here. And he's got Alaska life nailed (where else do people celebrate temperatures warming up to 35 below). So grab extra copies and mail them out. Show people what it's really like in Alaska.
David A. James lives in Fairbanks.