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Comic Book Day: A Bone to Pick with Jeff Smith

by on May 30, 2012

Osteoporosis means nothing to Jeff Smith, because his Bone is unbreakable. Calcium deficiencies and terribly clever intro jokes aside, Smith has been a staple of the comics landscape for the past twenty-plus years, thanks in no small part to landmark works like Bone and his sci-fi noir epic RASL. For many readers out there, Bone was a constant throughout our youths; the story grew richer and more layered as we grew older, but always maintained the same sense of childlike wonderment and fantasy we’d fallen in love with. Fortunately, I had the chance to catch up with Smith to talk about the state of self-publishing today, how his creative process changed over time and the marrow at the heart of Bone.

Nerdist: It’s the twentieth anniversary of Bone, a staggering and impressive landmark by all accounts. Given that hindsight is 20-20, would you have done anything differently in your approach to Bone or are you content with how everything played out?

Jeff Smith: So much of what happened to me during Bone’s publication was serendipitous, like the culmination of the Self-Publishing Movement that became so prominent in the ‘90’s, or the growth of the Internet that flashed Bone around the world just as the world was shrinking. I ran across the right friends, and had incredible timing in terms of the mood of comic buyers and readers. I can’t look back and picture a better course of events. I was very lucky to have the opportunities I did.

N: You were a big proponent of self-publishing, having done so with Bone for 13 years. Do you think self-publishing is a feasible model today? Has the internet made it more or less sustainable?

JS: Self-publishing is still very much alive in the age of the internet. And it has spread out beyond comics. I now hear authors of prose books talk about self-publishing as a badge of honor – the same phrase we used twenty years ago! But the Self-Publishing Movement itself, the scrappy group of independent artists who took over nearly 20% of the entire direct market back in ’95, has evolved into today’s indie/alt/art scene.  Some cartoonists still do everything themselves, but there are boutique publishers that grew up around the scene who have shown great taste and business acumen.  Houses like First/Second and Top Shelf, just to name two. And major houses have all added graphic novel imprints. It seems to me that a lot of young artists are self-publishing on the web, creating their own work, then handing off the publishing and promotional duties once they’ve finished. That’s not very different from what my wife Vijaya and I did with Bone when we signed a deal with Scholastic.

N: You’ve said in interviews before that you started drawing Fone Bone around the age of 5. When did you have the idea for Bone as a series and how has it evolved over time?

JS: I started to think seriously about drawing a comic using the Bone boys when I was in college. Before that Fone Bone was just my character that I doodled on the margins of math tests. I think it was Doonesbury that lit a fire in me to take comics seriously. At the same time, I was in my last year of high school, and I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. That was the Summer of ’77, the same year Heavy Metal magazine came out in the U.S. and Star Wars opened in theaters. Fone Bone soon got his marching orders and I began creating a world for him and his cousins to inhabit.

N: You fought against Bone being labeled as a children’s book for marketing reasons, but it continues to have immense popularity among younger readers. For example, my friends and I grew up reading these comics. What is it about the story that makes it able to cross that generation gap, appealing to readers young and old?

JS: I can only guess. I always liked the theatrical shorts of Chuck Jones, and comic strips like Pogo, Dick Tracy and Thimble Theater starring Popeye. These were all cartoons aimed at both kids and adults. I was trying to emulate what I liked.

N: Was it always the plan to write Bone as one long, 1300-page story? Or did that become apparent as you continued writing?

JS: Yes, it was planned from day one as a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t know if it would be 1,300 pages or 2,000 pages, but from the beginning, my wife Vijaya and I wrote a business plan that included graphic novel collections to keep the early parts of the story in print and always available, because we knew it would be a long one.

N: Your current comic RASL is certainly darker in tone than Bone and has been described as sci-fi noir. What is it about RASL’s story and the noir genre that excites you? Were you eager to write something that wasn’t necessarily “all ages?”

JS: What I like about noir is its restrictions – you can only know what the protagonist knows. That makes for a tightly compacted story that moves at a quick pace. And it’s a challenge from a writing standpoint. Noir is about the human condition, and maybe that’s where I’m at in this stage of my life. When I first started thinking seriously about RASL back in 2000, I was still writing Bone mainly for an adult audience, but by the time I actually started drawing RASLBone had become a bona fide children’s book, so I was aware that the audiences would be different. But RASL‘s tale was the story I wanted to tell, so that’s the path I had to follow.

N: Do you approach writing RASL in the same way you approached writing Bone? What is your writing process like? Will it eventually be collected in a one-volume edition too?

JS: A RASL One Volume Edition will come, but I have special plans for it, and I’ll announce something next year. The process is no different: I outline, plan, then dive into the breach to see what happens. Bone was a story about innocents under siege. RASL is about damaged people. Where Bone breathed; RASL is claustrophobic. The important thing when writing comics is to make the thing move and be alive in every panel, and that takes the same concentration no matter what the subject matter.

N: It seems like you’re gearing up for RASL’s final push. Do you have a clear idea of where you want to take it? Has it morphed at all since you began writing the book as a by-product of writing it?

JS: It morphed. The ending is the same, but the story grew as it went. I didn’t foresee how much of the story would be dedicated to the historical life and science of Nikola Tesla, even though some of that was always in the plan. A lot of pages in the book were spent making the science in RASL as real and cutting edge as possible – I’m glad I took the time, since every day new revelations are coming out of the world of physics suggesting that parallel universes are real. The cover of the current Newsweek is about that very thing: The Multiverse.

Probably the neatest thing that cropped up while writing was the spooky little girl. She wasn’t in any of the outlines that I’d been working on for almost eight years. She just popped into the story unannounced in issue #4. I guess you can’t spend every day and night immersed in String Theory and Native American mythology without something strange bubbling up.

N: They say that time heals all wounds. How is your relationship with Cerebus creator Dave Sim today?

JS: Quiet.  Which is good. We’ve communicated a few times over the years and it doesn’t feel like World War III is going to break out. It’s his charm and wit that I remember more nowadays. The crazy period during the self-publishing tours in the early ‘90’s was fantastic. All the nights we spent talking about comics and dissecting the business were some of the best times of my life.  Those were exciting days, and for a while it felt like we were kings. The shit that came later, I mostly try to forget.

N: Any chance we’ll see a revived, animated version of Bone?

JS: A good chance! Warner Brothers is finalizing a script as we speak.

N: You must be buried in comics; which titles are you reading and enjoying right now?

JS: Recently I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Habibi by Craig Thompson, Hark! A Vagrant! by Kate Beaton, Rachel Rising by Terry Moore, Burma Chronicles by Guy DeLisle and Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. Paying For It by Chester Brown. Goliath by Tom Gauld. The list is pretty endless… lot of reprint books, like Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strips, Pogo. Popeye. Should I keep going? It’s a golden age for comics makers and readers!

N: One last question: apart from RASL, are there any upcoming projects you have which you can share with us?

JS: Nothing that I’m ready to announce. I do have another project in mind, but I have to finish RASL first!

RASL #14 is available today at your local comic book shop. For more on Jeff Smith and the 20th anniversary of Bone, visit his website.