Jeff Smith is well accustomed to epic journeys.
From his massively successful all-ages fantasy “Bone” to his southwestern sci-fi noir “RASL,” the cartoonist has spent his career doling out long form comic serials in the traditional self published model. But with his latest epic — “TÃ¼ki Save The Humans” — Smith and the team at Cartoon Books took the story of the first human’s journey out of Africa to the future by publishing the series as a webcomic at Boneville.com. After some early technical fumbles, “TÃ¼ki” recently wrapped its first season which will itself head to print for the first time this July -Â with his first full color comic serial.
CBR News spoke with Smith about the journey of “TÃ¼ki,” and below the artist explains how his initial idea crossed with evolutionary history, what the rocky path the Boneville website experienced meant for the strip and why he’ll never understand why “Bone” lands on the American Library Association’s banned books list.
CBR News: Having now read the entire first “season” of “TÃ¼ki” online, I have a better idea of all the moving parts of your latest long-form story, but I wondered if there was a single visual or concept that got the whole ball rolling for you?
Jeff Smith: You know, I don’t know if this is going to sound strange or not, but my original idea was that there was just going to be this guy and this little kid walking. I didn’t know where they were going or what they were doing, but there was going to be a conversation between this older guy and this younger kid. Then somewhere along the line, it turned into this prehistoric epic. [Laughs] I guess that’s just because that’s one of my interests. I just love evolution and caveman stuff — all that ice age stuff. It kind of evolved into that.
You’ve really got three characters running in the strip. There’s TÃ¼ki as the lead and the kid who we’ve only barely seen at this point, but there’s also this old man — the pre-human wise man or maybe wise acre who seems to be prophesying where the story will go. I don’t know if this was your intention, but I felt that the scenes between the old man and TÃ¼ki very much inverted the “heroic journey” trope where the young hero is given a quest to go away from home and learn who he is. It’s almost a parody of that story at points.
[Laughs] Sure. Something I did with “Bone” and with “RASL” to a certain degree is that I take the concepts or even the cliches from stories and just subvert them. I put a twist on them to make them funny or keep the concepts fresh — at least for me. And the little kid who was part of the original idea we see a bit in the very last frame of the first season, but I’m drawing him right now for the next one.
Are you drawing all the pages for a given installment before they start posting on the site, or will you be creating it more in real time as you go?
I’m approaching it like it’s a comic book. I’m doing a 24-page comic really, but instead of doing it in print, I’m just doing it as a webcomic. And in the past, I’ve always done things in black and white first because that’s just the way that underground, self-published comics were done. But now webcomics are done in color, and I’m releasing it that way first. Curiously, Vijaya [Iyer, my wife and publisher] and I have decided to now take it to print. Once it’s been online for about a year, we’ll have it coming out as a black-and-white comic book. So I don’t know if I’m subverting anything, but it feels like I’m doing this whole thing backwards!
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this interview was conducted Smith has announced that “TÃ¼ki” will be published in full-color.]
How does that treat the strip visually? The strips on the site really seem to focus like a big Sunday newspaper strip where we have a big scene that hits a certain beat or story turn at the end of each page. Do you have to reformat that in terms of size or layout to go to print?
I hope that it transfers pretty well when it goes to print. The big confession is that it’s going to be printed in landscape style or horizontal when it goes to comic book. It’ll look like a traditional comic book on the shelf, but you’ll have to flip the book on its side to read it. That’ll be kind of tricky. But because this was designed for the web, I’ve tried to design the pages for the screen.
And as far as having a beat or a complete episode on each page, that was conscious. I was thinking about when I was a kid and I’d read the old Sunday pages. And there you’d get a bigger piece of art in “Prince Valiant” or “Dick Tracy” — even “Calvin & Hobbes” still did that if you’re younger than I am or “Flash Gordon” if you’re old than I am. But the idea was “This is all you get for the week” so there was a lot more emphasis on the detail and the artwork and the way the page was paced. It was meant for you to spend some time with it. You were supposed to be able to just stare at it because you wouldn’t be getting another one for a week. I wanted to bring that kind of epic feel into it. I went in with a little more emphasis on the artwork, and it should have a complete feel to each page, even if there’s only four panels.
Are you coloring these pages yourself too?
No, it’s a guy named Tom Gaadt. It’s not on each page, but if you go to the “TÃ¼ki – About” tab, it explains that I draw it and he colors everything. It should say it on every page, and I’ve said this to Tom, but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. He does a lot of the work on the website.
So let’s talk about the website. I feel like “TÃ¼ki” is the story of a journey, and so the website itself has appropriately been a journey.
There’s a learning curve in any new form, but for you what was that like? Was there an inspiration for why you wanted to do a webcomic that also came with an element you didn’t foresee?
I think it was a little bit of everything. We had a website at Boneville.com for a long time, and it always had quite a bit of traffic, but I’d never really tried to do a comic on it before. And it had been a while since we’d updated the site in general, so we thought, “Let’s update the site and put a little energy into creating a good reading experience.” So we looked around town here in Columbus because we thought it would be a lot easier to work with someone right nearby, and it just turned out that even though this local company said they were local, they actually outsourced to India. So we had a really hard time getting what we wanted, and by the time we launched, we thought we’d gotten everything back up to speed, but all our fans very helpfully told us that we had fucked it up. [Laughs] It was actually good. Nobody was uncool about it, and they gave us some good tips on what it should look like. We were a little embarrassed, but we’re from the print age, and we’re trying our best to get into the digital age. And I think we’re doing it. Like I said, a lot of web friends pointed us in the right direction. It took us a while to remaster everything, but I think we’ve got it now.
I think we’ve gotten to the point now where there’s a definite standard form for webcomics, from the navigation tools to the “each new page as a blog post with comments” look. Did you have any specific webcomics or formats you were looking at that you wanted to emulate?
I was the editor for “Best American Comics” for 2013, and part of that job was to go through a bunch of webcomics because they were eligible, and a bunch of good comics are out there. I was really surprised. I knew webcomics were out there, and I’d been reading a couple by friends of mine like Scott Kurtz, but those were more like newspaper strips. And I hadn’t realized that there were what they’re calling long-form stories on the web. They’re really deep. And I don’t mean deep as in “Hey, that’s heavy, man.” I mean they’re really immersive. There were some real amazingly talented people doing that kind of stuff on the web. So there were some different strips from that I chose for the anthology. Sam Alden did a strip called “The Haunter” which just blew my mind, and I put that in there. And that stuff made me want to draw, which is one of my gauges for what makes a good comic. If you look at something and go, “I’ve got to go draw now!” that’s a good sign.
So last year or the year before was when I started reading a lot of webcomics. And seeing things like Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant” where she always writes a little bit about what she was thinking when she drew — I thought that was good, so I started doing it too. Although some of our notes are missing now. I don’t know what happened to them, but we’ll play with it and get them back up. We’re still tinkering yet.
I know that when you started “RASL” you talked a lot about how serializing was important to you because the back and forth with your audience as you drew was important. Are you looking to expand that idea now that you’re on the web? As in, will you be doing more process posts or showing off work in progress?
Yeah. I definitely will. Why we didn’t have comments on the first “TÃ¼ki” launch, I have no idea. That was really strange. Even when you do a print comic and there’s a little lag time, you still get letters. Or maybe people go onto your website and talk about the book. This is very strange in that we did the whole first season with almost no feedback because there was no comment section.
Looking at the strip and where it’s going, I think the defining quality of TÃ¼ki himself was that he’s hungry. [Smith Laughs] I mean, he’s not out to save the world or find his destiny. He just wants to eat. What’s been the hook for you in building him as a character, and where can he grow from there?
Well, I’ve always thought it was fun to have some little characteristic to define a character whether that’s Phoney Bone being just greedy or whatever. And this just seemed natural in a story about a caveman — especially because when you read about what they were like and see that survival was pretty much all they had time for. There is enough information in the fossil record to know how they ate and what they ate — what plants were around then. That’s really fascinating. This was particularly fun because being hungry is something that everybody can relate to.
RELATED: Jeff Smith Reflects on “RASL”
Over the first season, we mostly focused on TÃ¼ki and the old man, but there were some mysteries introduced involving the little people who represent the early hominids. What would you say the focus of season 2 is going to be?
TÃ¼ki is loner, and I think it’s pretty clear that he wants to be a loner. In season 2, he’s going to have a little trouble with that. [Laughs] He’s certainly going to attract some more followers. He’s already got those little hominids, which are actually australopithecines like the famous Lucy creature. They’re following him, and their interest in TÃ¼ki has something to do with the old man lizard guy’s interest. I don’t want to say too much, but I am actually looking very forward to this new season because you’re going to meet a lot of interesting characters very quickly — including a giant.
I’m approaching this sort of like “Bone” in that each season is its own chapter, so you have to lay a certain amount of groundwork, but you also have to let the story and the characters continue on as if they don’t know what’s happening. You always know what’s happening, but I don’t want the characters or the audience to have any idea. I guess this is planned out as a fairly large story. I don’t know how large yet. I’m not a kid anymore. [Laughs] So I don’t know if I’m going to go for a “Bone” length story, but it could grow that big. There’s that kind of potential in the seeds I’ve laid out here.
This is going to be an odd transition, but I’m going to see if I can pull this off. One of the themes that crops up in “TÃ¼ki’s” first season is one of belief as he and the old man talk about their place in the world. And there seems to be a threat of fanaticism in what the old man speaks of, which kind of reminded me that “Bone” has showed up on the banned books list recently from the American Library Association. I suppose my only question on that could be… how?
How did it get on the banned list? I’m sure I don’t know. We’ve been showing up there for about four years now, though this is the first time it’s made the top ten most banned list of all books. It’s been one of the “most challenged” for a while, and the reasons are always different. This year it was because of “political viewpoints, racism and violence.” And I don’t even know what book these people are reading. Other times it’s been for things like beer, and okay… they do drink beer in the taverns. But one year it was for sexual situations. Okay, you got me. Sexual situations and racism in “Bone?” I can’t even squint at something there and see, “Oh, I see how they could misunderstand this.” There’s nothing there to misunderstand! So I can’t really answer your question, and the ALA doesn’t get into the specifics of the complaint. To get on this list, though, you have to have someone actually put in a written complaint about your book. It has to be in writing that they want it censored.
But yes, there has been a theme throughout all of my books be it “Bone,” “RASL” or now “TÃ¼ki” where I am fascinated by fanatics. There are a lot of people who are fanatical in “Bone,” and maybe even Phoney is fanatical to an extent about greed. And in “RASL,” of course, the main antagonist was pretty fanatical since the universe was so offensive to his position in it that he wanted to kill Rasl and cover it up. I’m fascinated by how this kind of thing happened to Galileo and Copernicus when they discovered how our solar system actually worked. Instead of people going, “Wow, that’s awesome!” people went “Let’s throw them in jail!” [Laughs] I’m just amazed by humanities continued ability to delude itself.
Well, maybe by the end of “TÃ¼ki” you’ll have cracked that problem and gotten it all sorted out.
[Laughs] I hope so. I doubt it, though. I have a feeling I could keep making comics forever and we’ll never figure that out.
The first season of “TÃ¼ki Save The Humans” is online now at Boneville.com and arrives in comic shops this July from Cartoon Books.