The first time I met Jeff Smith was in 1992, at the Chicago Comic Con, shortly after his self-published comic book, BONE, broke in a big way. He was fast becoming the toast of comics, with accolades from fans, critics and fellow pros – including Neil Gaiman and Will Eisner – piling up as fast as the snow falls in that strange and wonderful valley Fone Bone and his cousins stumble into in the first issue of their award winning series. While many might have let this rapid rise to prominence effect them, I’d heard from a wide variety of sources that Jeff was just as friendly, down-to-earth and personable as he’d always been.
All of which proved true. I found Jeff on the steaming convention floor, setting up his booth by himself just before the doors opened to the general public. And, despite staring straight into an inhumanly crowded schedule, two dozens things that needed to be done Right Now! clamoring for his attention, and about a hundred journalists vying for his time, he took a few moments to stop working to just … talk … with someone who was a fan of his work.
I’ve seen him do the same thing innumerable times since, simply putting aside a few precious moments to talk openly, without a trace of any ‘star’ or prima donna attitude, with one or more members of his legion of fans, before he has to rush off to his next meeting, or panel, or awards banquet. Because what was true back then is just as true now: Jeff Smith – despite all of his successes, awards, and burgeoning career as a director-writer of a feature film – remains a truly friendly, open and downright fun individual to spend any amount of time with. In quintessence, he’s one of the good guys, and generous to a fault.
And he still does his fair share of setting up and tearing down the booth, to boot.
BILL BAKER: How are ya doing today?
JEFF SMITH: Doing very well.
BB: It sounds like you’re pretty busy these days.
JS: I’m definitely very busy these days. Which is kinda weird, since I haven’t put out a BONE comic book in a while. [Laughter]
BB: Well, it isn’t like you haven’t been putting out books, though.
JS: No, that’s true. I did the STUPID, STUPID RATS TAILS series with Tom Sniegoski, and I’m working on ROSE with Charles Vess, which is a monster project. Really big in scope. I’ve never … It’s three, 48 page, fully painted books, and I’ve really never published anything in color, so this is a big project for me.
And it’s a lot of fun. ‘Cause it’s a really giant, full fantasy comic, and I’ve never really done that before. And we’re doing Linda Medleys’ [CASTLE WAITING] books. So we’ve got a big plate, here.
BB: And that’s not even touching on the BONE movie, yet!
JS: Or the movie, or the toys, or the … whatever else we’re doing. [Laughter] Our own website. All that stuff.
BB: Well, why don’t we talk about the ROSE mini-series for a few minutes?
JS: Sure. Love to.
BB: How did that particular project come about? I mean, obviously, you and Charles are friends. What lead to him agreeing to do it, and how did the basic plot, etc., get created?
JS: Well, it started back when Charles visited me up in Ohio, when we first were planning out the Trilogy Tour. The Trilogy Tour – you may know, but your readers may not – was when Charles Vess, Linda Medley and I, and eventually Stan Sakai, Jill Thompson and Mark Crilley, all toured across the country together. And we took with us a giant tree, and what tied this all together was a certain kind of fantasy comic [theme]. And when Charles first came up to plan it with me, I took him down to a park near Columbus, Ohio, where I live, called Old Man’s Cave. It’s a national park, and a beautiful place, and it is actually sort of the environment I draw the BONE comic in. In other words, … Did I say that correctly?
BB: It’s the inspiration for the setting of BONE?
JS: Exactly! It’s the inspiration for the backdrop for BONE. And there really is an Old Man’s Cave, that looks exactly like the one I draw in the comic.
So we were going through Old Man’s Cave, and I knew that Charles would love it, ’cause it’s just filled with ferns, and trees growing out of the sides of rocks, and giant ledges, and deep caverns, and waterfalls. Like I said, it’s really beautiful. And while we were walking through Old Man’s Cave, I just spontaneously started to tell him the back story of BONE. I don’t really know why I started to tell him [the tale].
I began tellin’ him, “When Gran’ma Ben was a young woman, this and that happened. And, you know, I sort of pictured it happening here, near the cave.” All of a sudden, I got carried away and I told him the whole story. And, when I was done, he stopped and looked at me and said, “I want to draw that!” And I thought, “What?!” I mean, it hadn’t occurred to me to draw it, or publish it. It was just a backstory for the current thing.
But who am I to turn down the greatest fantasy illustrator in the world, right? [General laughter]
BB: Yeah, I think a few people would agree with you on that score!
JS: I’d say a lot of people would agree with me on that [score]. In fact, he just won the World Fantasy Award for Best Artist, this year. So he is currently the best.
But then we talked. We talked about it, and what was just a little sketchy backstory for me, we worked out into a really full-blooded story. I mean, it had everything. It had palace intrigue. It had everything. I just don’t want to give anything away at all. But I feel really good about it. I feel really good about it. And Charles’ knowledge of fantasy really added to my own [ideas], and I feel really good about what we came up with. I don’t think there’s been anything like it in American comics.
BB: That’s exciting.
JS: It is exciting. I can’t wait to see what the reaction is gonna be. I’ve seen books like this Europe, so I can’t say it’s the first time I’ve seen anything like this. It’s definitely something very new for American comics.
BB: Besides the facts that you’re such good friends with Charles, and he is the best fantasy artist working, what aspects of his work speak to your sensibilities, and makes him particularly suited to this project?
JS: Well, the first two reasons you gave are pretty high on the list. I’m not kiddin’! Working with someone you like is just a joy, in and of itself. Plus his quality level speaks for itself.
Personally, when I look at Charles’ work, I can see a world. There’s depth to it. When there’s a tree way in the background in a Charles Vess painting, you believe you that can go around to the other side of that tree, and see more landscape. Do you know what I mean?
JS: I get really drawn into his world. And not only does that appeal to me in artwork, but it appeals to me in stories, as well. I like to believe that the world really exists. So I think it will be perfect to create a fleshed-out fantasy world with Charles. I think it’ll be everything [I want in a fantasy comic].
This story, unlike BONE, which is a humorous fantasy, this is going to be a much more straight forward myth type fantasy. This is a little more straight forward, and there’s no Bones in it. I mean, there will be a little bit of humor, because I think that adds a lot to the life of the characters. But this is a pretty straight forward fantasy, and I think Charles is the man to draw it.
BB: What kind of scripts are you providing him with for the series?
JS: I don’t write scripts the way I picture other people do. They don’t look like a play [script] or like a screenplay; I draw little comics. Because I’m a visual person, mostly .
Usually when I talk about creating an issue of BONE, I never say, “I wrote an issue of BONE.” I say, “I drew an issue of BONE.” [Laughter] So, even for myself, when I write an issue, I just draw little comics. That way, the [script] and the artwork kind of appear at the same time.
And so that’s just what I give to him. He calls them little sketchy layouts, little scribble layouts. I think that’s a pretty accurate term for ’em. [Laughter]
BB: How do you prepare something like that? Is it mostly mental, and then it all just comes out at once, or do you do a series of thumbnails in preparation of the final version?
|Cover to Bone #40|
JS: I usually think about projects well in advance [of actually doing them]. Like I said, Charles and I talked about this, like I said, sometime in ’97. And it may have even been in ’96, I can’t remember if it was the year before or not. So, we began four years ago [with] just the early talks.
I let things [stew] around in my head for a long time, and little bits and pieces, little images, begin to emerge as strong power images. And those key images will usually be what I build the story around. I’ll have a couple strong images and try to link them up, things like that. And then, of course, at some point you have to get concrete and put something on paper. I’ll usually start with an outline, because by then I have a beginning, a middle and an end. And you gotta build your outline and start to fleshing it out.
Now Charles and I talked on the phone a few times while we were constructing the original outline. And, you know, he’d be talking and I’d come up with an idea, or I’d be talking and he’d throw in a suggestion. And then I sat down and I hammered out an outline, and started on the script.
So, does that sort of answer your question?
Then I just started drawing it, and I’d send it to him about six pages at a time. And then I’d get back this incredible artwork! [Laughter]
BB: Yeah, there’s some great examples of his finished paintings on your site. It’s just beautiful work. [www.boneville.com – under the ‘Drawing Board’ heading.]
JS: Very shortly I’m about to send Diamond online the first five pages, with all the lettering on it, ’cause it’s about time to solicit. We’re soliciting for the first [issue of] ROSE now. So you’ll be able to see that shortly.
BB: So, the first issue should be out in September?
JS: Yeah, the first issue should be September, and I believe the plan, at the moment, is to do it every other month. There’s three issues, all together.
BB: So he must be pretty far along in the whole painting process, then.
JS: He’s far. I’m sure we both wish we were further along than we are, but, yeah, it’s gorgeous and it’s coming along pretty good.
BB: Why don’t you give us the quick, Hollywood-style pitch for the story?
JS: Of ROSE?
JS: The basic pitch is that it’s the story of two young princesses who are asked by their parents to journey to the Northern end of the valley to take their final tests. The tests will determine which one of them will become queen. Something goes wrong with the tests, and the ancient Lord of the Locusts, the evil ancient Lord of the Locusts, is accidentally awakened and their test will end up being who can face the Lord of the Locusts. And Rose will be forced to make some decisions that will come back and haunt her granddaughter in the BONE series. [Laughter]
OK, that wasn’t a very good Hollywood pitch, but that’s the basic gist [of the story].
BB: It’s a great plot. And, yeah, it’s obviously related to BONE, but it’s definitely not what we’ve been seeing in that book.
JS: Right. While it’s a prequel to BONE, and obviously some of the characters are the same – like, the great Red Dragon will be there; Gran’ma Ben, obviously, as a teenager will be there, and so will a young captain of the guard, named Lucius, and Rose’s sister, the princess Briar, is there – but it’s a different tone. It’s much more like a fairy tale than the giant comic opera that the BONE series is.
BB: Is it an all ages book, like BONE, or do you think that it will appeal more to an older, more mature audience?
JS: It’s difficult for me to say, because I don’t think really about that. [Laughter] I just don’t think about that. I’m just writing these stories that have to entertain me, and I just assume that someone else will like it, too, if I like it.
In other words, I never put in anything I think that’ll be anything particularly disturbing for children. Not ’cause I’m worried about it; that’s just how I write. What do you think?
BB: I’d have to agree. I think one of the truly pleasant surprises with BONE is just how much it appealed to such a diverse audience. Especially people who would typically never look at a so-called ‘funny animal book’, or however you want to describe BONE. It’s just a great book, with a wide-based appeal to a diverse audience.
JS: That’s great to hear, because I do worry. I worry when people say, “Oh, it’s a kiddie book,” you know. I mean, I love kids, and I love that the kids read it, but I would hate to turn off adult readers who think, “Oh, it’s just for kids.” And vice versa. I wouldn’t want kids to think that’s it just … too much symbolism, or anything boring in there, either.
BB: It’s interesting, because more and more children’s literature is gaining a solid foothold with a wider audience than expected. The Harry Potter books are a great example of that, in terms of just the regular reading public. And I think that once the general public becomes familiar, or, perhaps, aware is the better term, allowing BONE to break out of the so-called comics ghetto this literature seems to be stuck in, then yeah, that’s gonna help a great deal.
JS: I don’t know that I think of comics as a ghetto [as much as] I think of it as just mis-labeled, and misunderstood. I think, clearly – I’m not arguing [with your point] – that most people think comics are just cheap crap for kids. And, you know, arguably, they have a point. [Ironic laugh] A lot of comics are just cheap crap for kids. But a lot of comics aren’t. So, it’s like you said; they just need to be discovered. And I don’t think they have to get out of the ghetto. I just think people have to realize that it’s not a ghetto, you know, just open it up.
I’m a big proponent of the comic book stores. I love the comic book stores. [Bit] I think a lot of comic book stores are like club houses for boys to read their super heroes in. [Laughter] “No girls allowed!” Although I don’t think all comic book stores are [like that], and I don’t think that’s what their potential is, either. I think their potential is something much greater, where you’ve got super heroes, and you’ve got science fiction, and you’ve got fantasy, and, you know, autobiography comics. Everything. You’ve got comics and you’ve got books. That is to say, you’ve got the [monthly] pamphlets and the graphic novels. I just think there’s a real future in the comic book store that everybody is giving up on. [Laughter]
BB: The operative phrase in your vision might be comic book stores, then.
JS: I think they’re a specialized book store, and that’s what their potential is. To be a place where you can go and there’s shelves of the classic book[s, that are], you know, restockable. MAUS. WATCHMEN. New books like CAVE IN, and CHUNKY RICE. Books like BONE. Books like STRANGERS IN PARADISE.
These are books that I think are going to form a core [feature of the comic] book store: [the] restockable item. And that’s just going to be just one part of these stores in the future. And then, there’ll be another part of the store where it’s the new comic book item that month, back issue sales …
BB: In other words, it’s similar to the way chapters of novels were serialized in magazines, which also carried short stories, before these were all later collected in hard cover or paperback formats.
JS: We, as lovers of this art form and as an industry, have to embrace what it is that’s special about us, and get it going, and not be so divisive about [it.] “Well, I read Marvel, so I don’t like to read DC,” or, “I only read alternative comics, so I don’t read super hero comics.” All that’s got to go. All that just has to stop.
BB: We need to concentrate on what’s good, in and about comics, in other words.
JS: Right. What counts is story. What counts is story. I mean, I see someone like Alex Ross, and his imagination is so completely fulfilled on the page, that’s what I’m looking for, you know. As a viewer, as a reader, that’s what I’m looking for.
I see the same thing when I look at Chris Ware doin’ ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY. He’s successfully putting his thoughts on paper. And that’s what’s fulfilling about comics, and that’s what we need to promote. Not at the expense of the hobby of collecting comics; that’s just part of our world, and it’s the mixture of the two that makes comics special, I think.
Wow. How did I get on get on my soap box? [Laughter]
BB: Hey, that’s great, just great, because this is something I was hoping we could talk about later. We’ll just talk about it now.
What are some of the other ways that you think we can improve comics as an art form, and as an industry and a business, since it is all of these things? I mean, it is a strange beast we’re talkin’ about.
JS: Well, again, I think we need to embrace the things that are unique, and the most important thing is to get rid of all the lines in the sand we have in the industry. “I like this, I hate this.” “We only read this kind of book, that kind of book is bad.”
All the lines in the sand just have to go. We’re just too small of an industry … We’re practically a dead industry. So there’s no point in trying to save anything. Let’s just try to make [the best of] what’s good with what’s left.
The art form, on the other hand, is as healthy and in as good a shape as it’s ever been. I actually think that the art form, the comics that are being done and the artists that are working today, are as good, if not better, than at any other period in history. And I include newspaper comics, the hey day of [comic strips during] the thirties and forties in the newspapers [in that assessment].
I don’t think that’s too strong of a statement, either. I think that we’re in the second Golden Age, when it comes to the art form, and we’re pretty much in the crapper as far an industry. It’s a paradox.
BB: It really is, especially since I agree with you observations. When you take a look at the diversity, and the strength, of what’s being produced these days – everything from what Brian Azzarello is doing in 100 BULLETS and HELLBLAZER, and what Warren Ellis is doing, to the great work Terry Moore’s doing on STRANGERS IN PARADISE, and your work, to all of the stuff coming outta Top Shelf – you’ll see a lot of good, but very different, work. And that’s not even touching on Alan Moore’s recent output, especially FROM HELL …
JS: Oh, isn’t that spectacular!
BB: It really is, especially when you sit down and read the trade paperback all the way through.
JS: I sense some resistance to the books, the collections. And I sense that from the quarter of our industry which thinks they makes their living from back issues sales, and the collectability, and the prices of back issues, etc. And just from people I talk to who just don’t like change.
But the future is in the books. The future’s in the books. It’s just the way Americans like to buy comics. I mean, look at CALVIN AND HOBBES. Look at THE FAR SIDE. Look at the sales of BONE. [Laughter]
BB: I was just gonna ask, how many printings you’ve gone through on Volumes One and Two?
JS: I can’t remember on Volume One. We’re on our third printing of [Volumes] Two, Three, and Four. Five’s in second printing, and Six is in second printing. And number One is, I can’t remember how many printings, but I know we’re well over a hundred thousand, closing in on a hundred-twenty thousand, copies we’ve printed and sold in the marketplace. And I’m sure not 100% all of those are off retailer shelves, but clearly most of them are, because they keep on reordering and reordering, and restocking them.
BB: And those collections haven’t really caught on at mass market retailers, like Barnes and Noble or Borders, yet, have they?
JS: They really [haven’t]. We probably sell, and I’m just being loose here, [talking] off the top of my head, I’d say between five and a dozen books into the “real” book world a week. You know, Barnes and Noble might call and order six of them, and Borders might order two, a week. It’s not huge. I see quite a few BONE in Virgin [Megastores], and I know when it was in Tower – I don’t know if it’s still in Tower or not, because they didn’t buy them directly from us – but I do know they did very well there, too.
But, you’re right. Most of my sales are into the direct comic book store marketplace. And I think that’s significant. That shows that you can stock a book, an item, and when it sells out, you can restock it. And that’s a best case scenario for everyone. [Laughter] Because it’s a high ticket item, with a high profit margin, and it’s a no-brainer. It sells out, you restock. It sells out, you restock. It’s good for everybody. It builds audience. It generates income for the publishers, the distributors and the retailers. And it’s a known commodity.
There’s going to be a library of books that everyone’s going to know they can rely on to generate income, just like there’s a core library of books that the general book stores can rely on. I mean, they know they can sell the classics. They know they can sell Stephen King’s library, etc. Right now, [as a comic retailer] you know you can sell WATCHMEN. You know you can sell KINGDOM COME. You know you can sell BONE. You know you can sell MAUS. You know you can sell CEREBUS.
It takes a long time to amass [a significant body of] work in our field, you know what I mean? It’s not like an author, who can crack out a book in five months. It takes … How long did MAUS take?
Actually, I was talking to [art] spiegleman about this very subject, and he was the one who pointed out to me, “Look, it took me ten years to do MAUS. How long have you been workin’ on BONE?” I said … Well, at the time it had been about eight years, that was about a year ago. And he said, “So you see …?” He was just pointing out that it takes some time for a core library to build up, but, as it does, it will generate money, and it will prove itself.
BB: And that’s one of the good things about it, that one thing that people who just concentrate on the pamphlet format are missing: it’s one way of keeping people in the field …
JS: I think it’s a great way to introduce people into the field. Because right now, I mean, with the heavy continuity of long term, soap opera comics, like X-MEN, how’s anybody gonna get into that? I know Marvel’s talking about their Ultimate X-MEN things. Good luck to them, at least they’re trying. But I don’t think that’s gonna work.
What I think is will work is, they have those, like ESSENTIAL FANTASTIC FOUR [black and white reprint collections]? Keep that in print. I like seeing DC keepin’ SANDMAN in print. I love that DC put Kirby’s Fourth World [group of books] back into print. These are things that people can come in, just like they do to a [regular] bookstore, and they can go, “I wasn’t even born …” Well, I was born then, but I’m pretending I’m a customer now, OK? “I wasn’t even born when Kirby did the Fourth World! I am going to buy this, and discover it!” That could be the very thing that creates a new customer, and a new reader.
And I’m not putting down, or in any way denigrating, a different kind of customer, or different kind of comic book sale. I think they should be complimentary to each other. Keep the old customer. The comic book stores can provide [all these different kinds of] customers with the kind of comic stories they want. Collecting is a blast, and it’s a great way to get people into comics. So keep the comic book stores filled with back issue bins, keep the comic books coming, keep the pamphlets themselves. Get the collectors. Keep the mylar bags around, and boxes and backing boards. But also put in a trade book section, with graphic novels, because that’s for a different kind of customer, a good kind of customer, that we can bring in.
I’m telling you, I’m off my soap box now. Ask me something about the artwork! [General laughter]
BB: Well, about the only other point I can think to make in regards to this topic that we haven’t touched on yet, is the idea that collections are also a way to keep creators in the field, and interested in doing new, exciting and – ideally – innovative work. The fact that, by keeping the stuff they do on a monthly basis in print, it will pay for itself in a nice way.
JS: You’re right, it will not only pay for itself, but it also gives people a sense that what they’re doing is worth a damn, you know? I feel a different sense of pride about the BONE book collections than I do about the comics. And they’re not necessarily … [It’s not that] one’s better than the other. ‘Cause the comic …
I can remember doing the first four or five [issues], and when I got the fifth one back from the printer, lining them up next to each other on the floor, and going, “Damn, look at that! Five comic books, with five covers!” [General laughter] And that is a sense of pride that I will never forget.
But, on the other hand, those books, man, they feel like books. They got hard covers. Dust jackets. Little extra things in ’em that I feel good about. Yep. And they’re permanent. Those buddies are permanent.
BB: Yeah, they’re things you can pass down, generation to generation. Literally. It’s nice.
JS: And they’re gonna stay on the book shelves, long after the BONE books are finished. And probably after I’m finished, too.
JS: No. I’m not very interested in that kind of stuff. These were fun projects that were ticking around in my head. The people I did them with were people I wanted to work with, and I’m pretty sure – despite the fact that Tom Sniegoski really, really wants to do some more Big Johnson Bone comics – I’m pretty sure that’s it. In fact, my plan is, once the … Have you seen the BONE boxed sets?
BB: Yes, I sure have.
JS: OK. They’re set up so that they’re … The whole story was broken up into three parts, and in each part are three book collections. So, the two box sets that are out, the first one has, obviously, the first three trade paperbacks, and the second one has the second three trade paperbacks. So the plan is, the last one will have the last three trade paperbacks. You with me?
JS: OK. Well, what I’m gonna do with STUPID, STUPID RAT TAILS and with ROSE is, I’m gonna create a fourth box set that will be an appendix. So it’ll be, STUPID, STUPID RAT TAILS, ROSE and then a third volume which will contain all of the short stories that didn’t make it into the collections, it’ll also have a chronological time line that puts all the stories into order, and sort of a ‘goodie’ type [section], that has all kinds of information and stuff. There will be an appendix, that’s the plan. So, no, I’m not throwing it open to create all sort of BONE spin-offs, or that sort of stuff.
BB: That’s good, but that’s also a little sad, to be honest. These side projects have been so good, and so much sheer fun, that it’s not like you’re milking it to death.
JS: Oh, well, I want to make sure I don’t milk it to death. I appreciate you saying that, [because] that’s exactly how I feel about it. I thought these were real projects, and I never felt like I was milking ’em. I suppose if I think of something else that really strikes me, I’ll do it. But I definitely don’t want to milk it.
And it is a little sad, of course, to come to the end; even though I feel really premature talking about that since it’s gonna be like five years before I draw the last BONE comic, you know, ’cause it takes me so long. [Laughter] But that’s one fun thing about this appendix thing I’m talking about, with STUPID, STUPID and ROSE; ten years from now, when the books are finished and someone gets into the books for the first time, and they read all nine volumes of the BONE story, they come to the end, and, “Damn! That’s the end!” But then there’ll be a couple other things that kinda tie in, and I just think it’ll be a good exclamation point on the end of the saga.
BB: Are there plans to put out STUPID, STUPID in hard cover?
JS: Actually, you know, we just forgot, and didn’t think about it. [General laughter] ‘Cause, you know, we usually offer that first [before any trade collection]. It sold pretty well, and its reorders are doing pretty well. So, we haven’t actually decided yet, but it’s looking good that it will probably get into a hard cover edition.
BB: And, while it’s a bit premature, I think it’s almost a given that ROSE will end up in the hard cover format, too, right?
JS: Oh yeah. ROSE is already looking to be one of the most ambitious things I’ve ever tried.
Well, I guess BONE’s pretty damn ambitious! [General laughter] But, I’m gonna finish ROSE before I finish BONE.
BB: Well, why don’t we talk about your return to BONE, then? Did your break, your intermission – like you really took a break – serve to revitalize and refresh you?
JS: Yes, it did. I had two goals, one was to work on the movie, and one was to take a step back from BONE and get, like you said, refreshed. And it worked perfectly for the comic. I am so refreshed, and I’m so jazzed, and I’m working on BONE 38 right now, and I’m really happy.
The movie thing, uh, is also going really well, but it’s just completely not on the time schedule that I originally thought it would be. I think we were very naive, and we thought that we would be able to …
Well, because BONE was so fleshed out as a property, [we assumed that] we would be able to just develop it in, like, six months and just get it out into production. And that’s what I took the time off to do, and I was just completely naive. It takes years to develop something like this. Normally, about two years.
So that’s what’s going on with that; we’re in a pretty normal two year development period. But, so far, everything’s going really well. I’m actually spending a couple days each week on that, and enjoying it.
BB: So you’re about a year into that process, then?
JS: We’ve been in development about 18 months.
BB: OK. So, in about six months or so, it should go into production?
JS: I assume so, yeah. [General laughter] I mean, that’s the plan. I’ve stopped giving dates out to the public, because I just find out I have to eat crow instantly.
Because Hollywood, I’ve learned, doesn’t operate by Newtonian physics. They have some special universal laws there they can ditch to whenever they want.
BB: Probably has something to do with all of those power lunches … [General laughter]
JS: Yeah. It’s the same kind of physics that my lawyer uses for billable hours. [More general laughter]
BB: That’s actually a great analogy!
How much of an adjustment do you need to make when you move from working on the comics to working on the movie? I know you used to work in animation, but it seems that a lot has changed since then.
JS: Oh yeah. This is a very different operation. I mean, this is like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel on your back, you know? I mean, I’m not trying to compare a cartoon with the Sistine Chapel, but I think you can see the analogy of the workload. I’m producing, writing and directing. I’m writing it with two other guys. We’ve got a team working on it now – we’ve already signed up the producer and the line producer – and, of course, Nick [Nickelodeon] has their producers. And we just haven’t even begun, and every meeting is a lot of … I don’t know how to explain it.
It’s a lot of work. [Laughter] It’s a lot of talking people into things. It’s a lot of listening. It’s a lot of planning. It’s a lot of thinking your brains out, trying to make sure everything in the script makes complete sense, and doesn’t go against anything else in the script. Actually, it’s really fun. Creatively, it’s been real electrifying.
BB: Has it had any effect on your approach to the comic work?
JS: You know, it’s too early to for me to say, but I bet you it has. I bet you it has. Because almost nothing doesn’t effect the way I do the comics, you know? I’m constantly trying to figure out some new way to do something, or some new way to look at it. And, for sure, it has forced me to solve some of the things in the comic that I was just blowing off until later [in the series], ’cause I got time, “Oh, how am I gonna tie all that stuff up?!” Well, it’s like some of it comes up in the screen play, and I’m like, “I have to find out exactly what the mechanics are of this!” So, yeah, it’s actually had a good effect. Not to mention that I needed a rest from the comic book, so it worked that way, too.
BB: Do you want to talk about the script a bit; will it encompass the entire BONE saga, or …?
JS: It follows the comic book fairly faithfully. Even more so now than when I started, ’cause when I first started, I was trying to do something else. But it’s pretty close to the comic book now and follows the BONE books through THE DRAGON SLAYER.
BB: Oh, so if things work out, we’ll probably see a sequel, then.
JS: If things work out, then you’ll probably see a sequel.
BB: Have you had to make any major sacrifices in the script regarding characterization, subplots, or the like?
JS: Not so far. Not one.
BB: That’s great! That’s really rare.
JS: Well, the movie’s not made yet, but Nickelodeon has been exemplary about not ruining what works. They have been fantastic. I haven’t a single regret, so far. I am having a blast. We’re really close.
Really, it is difficult to do this; to write the script. It’s really hard. It might be hard because I’m not a professional screen writer. But, it’s really hard, and we are really getting close, I think, to a helluva good script. Better than live action movies I’ve seen, I’ll tell you that. I mean, actually, I think the script we have is better than most live action movie’s you’ve seen, let alone animated movies. So I’m cautiously very optimistic.
BB: That’s all great, especially being happy with your production house.
JS: Bill, I’m extremely happy. I just caution it with, you just never know, the whole thing could go away, you know? I worry about getting readers and everybody too excited when a new executive could come [in] and the whole thing’s gone. We had that happen. We had a change of executives, and we had a bad moment, and then – all of a sudden – it was great. It’s just been great. So, you know, it’s a delicate beast.
BB: What made you take Nickelodeon’s offer, anyway? I know you’ve been offered a variety of deals over the years, so what made this particular one so attractive?
JS: Well, my humorous answer is I looked ’em straight in the eye, and I said, “I want a clause in the contract that the characters will not sing bad songs.” Which, in ’98, or whenever, that was unthinkable. [General laughter] Right? The whole law of animation was “Thou shalt have bad songs for kids.” And they, without blinking, said, “We’ll put that in writing. We don’t think you should have songs.” So, yeah, that was [something that made me] happy.
But that’s only half an answer. The real answer is, they really wanted to make a BONE movie, and they wanted me to be involved as much as possible. I mean, they really want to help me to make a BONE movie. And, even after two years, I still feel that way. I still feel good about it. That’s why I picked ’em.
BB: That’s good to hear, because that’s such a rare thing, especially concerning comic properties.
JS: You know, I was nervous, also, when I began talking to Nickelodeon, because there’s that whole REN AND STIMPY-John Kricfalusi thing in their past. And then, I remember in our early discussions, it actually came up. I mean, I had to bring it up, because there are issues of creator’s rights involved, which you probably know I’m pretty passionate about, and we talked about it pretty openly. And it was my impression that Nickelodeon, as a company, and the individuals there – while I don’t think that anybody I’m dealing with is actually [from] the same [group of] people [who were] involved with John Kricfalusi – it’s my impression that it was a nightmare for them, as well, and they don’t ever want to re-live that. They don’t want to go there. They would like to redeem themselves, or not be thought of as “those people.” And, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve succeeded. I have nothing but praise for everybody I’m working with there, so far, as far as creator’s rights go.
BB: Do you think that you’d like to continue working in the animation field in the future, after the whole BONE comic is done?
JS: Oh, I don’t know. I think of myself as a cartoonist first. And then, the disciplines are comic books and animation. I think I favor the comic books the most. But, I tell you, I’m drawn to the animation, but the animation is a mighty big ordeal. So, I think I like comic books. Comic books have a lot to recommend ’em. We’ll see. We’ll see, as the case goes. As long as I’m cartooning, I’m thrilled.
BB: Why don’t we jump back and talk about the comic, then?
|Cover by Alex Ross|
BB: Well, uhm, why’d you sell out and do the alternate covers for issue 38? [General laughter]
JS: Well, I hadn’t done the comic book in a while, and I felt pretty strongly that I needed to do something to get everybody’s attention, meaning the retailers and the readers alike. [Something to get] most of the retailers to flip to my part of the [PREVIEWS] catalogue – which isn’t one of the exclusives, so I’m not legally allowed to be on the covers. So I figured I had to come up with some little event.
While I was trying to come up with something, I took a trip to Spain, to a comic book show there. And I flew out next to Alex Ross. We sat next to each other for eight hours, and we had a really great talk. We had a good time in Spain. And one night when we were at dinner, he started sketching on a napkin this little picture. He had a little image of Thorn down on the ground, and Fone Bone kinda protecting her, as seen from above, and there was also some kind of harsh, glaring light. And he kinda said, “I think this is a real iconic image of BONE. And, if you ever think of a way, I’ll do that for you. Let’s do that, if you can think of some way to use it.”
And it worked. I mean, it worked. It got everybody’s attention, it was very talked about. And I’m pretty pleased with it. They’re pretty damn good pieces of art. Have you seen ’em?
BB: Yeah. They’re cool as hell! [General laughter]
Do you think we might eventually see some small prints, or lithographs of these pieces?
JS: I’m not sure. I’m not sure, I hadn’t really thought about it. I suppose that would be one way for people to get the other covers. But that would be more expensive than just buyin’ the other books. I hadn’t thought about it.
BB: Hey, you could always do it for the CBDLF.
JS: There you go!
BB: Why don’t we talk about what’s going on the inside of the book, get away from the Image conversation …
JS: The Image conversation? Oh! [Laughter] I don’t think of multiple covers as Image, I think of that as Marvel.
BB: Yeah. Well, at least you’re not doing, like, 13 different covers, or something similar.
JS: I noticed that… Isn’t Todd [McFarlane] doing like six different covers for number 100? He’s got, like, six, and he’s got Alex and Frank. See? I’m telling you, I’m telling you, it must have been a good idea! [Laughter]
BB: Aw, he’s just gotta out do ya!
JS: He did, he did. He said, “If he has three, I’ll have six!” [General laughter]
BB: Well, what do we have to look forward to in the final BONE story arc? You mentioned that it might take as long as five years to complete?
JS: That would be the outside. It could be three, it could be five. Because I do allow the story to unfold itself, and things could be a little longer, things could pop up that would be well worth exploring.
As an overview? Obviously, it’ll wrap up the story. All the characters, you know, will end up having their little part to play, and learning what they learn. And, within itself, within the three books themselves, there’s sort of an arch that begins with 38 where the Lord of the Locusts seems to be freed, and that’s what’ll happen through to the end of the story. I think most of the characters are gonna be together from here on out, all the [Bone] cousins, and Gran’ma, and everybody. So that’ll be fun, because they haven’t really all been together since the very beginning. So there’s some really fun dynamics I haven’t gotten to play with. I think this is gonna be very good. Thirty-eight is looking really good. I’m very, very pleased with it.
BB: It seems that the book’s gotten a lot more serious as the story’s unfolded, which isn’t necessarily bad, but …
JS: I agree: I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. I not sure I completely agree that it’s gotten that serious. I think it was very funny, with hints [of seriousness], in the very early stages. But it very quickly became a serious story where there were people trying to hurt other people. But I think the humor level has stayed fairly consistent, when the Bones are involved. They just can’t help it, they’re silly people. [General laughter]
And, even when there was less serious stuff going on in the background, I always tried to write the humor as if it was humor that could happen with you and your friends. Someone says something funny, or smart ass, or accidentally does something that’s funny, or reacts to a situation in a way that makes you laugh. I think that kind of humor has remained pretty consistent throughout the whole thing. It’s the background horror that’s grown. And, you know what: Isn’t that just like life? [General laughter]
BB: Yeah, yeah!
JS: The background horror just grows. It’s sort of like the comic book industry. [Loud general laughter]
BB: Does this effectively close, not just the BONE story, but also a major chapter in your life, too?
JS: Yes, but it’s not like I’m, “That’s enough! I don’t want to be know for the BONES. I’m knocking Sherlock Holmes off of the falls!” It’s just a novel. It’s a big story I want to tell with these characters, and I’m getting to the climax. I’m getting there, I’m getting to the point of the story. I’m not saying I’ll never do any more BONE stuff. I’ve already set up that I can, with STUPID, STUPID RAT TAILS and ROSE, but I don’t really foresee it. I don’t really see the point. If I come up with something, then great! I can’t wait to do it. I just don’t want to feel sad about it. I don’t feel sad about it … yet, because I have years to go. I’m sure the day when I draw that last page, I’ll be pretty melancholy. Maybe you can call me then. [Laughter]
BB: It is bittersweet in some ways, though.
JS: Yeah, but we’re not there yet; we’re only two-thirds of the way through the story. And, believe me, the big, fun, wow! stuff is yet to come. This is the big stuff I’ve been saving! [Laughter] So we got a lot to go. [General laughter]
BB: We ain’t seen nothing yet, huh?
JS: We ain’t seen nothing yet.
BB: That’s good to know. I’ve been with the book since the day it came out and … Well, it’s like with Terry [Moore] and the impending finale of the ongoing STRANGERS IN PARADISE; it’s exciting, and yet, at the same time, it’s kinda like leaving home for college, you know?
JS: Yeah, but it’s … I think that these kind of pieces, from SANDMAN to … What’s another one of these …
BB: Well, CEREBUS is nearing the end of its run.
JS: CEREBUS, yeah. I think these complete pieces are what are really going to define the medium in the next millennium. These finished pieces … It will be less and less of the endless serial.
I think something new is evolving, and I think it began in 1986, really, with WATCHMAN, DARK KNIGHT, and MAUS that year. That was the beginning, and those released the seeds. Something really changed in the ’90s, where a lot of people intentionally got into the field to tell stories that had endings. And I feel good to be part of that, I really do.