Tom Sniegoski has written a lot of comics, including “Talent” for BOOM! Studios, the “B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth” miniseries, and he’s worked on characters including the Punisher, Shi, Vampirella, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. There’s also been a long string of novels including the Remy Chandler urban fantasy books, the “Fallen” series which was turned into a television miniseries, and “Lobster Johnson: The Satan Factory” which was published by Dark Horse, to name just a few.
For some though, Sniegoski’s great claim to fame comes as the only other writer to work in Jeff Smith’s “Bone” universe. He wrote “Stupid Stupid Rat Tails” which was published in 1999-2000. Now Scholastic has just published “Bone: Tall Tales” which includes the previous miniseries and includes new full color adventures of Big Johnson Bone and a glimpse of Smiley and Bartleby after they return to Boneville.
If that weren’t enough, Sniegoski is writing “Bone: Quest for the Spark” a trilogy of prose novels from Scholastic that will introduce new Bone characters and reintroduce us to a few more. He spoke with CBR about the new comics and to talk a little about what we can expect in the novels.
CBR News: A lot of Bone fans remember “Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails” which you wrote for Jeff Smith to draw. How did that project originally happen?
Tom Sniegoski: It’s really funny because there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. I started to see Jeff at conventions and a couple times we’d gone out to lunch and really hit it off. I would call [Smith’s publishing company] Cartoon Books and shoot the crap with Vijaya and Jeff. I don’t even know how much time went by, but out of the blue I get a call from Vijaya and she said, would you have any interest in writing the prequel to Bone? [Laughs] I was like, really? Why would you be asking me this? I guess Jeff thought that I would bring something to the ideas and concepts that he had. He enjoyed our lunches and thought I was relatively amusing and was horrified to find that my main writing at the time was horror stuff. He was like, what are you writing horror for? You’re really funny.
But yeah, X months later I get that phone call. After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, sure I’ll do it. He didn’t give me all that much. Big Johnson Bone finding the valley. First encounter with the rat creatures. I think that’s pretty much what he gave me. What cracked me up was as I working on the series he’d done an interview with somebody and gave them more details than he’d ever given me. I’m talking with him and he said, so I told the people that it’s about how the rat creatures came to lose their tails. I’m like, what are you talking about? Rat creatures losing their tails? We never talked about that? Oh, we didn’t? [Laughs] So I had to incorporate that into the story, but it all worked out. [Laughs]
At this point in “Bone,” Big Johnson Bone had been mentioned in one throwaway line as the founder of “Boneville,” so you pretty much had a blank slate.
Exactly. He basically said, I want to do something reminiscent of tall tales. Like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Something like that. Really crazy and over the top. I read a bunch of the old tall tales and I brought my absurd take on stuff with his characters and the valley and the rat creatures and all that stuff.
You included a monkey.
You can’t have a funny story without a monkey. Of course it’s going to have a monkey and he won him in a card game. [Laughs] Crazy stuff like that. That was ridiculously challenging to do because it was so daunting. I was writing for Jeff Smith.
Besides Jeff, of course, you’re the only other person to write “Bone.”
If I think about that for too long, I’d go into freeze mode and wouldn’t do anything. It’s terrifying. I mean it’s an honor that he would ask me to do it, but at the same time, you’d better bring it. Everything you got, throw it all on the table, pal. You better not disappoint.
You’ve written a lot of comics. What did you give Jeff, a full script?
Yeah, I gave him a full script, which is what I was used to doing. He basically said, go ahead, I don’t care. If that’s what you’re comfortable with doing, give me a full script. We tweaked as it was being drawn here and there. If I gave him too many panels he would chop it down and say, I don’t want to draw that many panels, what if we did it in four panels and showed this, which is something that I’m always pretty open with with artists. If they can do it better in terms of laying it out, I always say, don’t feel like I’m going to get pissed off at you because you altered my script. I have no problem at all if you can make it better, do it.
The book came out, did well. “Bone” gets reprinted by Scholastic and becomes even bigger. At what point did you guys have a conversation about reprinting the book and doing new stories?
He had always said that he wanted to do more Big Johnson Bone stories. I was always like, just let me know when you want to it. Time would go by. He would get busy. I would get busy. Every time we talked though, always towards the end of the conversation it turned to, we should do some more BIg Johnson Bone stories. That eventually evolved into, because so many people never saw “Stupid Stupid Rat Tails,” I want to do a big collection of it in hardcover and add a bunch of new stories to it. Some more tall tales. I locked onto that and would bring it up. He was always one hundred percent for it as we were talking and he would say, when are you going to do it? I would always sense that he wasn’t quite ready yet. I said I’ll do it as soon as I’m done doing what I’m doing and I feel that you’ve got time in your schedule and…
Around a year and a half, maybe two years ago, we started talking about it all the more seriously. Scholastic had picked up “Bone” and he was like, we’re coming up on the end of the Bone material and when that’s done we’re going to do “Rose” and “Stupid Stupid Rat Tails.” It kind of went hand in hand with the fact that I was trying to get him to do the prose books.
Had the two of you talked about specifics before that point?
Again it was like, let’s go back to the tall tales stuff. I was like, what about the birth of Big Johnson? A lot of it was literally just batting stupid things around that we would laugh at on the phone, but eventually these things would actually take root inside my head and become goofy little stories. I literally wrote two and three sentence things and said how about one story is this and one story is this. He was like, that’s great, and then he talked about doing the wrap-arounds with Smiley Bone and the Bone scouts. He was working on that while I was scripting the Baby Johnson Bone first.
As far as the process, was it pretty much the same as before?
Exactly that. We would talk, we would laugh, we would goof around. I’d go off for a couple of months and then I’d email the script to Vijaya and say, what do you think, do you think it’s funny. Then Jeff would sit down and do his thing. He would look at it and lay it out according to my script. If he had a problem with my script or if he wanted to do something differently he would tweak it and then call me up and say, I tweaked it on page seven where you had this happening, I changed it a little bit, what do you think? Then he would describe it or send me the thumbnails and we would rework it to the point where we were both happy. It was really collaborative.
He’s great. When I was doing the original Big Johnson Bone story I would be out on a Sunday afternoon running errands and come home to find a message on my answering machine which would be him laughing. He’d be like, I’m drawing the page where Big Johnson is doing this and it’s great. Just wanted to tell you. Click. It was really rewarding to know that Jeff Smith just called and said my script is funny. Then he would yell because my characters talk too much. That was his big thing. “Your characters just talk and talk. I can’t fit the drawings in the panel with all those words balloons.” I’m like, hey, if it bothers you, fix it.
You mentioned the novels before. How did this start? Did you pitch Jeff this idea?
I don’t think he remembers how much of a battle I had with him about these. I always thought it was a great idea. One of those things that came to me out of the blue. It’s such a fertile universe, the valley and those characters he created are so cool, but the potential to create other characters within those environments is just really rich. I would call him up and say, look, when “Bone” is done at Scholastic, guess what, it’s done. You don’t have anything more. It’s over. Look what you created. You barely scratched the surface of this whole universe that you created. This went back and forth for months and months and months.
I don’t know if specifically he just didn’t want to listen, because it’s almost as if he didn’t understand what I was talking about. I kept saying, prose novels. They could have sporadic illustrations throughout them. It’s a really cool way to take readers, especially younger readers that have gone all the way through all the comic books, and take them to the next step in their reading. They’ve gone from comic books to chapter books. It’s a nice transition for younger readers, especially if you’re thinking in regards to Scholastic and how they sell stuff through book clubs. I would repeat it and I would talk about it and say how cool it was and he would humor me. That’s basically the best way to describe it. I knew he was looking out the window at birds flying by and not thinking any further than that.
It was not last San Diego [Comic-Con International] but the San Diego before that. I went up to the Cartoon Books booth just as Vijaya was getting there and I said, I know you probably don’t want to hear from me, I know Jeff is probably sick of listening to me. I said, give me five minutes to explain what I’m talking about. Literally we were standing in the aisle in front of Cartoon Books and I ran it down. When “Bone” is done, it’s done. This is a way to continue the Bone universe. New characters. New situations. I wish I had a camera on her face, because you could see that what I was saying was really starting to sink in. I knew I had her when she said, “like the ‘Wizard of Oz’ books.” I said, “exactly.”
By the end of San Diego that year, she’d already had a meeting with Scholastic about it. From that point the ball started rolling. I started to talk with David Saylor who is the hoi polloi at Scholastic’s Graphix line and I had to do outlines. It was all very exciting. Then of course after pitching this for so long and agreeing to do it, I was terrified. My god, what have I done? [Laughs] I’ve got to make “Bone” work in book form. Holy crap.
Did you have the idea for trilogy when you first talked to Jeff about this?
Not really. I was waiting for the go ahead to say hey, that’s a good idea. And then I would let the gears start spinning and try to come up with something really entertaining with cool characters that play up the mythologies that Jeff introduced in the original series. As soon as Vijaya said, this is cool, we could do this, that’s when I started to put pen to paper and try to scribble and outline, because of course I had to show Jeff and Vijaya what I was thinking, as well as Scholastic.
So it was more some loose ideas and the tone.
Exactly. The tone is very much like what Jeff did with “Bone.” There’s moments of comedy, moments of suspense. It’s got all the beats I think that Jeff attempted to pull off with the original series. I don’t think it would be “Bone” without that. It was a very conscious effort on my part to give it that very real I didn’t want to make it outrageously different. The only thing I might say, this might be a little scarier in parts than “Bone,” but at the same time, when I think about it, maybe not. “Bone” had some pretty creepy, scary parts too.
So you’ve written the “Quest for the Spark” trilogy that’s coming out over the next couple years. In the back of your head, do you have ideas for other stories and what else you could do, assuming Scholastic is amenable?
I have my fingers crossed that they’ll most definitely want to. I think a lot of the characters that I introduce in this trilogy could have their own solo adventures. I introduce this scientist/adventurer characters with his twin niece and nephew from Boneville that are really fun to write so I know I could do at least a couple good stories with them. There’s an ex-Veni Yan priest who’s a Han Solo-type character who was a blast to write. There’s definitely places to go with the stuff that I’ve introduced in the trilogy. I would like to do a bone scouts book. The characters that Jeff introduces briefly in the “Tall Tales” are a riot. I can see a Huey, Dewey, and Louie-type vibe with them. It’s very very fertile ground.
You’ve talked about the pressure of a project like this, but it must be really gratifying knowing that they trust you enough to say, “show us what you can do.”
It’s funny, too, because most of this pressure comes from me. I’m putting the pressure on myself. When I delivered the first book, Vijaya purposely didn’t read it for days. She was terrified, what if it sucked? What am I going to do if this book stinks?
Not only does it stink, but then they have to tell you.
Right. There was a lot riding on this book being good and to tell you the truth, if I had taken the time to think about it a little more closely, I probably would have crawled into a ball under the couch and not done anything. In the conversations with Vijaya after they’d read it and liked it a lot, I was like, oh my god, there’s a lot riding on this. [Laughs] Scholastic is putting all this money into marketing. Jeff and Vijaya continuing the franchise. Holy crap. What did I agree to?
About how long is the book? I know you mentioned it’s a chapter book.
On my computer it’s probably about two hundred pages. There’s a lot of story, though. When I think back on it, man I was ambitious. [Laughs] I probably could have gotten away with much less. But now it’s like, crap, I have to resolve that and I only have one more book left. All that stuff I introduced, now I have to resolve all that.
I don’t think anyone reading this wants the book spoiled in any way, but what would you say to introduce the book in a dustjacket-esque summary.
Basically, it’s a return to the valley. All these kinds of characters that you don’t see fitting together being brought together in this “Magnificent Seven”-type way to combat this dark threat that’s first threatening the dreaming, spreading from the dreaming into the valley and then threatening to go beyond the valley. It’s these unlikely heroes doing combat with this supernatural threat. The first book is kind of how they all come together and the second book is them learning to grasp the concept that they are heroes, in that they need to do this or some really horrible things are going to happen. And of course the third book is the resolution of all that stuff and how they go about defeating the threat.
You mentioned there will be new Bone characters in the book.
We have three new Bone characters. Percival Bone who is kind of like the scientist/explorer who has this sky ship. He has twin niece and nephew that accompany him. They get there by accident. He would never bring them into danger.
There’s a powerful storm that hits where the dirigible is kept. They happened to be helping their uncle and the ship gets blown away while they’re on board and they wind up in the valley. Then there’s a turnip farmer named Tom Elm, who’s our focus. He’s eleven or twelve and he’s chosen by a representative of the dreaming to champion this cause to defeat the evil that’s threatening the valley. There’s a disgruntled Veni Yan priest, an old drunken guy who gets pulled back into the cause. He’s a really interesting character. And the two rat creatures are in it.
The two rat creatures who were always there?
Yeah, those two. Jeff says that he is amazed at how well I nailed those two characters in book form. He said he was laughing out loud and waking up Vijaya.
That’s as good a complement as you can get. Even if it’s not spelled out in the books, how long has it been since the events in “Bone?”
We’ve never discussed it. The Bones have definitely returned from the valley and returned to Boneville and become celebrities with their stories, but at the same time you have the Bone adventurers society saying they’re making it all up. They could never find that valley again. Where is this valley? We don’t know where it is and you can’t tell us, so they’re not disgraced, but they’ve become disappointed and go into seclusion. The character Percival Bone and the twins are going to show them that the Bone cousins were right. They’re definitely talked about. If I had to pull a number out of my butt, I’d say it’s been a year or two.