Catching Up With Jeff Smith

EDITORS NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to the current "Bone" library controversy which Smith responded to at C2E2.

Jeff Smith is one of those comic book creators that requires no introduction. He is the recipient of numerous accolades, including ten Eisner Awards and eleven Harveys. His first major comic creation, "Bone," has sold millions of copies in dozens of countries and was named by "Time Magazine" as one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time.

None of that means he's been resting on his laurels, as 2010 has been rather busy for Smith. Earlier this year, Scholastic released "The Bone Handbook," an excellent and entertaining guide to the series (which under no circumstances should be read before finishing the entire storyline). This summer will see the release of "Bone: Tall Tales" and this fall will see the first of a series of Bone novels written by Tom Sniegoski with covers and illustrations by Smith. In addition, Smith continues to create his ongoing series "Rasl," the seventh issue of which was released last month and the second oversize collection of which debuted at C2E2 last weekend. CBR spoke with Smith about his many projects including the last Bone graphic novel.

CBR News: So, how are you?

Jeff Smith: Doing pretty well. I had a lot of deadlines all at once, there, but got through them.

You seem to have a had a busy time recently, with a lot of projects that have either just been released over the past few months or are coming out soon.

Yeah, I did a lot of projects last year. I did "Little Mouse Gets Ready," which is a children's book. Some new Bone stuff. We did the "Bone Handbook," and I'm doing something called "Tall Tales," which is some short stories left over from the Bone years that I didn't put in the big "Bone" collections. I added some new material to that, so that's going to be fun. Then my regular gig, which is "Rasl." It feels like all the deadlines were all lined up one after another, so I was really putting in some time at the desk.

I can imagine. "The Bone Handbook," which came out the other month, was a fun book. Whose idea was it?

It was Scholastic's idea. The handbooks are something that they do with some of their series. Harry Potter or Spongebob. We came to the end of "Bone," "Bone Volume Nine: The Crown of Horns" was the last of the story. The book itself has grown in circulation, and they wanted something to put in that gap afterwards, and they came up with the handbook. I got into it because it sounded like a lot of fun, and again, there were little loose comics hanging around the edges that didn't have anywhere to go. They didn't really fit in the main story, so that gave them somewhere to go which was fun.

I really enjoyed the rat creature paper cut out in the back of the book.

Isn't that fun? I was really pleased that Scholastic wanted to do that. There's a guy who has this website and he does these paper crafts type of patterns for different things. He sent that to us saying, "Hey I've got this rat creature..." We were blown away by it. We showed it to Scholastic and said, why don't you make a deal with this guy and put it in the book. That's the kind of thing, when I was a kid, that I loved more than anything.

Was that how you approached the "Bone Handbook," thinking of what you would have wanted out of this kind of book as a kid?

Pretty much. I would say most of it was driven by the people at Scholastic and things they put in these kinds of books. It was their idea to do recipes, or maybe it was our idea. I can't remember. [Laughs] We might have thrown that out there. It might have been my wife's idea, now that I think about it. There's a few things in "Bone" where they eat different kinds of sandwiches or stale bread things. Or quiche. That's a big food item in "Bone." So we put recipes.

There was one thing that I always wanted to do. In "Lord of the Rings," at the back there's an appendix where Tolkien went back and wrote down the history of Middle Earth prior to when "Lord of the Rings" starts. I had that material. Nowhere near as detailed or as extensive as Tolkien's, but I had something like that told the story of the world building right up until the moment that the Bones enter the valley in the first issue of "Bone."

Having read the series, it was fun to see the retelling of origin of the world, the little details and how it was constructed in a very different way from how we learn these things in the series.

Obviously, if you haven't read "Bone," you would not want to read the handbook, because it talks about the ending and all sorts of things. It would be bad, I would think, not just for kids, but for anybody who gets into stories like me. You would want to see that. A new way of looking at why the dragons work with Grandma Ben and Thorn, and how the red dragon manipulated Phone Bone down into Grandma Ben's farm. That kind of stuff.

You mentioned "Bone: Tall Tales," which comes out this summer. Years ago, you and Tom Sniegoski did a book, "Stupid Stupid Rat Tails." Is this the same book?

I would characterize it as a major repackaging of that book. That book was about a sixty page story about this Davy Crockett-type frontier Bone. It was based on the idea of American tall tales like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. I always wanted to expand that idea a little bit, because with Paul Bunyan or some of the other colorful tall tale type stories, there's always three parts; when they were a baby, when they were adolescents and some story when they're older. I wanted to do that. That's what "Tall Tales" is. Tom and I worked together, and we've written those very parts. Baby Johnson Bone, and Big Johnson Bone meets his first love. There's also a Fone Bone and Phoney Bone story. The whole thing is bookended by Smiley Bone and Bartleby taking some little Bone scouts camping and telling them these stories 'round the campfire. I think it's going to be fun. This is going to be a good book, and it's a probably the last Bone graphic novel I'll be doing so it feels like a really nice ending.

How did you and Tom Sniegoski end up working together?

I was having lunch with Tom one day during one of the comic book conventions. I think it was in Chicago. He was just making my wife Vijaya and I laugh so hard we had tears in our eyes. Tom, at the time, was writing horror comics like "Vampirella," or something, and I was like, "Why aren't you writing comedy, because you are screamingly funny?" He said, "I just never had the chance." I said, "Well, let's do something." We thought of pulling this character out - who was just mentioned in "Bone" in passing, the founder of Boneville - that there was a statue in front of town hall to the founder Big Johnson Bone. We took that one little line and expanded it. It turned out really well, and it was a lot of fun and it was well received. It was just a lark, so the fact that he did such a good job is why we're going to expand a little bit and finish it off.

Tom is also writing some Bone novels, which you're drawing the covers and doing spot illustrations for.

Yes, he is writing some Bone novels. I've read the first one, and it's really good. It's very much like a sequel, and I think kids will like it a lot. It's not officially a sequel, because it's not a graphic novel, but I think for kids it will be a really fun way to revisit the valley.

When he came to you with this idea, of writing a sequel to Bone, how did you respond?

At first I was blowing him off, because it didn't appeal to me at all. I didn't even understand it. I'm a comic book guy. I think in comics books. He wanted to line a bunch of words up? Does that work? [Laughs] But he's written quite a few young adult novels, and he's very good at this and he pitched a couple ideas. He just wouldn't let it go, and it was pretty good. Vijaya ran it past Scholastic, who as I said before, wants more Bone. I just don't want to do anymore Bone. So this works out great for everybody. And I get to draw other comics and still draw some Bone so that'll be perfect.

Is it hard letting go and letting Tom play with the world and do it in his own way?

Not at all. I've worked with Tom and I've known him for so long. We'll just get on the phone and laugh and laugh. My role in those is mostly just to say - maybe the dragons don't really have that power. That hasn't come up, I just made that up. I just try to say, "These are the rules of the world," but I let him tell the story.

I don't want think that anyone wants the novels spoiled, but what is the story behind them?

It's a new series of Bones, two young Bones and a Professor Bone and they want to prove that the Bone cousins were telling the truth about the valley. No one has been able to find it since they returned. They do find it. I'll leave it there. And there is some pretty funny stuff. I got to around chapter two and was laughing out loud.

In tone it's very much like the comic. There's a lot of funny stuff, but there's some dark stuff in there. I was pretty impressed that he had the chutzpah to really go for it. There's some scary stuff.

Moving on to "Rasl," which you referred to your regular gig, has it been hard to shift to a new project and leave "Bone" behind?

It has not been hard to let go of "Bone," because it's never gone away. I've been very lucky in that I've been able to finish it in the comic book world, the underground world, and it almost immediately came aboveground and went to an entirely different demographic and generation with Scholastic and I've been able to enjoy "Bone" all over again. We've gone through the process of coloring it. I've lived with "Bone" every single day since I stopped it. At the same time, I'm now working on "Rasl," which is the comic I've been working on for like two years.

The major complaint I hear from people about "Rasl," and really, the only complaint, is that it comes out too slowly, which is good if that's people's only criticism.

Yeah, but they say it every time. [Laughs] And you know what, it's true. It does come out too slowly. But I'm old, and that's how it goes. I just sweat it out that it's good. I just want it to be good when it comes out. I can't worry about how fast it comes out. That's for the young guys who are given "Spider-Man." Let them do a comic book in three weeks!

After Bone did so well, and then even better after Scholastic picked it up, you obviously had plenty of options, but you really seem to like self-publishing and the serialized comic format.

I do. The reason I like it is because you get feedback. The culture of comics is that there is a dialogue between the creators of the comics and the readers, most famously when you think of old comics and they had letters pages. That kind of a feedback form is great. You can tell from people what's working. But I think more importantly, you can tell when you need to clarify things or make something more solid. That kind of feedback is invaluable. It's already been hugely helpful for me in "Rasl." In the second collection, which is called "The Fire of St. George," I redid one of the issues significantly because I could tell I didn't quite get the response I thought I was going to get. I redid so many word balloons. I added three pages and redid them so that so the story would flow and get the kind of response I wanted. I'm really excited about that. That would not have happened if I had just done it as a one-off graphic novel and put it out there.

The oversize format of the collections, is that the size you draw the comic?

Very close. It's a little reduced, but it's close.

Do you think there's a cinematic influence in your work?

There could be. I don't think of it that way when I'm trying to write it. I just think in terms of moving from panel to panel and just making sure that it's alive. There weren't that many comics that really had that complete sense of motion to me when I was a kid. Carl Barks with Uncle Scrooge, those were always very alive. Will Eisner's Spirit comics were very alive. They had that complete sense of you're not missing anything. You are in the room with them. There was a real lack of that in the comic book industry when I got into it. There were some. Frank Miler's "Dark Knight Returns" was like that. I just try to keep it complete.

You mentioned Eisner, Barks and Miller, and I can't help but think that so much of what people talk about as cinematic in comics is just part of the visual language of comics, which sadly people aren't aware of, and many cartoonists don't utilize.

I agree with you. Comics have their own very specific language and symbols, and there are movements and transitions you can make from panel to panel that can only be done in comics.

When people talk about "Rasl" and the visual language and style, they're responding to a lot of the same things you did in "Bone."

It's surprising how many people think I'm drawing differently in "Rasl." I'm drawing exactly the same. Rasl could have stood right next to Thorn and Grandma Ben and you wouldn't have blinked. You might have thought his hair was a little long. [Laughs] I'm drawing the exact same style, but because the tone is so different and the subject matter is so different, people see it differently. They really do.

You've talked about how, in "Bone," you had the rough outline of the story in mind from beginning, that you knew the last image before you ever started. Have you approached "Rasl" in the same way?

Yes. I've definitely done the very same thing. I figured out what I wanted to do a story about, what kind of characters. I wanted to do science fiction. I wanted to do noir. I wanted it hard boiled. I went out to Arizona where my brother-in-law lives and just went out into the desert for, like, two weeks. I came back in every night. It's not like I was out there in a tent or anything. But I would go out and [I] just thought about it. I needed to understand what all the character arcs are and what the ending is and what's really happening in the story. And I came up with it before I started the book. I think that's very important. You look a lot smarter as you're going along if the ending actually pays off.

Issue seven just came out, as well as the second collection. How much longer is "Rasl?"

I think it'll probably be 350-400 pages tops. So there will be three of those big oversize collections, I believe.

Have you started to have thoughts on what's next, if you're more than two thirds through and starting to wrap it up?

Yeah, I have some ideas. It's obviously too soon to talk about them. [Laughs] But yet again it's a different thing from either "Bone" or "Rasl."

Someone once said that every story is in some way a response to the last one.

Could be. I hadn't really thought about that. I just did "Bone," and it was one kind of story, and I just happened to watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart films while I was inking late at night. Also, the Jason Bourne movies came out while I was wrapping up ["Bone"] and I was like, "Yeah that's it." Humphrey Bogart and Jason Bourne, together at last. [Laughs]

It's known that you really enjoy working in black and white, but were you tempted to do "Rasl" in color? Steve Hamaker has done an amazing job coloring "Bone," and I'll be honest, he's done a better job than I thought was possible.

Me too. Once he got going there was no stopping him. The last couple of books were mindblowing. It's won me over. The black and white one volume edition is really my baby. That's what I wanted to do from the beginning. One big fat story. But I tell you what, that color is pretty good. I think it might be better. [Laughs] So who knows, we might do a color "Rasl." Noir lends itself to black and white, but I think there's still a lot that can be done with color. Not the same kind of color as "Bone," but maybe something that would fit. It might be good.

I know that I'm supposed to ask about next issue of "Rasl" and what we can expect and all, but I really don't want to know in advance.

[Laughs] I will tell you that issue seven is a wrap-up of the story arc of number two, and really it's like the wrap-up of some of the questions that people have been wondering about, like what did he really do, why is he on the run? That kind of stuff. You'll get a few more answers. Not all, but one big one. [Laughs]

I remember an old interview where you said that when you were growing up, you saw "Star Wars," read "Lord of the Rings" and "Heavy Metal," all around the same time, and that melange was a big influence. You can really see it those influences in "Rasl," which fits right in.

"Star Wars" came out when I was about to be a senior in high school, that summer before, and "Heavy Metal" came out and it was the 70s. It was quite mind expanding. It made perfect sense to me to mix Tolkein and "Star Wars" and heavy metal all together. It makes complete sense.

"Rasl" really fits right alongside those.

I take that as a great complement, that "Rasl" might have fit in with the original "Heavy Metal!"

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