CCI XTRA: "Boning" Around with Jeff Smith

The Jeff Smith panel on Saturday, July 28 at Comic-Con International in San Diego 2007 was a 30-minute slideshow of material from Smith's current projects including "Bone," "Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil," and "RASL," followed by a Q&A session with fans. The writer-artist's opening was a simple, "Thank you for coming over here, I'm Jeff Smith," which was followed by raucous applause.

One of Smith's first comments was about "how strange" it is to be known for three projects this year, instead of just his seminal work, "Bone." The slideshow, he said, would consist of "behind the scenes stuff and maybe [I'll] do some readings from some of it."

The first project Smith talked about is his new work, "RASL." "It's a huge comic," said Smith. It's going to be published in 11 x 17 format. The reason, oddly enough, was due to the commercial bookstore success of 'Bone,' which has gotten smaller with each generation of reprints. I wanted to get back to something big and spectacular and visual."

The idea behind the project was borne from the fruits of his other two works. After doing "a comedy and a fantasy and a superhero story," Smith wanted to do something different. He decided upon this sci-fi "James Bond kind of a thriller kind of thing.

"I wanted to do a science fiction story because I liked reading pop science books," he said, noting that Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan were staples of his pop science diet. Smith's fascinated with the ideas broached, especially the idea that an event can happen on a microscopic scale and have an immediate cause and effect light years away, and scientists have no ideas how this is.

"I figured it out!" Smith proclaimed, "Light is solid." Or rather, this is what RASL, the main character, figured out. He can travel from his universe into the fabric of light, then into an alternate universe. "This is the scientific/science fiction nugget that I built the story around."

RASL is "an interdimentional art thief." If you paid him enough money, and you wanted your own copy of the Mona Lisa, he'd go into the other dimension and steal it. As RASL notes in the 6-page preview from which Smith read, going in is fine, but coming out is "painful." It usually takes RASL two to three days to recover from crossing the light barrier – and those days usually involve heavy drinking and smoking.

However, in an odd twist, to go back into the light barrier from his dimension, RASL has to have pure thoughts and do good deeds and be centered. This creates a strong and complex tension that Smith has fun playing with.

The first issue will be out in December or January. It will come out "four to five times a year until I have about 230 pages of story, a complete graphic novel." He also notes that this will "probably be what I'll be working on for the next two years."

The next project Smith covered was the colorization of his epic "Bone" graphic novels, which is being undertaken by Scholastic Press, and specifically Steve Hammaker. The most recent volume released is Volume Six.

Smith's own contributions to the new collections are the covers. He starts by drawing four or five little sketches and sends them to his editor at Scholastic. Six was a departure for him, as he knew what scene to use, so he just did several sketches of that.

"Bone runs on seasons, like our seasons, and this particular moment takes place on the Autumnal Equinox -- we celebrate it on Halloween – so we focused on Halloween colors, or rather, Steve did."

At this point, Smith read a few pages from "Bone, Volume Six," then he previewed a little of "Bone, Volume Seven: Ghost Circles," as well as some new art created especially for this volume. Finally, he previewed a little of "Bone, Volume Eight." In this volume, the heroes visit the kingdom of Athea, the home of Thorn and where Gran'ma was queen for a while.

Athea is based on Kathmandu, where Smith spent some time. He wanted a grand, fantasy city, but not one that seemed typical. He also discussed the idea of a "prayer flag," as used in Kathmandu. A prayer would be written on a flag and hung from a line, and when the wind blows on it, it is believed to be blown to the four corners of the earth. Smith actually used this idea in "Bone," with the idea of prayer stones – instead of being hung, the stones are buried to carry the prayers to the dragons beneath the earth.

The final part of the slideshow was dedicated to Smith's recent "Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil" miniseries for DC Comics. As he was finishing "Bone," DC asked Smith to "play with some of their characters." Smith wasn't terribly thrilled with how Captain Marvel had been portrayed in the DC Universe, and went back to the original stories. "He's a funny superhero, done with a wink, and the readers are in with the joke, and that's right up my alley. Plus, it had talking tigers!"

A lot of his fans quizzed Smith on that last part while he was writing the series. "'You're not gonna put Talky Tawny in there, are you?' they'd say," and Smith's response was, "of course! That's why I took the job."

Something that surprised Smith, and probably the audience, was that while doing the research, he discovered that "this was the most popular comic in history." At its peak, Captain Marvel's comic book outsold Superman, Daffy Duck, and the other mainstays of the time. He also found out there were lots of tie-ins, like secret codes, puzzles, and a mail-away Captain Marvel club so that fans could join in even more on the fun. This was how he came up with the idea to put the titles of the various chapters in code.

Smith also created the backs of all the issues to be a giant puzzle, together they create "a movie posterish thing that encompasses the whole tale."

Smith then revealed that the entire series is going to be collected in an oversized hardcover with 40 pages of extra material. "They almost want it to be a DVD," Smith said.

The slides Smith shared were raw materials he had from the creative process, early sketches to "see what the story was and characters were like," which included a very rough version of the puzzle-poster, and the first sketches he felt he had the characters down.

Talky Tawny, in Smith's tale, is a wandering Ifrit: "a genie that can change from human to animal and back." Billy is eight years old, which helps to stress the gap between a "a powerless homeless boy to Superman."

Stylistically, Smith drew from the Max Fletcher animated Superman cartoons, focusing on a cartoon that was done with a very realistic approach.

At this point, Smith opened the floor to questions, the first of which was a hardcore "Bone" fan who wanted to know, "what happened to Ted's big brother?" Ted's brother's job was to stand at the border of the valley and guard it. A joke that Smith almost put in: "as they leave the valley, they come to the same place to where they met Ted's brother, and he steps out, but it's Ted himself, but I decided to leave Ted small."

Another fan wanted to know if Smith would consider trying to make a Bone movie again, possibly with Jack Black as Phoney Bone. "Yes, but I want it to be creative and fun and if it even makes a little bit of money, it'll be worth it," Smith said, adding, dourly, "Hollywood has not been fun."

Asked about a possible "Shazam!" movie, Smith laughed and said, "the best part of 'Shazam' is that it's [DC comics'] problem." He thinks, "it would be fun, I would watch a 'Shazam' cartoon, but I would not storyboard one."

Another tease from Smith: "They are talking to people about doing more 'Shazam' along these lines," and he explicitly said, "we will be very happy if it goes through."

Would Smith do an epic like "Bone" in color today? "I could go either way with it," Smith said. "The color appeals to a lot more people – and color works for kids, so I probably would." He then talked about getting any new project off the ground. "If you do a book indie, you have to do it black and white first time out. It takes time and money." He did note that "a new generation has grown up on the internet – and for them, color is free."

The subject then returned to "RASL." First, Smith's going to serialize it in black and white for two years, and then, when it's done, he'll release it in color and smaller sized. This way, fans will get "two different experiences: serial and the smaller book experience." Smith said it's possibly a lash back "against my success in bookstores" and to get something huge in comic stores. "Comics as I remember reading as a 6 year old."

Will there be more "Thorn: Tales from the Lantern?" Smith explained that he had donated all the original "Bone" artwork (over 1300 pages) to Ohio State University, and they asked if they could release a book of "Tales" as a fundraiser. "It's theirs now, so they probably will, but it was just so bad."

A final tantalizing tease from Smith, when asked if he would be a guest writer on DC's "The Spirit" with Darwyn Cooke, was that he had been asked, but could not talk about it any further.

The final question of the night was if Smith has thought about returning to animation roots. He has. Smith also said, cryptically, that the most probable way of getting the "Bone" movie made was to do it the way he did everything else: by himself.

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