INTERVIEW: Jeff Smith Returns to "Bone" 25 Years Later

It's hard to remember now, but at one point Jeff Smith's "Bone" was the little comic that could.

Though it's spent the better part of the past decade as a million-selling series of graphic novels from Scholastic Books, the acclaimed all-ages adventures of cartoony cousins Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone started out 25 years ago as a black-and-white comic series from Smith's own Cartoon Books. The self-published series survived the ups-and-downs of the '90s comic market on its way to children's book immortality, but Smith never lost his D.I.Y. focus.

That's why the characters and world of the series return to Cartoon Books for the latest story of the three cousins in this week's "Bone: Coda." The one-shot special presents the first original Bone tale Smith has drawn since wrapping the original series in 2004 along with a slew of other backups and extras. CBR spoke to the cartoonist about returning to his life's work, whether he'll ever really draw Boneville and how his comics career is changing moving forward.

CBR News: Jeff, I know you had some issues with your hand that delayed drawing work on "Tuki" last year, but even without that news, "Bone: Coda" seemed to come out of nowhere. It was like, "By the way, Jeff Smith did a whole new Bone story. No biggie."

Jeff Smith: Yeah, it did come out of nowhere. It's the 25th anniversary because #1 came out in July of '91. And I kept throwing around ideas to celebrate, but none of them sounded like something special. We didn't want to repackage the books or anything like that. And as it got closer, we finally just said, "Let's do a new chapter of the Bone story." I actually had one already. I'd written it, but I hadn't intended to use it. So we decided to go with it in February. "Let's get a new book together!" I smashed it out, and it occurred to me that we should tell someone we're doing it. [Laughs] So it was fun to leak out little pictures and things. But it all happened very quickly.

I think it might be easy to think that you worked on the original series a number of years ago and then moved on to other projects. But between the fact that you started drawing these characters when you were a kid and all the work that's gone into coloring and publishing "Bone" through Scholastic, I wonder if there's ever been a time when these guys weren't running through your head or across your drawing board?

I think you've got it right. I never felt like I walked away from them. I just finished the story. And I always said, "If I find an excuse to draw them again, I will." And I found that excuse at various times -- posters and other little things to do. ["Coda"] is a bit more than I thought I'd do, but it's not like I'm starting an entirely new story. It's just one simple story, and it's really fun to see the characters again. They're more than just like Spider-Man or something to me. They're a part of my personality. They've been with me so long, they're family -- the three Bones. So it's good to find an excuse to work with them every now and again.

And it was fun! It came back fast. I was shocked because I haven't really drawn them in a serious way for about eleven years. Can you believe that? But it came back really quickly, and the characters started interacting with each other. It was like a day hadn't even gone by.

Do you heavily script things out before you draw, or do you just give yourself a few notes to go on?

I really just try to give myself a beginning, middle and an end of the story or comic book. That's just down as a few little sentences so I can get a handle on what they're doing. But then once I really start writing, it's pictures and words together simultaneously. I make roughs for a few pages with little rectangles, but then I start going as fast as I can -- scribbling in their faces and their words as close to simultaneously as I can. That way, whatever image comes into my mind for the position of the character and the expression on their face helps the words come out. It feels active to me. It feels like it's moving and alive.

By the end of the series, every one of our three Bones have changed in some ways -- even Phoney. When you came back to writing them, did it feel like some of the original edge had been worn off, or are their core personalities kind of set in place?

I think they're different in some ways, but they stayed pretty solid. I always view them as the Marx Brothers in "A Night At The Opera" or "A Day At The Races" where there's another story going on -- like a love story at a grand opera house -- and then you've got the Marx Brothers just causing anarchy. That's what I always felt the Bones were. But I do think they changed. They all learned things for sure. But how much do Harpo or Groucho change? Not much.

The first few pages you released are eerily similar to the opening of "Bone" #1. Bartleby is along for the ride, so things aren't exactly the same as the beginning. But did you want to tell a story that reflected the earlier work and brought things full circle?

A little bit. There was that kind of effort in some ways, but really it came pretty naturally. It picks up where they left off, and they are in the dessert lost. It's the same dessert that they began issue #1 in, so that's where the similarities lie. And by the same token, when I did the cover of this book I kind of went for the same colors that were in the first "Complete Bone Adventures" graphic novel on that cover.

I don't necessarily want a spoiler for this, but having read the series since I was in middle school, the most frequent questions that came up with friends while reading the series were things like, "What does a girl Bone look like? And what does Boneville look like for that matter?" I know some of these questions have been answered in the projects you've done like the novels with Tom Sniegoski. But is there a reason you've kept Boneville a more mysterious element, or did you just not want to draw that much stuff?

[Laughs] No. I came up with the idea of starting the story in the dessert because I'd seen all these movies or read books that seemed to start that way. When Indiana Jones first came out, it just started right in the middle of booby traps and chases. So I didn't want to start "Bone" at the very beginning. I wanted to get into the story after they'd been thrown out of Boneville. And I always thought that I'd show it in a flashback.

But then two things happened. One, I decided from a formal, technical standpoint that I didn't want to do flashbacks or thought balloons. I just decided I was going to do the whole book without those things, although later I cheated and showed some flashbacks in dreams. [Laughs] But I could never show Boneville because of the lack of flashbacks. Then the other thing that happened is that I started getting letters from people who had all sorts of wildly different ideas about what Boneville was like and what Bone women were like. And so I thought it might be fun to just let everybody have their own Boneville.

Speaking of the fans, I'm sure for years the #1 question you've been asked is "When are you going to draw more 'Bone'?" Does the "Coda" story allow you to say, "Here. I did it. Leave me alone"?

I don't know what this means for that because it was not very calculated. The opportunity came up. This is not a brand-new Bone story. It's just a one-off. Maybe I'll do another single chapter on the 30th anniversary. Who knows? Maybe I'll do even more! Maybe I'll do less. I don't know. It feels good to do this. It was fun. I really enjoyed just spending a little time with the boys again.

And so after this, do you know what the next project is going to be? With the drawing hand back to full strength, are you going to return to "Tuki"?

The hand did really well. I got through the entire "Bone" issue with no problems, so that's a good sign. And it was a really big story. It's like a 36-page chapter. And I'm actually putting "Tuki" on temporary hiatus. I got a lot of time to think about the story. The characters were really starting to speak to me, and I figured out what the story is that I should be telling. It's close to what I was doing, but as it happens sometimes, I felt, "You know what? I need to revamp this a little bit." So I'm going to take some time and rethink "Tuki." I'm sure I'll use the artwork I already did, but I'll probably add more pages and things like that. So "Tuki" is temporarily on hold.

One of the frustrating things about being a cartoonist is that people often get your first draft of something or close to it. Has that immediacy been something you enjoy, or can it become a drag on the process?

I've actually enjoyed it immensely. One of the things I loved about the comic book issues of "Bone" was that it was always like the opening night of a play. The playwright sits in the audience and listens to their reactions and then rewrites things. And I'd get comments and feedback on the comic books every time. And you may not remember this, but in the early days of "Bone," it was considered very gauche to change anything before you reprinted the story in a graphic novel -- as if you were trying to trick people into spending their money twice. But I always viewed it as a chance to fix something. But with "Tuki," I'm doing an even bigger change. But I can do it, so why not?

"Bone: Coda" is in stores now from Cartoon Books.

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