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A Short Interview With Jeff Smith
posted December 31, 1999
 

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Jeff Smith is one of my favorite people in comics, and I think his fantasy comic Bone is one of the medium's great surprises of the last quarter-century. I had the pleasure to interview Jeff once in late 1999 for a section of the "Trilogy Tour" issue of The Comics Journal. I remember I conducted the chat in Kim Thompson's office without a lot of preparation, but Jeff has a natural gift for speaking plainly about his work so the interview went very smoothly. The interview was conducted when he had crossed bout the halfway point with Bone, but I think it was the first big one he did after his comic was revealed to be more of a fantasy than a humor book, like many people thought it was at first.

This was also the interview where Jeff talked about a confrontation with Dave Sim that led to Dave challenge Jeff to a fight, one of the odder sideshows in recent comics history, and something that makes me want to apologize to Jeff every time I see him.

What follows is my original introduction and the interview itself.

Jeff Smith Interview

When Jeff Smith sat down and interviewed with Gary Groth in 1994, Bone was a different comic book being published in a different comics industry. What began as a Walt Kelly/Carl Barks-flavored humor strip has since become a straight-ahead grand fantasy, while the industry in which it's published has shrunk considerably. Smith is probably the last breakout success story of 1990s independent comics.

He has held his position admirably. Smith negotiated the worse part of the distributor implosion scare by aligning himself with a then-juggernaut Image Comics (at the same time exposing himself to a brand new fan base). Returning to self-publishing, Smith organized two Trilogy Tours of like-minded fantasy cartoonists and enjoyed the fruits of a successful, accessible property: foreign licensing, merchandise, and an eventual deal to write and direct a Bone movie from Nickelodeon films.

Smith's work has continued to accumulate Harvey and Eisner awards, and the cartoonist has cemented a reputation as one of the more accessible, easy-going professionals in the business. I interviewed him in October, following the conclusion of the second third of the Bone serial. Waiting for word from Hollywood to determine the length of his hiatus from Bone, Smith is keeping busy with two side projects set in his Bone "universe": drawing from Tom Sniegowski's script in Stupid, Stupid Rat Tales and writing for artist Charles Vess in the mini-series Rose.

How Things Have Changed

TOM SPURGEON: I have a feeling your workday is a little more complicated than it used to be.

JEFF SMITH: Well, the days of just me by myself in my loft drawing the comic and packing the boxes for the UPS man, those days are gone. There's more things going on. I'm doing projects with other people, that's new for me. I'm working with Tom Sniegowski on Stupid, Stupid, Rat Tales; I'm writing a script for Charles Vess on Rose. We've got all sorts of other projects going on. We did Bone toys, all the foreign licensing. And a lot of travel. I still have to do a lot of moving around to promote the book.

SPURGEON: You were just in Europe, as I recall.

SMITH: I just got back from Spain. Bone is doing very well in Spain. Number 5 on the pop charts there.

SPURGEON: Do you travel from a sense of business obligation, a feeling your work does well for you having made the trip?

SMITH: Oh, yeah. I still do road trips to promote the book. I think that's the main difference between being a self-publisher and being at Dark Horse or something. There's no one out there reminding everyone that I'm still doing books. I have to go out and do that myself.

SPURGEON: How much of your day is dealing with the forthcoming animated movie? Is that now taking up more of your time?

SMITH: No, not really. It's still pretty early in that process. In fact, now I'm not working on it at all. I finished a first draft of the script, and that's been at Nickelodeon for about two weeks.

SPURGEON: And what you're waiting on is a green light from them at which point you kind of make the transition over to doing that full-time?

SMITH: Right.

SPURGEON: Do you have any idea what that entails? I know from your last comic you said you were going to put your comic on hiatus if the project was greenlighted.

SMITH: No, I don't have any idea how I'm going to approach it, Tom. [laughter] It's Hollywood. It doesn't follow any known set of universal laws. It's its own thing. I'm not banking on it, I'm not trying to schedule around it. If it happens, great. Because I'm also an animator, you know? I'm really looking forward to doing it. But the process is completely beyond my control. I did as much as I could to make the situation the best that I could. But at some point, it's in Hollywood's hands. And I can't worry about that, because I'm not a Hollywood guy. I'm a comic book guy. If it works out, great, I'll go do that. If it doesn't, then fine. At this point, it really doesn't affect me either way.

Once we get a green light, okay, then I'll have to figure out what I'm going to do. What I'd like to do, hopefully, is have some decision by the first of the year. By then, I'm getting anxious to start Bone back up -- the last part of Bone, the last 15-20 issues or so. And I think by the first of the year, I want to know if I'm going to do that or if I'm doing the movie.

SPURGEON: You anticipate that being a hands-on process?

SMITH: Yeah. I'll be directing it. And I'm writing it. So this first part of development was me writing this script with one of my old animators, who is a really good pal of mine.

Like I said, we just finished the first draft, gave it to Nick. Now if everything goes according to their liking, and we get the green light -- I do think we'll probably know by the end of the year -- then we'll go into pre-production. And I'm the director of the film at that point.

It'll be very hands on. I'll be doing tons of drawing, none of which will actually be on the screen, because I don't plan on doing any of the actual animation. But it'll be fun. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a kind of cartooning that's in my blood. Just as much as comic books.

Bone the Book

SPURGEON: Speaking of comic books, when Gary interviewed you five years ago, Bone was a very different book. You were still in your early phase...

SMITH: But, if you read that, I was telling you it was about to change.

SPURGEON: You dropped hints, and there are clues in the work as to your eventual direction, too -- all sorts of portentous things happening.

A couple of things that you say in that interview I wanted to ask you about. You said that the way you did the book originally, the lighthearted soap opera and comedy, was to establish a sense of place and a sense of the calm before the storm. You wanted to introduce the community that was ripped apart by the events of the fantasy. Do you think you were successful in doing that?


SMITH: I think so. What I meant by that was that in order for anybody reading the story to care that there was some evil force trying to attack the town, you have to care about the town. That's one of the things that I see in bad knock-offs of Tolkien, or just bad sword-and-sorcery things as opposed to those that are more thought out. Anytime you have a bad knock-off, whether it's a knock-off or The Dark Knight Returns, or a knock-off of The Acme Novelty Library, people just pick up surface elements and they don't understand the underlying mechanisms that made the thing work in the first place.

In bad sword-and-sorcery, you get somebody on a quest, he picks up a friend, and they go fight this demon sorcerer guy, and they're trying to save the world. But you don't care about the world, because you never met it.

So I thought it was really important to set up a place that we all like, that we all want to go. We know Gran'ma Ben, we know Lucius and his little co-horts in the town. We're familiar with them. And we like Gran'ma Ben's cabin, and we like the ridiculous adventures that go on. And that's what is taken away.

SPURGEON: Another thing you talked about was wanting to establish certain relationships between the characters. At one point, you actually told Gary one of the core points of Bone for you was the relationship between Fone Bone and Thorn. Which I guess has changed, but I'm not sure how to track that relationship. Could you talk about how that relationship has progressed?

SMITH: I think if someone was looking for the consummation of their relationship, that's not the track I intended to take them on. It is one of the hardest things to track, because in all honest I'm not sure where that relationship is at the moment.

But let me back up a minute. To me the relationship between Fone Bone and Thorn was very much like a crush, a high school type of crush, mostly on Fone Bone's part. And as far as consummating their relationship, I kind of think metaphorically that happened early on in the book. There's a couple of scenes where he's wildly in love with her, and she goes off to take a bath in the river while he's present, and drops her clothes off-panel. We don't really know what happens after that -- and I don't think anything really happened after that -- but that was the consummating of that relationship. That fills in for that need. And it's progressed now into a relationship that's more a partnership between them.

Their relationship still is the axis the whole book turns on. Even when they're separated from each other, one is always trying to find the other one. Even the final moment of that last chapter, when Thorn is lying on the ground, Fone Bone is the one who barrels down right through all the trouble to get to her. As far as romance... I'm not really sure where that's going. The whole story isn't scripted out that tightly. I do kind of picture bringing more of the romance back into Bone in the third section. All of the characters are back together again for the duration of the story.

SPURGEON: It occurs to me that Thorn is the one that changes, and Bone is in many ways about her self-discovery and her engaging her responsibilities. To look at what you said originally, that Fone Bone had a crush on her, it seems that there are parallels to how a relationship progresses past the crush phase, when you come into a full estimation of who the object of your love is, particularly as she becomes more formidable.

SMITH: I think that's very... very good. [laughter]

That's kind of what I'm saying when I say it's progressed to the partnership stage. That's kind of what I'm trying to say. I've been involved in a relationship with my wife Vijaya for 17 years now. And it's a very long, really powerful relationship. It progresses, it evolves, it's always changing.

I think... that what you said is very good. [laughter] I'll take it.

SPURGEON: Some of the character development... Smiley Bone is the one I don't get. [laughs] Is he just that character that resists any kind of character development?

SMITH: I have no idea. I personally don't really understand Smiley myself. He's obviously comic relief in a book full of fools. [laughs] He sort of lives in the moment and takes pleasure anywhere. He's hedonistic, he's amoral, I don't see his character going on any arc, if that's what you mean. [laughs]

Most of the characters, even Phoney Bone, are traveling some kind of path that's going to take them through some kind of transformation. Smiley Bone -- that will not happen to him. That's for sure.

SPURGEON: Is there something you're trying to say about friendship and loyalty with those characters?

SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's one of the most important things in the world. What else is there in the world except for the friends that you have?. There's nothing else going.

SPURGEON: Is there a situation within your own life where you've had to deal with an unrepentant scumbag like Phoney Bone? That seems to be the most interesting relationship these characters have, maintaining loyalty to Phoney despite the fact he does awful things over and over and over again.

SMITH: Well, I've certainly met people like Phoney Bone, but I rarely maintain relationships with them. I usually put as much distance between myself and them as possible. But from a story point of view, he represents just one more aspect of a personality. And within all your friendships, everyone shifts around between those different types. Even with your best friend, you have moments where you just can't believe how whiny they're being. But you don't discard them.

Phoney's one redeeming quality really seems to be his loyalty. At any given point, he will sell out the universe, but if anyone suggests harm to his cousins, he turns right around on them. He says things like, "Say whatever you want about me, but watch your lip when you're talking about my cousins."

So yeah, loyalty is a really strong part of the story. It's really what it's all about, I think.

Mister Unpopular

SPURGEON: As it expands into a fantasy, it seems like you're working with thematic frameworks. There's a interesting discussion with Rockjaw and the Bones. He's lecturing them on nature and power as opposed to good versus evil. So you have Rockjaw's way of understanding the world, and you have the mystical understanding of the way the universe works the villagers maintain, and the practical western way the Bones have of seeing the way things work. Is this something you're trying to present, this idea of conflicting frameworks?

SMITH: Absolutely. In fact, the whole Rockjaw part of the story -- which was not very popular by the way. [laughs]

SPURGEON: Well, it's difficult. It very much increases the complexity of the story.

SMITH: It increases the complexity, but it's presented as simply as I could. It's pared down to the point of almost being a video game: being chased, and just trying to get along a path to an end point. At the same time, I wanted to express certain ideas in the valley without having another scene of Gran'ma Ben sitting them down and explaining.

I thought what would be fun to do would be to explain these same philosophies from the viewpoint of children. Which in the Rockjaw story are the little orphans. There are all these orphans whose parents have all been eaten by rat creatures and they've all banded together to survive. They meet up with Fone Bone and Smiley Bone. From them, we learn their perspective on this mystical understanding. But to them, it's even more basic than what the valley people know. To them, it's almost instinct. It's what makes them start walking within minutes of being born, and knowing when to hide. Of course, for the humans, it seems a slightly more mystical thing that's involved in dreams and some other unseen forces.

SPURGEON: Is there something you're trying to work out these competing -- ?

SMITH: I'm not sure they are competing. I assume you're saying that this is competing with Rockjaw's philosophy. Rockjaw represents nature. His whole thing is he's trying to find out what side everybody's on, while it's never clear what side is he on. He represents a force of nature. And he says nature doesn't pick sides. Nature could care less about this or that, or whose Mommy was eaten by a rat creature. Nature doesn't care. And I think that does fit in with the underlying philosophy. The underlying philosophy of Bone is that it's up to you create your moral and philosophical base. It's up to you to decide who your loyalties are with, and to make the most out of life.

Does that make sense?

SPURGEON: That makes total sense. So that's the central theme of the larger story.

SMITH: Very much so. Rockjaw, Master of the Eastern Border, as volume 5 of Bone, becomes the literal centerpiece of Bone. There are nine books and that's number five. It's also the philosophical heart of the story.

SPURGEON: Which came first, the philosophy or the character? Did you draw on amoral characters in similar stories? Did Rockjaw come from what you were reading, or to embody a certain moral point of view?

SMITH: It's difficult to say [laughs] because I've been working with these characters for so long. I'm not really sure. There's a real mix of influences and early false starts on Bone, like the Lantern comic strip. After that...

A huge thing for me was Carl Sagan. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book was The Dragons of Eden, about the evolution of human consciousness. Sagan's idea is that with a primitive being, at the end of the brain stem you just have this little nub. As you get to a more evolved being, you get a slightly larger brain until you get to a human primate. And with each step of that is a closer -- how do I explain this? You're one more step closer to the kind of consciousness we now experience. This kind of ties into Nietzche's idea that the way men walked in dreams -- shit, I get this mixed up -- what conscious life was to men a million years ago is the way we dream now.

Did you follow that?

SPURGEON: I gotcha.

SMITH: [laughs] I obviously explained it very clearly.

SPURGEON: That's a hell of a lot for the last Bone books to follow through on. [laughter]

SMITH: Right. It's been pretty well... it's not a totally new concept to the book. I think it's there. I think I know what the ending will be. But we will see. Because it does change as I go.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an example of something that's changed? Or something that's surprised you in the writing of it?

SMITH: The dreaming itself, actually, was not exactly what I thought it was when I started out. It really was quite innocent the way it developed into what it became. I originally just wanted to do a flashback that wasn't a flashback. There were a couple of comic book conventions I didn't want to have in Bone: exposition boxes, I didn't want to have thought balloons, I didn't want to have flashbacks. If somebody's telling a story in Bone, you don't see a little bubble with their head up in the corner. I make them tell a story. If you're sitting around the campfire, you don't have a little projection screen there, you got to make people get into it with your words. So when I was trying to do back story with Thorn, I came up with the concept of showing it in her dreams.

Pretty early on, I knew that the dreams were not just flashbacks, were not just dreams, they were some kind of suppressed memories for Thorn that were being shaken up by these weird Bone creatures coming into the valley. And the dragon was kind of playing everyone as pawns. Gran'ma Ben doesn't really want Thorn to know who she is, because she thinks it will be dangerous for Thorn and the valley. So she won't let the dragon get Thorn up and going, so he kind of uses the Bones to shake things up and rattle these repressed memories.

Then I started to have an understanding that most myths have some sense of these unseen forces. Whether it's Merlin in Arthur, or The Force in Star Wars, there always some sense that's there more than we can see. And the dreaming just started to fill that role in Bone. And once it did, it became really clear to me what its role was. I always thought the unseen forces were there, I just didn't know how they were expressed or what they did. And boom, there they were. That caught me completely off guard.

SPURGEON: You wouldn't guess that by reading Bone, that that concept came late in the game.

SMITH: It was within the original context of the story, but not that manifestation. So I'm glad to hear it's not a sore thumb. [laughter]

Drawing

SPURGEON: Let's talk about some of the drawing you've done. It looks like the last issue was a lot of fun.

SMITH: It was a blast. I think of myself more of the drawer than the writer.

SPURGEON: Really?

SMITH: Yeah. That's the most fun.

I also thought that the last three issues you could really see I knew where I was going. I was having a ball, and it was all working. There have been issues where I'm in a really sticky spot, and I wasn't really sure exactly where I was going. And you can tell. The book looks strained. You can really see it. But when everything is working, man, I am like a locomotive with a full head of steam.

SPURGEON: The genius comic touch in that last issue was the appearance of the balloon.

SMITH: I was really nervous about that. [laughs]

SPURGEON: This ridiculous Macy's-style balloon as a grim sign of prophecy... you were nervous doing that?

SMITH: [laughs] I was terrified, terrified. But that's what Bone is. The thing I'm probably most well known for is the Great Cow Race, which is clearly one of the most ridiculous things ever done. I think on the one hand, it was completely the correct thing. Because that's what Bone is. Bone is this fantasy thing, it's all symbolism -- if you want it. If you don't want it, you don't have to have it, either. Bone can work on this really surface level where it's just humor. I actually think the two levels work really well. Comedy is a great way to tell stories and entertain. It takes the edge off. Bone is just this -- you know what it is. It's just this edgy version of a big fantasy story. I'm glad to have done [that sequence], too, because I think it will relax some people who were afraid that Bone was only taking itself seriously. It's really crucial that Bone doesn't take itself seriously. Because heaven knows I don't.

SPURGEON: Do you see this as a corrective, then? I don't remember a lot of knee-slapping hilarity in Tolkien's material, for instance. Does the seriousness of those kind of works bother you when you read them?

SMITH: No, not necessarily. I just think it's my... [pause]

SPURGEON: Your contribution?

SMITH: Well, possibly. Yeah. I'm not completely derivative of all my influences. [laughs] The best I can analyze where something ridiculous like this comes from is... In 1977, the summer before I was a senior in high school, somebody talked me into reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. And that was the same summer Star Wars came out. And I believe that was the exact same summer that Metal Hurlant came over to the U.S. as Heavy Metal. That's when I first saw it, anyway.

So in one summer, the summer of 17 years old, I got Tolkien, Star Wars, and Heavy Metal. Moebius and Bilal. And it exploded my brain. There was so much there, and so much on idea levels, story ideas, on fantasy, on comics -- I couldn't believe comics for adults. My whole life, my favorite things were Pogo, Bugs Bunny, Uncle Scrooge, which is really where the Bones come out of. So just to shovel all those things together made complete sense to me. I don't think I did sit down and -- I know I didn't try to think, "This would be a great thing if you could balance comedy with serious stuff." I definitely didn't do that, to this day I don't try to create that way.

"Send it to Re-Writes!"

SPURGEON: You've re-worked some of the Bone material. As I understand what you've told me, this began as a specific thing where there were pages you were dissatisfied with because your personal life had taken you away from the drawing table. Yet this is something you've continued doing.

SMITH: Well yes, but not to the extent of that one part.

I do the comics, I get a reaction from my friends, and from people writing letters. And my own ability to read the comic book changes once it's in print. I have a pretty good ability to separate myself from the work, and act as my own editor in a sense, even when I'm working on it. As it gets to certain stages, where you've got pencils, I can sit down and read it as if I haven't written it. And I think that helps me keep Bone from just sinking into a cesspool of self-indulgence.

SPURGEON: So what brings you to re-doing a page?

SMITH: It's when I don't get the reaction I was looking for. And the first time that really happened was when Gran'ma Ben revealed to Fone Bone and Thorn that she was not just this little peasant girl living out in the woods with her grandmother, but she was a hidden princess. And the reaction I got to that was not really very enthusiastic. [laughter]

SPURGEON: And you thought that was automatically a result of the presentation?

SMITH: Yes. Well, there were two things. It could either be I didn't tell it very well, or the idea itself was flawed. [laughter] I didn't really feel like changing the idea. First of all, I didn't think it was flawed. I think that that's the story. That's what little peasant girls hidden away living in the forest with their grandmothers are. It's also what stories of transformation are about: the little hick farm boy goes into the big city and finds out he's the king.

I went back and looked at that part of the story, this was in Bone #17, and would have been reprinted in Volume Three: Eyes of the Storm. The original presentation was three pages of static shots of Gran'ma, Thorn and Fone Bone, sitting across a table in the cabin, with Gran'ma just talking to them. "Blah, blah, blah," just telling them this back story, this explosion of back story. [laughs] That's not a very good way to tell a story. That's certainly not a very good way to present a pivotal plot point.

There were elements I thought worked really well. I thought the moment where Gran'ma Ben stands up in front of Thorn and says "Not only are you the princess of the land, but I was the queen at one time," and you can see a sense of Gran'ma Ben behind her as a young woman holding the sword and being a proud, Joan of Arc-looking character? I thought that worked really well.

SPURGEON: You like your big graphic moments.

SMITH: Oh, yes.

SPURGEON: It's not an uncommon thing for you to take three-quarters of a page or even a full-page and do your big comic book moments.

SMITH: I think pacing is extremely important in telling a story. You have six panels, bop bop bop bop bop, and suddenly I play with the size of the panels, without knowing it the reader becomes disturbed a little bit. Agitated. I don't think they should notice the panels have changed, but I think that they do. Something's going on. And then you hit 'em with a big splash panel.

Anyway, I just decided that in order to do that scene correctly, I shouldn't just have them sitting at that table. I needed to do lighting, have a little acting -- have Fone Bone and Thorn interject into Gran'ma Ben's explanation, ask questions. It's just not in Fone Bone's personality to just sit there and listen to this big, expository paragraph that Gran'ma Ben's spouting out. So that's what I did. I went back and re-staged it. I gave it some mood, I put acting into it. And I think it turned out pretty well. Well, I'm satisfied with it; whether anyone else is, I don't know.

SPURGEON: And did anyone complain that you changed story elements between serialization and collection?

SMITH: No, no.

SPURGEON: Are you done with it when it gets into the books?

SMITH: Almost, almost. [laughter] I'm bad. We go back to press pretty often, and that third one the volume 3 that's a third printing. I futzed with it even again just a little bit. Not too much. If I think it will make it better, then I'll make it better.

SPURGEON: You and I have talked about how this is really common to other art forms.

SMITH: Absolutely. Playwrights will watch opening night with the audience. That's one of the most important re-writes that they do. I heard that in West Side Story they completely flopped two major scenes. The Officer Krupke scene in the final version happens early on when they're still innocent, before the murder happens. Originally, that happened after the stabbing. Opening night, people were really confused by this light-hearted song.

And it's also not unheard of to re-work things in comics. Herge must have done Tintin stories over countless times until he's satisfied with them.

I think I do it because I care about the comics. I really want them to be really, really good.

New Projects

SPURGEON: As much as the Bone story is a personal story for you, can you describe the impetus to do the two new projects? Are these as personal to you, or is this your art jones being satisfied. The Big Johnson Bone story, and the...

SMITH: ... Rose story.

SPURGEON: You're drawing the former and writing the latter.

SMITH: Right.

It's a lot of different things. First and foremost, I needed a break with Bone. I was getting exhausted. We were doing so much: with the Trilogy Tour, with the toys, with movie contracts -- they're a full-time job [laughs] -- and Bone was reaching a critical, critical part of the story. One of my most favorite parts of the story. And it was exhausting. I was just like "I need to stop for a second. But I don't want to stop and drop off the face of the earth." Because that's what happens. I was trying to pull all sorts of things together.

So it's the end of a cycle, a big cliffhanger, end of Act II of Bone: it seems like that's a logical place for a brief intermission. Hopefully I can just deal with the movie people just enough to find out what's going on. The same time, I don't want to disappear. I wanted to make sure I stayed in comics, because that's really important to me. So I had a couple of ideas I'd been floating around with Tom and with Charles Vess we had talked about. Charles and I were just waiting for the identity of the hooded one to be made public -- which was Gran'ma Ben's sister Briar -- so that we could tell the story of young Rose and Briar in a prequel.

It seemed like it would be a good time for me to take a little break from Bone, but without stopping. Sort of like a working vacation. This is different for me. It's different working with Charles, and having all this knowledge of fantasy and story come flowing inward instead of just sitting down and working it all out myself and reading books on myths and things. All of the sudden I've got this other person who is really charging me up. And I can't even put into words how I feel about Charles' artwork. So that just gives me all sorts of new juices --

Plus I'm looking forward to writing and doing the layouts, and then I don't have to do the finished work! [laughter] Someone else can pull their hair out.

SPURGEON: It seems like if you're drawing on your fantasy background for the thing you're doing with Charles, and you're drawing on your Barks/Disney fascination with the Big Johnson Bone series. Is that fair?

SMITH: That's completely fair. Big Johnson Bone is a lot like the early issues of Bone. It's really a lot more Barks. And yes, Rose is going to be much more like Tolkien. That's mostly because of the strength of the people I'm working with. Tom Sniegowski -- in comics, for some reason, he's known as the guy who writes Vampirella, and as he puts it, "such diverse characters as Shi and Witchblade." [laughter] But he's actually one of the funniest people I ever met in comics. I couldn't believe he hadn't written a comedy. He did a back-up story for Bone, the Riblit back-up story, which was very funny, and I wanted to do something with him.

I can't remember the beginning of your question. Why am I doing this? The main reason is I wanted to take a break.

SPURGEON: The cynical supposition would be that this was a calculated effort on your part to broaden the franchise aspect of what you're doing. The snotty way to say it is that you now have three different properties to point to in your Bone Universe.

SMITH: I think that's fair. If somebody thinks they can be snotty by pointing that out, that's fine. [Spurgeon laughs] With the movie contracts, any prequels I come up are part of the deal. So it doesn't actually benefit me to create them.

I'm not trying to franchise out to sell them. I'm just interested in the universe. One of the most important things to me about Heavy Metal, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings was that there were these worlds, these fantasy existences that you can go to. I wanted to have the same thing. Tolkien created Middle-Earth, and you sure believed you could drop down suddenly in Middle-Earth and find a path and go meet someone. I wanted the same kind of thing in Bone.

Fun Stuff to Talk About

SPURGEON: How are things going for you in the comics market now? How much is the comics market a percentage of your business?

SMITH: My company is doing fine. Bone kind of settled down into 25,000 right away after the big fall-out. Just through the direct market.

SPURGEON: When is that exactly?

SMITH: Just like a year or two after... you know...

SPURGEON: [laughs] There have been so many fall-outs, Jeff, I have a hard time tracking which one.

SMITH: When I talk fall-out, I'm talking when Marvel bought Heroes World, December of '94, and things just collapsed. And I thought it was one solid collapse all the way up to...

SPURGEON: Capital being purchased by Diamond?

SMITH: No, even now. I feel like we've possibly bottomed out. But I'm not thrilled with the attempts to get back up. Anyway, we settled into selling about 25,000 an issue, and stayed that way with no drops the next three or four years. Also, my collections have gone through the roof. That first collection we've sold well over 100,000. I would say that's 95% into the comic book market.

SPURGEON: Really?

SMITH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: That's remarkable. The only other 100,000-selling books I can think of off the top of my head are Speigelman's and McCloud's, and those were not comic store sales, as I understand it.

SMITH: Bone is through the comic stores.

SPURGEON: Well over 100,000?

SMITH: Yeah. And according to Comics Retailer, volume 6 is still their best-selling trade paperback after only [whispers] Pokemon. [laughter]

So my business is far and away concentrated on the comic book marketplace. That's by far where most of our revenues come from.

SPURGEON: Can you tell me why you hold that strategy? Because conventional wisdom says the opposite: the future is direct sales through the Internet, or through book stores. I know you're involved with those things, but why is the comics market so important to you?

SMITH: Because I am involved with those things, and I know how much more the comic book store market buys. It's that simple. Vijaya and I have spent a lot of time in the last five years exploring every other market: foreign, licensing, bookstores, the Internet, and we're in all those places. Actually, we do very well with the foreign editions. It's in 13 languages, and it sells very well in all of them. But in the bookstores... we do okay. I wish we did a lot more. We do -- actually, I don't know, I'd have to ask Vijaya. We get orders about once a week from Border's, Barnes and Noble, for a few copies. It should be a lot more, but it's not the way it works. And we've tried working with small publisher distributors, getting all the small publishers together -- Fantagraphics probably works with someone like this.

SPURGEON: They do; I don't recall which one.

SMITH: Somebody who can actually get a meeting with a buyer at one of the chains. And then the big book chain will buy 150 copies for all of Border's nationally. And it's like, "That's it?" And not only that, but I talked to our sales agent, and I said, "Look, Bone is a comedy or a fantasy. Get it racked with either of those. If people like Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side, they might like Bone. And if they like Lord of the Rings, they might like Bone." The salesman would go talk to the buyer for any of these chains, and tell them that, and say this should go on the shelf with the humor books. And they'd go, "No, no, no. We know what this is. This is a comic book." They'd buy a small amount and they'd stick them -- they still do -- Bone in a little section with the Dungeons and Dragons games, and the rest of the comic books. All spine out, and all looking terrible.

We do very well in libraries. We sell a lot of Bone to libraries.

SPURGEON: Are you still frustrated by structural impediments in the comic book market?

SMITH: Well, yes. I'm very unhappy with the exclusives that some companies cut with Diamond. They don't allow for any competition whatsoever. If you think of all the genres that exist, only one genre can ever be on the cover of our major catalog. The only catalog, really, we have. And it's always Spider-Man. Or Superman. "Look, Spider-Man's on the cover." It puts blinders on the whole industry, placing it on this extremely narrow path. I'm not happy about that at all.

I think that the exclusives came about as a way... it almost happened without anyone being able to control or stop it. People made really ridiculous decisions, everything just fell over and plopped into what it did. To be honest, I think those arrangements, in the early part of 1995, probably saved the industry from a complete collapse. But I think at this point it's strangling it, and it only supports the old way of doing things: selling superheroes to obsessive-compulsive collectors. I don't see that as healthy. At all.

SPURGEON: I thought of your going to Image again after you signed with Nickelodeon and the Rugrats movie came out and did extremely well at the box office. And I thought, "Jeff makes good choices." You have a reputation as a sort of sharp operator.

SMITH: I don't know about that. I do know I separate my artwork from the business of the artwork. I don't think any of the turmoil that surrounded me, the comics industry, self-publishing, going to Image, I don't think any of that should show up or be reflected in the work itself. And I'm very sure that it isn't reflected in that work. You can read the six Bone collections right now, which is one story from the beginning, and it doesn't indicate when I went to Image, or when I left Image and went back to self-publishing. And all the rest of it is fun stuff to talk about.

The business part for me is to make sure I have enough money to do the rest of the Bone story. Period.

Member of the Tribe

SPURGEON: This is the Trilogy Tour issue.

SMITH: We're going to talk about the Trilogy Tour?

SPURGEON: Linda Medley and Charles Vess are being interviewed in this issue. I was wondering how much of an effect it had on you to carve out your own mini-community in comics.

SMITH: I hope you have a lot of tape ready. [laughs]

It was wonderful. Because I left one community very abruptly. The whole self-publishing wave or movement or whatever you call it sprung up so quickly and it was so spontaneous. And then it became this giant, wavy monster that had its own rules and by-laws and manifests. When I left that community, it felt like stepping off a moving train, and rolling a while on the rocks. [laughter]

Even Image, I didn't go to Image until almost three months after that. I think people connect those two events, like I just left self-publishing and went to Image.

SPURGEON: Well, I think you were kind of coy about the termination of your relationship with Dave Sim and the other self-publishers.

SMITH: I was. A lot of the other self-publisher bombarded me with letters and phone calls saying, "Don't talk about it!" [Spurgeon laughs] And I was like, "Cool." I wasn't looking forward to talking about it. So I didn't.

SPURGEON: Is there anything you can say about that now?

SMITH: There's not much to say about it. A lot of it is based around Dave's infamous Cerebus #186 where he published his little "tract" about women sucking the life blood out of men, and how they couldn't think -- there were just so many horrible things. He actually used my wife Vijaya and myself as characters in that little tract. That was unacceptable to me. He was crossing a line. And it wasn't a line that he hadn't been warned about crossing.

SPURGEON: He talked to you about it beforehand?

SMITH: What he wrote about was a time he came to visit me, and he told Vijaya and I a story, he told us about his ideas. He sat down on the couch and said, "Let me tell you the color of the sky in my world." And then he talked about what he wrote about in #186. This completely upside-down world. Vijaya and I sat there, and at first we talked about it with him. We were like, "Wow!" And you go, "You kind of have a point there sort of, but it's upside-down there at the end." And he goes on for like two hours. Droning on and on. I almost felt like I knew what it was like to be in Waco with David Koresh. [laughter] On and on...

SPURGEON: Dave can talk.

SMITH: He's going on and on and on, and Vijaya and I are like going, "Can we go to the bathroom now?" It was just so... he just wouldn't shut up. And finally I said, "Dave, if you don't shut up right now, I'm going to take you outside and I'm going to deck you."

SPURGEON: Really? Wow!

SMITH: It was that serious. There was dead silence, and he squinted his eyes. He took a drag off his cigarette. And that was it. We had a fun time. We went down to the first year at APE. That's why he was in town. We went on to have a really nice weekend. We didn't talk about it again.

Then that issue came out, where he told that story. My God, it's one thing to drag out your crackpot theories in front of people, but to put them down in print, that was unbelievable to me. And then he told the story about myself and Vijaya it wasn't how it happened, and he portrayed me as some sort of terrified, housewhipped boy, [scared voice] "Vijaya, stop giving away the secrets of the universe. Stop giving them away. I'll get in trouble, Vijaya." He completely changed the end of the story, which was me about to give him a fat lip. [laughter]

To add insult to the injury, on the back cover of Cerebus #186 he listed the Spirits of Independence tour show dates, when they were going to happen, in what city, and who was going to be there. The Spirits of Independence tour was something we had come up with -- me, Larry Marder, Dave, and Martin Wagner were going to do a tour. We were working on a tour for a year and a half, and we were supposed to get together later that month and decide when it was going to be. But we were having a struggle over whether it was about self-publishing or whether it was about just creators. My whole deal was never self-publishing. My whole deal was creators who are driving the ship. That's all I care about. Dave's whole thing was it has to be self-publishing. He got real aggressive about it, and decided that the rest of us didn't really need to go on the tour. [laughs]

So the whole thing was just like... I just had it. I just had it. You're going around and you're telling people they're going to get rich, be the next Bone. And that was just not true. And the whole thing... I didn't want to have anything more to do with it.

SPURGEON: From that unhealthy relationship to the healthy relationships on the Trilogy Tour.

SMITH: Exactly. Trilogy was everything that I wished had been in the self-publishing movement, and what I had originally envisioned for the Spirits of Independence tour. It was a group of like-minded creators banding together and just going around the country. It was much more healthy, much more productive, manner.

SPURGEON: Well, you had all the stable, nice ones with you. [Smith laughs] Every stable cartoonist was on one of those tours, and the rest of them are nuts.

SMITH: That's right. And the second year, when we invited people to join us -- Jill, Stan Sakai, and Mark Crilly -- all very talented, very stable, and productive cartoonists. With self-publishing movement, you're talking about...

SPURGEON: Well, you just said you were working with Larry and Martin. Are there two less productive cartoonists in the history of cartooning?

SMITH: Well, at the time they were energized and they had started some things. [laughs] I know. Larry kills me. It's [Tales of the Beanworld] truly one of my favorite comics of all time, and it's heartbreaking that he's not producing them. But he'll surprise us. Someday.

The serious answer is that I really found a happy place... well, that sentence is going nowhere. [laughter] I was really happy once I started doing the tour with Charles and Linda. We had a lot of fun, we put a lot of energy into it. It was a massive, expensive undertaking. But it achieved everything we wanted to do. It gave us an identity. It really helped Linda -- she was so ready to be discovered. And it was just going to happen. My whole memory, anyway, is that it was Linda's idea to start banding together. She just hooked up with the right guys. [laughs] Charles designed that tree... Man, those are the two best years in comics that I can remember. It was phenomenal.

*****

More infrormation about Smith and his now-completed fantasy epic can be found here.

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