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CR Holiday Interview #16 -- Jeff Smith
posted March 22, 2012
 

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imageThe year 2011 was the 20th year anniversary for Bone, Jeff Smith's well-loved fantasy epic that has enjoyed successful runs in serial comics form, in trade paperback form, in massive collections, in color serial volumes aimed at the slightly unlikely audience of North American schoolchildren, and now in a deluxe, full-color, under-one-cover format. I remain very fond of Bone. I'm particularly taken by how lightly Smith pushes theme in a genre where theme is worn -- literally -- like armor. Bone works as both an extended, pleasurable, action-adventure story and for its almost casual development of ideas such as how single instants of commitment and intimacy can alter lives, how bad decisions can be as important as good ones, and how we orient ourselves towards the idea and reality of home.

The Columbus, Ohio-based cartoonist has continued to put his comics chops on display in the series RASL, four years old this March. RASL combines science fiction with true science literature and, of all things, noir. The latest issue, #12, featured a classic, all-time information dump that related the story of Nikola Tesla while underscoring how dependent we are on narratives -- personal, biographical, pulp -- and narrators to help us figure out the truth. Smith is closing in on the final sequences of that book, and will finish the saga in the next few issues.

Smith has always been extremely supportive of this site and my work generally, for which I'm forever grateful. It was fun to catch up with him on the phone in early December. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Did you get a chance to reflect on the occasion of this year's anniversary? Did you look back at all on how things have developed over the last 20 years? Was that a part of your year at all?

JEFF SMITH: Actually, it was, but the year before. That's when I spent a lot of time thinking back. Vijaya and I were talking what we were going to do the next year. I knew our 20th anniversary was coming up, so in 2010 we put our heads together to figure out what we could do to celebrate. We came up with this idea for the color one-volume edition. Make it deluxe. We have the absolute-type thing, and we have the fancy one with the gold coin and all of that stuff. I had to write an essay and do a timeline. That really made me reflect on the last 20 years. I was kind of amazed looking back on it. Twenty years is a lot of time. You can do a lot of shit in 20 years. [laughter]

So I did spend quite a bit of time in reflection.

SPURGEON: Did anything pop out at you from that 20 years, maybe something you hadn't thought of before?

SMITH: One thing that popped out at me that I hadn't really thought about was some of the bad times. [laughs] You kind of move past those and keep moving.

imageSPURGEON: Is there an example of a bad time? Because your career path looks pretty positive from the outside-in.

SMITH: [laughs] Well, good. I'm glad. [laughter] 2001 was a bad year for me. We had a lot of money troubles. I got into these rows with Dave Sim and Linda Medley, and it was very demoralizing. I forgot how close we came to going out of business. We put a bunch of money into toys -- toys were really big -- in 1999 and 2000. We didn't lose any money in the long run, but it tied up a whole bunch of money for a long time. Then the problems we had with Linda. I was slowing down my output right around that time, because I was getting into the heavy parts of the story and it was hard to write. Just a lot of factors came together. I forgot how tough that was. We had to let all our employees go. We had to leave our office. I completely forgot that there was a year when Vijaya and I and Kathleen -- Kathleen Glosan, our production manager -- the three of us were all in my one-room studio above the garage trying to survive. Eventually we did.

SPURGEON: Was it just a matter of getting the book out until the money situation improved? Did you... stop fighting with people? [laughter] Did people stop fighting with you? What led you out of the desert?

SMITH: I don't know, man. I don't know why I got into fights with people that year. I didn't feel like I was fighting with people. I just mostly felt like people were getting upset with me. I don't know. We just had to tighten our belts in the hopes we could ride it out, and eventually we did. We were smarter about things. We stopped doing the toys, obviously. That was silly. We were always thinking about ways to repackage the books. Eventually we pulled it together.

SPURGEON: People might be astonished to hear that you went through that tough of a time, given your reputation for being very successful after Bone finally hit. That makes me wonder... do we underestimate the degree of difficulty in you getting where you are? People wonder at times why we don't see more people following the Jeff Smith model, why we don't see stories similar to yours.

SMITH: [laughs] I'm sure I don't know the answer to why anybody else hasn't done it like that, except they're probably sane. [laughter] You're constantly battling with distributors, or people that aren't doing their job. It's a pretty big enterprise. You're dealing with printers that are sometimes overseas -- sometimes they're in Michigan. You're dealing with licensing in foreign languages and suddenly a publisher goes out of business and hasn't paid you. It's fairly complicated.

SPURGEON: It seems like you're at a similar point right now, at least creatively, in terms of gearing up for a final push on RASL. Is it fair to say you're locking into that last phase on that series?

SMITH: I was entering the final arc on Bone at that time. The final movement. It became very difficult because of how complicated the task is. And I am right there with RASL right now.

SPURGEON: Is it different this time around? Are things going more smoothly for having that earlier experience?

SMITH: Well, I think so. It's surprisingly the same when it comes down to struggling to meet deadlines and tearing your hair out. I haven't gotten any better at that in 20 years. What's different is that after this long I have a team that's got my back. A really, really good team. Obviously Vijaya has been my partner since before my first issue. Vijaya and I actually came up with the plan together for Cartoon Books, to do a black and white comic book every two months and each one will be a chapter in this larger novel. Vijaya knew the ending of the story before we even started. I've got Kathleen, who I mentioned earlier, Kathleen Glosan, who's helped Vijaya run the office. She's the contact with most of the outside world. She sets up publicity, takes care of things, makes sure what I'm supposed to be doing. I've got Steve Hamaker, who does not only the color on Bone but about any art-related job that needs to be done at Cartoon Books that isn't actual comic book pages. I still have to do those by myself. And we have Tom Gaadt, who does all the web stuff. He handles the store, and goes on the road. Everyone's been with us for years. We've had a good group for a long time.

imageSPURGEON: Tell me about the creative part of moving into a final chapter on a book like RASL. How much of it is figuring out the book in addition to deciding where you want to take it? How much is learning where the book wants to take you?

SMITH: I start out thinking I know what the ending is and where I'm going. And I do. Mostly. The ending will be the same ending. But as you write, especially a serialized book, which is what comic books do really well, I think, the story grows. You get ideas as you're going along. In RASL, there's that spooky little girl that doesn't talk. She was not in my original plan. She just kind of popped onto the page one time. I was suggesting that Rasl, by going to different universes and traveling back and forth, was altering something. He was messing with nature. It popped into my head that it would be super-creepy and really freaky that this little girl would be standing there that can't talk. She's taken her place in the comic and has grown and is now going to be part of the ending. I'm a little nervous about the ending I came up with for her, because it's a little intense. I think I'm going to do it anyway.

Does that answer your question?

SPURGEON: It does. And you're close enough we might see this in the next year or year and a half, right?

SMITH: Yeah, I'm shooting to have it done by next summer. Here's what's weird, though. My original plan was to have it done in nine issues. Then I expanded that to fifteen issues because the story kind of got bigger. Now I wonder if I can fit it into 15. I'm really close. It's either going to be 15 or 16 or maybe 15 will have 48 pages. It's kind of embarrassing to admit that it's that unplanned, that out of control. [laughs] But that's the way I lay into these projects, and see what happens.

SPURGEON: You and I talked a bit about this yesterday, setting up this phone call: you mentioned that when you utilize certain genres that the way the lead is oriented within them restricts your narrative a bit. Specially, the hallmarks of one of the genres you're using, noir, limits the readers' information to what the lead knows.

SMITH: Yeah.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about the challenges there? When you mentioned that you used to switch perspective in Bone, this wasn't a particular memory I had of that story. But when I looked, I found you did do that rather frequently. And now with RASL, you can't. We've been in this guy's pocket for the whole trip.

SMITH: It's one of the tropes of noir that I didn't think through when I committed to this project. [laughs] I've had a lot of fun. RASL kind of gestated in my mind, Tom, for about eight years. While I was finishing Bone, while I was finishing Shazam... I finally got into it and had a lot of fun reading Dashiell Hammett and reading Raymond Chandler and watching movies. Just getting into that hardboiled thing. Figuring out here's my character, and here's the triangle. Plus I was getting into the physics. I was doing all that, and then it got down to finally writing the comic. Then I realized you can only know what the main hero knows.

So as you were alluding to, in Bone I can just cut away to the bad guys. I can show what the Hooded One and Kingdok are talking about and plotting against the Bones. Add tension that way. Or if I finished up a bit with Fone Bone and Thorn, I could cut to the shenanigans of Smiley and Phoney. That way it would never get boring. You could hop around and see what everyone else was doing. Then I started RASL, and in noir you can't know... Rasl is in every frame. You only know what he knows, and that's incredibly difficult. I can't just set up the plot and have exposition done by a villain. It all has to be uncovered by Rasl. It's a fun thing to read, and to watch in a movie; it's very difficult to write.

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SPURGEON: Do you like Rasl? He's very different than the more iconic characters you used in Bone.

SMITH: I like him. I like him a lot. I think he's very interesting. He's tough. He's a lot of things I wish I was. He's a lot of things I'm glad I'm not -- he's a fuck-up. [Spurgeon laughs]

I started this series with him being portrayed as an art thief. I wanted the audience to meet him as a questionable character, and wonder what this guy is all about and can you sympathize with him. That's why I pushed the whole art thief/heist thing. He's not a goody two-shoes guy, that's for sure. As we uncover his past, we find out he was sleeping with his partner's wife. He's made all sorts of bad decisions. Some were on purpose, the kind of destruction he's left in his wake. I think slowly we're discovering that he did it all for a reason, even if it wasn't really well thought-out. We're finding out that the things he's rebelling against and fighting against were really powerful, bad things. We'll get more information on that even in these final chapters.

SPURGEON: When I think of your work with theme with Bone, I think of you putting together different elements from the genres with which you were working, but not really pushing a very specific lesson or moral. Certain themes very gently revealed themselves, and really had to be engaged by the reader. Is that also true of RASL, do you think? One thing that occurs to me is that a lot of what we see is him fixing things, fixing the situation, and a kind of redemption arc. But it's so delicate I'm not even sure about that. Do you think in terms of theme?

SMITH: I do. Some things will drift to the surface, and you can decide to highlight them or not. But yeah, I definitely think of theme. My favorite book is Moby Dick. And it's a genre book. It's a high seas adventure book. But you can read it on many levels -- I'm not saying anything new there, Tom. [laughter] But it's not an accident that it works that way. Melville really layered it in a certain way, and used symbolism -- some of it heavy-handed, but some of it very subtle. It's meant to be open-ended. When you're working in genre and you're using those kind of symbols, the idea is not to give someone a lesson, but to leave these portals open for people to go into and experience the story and have it reflect something in their own lives and things they're going through. So even though the story has forward motion and has themes and arcs, the stories I like is where the themes are created specifically to be open to the reader. [pause] Did I say that very well? [laughter]

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SPURGEON: I sometimes wonder how people are reacting to RASL. You know, Bone had this thing where it started out as this pastoral, Walt Kelly/Carl Barks-ish comedy and then pulled itself together into this full-blown fantasy, taking readers to a different place entirely than where they started. Even so, I could sort of guess how people were reacting to it. But with RASL, I don't know. The only thing that comes up as a recurring element in the writing about it is that everyone notes that this is a more mature work -- at least in that you're drawing naughty. [Smith laughs] Do you hear back from people? Are you surprised by anything you're heard about the work?

SMITH: My favorite reaction was my friend Terry Moore. He wrote somewhere that it was weird to see a Jeff Smtih drawing doing dirty things. [laughter] In terms of what I was picking up people started reading it eager to pick up on what I was doing? In the last year I'm definitely feeling a connection. I was talking to my Italian publisher, and he had said something very insightful that made me realize that he was really paying attention to it. He's my Bone publisher there; we haven't licensed RASL in any foreign languages yet, because we're waiting until it's done. The pages where I talk about Tesla, where I ruminate on Tesla for a while, he said, "Oh, that's the part of Moby Dick where he talks about the whale heads." That's exactly it. That's exactly what I'm doing. It's fun. It's connected to the story; it has something to do with it. But really I'm just doing that. I'm going to spend a couple of pages and talk about something I like that. Try to hypnotize people while they're reading it.

SPURGEON: Has this one been a struggle at all as a publisher? The industry is different now, and you're doing it in multiple formats -- you like the serial format, and a lot of people have given up on serial publishing. Has it been difficult at all as a publisher to get this one out there?

SMITH: A little bit. I don't see it getting the kind of traction that Bone got. On the other hand, I've only been doing it for three years. Bone was three years in before it got any traction itself. But yeah, it's been a little bit of a struggle. I've thrown a couople of formats out there just to see what people want. I got some push back on the over-sized volumes. I did those large, album-sized volumes. I liked them. But people were not liking them. So we tried the pocket book. And that got some reviews, in Publishers Weekly. Some of the reviews actually said, specifically, "Oh, this solves the problem of this stupid, over-sized things that doesn't fit in my bookshelf and my longbox." So okay: that's who I made the pocket book for.

imageSPURGEON: Do you get any sense that people's consumption habits are different now. People have told me that even if a new comic had the exact level of appeal that say, Bone had, that structurally you might not be able to do another Bone. The market is just wholly resistant to many of the factors that made Bone a hit. Do you have any sense of that?

SMITH: I don't, Tom, to be honest. I don't really see what's so different about right now. What would be different? That Marvel and DC are trying to swamp the shelves and wipe everything else out? That's the same as it was back then.

SPURGEON: One thing that might be different is you have fewer similar books on the stands now.

SMITH: There weren't too many back then, either. [laughter] There never were that many. And even all together we weren't that big of a deal. I think if a comic book showed up and had that spark, I don't see why somebody couldn't do it. RASL's obviously not that one. [laughter] It's doing all right. This issue #12, the one that just shipped, the numbers started to go up again. So I don't think it's that different. It's just that it's still fucking hard.

SPURGEON: What's your digital footprint like on RASL? I probably should have researched that before we talked. [Smith laughs] But are you publishing that way?

SMITH: I'm getting my toes wet. We worked with comiXology to develop two stand-alone apps: one for Bone and one for RASL. And that went very well. RASL sold just as well as Bone that way. That was exciting to see. We're developing books for the book readers with a couple of companies. We're still gathering information. We're using comiXology to see how people are buying. It looks to me like comiXology is trying to move the -- what am I trying to say? -- it looks to me like they're replicating the direct market into the digital arena. They're a digital comic book store. They're selling comic books, and they're hoping people will come back and buy them and they'll feed the habit the same way. The same thing comic book stores are doing. I bet there are other ways to get your digital comic out there. There are some decisions still to be made, I think.

SPURGEON: You're talking basic decisions...?

SMITH: Yes. Right now there are comic books where you get a new issue every month. There are books -- the readers, everyone's got at least one. Then there are the apps. There's quite a bit still out there to be done digitally that hasn't been done yet. We're looking into it. We're going to spend some time to get it right. But we think it's a way for self-publishing to really work.

SPURGEON: So if you figured out your 2011 in 2010, have you figured out your 2012 yet? Do you know what's next? Do you have a next creative project?

SMITH: I've got the next two years kind of mapped out, the big events I want to hit. One of them is a new project. The one I'm doing after RASL. It's still too soon to talk about that stuff -- I don't have names for anything yet. I'm still talking with just Vijaya right now.

SPURGEON: Was it always a foregone conclusion that there would be a next project? Are you used to working on a new project -- do you like having something new on the plate?

SMITH: I think as long as I have something to do, I'll want to do it. You just made me think of something. When I began RASL I did it with this idea that I did Bone at pretty much five issues a year. I was regular, even though my reputation was not that. [laughs] I worked really hard, and I got Bone out. I thought with RASL, instead of killing myself and doing a book every two months, I'd do a book every four months and it'd be fine. How often does [Dan] Clowes put out a book? Or [Chris] Ware? But boy, that was not met with much sympathy at all. Readers got mad, and retailers... so I tried to step it up. I would love to coast a little bit, but it might not be possible.

SPURGEON: You've always been supportive of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It's their anniversary this year as well. While you haven't gone to an obscenity trial with Bone, you have been hassled for the not all-the-way G-rated, not 1970s Disney version of fantasy that gets portrayed in that work. Do you have any reflection on the Fund's anniversary? Do you think your fellow creators are still behind what they do over there?

SMITH: Yeah. I think it's actually grown. For a long time, Marvel and DC wouldn't have anything to do with it. Then DC jumped in. I think it's important. As you just mentioned: Bone, for god's sake, is under attack. Good Christ. If Bone can be under attack... and it is one of the most contested books in school right now. We have to have some way of standing up to people that think they can control others' freedom of speech, that can tell a medium what to do.

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SPURGEON: When you arrived, and started to become a bigger name, it seemed like the free speech issues were part of many issues. Even the act of self-publishing had an political element to it.

SMITH: Ah, remember those days? [laughter]

SPURGEON: It doesn't seem like you have that kind of focused attention on a range of issues. Certainly I think you're right that the support for the Fund has broadened, but it sometimes seems like it's the only set of issues with which people engage. Do you think that's a generational thing? Are is it that the options for creators are pretty good right now?

SMITH: Keep going, keep going. [laughs]

SPURGEON: Do you ever want to sit down with the young people and tell them why these things are important?

SMITH: [laughs] "Sit down, children, and let me tell you about the olden days." [laughter]

SPURGEON: "Uncle Jeff's Indy Comics Tales."

SMITH: You raise some good points. I think some of the issues were settled. What were our issues? I think we were trying to get shelf space. We were trying to get equal time in the critical press -- Fantagraphics rose to that. We were trying to change the model, the business model of comics. Instead of just being pamphlets, we wanted graphic novels accepted by the retail market. And it was eventually. We wanted to get out of the comic stores and get out into the real world, the big box stores. We did that. We won a lot of those battles.

I still go to shows, because I love talking to cartoonists who are right on that edge where I used to be. I still am, maybe not financially anymore, but artistically you never feel like you're secure. I still go to SPX and MoCCA -- not every year, but I love to talking to those guys. And what I see is they have a different set of problems. They feel secure in their art. There's no question that they can draw a story about whatever they want. And they don't apologize for it. [laughs] They do everything. But the marketplace is weird. They moved away from where we were, which was based in the comic book store, to the web. They have communion on the web. I say "they" because I feel a little old and out of touch. You know what I'm saying?

SPURGEON: I do. And if I made you feel old and out of touch, then my mission here is accomplished. [Smith laughs]

SMITH: Hey, I like being a veteran that survived. That's a fine place to be!

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SPURGEON: It's just that you were in that last burst of great cartoonists that essentially transformed the industry underneath you, or at least created more options -- it made me wonder what you thought there was left to do.

SMITH: I do think there's work to do. It's figuring out how the cartoonists will make money through web distribution, through the Internet. Right now there's not just that much money. There's just not a lot of money in having an app and selling a comic that way. It's not going to pay your rent. It might help with the grocery bill, but it's not significant enough. There is a problem to be solved. I'm in it, too. Vijaya and I are trying to figure it out right now, just like everybody else. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics -- nobody has this figured out. We're right there. It's exciting. I don't think it's solved. The young people... listen to me! "The young people." Let's stop this. [laughter]

SPURGEON: You mentioned Vijaya again... I was going to interview you and Vijaya at San Diego last summer, but I wasn't able to make it out there. We've talked about this before, but I think Vijaya's contributions are under-appreciated. Is there something you feel she's added to the landscape that you wished more people recognized?

SMITH: When I talk to people, I know they recognize what she's done.

SPURGEON: Oh, sure.

SMITH: She's my partner. I get a lot of credit for making smart moves in the industry. She made those decisions with me. A lot of them were led by her, like making sure our rights were intact so we could use them again on the next thing. She's written a lot of contracts that have gone on to be used by other people in the industry. Anything anyone gives me credit for, they should give credit to her, too.

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* Cartoon Books

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* all images from RASL

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