-by Ken Plume
Navigating the treacherous waters of launching an independent comic book series into the already crowded marketplace of the early 1990’s - one still dominated by the “Big Two” companies, Marvel & DC - could be seen as a foolhardy endeavor. That said comic would be a success in those circumstances - particularly when it was kid-friendly black & white book in the age of bloody antiheroes - seems even more insane.
But then came Jeff Smith’s Bone. And it was a success, entertaining kids and adults alike with its sweeping tale of the three Bone cousins - Fone, Phoney, & Smiley - who find themselves in the middle of “interesting” (and dangerous) times in a mysterious valley after being run out of their home town of Boneville. Over the course of 55 issues from 1991-2004, Smith told his epic tale from start to finish - a rarity in an industry with so much failure - and told it his way. After wrapping the run, the entire series was released in a massive omnibus edition, before Scholastic picked up the license and has been releasing the 9 “chapters” comprising the tale in beautifully colored volumes (by colorist Steve Hamaker) under their Graphix imprint.
Following Bone, Smith took on one of the cornerstone heroes of the DC Universe - Captain Marvel - for a mini-series titled Shazam: The Monster Society Of Evil… Which was a huge success, as well, and has been collected in a deluxe hardcover edition.
Next up is another creator-owned series, RASL, a stark sci-fi tale about a dimension-hopping art thief, which is due to begin in 2008.
You can visit Jeff and Cartoon Books on the web at www.Boneville.com.
Here now is our chat with the man himself…
KEN PLUME: First off, I wanted to mention that I just saw the hard cover collection of Shazam: The Monster Society Of Evil, which is a beautiful presentation of a wonderful series..
JEFF SMITH: They just really went for it. It was all their idea, too. Just the beautiful… it’s oversized. They actually shot new film for every single page because they enlarged the interior artwork. It’s larger than the original comics. They just really put some care into it, and I was blown away.
KP: Just the idea of doing the dust jacket as a fold-out poster…
SMITH: Again, they came up with that. They kinda liked how I had made a puzzle out of the back covers. Because I was trying to do some old, kinda fun secret codes and puzzles and stuff. And they thought, “Well, how can we repeat that in the collection?” And that’s what they came up with, is that unfold the dust jacket and have it double sided and, oh man, they just really went to town.
KP: I think it’s one of the first trades that I’ve picked up that’s actually *fun* to pick up.
KP: Above and beyond just the story.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, good. That’s what a trade should be. Because, of course, it had all the extra stuff in it, too, almost like a DVD behind the scenes extras and stuff. It had like 40 pages of that. That was unbelievable.
KP: The development stuff certainly was fascinating to see, the sort of permutations that it went through. Actually, how little permutation it went through from your original conception…
SMITH: In some ways, yeah. Well, actually, you’re the first person I’ve talked to since it came out. What did you think of all that? You said you liked the package in general…
KP: I liked the package, and it’s great to read the stories again straight through…
SMITH: Does it change it?
KP: The experience itself?
SMITH: Yeah. Bone, when I collected it - I’ve been serializing it for, like, 12 years, so I knew that when somebody sat down and read it all on one go it would be an entirely different experience. But I wondered if even something as short as this, if collecting it together would be the same kind of thing…
KP: Well, I think the difference is that it feels like such a complete package - it’s just these four issues for the whole run. Whereas with Bone, I remember buying the very first collection. That was the way I got into it… you just simply couldn’t find the original issues.
KP: So I remember back in - it would be what, ‘92, buying the first collection?
SMITH: Yeah, something like that. ‘93.
KP: And knowing that the story was gonna continue for quite a bit after that meant that you really didn’t have a sense of closure.
SMITH: Yeah. So it didn’t change it that much to read it through…
KP: No, I think it was just fun to go straight through - and, obviously, the presentation itself… It’s nice to hold a single volume that’s got a heft to it. But no, I think the story was fun right off the bat.
SMITH: (laughs) Okay.
KP: It’s certainly more satisfaction to know that you’re not gonna have to wait.
SMITH: For 12 years, yeah, no doubt. I feel the same way. I’m very pleased I’m not gonna be working on it for 12 more years.
KP: (laughs) That you know of.
SMITH: That I know of, right.
KP: Well, I think you certainly left the door open for yourself.
SMITH: Yeah. And DC’s made it very clear that the door’s open for the return of the Monster Society of Evil.
KP: Did you enjoy the experience? How did it compare to Bone, since this is the project you did immediately after wrapping that up?
SMITH: I actually enjoyed the experience a lot. When they first approached me with it near the end of Bone, I was a little hesitant. But when I started to do some research into the old golden age comics and tried to figure out what was it about Captain Marvel that clicked with so many people back in the golden age, I got interested in the character and I got interested in kind of the simpler, more clean lines of not only the drawings, but just of how the stories were done. Everything was just much more pared down to, he’s a little boy, he has a magic word, and then he can fly and bullets bounce off of him and he can stop criminals. I mean, it’s just that… that’s they key. And I thought that was… that appealed to me. And as far as coming off of Bone to do something, I needed to do something in between Bone and whatever else I did. Because mentally it would be just very difficult to just stop something that I’ve worked on for 12 years and launch into a new one. Not just for me but, I think, for anybody reading it, because anything I did would be compared to Bone, favorably or unfavorably, and I felt like it would be a good break. It would be a little breather for me if I could do a shorter project. (laughs) A 200 page comic book - which is a shorter project to me, but probably to nobody else. But I felt like that would be a nice little palette cleanser, so to speak, for me. And I enjoyed it quite a bit. Working with DC was good. I had fun. Being a 9-year-old and drawing superheroes who could fly. It was great.
KP: It almost seemed like the equivalent of a band coming off their fantastic debut album and deciding to do an album of covers.
SMITH: Well, not really. It’d be more like just deciding to come out with just a single, a 45. I don’t know what you call them nowadays.
KP: I guess a CD single.
SMITH: Yeah, a CD single. Because, I mean, Captain Marvel compared to Bone is just a sliver. It’s a single compared to an album. That’s exactly what it was. That’s exactly… that’s a really good analogy. I just did my big debut album, and then I just did a little cover single just for fun because it was something I liked and I thought it would be fun.
KP: And less pressure, would you say?
SMITH: Oh yeah. Well, mentally, for me, there was pressure. There probably wasn’t less pressure. I think everybody was ready to pounce on me if I’d have screwed it up. (laughs)
KP: What kind of criticisms did you see as potential coming your way?
SMITH: Oh, I don’t know. Just whatever the criticism… you know, there’s always…
KP: The only thing that I’ve ever heard anyone every say is, “We wish the stuff would come out faster…”
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I can’t do anything about that.
KP: I’ve yet to run across someone criticize the work itself.
SMITH: Oh, that’s good. Let’s just keep it that way.
KP: I think it was good, as far as Monster Society was concerned, that it was planned that nothing would be solicited until it was ready to go.
SMITH: Yeah, and that ended up… I actually asked for that up front. Because I didn’t really know how long Bone would take to finish - and it wasn’t so much that Shazam took me a long time, it was that Bone took me a long time. Because finishing Bone, at the end, was extremely difficult. I wanted to make sure all the story thread - all the plot points - all worked and meshed together at the end but didn’t feel forced or like a Hollywood pat type of an ending. And it actually ended up being very, very difficult and took me about two years longer than I actually thought. One of the reasons I have that reputation for being slow is, especially the end of Bone, where I was… it took me two years to put out, like, five issues.
KP: Well, there was the sense that - almost from a story perspective - that the ending arc was almost like pulling teeth for you.
SMITH: It was, it was. I mean, I think a lot of people thought maybe I just really didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters and the world, but really it was just incredibly complicated to get everything to work out, and work out the way I really wanted it to.
KP: Was there ever a point where you thought that wouldn’t be the case?
SMITH: Yes. Oh yeah. That whole two year period where I was tearing my hair out. I was like… I would write the whole ending, two or three issues, and then… not actually draw it and ink it or anything, but I’d write it. And then I’d realize something very important had been left out, and I couldn’t weave it back in. I’d have to throw it away and start over again. And I would just write it over and over again.
KP: Is there a piece of the puzzle that was particularly difficult to try and get placed?
SMITH: Well, I can’t remember off the top of my head. Yeah, I don’t remember… it was usually Phoney Bone’s little story. Stories were difficult to weave in. But they all were. There were so many relationships that had to be fulfilled, and so many character stories to tie up. And some of them were more important than others. And some, frankly, I couldn’t actually figure out how to make them fit in, and so I just let them go. I actually think that adds to the book’s appeal at the end, because that’s more real. Not everything is resolved.
KP: Right. When you talk about an arc of such an epic length, I certainly didn’t feel that I was unsatisfied at the end. Do you have the same feeling when you reflect back on it, that you pretty much did what you wanted to do?
SMITH: Yeah, I feel pretty good about it. It almost killed me, but I did it as best I possibly could. And I feel a good sense of accomplishment when I can just hold that 1300 page black and white book and then put it on the shelf. Yeah, it was… I just look at it and think, “Damn, that was a lot of work.” (laughs)
KP: When did you get the sense that Bone was becoming a sort of evergreen tale?
SMITH: I actually never had that sense, really, while I was making it. It’s more as I just watched it continually go back to print, and just keep selling. I’m just kind of amazed and happy.
KP: I would assume happiness would be a part of it…
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. And we’re just going back to the 10th printing on the one volume edition - which I can’t remember how many that is, but it’s going to be another 10,000.
KP: One of my big regrets is not having the funds to buy that beautiful hardcover edition that you did.
SMITH: The limited edition, I know. We did the gilded edges with the cloth ribbon and the gold inlay. I don’t think that’s the right word… embossing. We did 2,000 copies of that.
KP: I remember staring at them at Comic-Con. Those wonderful stacks.
SMITH: I forget how much they were. They were like $125 bucks a pop. When we arrived in San Diego and unloaded however many we brought - I can’t remember, like 50 of them that we brought to the show out of the 2,000. And we stacked them up and couldn’t believe how big the pile was. Plus, we had all the paperbacks. And we thought, “Oh man, we’re gonna send all this back home. Nobody’s gonna buy this many books at this price, and it’s gonna cost us an arm and a leg to ship them home,” like, “Ah, man.” Now, of course, we sold them within 2 days, and the limited edition ones - when we put them in the catalogue - I think they sold out the first day. Now I wish we’d have done five thousand. But before, ahead of time, we were really nervous. We didn’t know if we were gonna get stuck with all these.
KP: Are there any thoughts of doing a second edition of the hard cover?
SMITH: No, that was a collector’s edition. And out of respect for the people who bought it, that’s it. That’s for them.
KP: Or maybe not gilded or deluxe to the extent that that edition was, but another hardcover edition of the collection?
SMITH: No. Maybe when we finish the color, we may try to do some kind of a color collection. But of the black & white one volume edition, that’s the baby.
KP: I’ll keep hoping for eBay. It must be nice to have that hefty a volume in existence, knowing you created that…
SMITH: Yeah. Well, that’s what I wanted in the first place. I honestly believed, from the time I was a kid, that comics could support that kind of a long, epic story. When I was a kid, I used to like pulpy adventure things like Conan and Doc Savage and Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes, or whatever, but still - compared to comic book stories, those were pretty long stories. And then as I got a little older, I got into bigger books like The Odyssey and King Arthur and even Lord of the Rings. And I knew that that long-formed story could be sustained in a comic book. But I just didn’t see it anywhere. And, of course, when I was at that age there was nothing in American comics like that. But boy, I wanted it. I wanted an Uncle Scrooge story that was really that big. I wanted it - and now, having done it, yeah, it was something that I felt needed to be done. (laughs) “Okay, check.” (laughs)
KP: And obviously you’ve done quite a few meet & greets and talks and conventions. It seems, from an outside perspective, that everyone was pretty well satisfied with the arc of the story, the conclusion, and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s as major a call of, “Are you going to bring them back, are you going to bring them back, are you going to bring them back?”
SMITH: Well, my experience is not quite that. (laughs) I get asked, “Are you going to do more,” almost on a daily basis. The two questions that I get asked every day almost are, “Are you gonna do more Bone books,” and “Is there gonna be a Bone animated movie?”
KP: That’s because there was that long tease years ago with the whole Nickelodeon thing.
SMITH: No no, I don’t begrudge anybody asking me either of those questions.
KP: That’s what you get for putting out a flip book years ago.
SMITH: Yeah, (laughs) Well, I would love for there to be an animated movie. It could happen. Eventually someone will come up to me who’s the filmmaker that can do it, and I’ll say, “Go.”
KP: That can do it on your terms.
SMITH: It doesn’t have to be on my terms, but it has to be someone who I think will do it justice.
KP: Do you perceive it as an arc of films?
SMITH: I assume so. I don’t see how you could do the whole thing in one movie. You’d have to pick a certain point to get to, and then - if it’s successful - do more.
KP: The film was in development, if I remember correctly, in the late 90s, and obviously the story wasn’t finished in published form yet. It was in your head, at least where you were going with it. What was going to be the arc of that original first film?
SMITH: I think it was going to be like get to the end of the cow race or try to get to the end of the third or fourth book. Something like that. With the idea that it would be a self-contained movie, open for sequels.
KP: Was that the intention on their end as well? Were they looking for a franchise out of it?
SMITH: Yeah, sure, of course they were. (laughs)
KP: At what point in that proceedings did the communications deteriorate as to what everyone’s goals were?
SMITH: Well, you know, everybody gets into it hoping to actually make a really great film. Nobody was trying to scuttle the whole process. You get into these meetings where there’s people with all sorts of interests involved, and you’re not always going in the same direction. It broke down pretty quick, and we just ran out.
KP: What were the warning signs?
SMITH: Well, there were many. I think a couple of big ones were, I started getting notes… I was writing scripts and turning them in and I was getting notes that came from out of the blue. “No character in a Nickelodeon movie will ever say ‘Shut up’ to another character.” And I just think, “Well, that’s a fairly random note.” They say “Shut up” in Disney comics. And then, of course, there was the whole infamous discussion of having pop music, like Britney Spears songs, in the movie. Which I don’t know if Britney Spears had anything to do with it. It was more like a record label talking to Paramount and suggesting such things. But that just wasn’t the kind of movie I wanted to have. So it was that kind of stuff.
KP: Was it an amicable split in the end?
SMITH: Kind of, yeah. They realized we had gone pretty much in different directions by the end. I think we started off kinda heading down the same path, but reality hits when you’ve got to justify millions and million of dollars and the record label offers you millions and millions of dollars towards the production if they can get some of their songs in it. And then the director won’t let you - or me… I wasn’t the director yet, but I was going to be. It just became what it became.
KP: How much work had been done, pre-production wise, on the film?
SMITH: Nothing. Two years just having meetings.
KP: Do you…
SMITH: Do I consider that a monumental waste of time? That’s why I took two years off. I took, like, a sabbatical on Bone. And I was going to take two years off, and I ended up only taking a year off because I thought, “Holy moly, this is a huge waste of time. I’ve got to get back to making comics. I hope I can come back to making comics.” Because a lot of people will get distracted like that, and then they can’t get going again. So I was very lucky to be able to pick up and get my readers back.
KP: So there was definitely concern that any time away might find people moving on?
SMITH: Yes, of course. I mean, why wouldn’t I be worried about that? The readership and the retailer support in this business is fragile and complicated, you know?
SMITH: And a lot of it’s based on trust. And I don’t have the greatest reputation for timeliness, but I try to be respectful of my reputation of delivering a good comic book of some kind of quality level, and that the retailers will be able to sell it. And I just didn’t want to lose that.
KP: Was there any point, besides that time, that you ever felt that losing that reputation and quality was a possibility?
SMITH: You mean just in the 12 years I was doing Bone?
SMITH: Well, sure. I think every issue. I mean, you’re always looking at the sales charts and trying to figure out where you place and are you slipping or are you staying with the pack… That kind of thing. You’re always keeping track of that. I was, anyway.
KP: Was there any time that you seriously thought that things could go under? I mean, obviously Bone was one of the lucky titles that weathered the implosion of the mid 90s.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, there was a bad point in the mid 90s when all the stores were going out of business and the retailers were going out of business and distributors were going out of business. We were selling a lot of Bone comic books directly to individual stores. And as they went out of business, we got left holding a lot of invoices that weren’t going to get paid. So yeah, that was pretty worrisome. I mean, I survived it.
KP: The one good thing that you had going is that you moved very quickly into merchandising, very early on.
KP: When the book really started to catch on. So I’m assuming that that was always a nice buffer to have.
SMITH: Yeah. The merchandising has never made tons and tons of money, so it’s never really driven any decisions that Vijaya and I have made. But it’s awful fun. I love having these little Bone statues and toys and lunchboxes. And usually someone will approach us who makes those kind of things and start that all off. And I view it as promotional items. Like, if somebody sees a Bone lunchbox in a comic book store, I think they’re a little more likely to notice it on the book shelves and pick it up.
KP: Is there any piece of merchandise that you still haven’t done that you’ve been wanting for years?
SMITH: We just, just made a Bone stuffed toy. Plush. It’s like 13 inches tall. And I can’t believe we never did that before. And we’re selling them like hotcakes!
KP: Now, was that just circumstantial that it never happened?
SMITH: I don’t know. I don’t remember saying, “Let’s not do it.” It just didn’t really come up. And we just finally thought, “Well, let’s do it.” We’ve got the Scholastic book, which is taking Bone and aiming it more towards kids. It sells not just in comic book stores, but in the children’s sections and the graphic novel sections in Borders and Barnes & Nobles. And, in fact, Borders picked up a huge amount of those stuffed animals and are selling them in their stores.
KP: Are there plans to do a Phony as well?
SMITH: Not yet. We’re still checking to see if that…
KP: That that’s viable?
KP: Well, they certainly look nice, and it’s very hard to pull off rounded characters in stuffed form.
SMITH: Oh man, and every show I’ve been to and kids pick them up, I take pictures because the kids just squish ‘em. I mean, just smash their faces into them. It’s amazing. I have lots of good pictures of them on my website of kids just clutching him right to their chin. It’s really nice.
KP: Then you have to remind them that they have to pay for them.
SMITH: Yeah! (laughs) Well, usually by the time I see them, mom and dad have already bought it for them and unwrapped it and hugged them and paid for it and everything.
KP: Do you foresee it being difficult to keep up with demand, as far as production, on those?
SMITH: Well, I don’t think it’s quite reached the Garfield suction cup to your car window stage, so I’m not too worried about it yet.
KP: So are you desperately waiting for those “Bone on Board” signs?
SMITH: Yeah, right!
KP: That could be the comeback of the craze. At what point did the convention schedules start being as crazy as they’ve become for you? Because you just completed your big world tour…
SMITH: Well, actually, it’s always been pretty crazy. In, like, ‘92 I started going to just about every comic book show that there was. I didn’t go to the little Holiday Inn ones, the swap meet type, but I went to just about every one as much as I could possibly fit into my schedule and still do the comic book. And only recently, in the last five years or so, slowed down and have just gone to like three or four. But still, three or four big shows a year takes it out of you, and of course one or two over in Europe every year, as well. That’s one every other month, at least. You’re referring to the world tour I just went on that was for a whole year. That was exhausting. I went to 11 countries. Spain and France twice. Launched Bone simultaneously in, like, 15 languages in the new color edition. All while I was wrapping up the Shazam miniseries. So I’m beat! It was fun, though. I started the world tour at the Frankfurt book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. And that’s the largest book event on the planet. Every publisher’s there. It’s not just comic books - it’s all books.
KP: It’s literally acres of books and publishers, isn’t it?
SMITH: It’s literally acres of book stalls and publishers and buyers. It’s an amazing thing. In fact, Vijaya went there the year before the tour to meet with publishers in all the different languages and make deals and so she set the whole tour up like a year in advance. Then, when I finally went and launched it, a lot of the publishers were there, and it was really great. And then I ended the tour a year later, just two weeks ago, at SPX. So I went from the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt to the Small Press Expo in Bethesda.
KP: Yeah, but what was the Karaoke like at Frankfurt?
SMITH: (laughs) They don’t get it.
KP: I can think of no better way to end it.
SMITH: Very good.
KP: So, reaction wise, is there anything that really surprised you on the trip?
SMITH: Well, I’ve slowly been amazed of the changing audience. I know when I let Bone go to Scholastic and colorize it, it would reach more children. But even before that, in the late 90s, there began this change. Neil Gaiman, with the Sandman books, started bringing, like, I remember more goth chicks started coming to conventions. But mostly it was just us guys, right?
SMITH: I remember being on panels at comic book shows and just looking around and going, “Guys, wouldn’t it be more fun if there were, like, women here?” Because there were just none.
KP: At which point the audience just giggled nervously.
SMITH: Yeah, (laughs) Well, no, I don’t think so. They just kinda looked at me like, “Why? We’re talking comic books!” But something changed in the late 90s, and I just started seeing young couples, and even two girlfriends coming to spend the day getting their comics, and families. Parents bringing their kids. That did not happen in the early 90s. I never saw that. Not even in San Diego. I mean, in San Diego you might see a kid who’s dressed like a Klingon with their dad who is dressed as a Klingon, but that was it. And especially, like, in the last three years it’s really changed. It’s remarkable how mainstream comics have become. A lot of that is because of graphic novels, which are a more familiar form of literature. A square spine with a single story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s something people can pick up and relate to. The material is more diversified. It’s not all just angst ridden superheroes, it’s now all sorts of things.
KP: It’s always been a case with comics that if you build it, they’ll come. And there was nobody building anything for such a long time for a diverse audience.
SMITH: I think that’s true. I think Manga helped, too. Manga proved that kids wanted to read comic books.
KP: Despite what some people like Joe Quesada might say.
SMITH: What did Joe Quesada say?
KP: He made an infamous statement a few years back that he didn’t believe that 10 year olds read comics.
SMITH: Yeah, well, Manga proves that they do read them. And, in fact, with Bone - they’re reading Bone by the millions. It just has to be made for kids. You just have to think about them. But they want to. I don’t want to zero in on Joe. There definitely was a prevailing thought in comics.
KP: From a business perspective, the other stuff sold, and there was an audience for the limited range…
SMITH: Everybody thought that kids were being peeled off by MTV, by video games. And Manga and some of the new graphic novels have proved that’s not the case.
KP: And Bone.
SMITH: If you just give them something… well, yeah, Bone is one of the…
KP: You were, for a long time, a lone island in the sea.
SMITH: Yeah. But kids do like it. Kids just want entertainment, and they want smart entertainment. They don’t want just… well, actually… I don’t know where I was going with that.
KP: Have you ever thought, at any point, as sort of like an introductory thing, doing a pocket Bone?
SMITH: I’m not sure what that means.
KP: Smaller type stories.
SMITH: You mean like drawing some quickie Bone comics and then physically make them small?
KP: Yeah, exactly.
SMITH: No, I never thought of that. (laughs)
KP: I remember, as a kid, there was this period where Marvel did them. You actually had these almost pamphlet size, probably quarter size comic books that literally you could put in your pocket.
SMITH: Interesting. No, I never thought of that. Sounds like work to me.
KP: Or just repurposing of existing material.
SMITH: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Think about things kids would like.” I absolutely agree with that. For me, Bone is done. So I’m probably not going to do anything more with Bone beyond finishing coloring it, and that’s about it. But I agree with you; that is the trick. And we did that, in a way, taking the comic book Bone - which is black & white and underground - and colorizing it and shrinking it to, like, Harry Potter size. That is exactly what Scholastic did. They kind of not only redesigned and repackaged, but repurposed the comics with kids in mind. The covers we did on the new Scholastic books are not the way I would have done them at first. If you look at all the Bone collections, or even the comic books, Bone is usually pretty small. He’s usually a little character lost in a big world, a big background. Which is kinda how I think of the book. In even my one volume edition, which is out now, it has a little small guy next to these big giant trees and rocks and stuff. But with Scholastic, they convinced me that I should do it in a more kid-friendly way. “It’s called Bone - show us Bone. Put him big on the cover.” And I just went, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So I drew him, like, really big, and I said, “That’s it, thank you.” And these covers - I mean, if you look at the six Scholastic covers that are out and just sit them on the floor in front of you, they’re candy. They’re beautiful. So Scholastic did actually think, and kind of redirected the books towards the kids.
KP: Have you ever received any sort of Dylan going electric reaction to the colorization?
SMITH: I’ve received that all the time for everything I do. (laughs) When I went to Image, going to Scholastic, doing the Trilogy Tour - everything was, “You’re always selling out.” “You’re always doing the quickest, easiest thing,” or whatever. I’ve been catching that hell the whole time.
KP: Where would that generally come from?
SMITH: Just the crowd. Do I remember who said it to me?
KP: No, I mean is there a certain type?
SMITH: No, it was pretty 100% encompassing.
KP: What move generated the most sort of, “What are you doing?!?” reaction?
SMITH: I’d have to say the Image move was huge, because it was during that period when Image had created a certain kind of reputation for itself, and I had created an entirely different reputation for myself, and to me it was just, “There’s, like, six independent guys, I’m an independent guy, and we can work together and do something for each other.” And it was good, because that was that period when everybody was not paying anymore. So Image was able to help me out through that. But yeah, I got a lot of crap for that.
KP: Also, you got some criticism for being in Disney Adventures, which would have been the first time it was colorized.
SMITH: Yeah. It’s just anytime you step out of your box, people are going to go, “What’s he doing?”
KP: “How dare he try and make money.”
SMITH: I definitely never believed that an artist should be starving in the garrote.
KP: Which is what a certain segment of the audience expects from what they deem an independent comic.
SMITH: Well, the comic is the comic. The comic has never been drawn one way or the other or directed one way or the other in any effort to be successful or to make money. It was always only story driven. That’s what it was, and that’s what it was. If that worked, fine. And outside of the actual comic I would try different things… like plugging in my electric guitar, exactly. But, like Dylan, I don’t look back. Don’t look back. This is the direction. Go forward with it.
KP: Has anyone approached you about doing new material for the collections?
SMITH: Well, of course. Oh, you mean actually putting new material in the…
SMITH: No, no. No, they were quite happy to do whatever I wanted to do, pretty much. They had hired Art Spegelman and Francois Mouly as their consultants on setting up this new children’s book line, Graphix. And, in fact, I was under the impression that Art and Francois were actually going to be the editors of this new group. Although somehow they didn’t work that out. They had a separate deal for me. But in the beginning, I was talking with Art and Francois about how to redo these books, and it was Art who felt that the books should be in color. Just take those original nine books and colorize them.
KP: You had been working with colorist Steve Hamaker before this…
SMITH: Yeah. Steve was a toy designer, though. And although we did do one color thing - the 10th anniversary of Bone #1, we did in color. Just to kinda see. And it was okay. People kinda liked it. But it wasn’t enough to convince me that we should re-launch the whole series in color. But…
KP: Am I correct that he was a designer for Resaurus?
SMITH: Yeah, which was a toy company based in Columbus, Ohio here, but really launched fast and big and got into the toy business almost overnight.
KP: Oh, I remember quite well.
SMITH: Yeah, it was really nice. But they crashed and burned just as quickly.
KP: In fact, Resaurus did the Iron Giant toys…
SMITH: I don’t remember. I think they did Godzilla.
KP: They also did the first wave of Bone toys…
SMITH: Yeah. But then the company went down as fast as it went up, and when that happened we just scooped Steve up. And one of the talents he had was he’s a computer whiz and he’s really good at color. It just all kinda came together.
KP: What was your reaction when you first saw one of his pieces?
SMITH: I liked it at first. I always thought it was good. But to be honest, when we first started coloring it, I kinda thought it was just that. Coloring it. “This is just putting a layer of color on it just because there are some people who just won’t look at a black & white comic.”
KP: Did you feel kinda Ted Turner-ish?
SMITH: Yeah… Well, not that bad. (laughs) Now, though - we’re coloring the eighth one now… even though only six are out, we work way ahead. And at this point, Steve has become so good at it, that I have a very different feeling about the color books. We work together with each scene. We started, in the second one, looking for ways to use the color to be part of the storytelling. To try to put in shadows and different times of day. Golden skies or purple skies. It started to change everything. I got very interested about halfway through the second book when we could suddenly show depth and direct people’s eyes to the right place with color. At this point, the books are… they’re actually better in color than they were in black & white. And I didn’t think I would ever really say that. But they’re a different animal and they’re better. I think the black & white one volume will always be my baby. That’s closest to my heart. But I think the color books are better comics.
KP: So it’s a wonderful addition to the family.
KP: Not a replacement, in your eyes.
SMITH: No. That’s been one thing that was kind of unexpected, was being able to have both versions. There’s the black & white one volume for kind of the original Bone audience - the comic book store people or the graphic novel collector. And then there’s this kind of more mainstream mass market version for kids and new readers. And I like them both, and they both sell in the same stores. You can go to a Barnes & Noble and you can see it in the graphic novel section - the big fat one, black & white - and you can go back to the children’s section and find the color one. And the two audiences don’t seem to affect each other. Like, the sales of the one don’t suffer because of the other one. They’re just two different audiences for the same work.
KP: Do you see one or the other as being the definitive edition? If one had to go out of print…
SMITH: For me, it would be the black & white one volume. Because from the beginning, since from the time I was 9 years old, I wanted a big fat black & white comic just like that. Because I would read these collections of Peanuts and Pogo comic strip collections back in the late 60s. And I thought, “That’s what I want.” But I want it, like, three times as fat. So that’s it for me. I did it, and that’s it. That’s what I wanted and that’s it. That’s what it is. And so that, to me, is really the ultimate one. There’s plenty of 200 page color collections, graphic novel collections. But there’s only one 1300 page single story collection, and that’s Bone, the one volume edition.
KP: That could potentially give you a hernia.
SMITH: (laughs) Or you could strap one to each of your feet and you could dust the top shelf.
KP: One thing I do miss in the one volume edition, which was always a fun part of picking up each new issue of Bone, was the letter section.
SMITH: Yeah. To be honest, I miss that also. I mean, I don’t miss it in the collection. I don’t think it really had anything to do with the collection. But I miss it as a cartoonist. When I was working with Bone, it was serialized, and each comic book would come out, and then two or three months later the next one would come out, and I would get feedback and letters in between. So I knew what I was doing that was working - or conversely, if I did something that was not working, people would write me letters and tell me that, too. And I could adjust. I would work towards their expectations - or even to thwart them.
KP: Is there anything in particular you remember as being affected by the response?
SMITH: Oh, everything. I mean, everything was really that way. Bone wasn’t that tightly plotted. I knew what the big turning points were. Bartleby coming back, I think, was… Bartleby is the little Rat Creature cub that befriends Smiley Bone, and Fone Bone takes him up to the mountains to try to give him back to the Rat Creatures to take him home. And I think, in my original outline, they were going to let him go. That was it. Because that story was a whole big arc about meeting this giant mount lion Rock Jaw and learning more of the expository parts of the back story. But the reader reaction to Bartleby was so strong… people just wanted him. Plus, I would go to comic book shows, and people would always ask, “Draw me Fone Bone,” or, “Draw me Smiley Bone,” or, “Draw me Phoney Bone,” and all of a sudden people were like, “Draw me Bartleby.” That reaction, as I’m writing the story, as I’m making the comic pages - to have people react that strongly to a character, that changes it. And I started toying with the idea of, “How can we bring him back?” And he came back in and actually became a huge part of the story, I think. And became one of the strongest events in Smiley Bone’s life. In the book. That’s one example. There’s dozens and dozens of others.
KP: I think that was the first time you saw something beyond being just a sly comic relief out of Smiley.
SMITH: Yeah. Which I think was a really kind of an unexpected, fun thing to have happen. As opposed to that was my experience with Shazam. Where I wrote all four issues up front to show it to DC - to my editor there, Mike Carlin - so they could okay it. “This is your character, are you cool with all this?” And they were. So that’s four issues, the whole story, 200 pages. Written to the panel. And then I drew it. And was done with it. I was working on the last issue when we started publishing them. So it was done. I couldn’t get reactions from people. I had no feedback. Well, I mean, I got lots of feedback. I think, mostly, people liked it. Some people didn’t like it that Captain Marvel and Billy were a little more separate than they’ve usually been portrayed. But things like that - I mean, I didn’t get that feedback and couldn’t roll with it and fold it into the story in any way. It was just, like, “The story’s done. Here it is.” And you know what? Between the two ways of working, I would pick to get the feedback. It was much more fun and organic, and more enjoyable, for me.
KP: Is there anything - now that it’s completely finished and you’ve been hearing what people thought of it - that you would have gone back and adjusted if you’d had that feedback on Shazam?
SMITH: With Shazam? Well, yeah, probably that one thing. I got the idea that people didn’t like it that Billy and Captain Marvel were… I don’t even… how am I… see, it’s so complicated I can’t even explain it.
KP: They wanted the wish fulfillment of essentially Captain Marvel being an older Billy.
SMITH: Yeah. Which I think he is. I still think he is.
KP: There’s nothing in your story that says that he isn’t.
SMITH: You’re right. Exactly. I think people think, “Okay, he’s little Billy Batson. He says “Shazam”, and then he just grows into his older, adult, powerful self. What I didn’t like about that version was then he kept his little kid brain. Which I thought completely went against everything the Captain Marvel comics ever had been. So in my version I was just like, “Well, this power comes to Billy,” and I did think that it was still Billy Batson growing up into an adult. But I just thought that he had the spirit in him of this protector spirit Shazam that has gone through civilizations from the beginning of time. It was in the wizard. And so whoever had the power of the magic word, that would transform them. You know what I mean? I think that when Mary got the power, she didn’t turn into a man. She turned into her, with powers. But she just got a little branch of the lightning, so she didn’t transform into an adult. She just got some of the powers. So, by the same token, when… with the Black Adam character, it’s sort of like an earlier version. He doesn’t look like Captain Marvel. Because he looks like the person he’s in. So there’s something, had I gotten the feedback where people didn’t like the word “host”, I probably would have changed that and made it… I would probably have kept it the same way I have it, but I would have folded it into the story more so that you were aware that this is actually Billy as an adult. He just actually is smart as an adult.
KP: It struck me that as Billy gets older and has been Captain Marvel longer, there will be a merging of that “other”, older, consciousness.
SMITH: Oh yeah, if I kept doing the story… I mean, I was doing that. I thought I was making it very clear that their two personalities were merging. But I did think that the magic power had some personality. There was some…
KP: Some sentience of its own?
SMITH: Yeah, that was moving around. I didn’t think I made that up - I felt like I got that from the original comics. If you watch the old movie serials and stuff, it’s pretty clear that he’s a guardian from the realm of eternity.
KP: Right. This is obviously a preexisting power that’s been passed down and has obviously some kind of sentience of its own.
SMITH: Right, right.
KP: I thought you pulled it off. I can see where some people might have thought that you went in a different direction than you actually did.
SMITH: Right, right. But what we’re talking about is, like, had I been doing it the way I did Bone where I would have gotten letters after each one, I could have addressed it and made it clearer… because I actually agree that it should be Billy. That’s Billy as an adult. And I could have made that more clear.
KP: You talk about how tightly written this already was before you went in. Were there any happy surprises - like a Bartleby - that came in just within your own development of the story?
SMITH: Well, when I wrote it I had a lot of fun discovering things - like Mary being so young. I thought that was kind of exciting and fun. And, of course, then the idea of Tawkey Tawny. I discovered the old Persian myth of the Ifrit, who could just change back and forth. A shape changer from animal to human, human to animal. And those kinda things, I thought, were just fun. But no, there were no surprises, because I had the whole thing all written and just sat down one day and drew it for, like, a year.
KP: I think a lot of people - in the feedback that I’ve read personally - were interested just how political you made the story, as well.
SMITH: That’s a good point you bring up. I think people made too big of a deal out of that, to be honest.
KP: I never got the sense that I was being clubbed over the head with, “Oh no, there’s political overtones to this.”
SMITH: Yeah. No, I thought… part of my whole approach to this character, Captain Marvel - and Billy Batson - is that one’s a little kid, and he’s helpless, homeless… and the other is Captain Marvel. He’s the most powerful being in the world. He can fly, bullets fly off him. They’re complete opposites. So it was interesting from a story idea to put Billy in situations where he had to deal with the adult world. And sometimes it was like, on the business world and with the media - with the reporter and her boss - and then I had him deal with corrupt politicians. So there’s no question that I put in Heartland Security - I am taking some pretty easy shots at some of those things that are happening. And some people just don’t think you should even have that in it.
KP: But it’s one of those things… As with any children’s literature that’s written at a certain level - and I think you do write excellent children’s literature - is that it works on multiple levels. The kids are not going to see who exactly you were alluding to when you talked about how Sivana lost his seat to the widow of his opponent… (laughs)
SMITH: Right, right.
KP: A kid’s not going to know what that references, but an adult reading will go, “Oh, well, I appreciate the extra layer that was put in there.”
SMITH: For me, I just saw that story and I thought, “Now that’s the perfect example of government corruption. And I’ll just use that to set the story up.” I do think you have to talk about things that are going on. What else do you write about? But on the other hand, ten years from now, that is purely going to be a story about a little kid trying to deal with government corruption. It’s not going to be specific at all.
KP: Right. And, like I said, it’s going to be - for the ones who know what you’re alluding to - it’ll be like an extra, “Oh, that’s interesting you worked that in.” But it doesn’t affect the story one way or the other. So I was surprised by some of the criticism. I guess that with anything that deals with that, there are gonna be people that are gonna be touchy on it.
SMITH: Yeah, exactly. And that’s fine with me. I’d be more worried if I didn’t say anything about stuff going on in the world.
KP: Was anyone critical of - in what ostensibly was an all ages book - the use of the word asses?
SMITH: I heard one person tell me that their librarian wouldn’t let it in the school library because of the word ass. But that’s just anecdotal. I don’t know if that was true. That’s pretty lame, though, if it’s true. (laughs)
KP: Yeah, we all know how the occasional school library operates…
SMITH: “No character shall say ’shut up’ to another character in a Nickelodeon movie.”
KP: Yeah, well, they dropped that rather quickly.
SMITH: Did they?
KP: I’m pretty sure there’s at least a couple of shut ups in Jimmy Neutron.
SMITH: I have no idea.
KP: And I’m pretty sure there’s some in the SpongeBob film. Certainly in the series. But you can never guess, in the roll of the dice, which executives you’ll get…
KP: But, back to Shazam, are there ideas percolating as to, if you were to move it on, where it would go?
SMITH: I definitely could picture a return of the Monster Society. That would come back and do the story that’s more like the original serial which is, now that we know who Mr. Mind is, we don’t just chase and battle monsters. That would be fun. Whether or not I’ll really do it, I’m not quite sure. We’ll see.
KP: What aspects of it leave you on the fence? Other than just having the time to do it…
SMITH: (laughs) I have my own things I want to do. DC was very good to work for. I have no complaints. They were patient beyond belief. They were encouraging. They were just great. I had no problem with them at all, and I would do it again - except I want to do my own stuff. They offered me if I would do the series, if I wanted to draw covers or anything I wanted to do. I said what I wanted to say with Captain Marvel in that book, and I think I’m going to do something else now.
KP: And speaking of that something else, where did the initial conceptualization of RASL originate? How far back does that go?
SMITH: Around 2000 I started thinking up a science fiction story. And it was originally what I wanted to do right after Bone. My original idea was this guy who could move forward and backwards in time just a little bit, but between parallel worlds, and he would somehow end up in our world, and warn us that - this is in 2000, mind you - he was gonna meet someone, a woman, and they would fall in love and he was gonna say, “I know what happens in your future. There’s religious fanatics are going to blow up buildings in downtown Manhattan.” And then 9/11 happened, and suddenly I was like, that story was… I couldn’t do that story, obviously, and that kind of threw me off. However, since then, I’ve taken the same character, and sort of the same sci-fi premise, but I’ve completely changed it. It’s no longer about that. About religious fanatics and bombs, or anything like that. But it’s a new scenario that has developed, where he’s an art thief, and for enough money - I’m talking, like, stupid money… like Bill Gates money… you can pay him to go to another parallel world, steal the Mona Lisa, bring it back, and you can hang your own Mona Lisa up in the living room. But it’s expensive because it hurts a lot to go between the worlds. It tears him up to the point where it takes him days to recover. Days of drinking and smoking and womanizing and gambling. Then he can go about his business, make his grab. He can steal whatever he’s after. But then to get back, he has to completely clean his mind and his body and become almost Zen centered in order to come back. And, of course, coming back hurts like hell and he has to start the whole process over again of womanizing and pleasures of the flesh and all that.
KP: At the point that we pick him up, how long has he been doing that?
SMITH: He’s been doing it for about 10 years when we pick it up. But things are starting to go wrong… I’m going to change that…. I’m gonna say he’s been doing it about three years. He gets more time out of it because there’s a little time drift. So he can do some things longer than others. But it’s been really, in reality - if there is such a thing - he’s been doing it for about three years. But things are starting to go wrong.
KP: Wrong physically?
SMITH: He used to be able to go to different worlds and steal the same thing over and over again. Because he knew how to get around everything. He didn’t to like set up the whole gig over and over again. So he could just go to a different world, but he knew how to get past all the alarms and stuff.
KP: Almost like a Groundhog Day sort of thing…
SMITH: Yeah, yeah, but he liked it. That’s how he made his living. But things are starting to go wrong. He’s changing things by doing it. So this starts up, he’s been doing it for about three years, and something’s gone wrong. And it’s a big gone wrong, and that’s what starts the story.
KP: Now, do you have a full arc in mind, or is this just an ongoing series?
SMITH: It’s an ongoing, but like Bone it…
KP: You have an idea of where it’s going…
SMITH: Yes - there is a plan for a beginning, a middle, and an end.
KP: Visually, how different is it from what you tried to do with Bone?
SMITH: To me, it’s no different. I’m just drawing it as good as I can draw it. But I’m pretty sure - with how surprised everybody was at how Shazam - they’ll think this is very different. Do you know what I mean?
KP: For you, personally, how does it feel? Does it feel like it’s still the same wheelhouse?
SMITH: Yeah. I’m just drawing it as good as I can draw it. I can’t draw any better, I can’t draw any different. I’m just drawing it.
KP: Is RASL going out in black & white or color?
SMITH: It’ll start off in black & white. That’s the plan. It’ll come out, like, four times a year in a standard comic book size. It’ll be about 36 pages, and $3.50 is the price we’re gonna put on it. And then once a year we’ll collect it in a large size. Did you see the big… I can’t remember if I saw you in San Diego or not. Did you see the oversized preview of RASL we had?
KP: No. I heard about it, though.
SMITH: Well, it was big. It’s, like, 11×17. I think we’ll do some large black & white collections like that. And then, when the whole thing is done, if I think there’s a market for it, I think we’ll do a one volume in color. We’ll color the whole thing. And then that’ll be sort of like the mass market one we keep in print. But that’s a long ways from now. This is definitely self-published black & white.
KP: Is there anything that’s surprised you about the process so far?
KP: Or does it feel like what you’re used to?
SMITH: It’s fun. I’m having fun. Part of the story takes place in the desert, so I went to Arizona for a couple weeks, and I just went out into the desert where it’s just, like, really, really dead quiet, and hot as blazes.
KP: Deserts normally are.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, it didn’t surprise me. The quietness surprised me. I mean, it is quiet. Like, when a bird would fly over you, you hear it. It’s that quiet. Every now and then you’ll scare a grasshopper, and it flutters over and man! It’s so loud.
KP: Like a jackhammer?
SMITH: Yeah. But I was really able to think. So I was looking for… I mean, I had all the story worked out, but there’s always that little something you gotta figure out - “What’s this one little thing that’s gonna really make this story worth telling?” And I thought of something that would make it interesting for me, and I’m ready to go.
KP: And what was that thing?
SMITH: Well, I can’t tell you that.
KP: I was figuring you were setting it up not to tell me.
SMITH: (laughs) Yes, I’m setting it up for you to have to go get the book…
KP: And when’s the first issue out?
KP: So it’s going to be a quarterly.
SMITH: Yes. That’s the plan right now. Hopefully 36 pages of black & white story.
KP: Are you bringing back a letters column?
SMITH: Yes, we’ll have a letters column as soon as we get some letters. So if anybody’s reading this, write me.
KP: I guess they could even write in about the preview you put out.
SMITH: Yeah, they absolutely could. And, in some ways, the letters page has kind of gone onto the blogs and the websites and stuff. You can start up a MySpace page for RASL…
KP: (laughs) Where people can request for art to be stolen?
KP: If there was one piece of art that you could hire him for, what would it be?
SMITH: For me?
KP: For you.
SMITH: There’s a couple of Picassos that I really would love to have. But I think, if I had to, I would ask him to go to the Musee Orsay and get me one of the Monet series, where it’s just like a church steeple in different light. Have you ever seen that?
SMITH: That’s what I would want. RASL, go get me some, man.
KP: And where would you hang it?
SMITH: Oh, right in my studio. Right in front of my desk. Right above my Walt Kelly original. I have a Pogo daily strip hanging above my desk.
KP: If there’s a piece of comic strip art that you would hire him for, what would it be?
SMITH: Well, I’ve got a Walt Kelly daily. I guess I’d really love to have a Krazy Kat Sunday.
KP: A big, massive, full piece…
SMITH: Oh yeah.
KP: Sounds like you could keep him busy.
SMITH: Oh yeah. Yeah.
KP: And the complete Pogo collections you’re designing are coming up…
SMITH: Yeah, well, we’re working on that.
KP: Which certainly must be a bit of dream fulfillment for you.
SMITH: Oh, it is. I can’t wait. I’ve been wanting this book since I was a little kid. I always wanted to be able to read the entire run from the beginning. I can’t wait. And I have read the first book, and it holds up. In this first Pogo collection, it starts off with just the silly animal jokes, but it quickly becomes… it talks about suspicion and McCarthy era stuff, and there’s a trial of Albert who is blamed for the disappearance of a little pup dog just because he’s an alligator and everybody assumes that he would eat it. There’s sort of this leading to conclusions…
KP: Yeah, but none of that is relevant today!
SMITH: (laughs) Yeah, none of that. No, it’s absolutely beautiful and it holds up and I can’t wait. We’re behind now. We’re having trouble finding good source material because Kelly’s syndicate went out of business. Unlike Charles Schulz’s - United Features - which is still around. There’s gonna have to be an announcement soon about… because it’s obviously not gonna come out this year like it was originally supposed to. But we’re looking. We’re working on it and we’re not giving up.
KP: Well, it’s better to do it right than to rush it out.
SMITH: That’s exactly right.
KP: And so, I guess the last thing I’d have to ask is, how many ideas would you say you’re still percolating about beyond RASL?
SMITH: I’ve got a couple more. I’ve got a couple more.
KP: Oh, and when are we gonna see more Bone?
KP: See, I had to at least throw it out.
SMITH: There’s still three more volumes coming out. If you’re a kid and you read it in color, you’re still waiting. You don’t know how it ends yet.
KP: That should be what, the next year and a half?
SMITH: The last one comes out in 2009, yep.
KP: And how are you going to mark that finale?
SMITH: Oh, I’ll probably do another tour. (laughs)
KP: You’re like a shark now.
SMITH: Yeah. I just swim, promote Bone, and make little sharks.
KP: Well, soon you’re gonna be swimming for RASL.
SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. I’ll have to start doing that very soon. Well, I’ll consider this the first, how about that?
KP: I feel honored. And I wanted to remind you that I’m one of the few people who were ever paid to work for Cartoon Books in flip books. I’m not sure if you remember that.
SMITH: No… What did you do?
KP: I worked your table in Charlotte.
SMITH: Oh, we paid you in flip books?
KP: Paid me in flip books.
SMITH: (laughs) You know what, I am always looking for people that I can pay in flip books.
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