Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 05/04/2005
Never let it be said that Jeff Smith isn't a man of determination...and his word.
In the early 1990s, he set out to write and draw every panel on every page of a massive graphic novel called Bone. In essence, Bone is a fantasy detailing the adventures of a trio of creatures known as Bones--cousins Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone--who stumble upon a hidden valley filled with a rich mélange of humans, insects and animals of the magical, the mythical and the mundane variety. The cousins soon find themselves marooned in this strange new land, and inevitably become embroiled in affairs concerning the heart, the hearth, and the body politic, before eventually finding themselves and their newly-found friends at the center of an all-out war between the forces of light and darkness, with the fate of the world as the prize. Pretty heavy and heady stuff, all in all. Still, that description, however much it represents a fairly accurate and detailed outline of the book's main storyline, fails to note uncounted significant events and telling twists of both character and plot. It also leaves out mention of some truly sublime moments of just breathtaking beauty--such as the first moment Fone glimpses Thorn--while it ignores Smith's considerable comedic gifts for crafting short bursts of gut-busting hilarity as well as longer, more sustained sequences which encompass entire issues. And there are still more pleasures--visual, emotional and visceral; sour, sweet and otherwise--which are revealed by even the most cursory reading of Bone...
Many, many more.
The combination of Jeff Smith's straightforward-yet-subtle handling of character and plot, coupled with his flowing, expressive line work, spot-on blacks, and rock steady storytelling--oh, and that decade-plus of dedicated work--has resulted in a highly complex, entirely engrossing and paradoxically easily-read one-thousand-plus page epic graphic novel which has proven that it can be read and enjoyed repeatedly by people of all ages, classes, philosophies, genders, and nationalities. Today, having garnered glowing critical notices as well as numerous well-deserved awards both at home and abroad, Bone commands a literal army of fans who defy categorization in everything but their love for Jeff Smith's unique take on...
The Inhuman Comedy
Jeff Smith on the end of Bone
[Note: As will become quickly apparent, this interview took place just before Smith finished Bone, just over a year ago. But, with the first full color trade edition of this modern classic being seen on shelves across the country, it seemed like the perfect time to reacquaint ourselves with Mr. Smith and his accomplishment. BB]
Bill Baker: How would you describe Bone, both the book and the epic undertaking it's been for you?
Jeff Smith: Well, Bone was my attempt at long form comic storytelling, in a way I had always wanted to see since I read my first Uncle Scrooge comic, or my first Pogo comic. And I just didn't see it anywhere. I mean a really long comic, like it's one story from page one to page thirteen-hundred.
As far as the story goes, it's the story of three cousins who get lost in sort of a fantastic valley filled with dragons and monsters and princesses. And they spend a year there, trying to get home. There's a lot that happens in that one year, but, basically, that's it: The three Bone cousins spend a year in a fantasy land.
What do you think? Does that explain it sufficiently?
BB: Yeah, I think so. Well, as much as a statement like, "A small group of unlikely allies work their way behind enemy lines to destroy the ultimate weapon," fully describes The Lord of the Rings, [laughter] but it's about as close good a short, one line capsulization of Bone as I've heard yet.
Still, your simple statement that it's your, "attempt at long form comic storytelling," really doesn't even begin to hint at the amount of work, or the length of time, that you've committed to completing Bone. After all, this is something that you began working on while you were in college, right?
JS: Oh yeah. I started this in 1982. I came up with the characters and the settings, added my desire to blend all my interests--like The Lord of the Rings, and Krazy Kat, and Bugs Bunny, and Star Wars--and I thought this would be something other people would like, too. [Laughter] It was slow to catch on in college, but I did it as a daily strip there. Of course, it was doing it as a comic book that really launched it for me, that really made all the pieces come together and fit.
What is that, 22 years? Yeah. Twenty-two years.
BB: How did the story change over the years, and especially as a result of that transition from daily strip to the comic book format? Did it get richer, more complex...or did you end up having to strip some of the detailing away?
JS: The characters were all in place when I was doing them in college, so they just came into play right away. Like I said, I wanted to take elements from things like Heavy Metal, and elements from Bugs Bunny and Uncle Scrooge, and mix them together. And that was pretty simple, just to come up with the basic premise. But something was missing in the early days, back when I was working on it as a daily strip. And it wasn't until much later--ten years later--that what I realized what was missing was a depth to the world. Or a sense of mission for the Bones. And that's really what was needed to propel the story--and for you to care about the Bones. Sure you hope they get back home--but what do they have to accomplish to get back home?
So I began to read a lot of old stories, a lot of fables, and I began to pick up a sense of what makes you want to root for a character, what drives these worlds. And that's what I started to add into Bone. I added mystical overtones to the people who live in the valley: What do they believe? What's their culture. And then, when different people from one part of the valley have different beliefs than people in another part of the valley, and then they come into conflict, suddenly you have an event happening that you can have the Bones get themselves caught in the middle of. And that suddenly became more interesting. The characters found themselves struggling more, and trying to help their friends...and just survive the general madness! [General laughter]
So that kind of conflict is really what was missing from my original concept, and what has now given this story so much life. [Short burst of self-deprecating laughter]
BB: And given a real sense of weight to the world, its inhabitants, and their intermingled fates, too.
JS: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It's what makes you care about the characters.
BB: Some people have characterized Bone, both recently and in the past, as "just another funny animal book." What does that description leave out, and what does it ignore about the book, particularly in light of what we were just discussing?
JS: There are people for whom there are only two kinds of comic books: Superhero and funny animal. And for those people, Bone is a funny animal book. There are animals in it that talk. There aren't that many--not all the animals talk. But I wouldn't call it a funny animal book.
I consider Bone a kind of a throw back, kind of an old school comic that goes back to the Golden Age of the comic strips. It's got more in common with Thimble Theater, or Tintin, or Asterix. Or Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge stories--although those are funny animal books! [General laughter] But I don't think people would consider Calvin and Hobbes a "funny animal strip."
Anyway, Bone's an old school kind of comic that doesn't really fit in either of those two categories, funny animal and superhero. It's just a comic, you know?
BB: On a happier, vindicating note, you've been doing this as a comic for over a decade now, but the end's finally in sight, right?
JS: Yeah. It's been twelve years and, as we speak, issue # 52 should be on bookstore shelves this week. And # 53 is on my desk, and I'm nearly finished inking it. So for me, there's just the two more issues and then I'm done, # 54 and # 55. Both 48 pages, so that's about a 100 pages left before the end of it. And I am excited, and I am ready for it to be finished, so it's going to be a lot of fun.
BB: Are you feeling a bit of what they call "runner's high" at this point? [General laughter]
JS: I think "runner's high" is a great way to describe it, because it has been a marathon. This is a very long time to keep a story this complicated in focus in your mind. And, here at the end, I am tired. It's been a long haul. It's been a lot of not just drawing comics, but a lot of getting out on the road to promote it, and dealing with all the politics, and dealing with all the business. All those things, and the ups and downs over twelve years, it's tiring. Even though a lot of times it couldn't have been better, it's still exhausting after 12 years! So, in that sense, it's a lot like hitting the end of a marathon where you're just going...but when you can see that finish line, some miraculous source of energy just comes from nowhere, and I'm just feeling it. I'm going to sprint to the finish line.
BB: Do you think you're going to miss working on Bone at all?
JS: I do. I can't picture it yet. It's hard to figure...
But, on the other hand, I've really worked with these characters since 1984. So this is nearly 20 years of working with these characters, I feel a real sense of completion for their story, and I'm looking forward to sending this project to bed, and then starting the next one. I've got a couple projects that are pretty crystallized in my mind that are coming up, and I'm looking forward to doing different things.
BB: Before we move on to those, I've got to ask you whether it's likely that you'll return to the world of Bone at some future time?
JS: I have to say it's pretty unlikely. This, to me, is a single story. Just like Moby Dick or Don Quixote, I really don't picture a sequel to it. The world is still open, a little bit. I've worked on the backstory of Gran'ma Ben as a young teenager with Charles Vess in Rose. That was a lot of fun, and we didn't tell all of Rose's story in that book. Charles and I both talk a lot about going back to that world and exploring it some more.
But that doesn't really include Bones, and it's not the same characters in a sense. Anyway, I really don't see going back to that. But I'm not saying I won't ever do it; I just don't want to give anybody false hopes. [General laughter]
BB: How about other creators playing with your toys, so to speak? Is that a possibility?
JS: You know, that doesn't really interest me that much. Hellboy has been handled by other people than [series creator Mike] Mignola, and it seems to work really well for him. But I can't say I'm really too interested in doing that, just because, all of a sudden, I'd find myself in a supervisory role--which isn't something I'm too particularly interested in.
BB: OK. Well, one final question on the subject of Bone: Is there any real possibility going back and coloring the entire series, as you did with the beautiful 10th Anniversary edition of Bone # 1, and re-releasing it in that form?
JS: The plans are all still in the infant stage, because it's a big undertaking. [General laughter] I do want to go back and do a final sweep through all the books just because, after 12 years, there are some continuity errors, and there's some pictures that I just didn't have the time to draw right the first time--I would like to go back and fix those. So I would like to do a second edition, with a really tight proofing. Exactly how and when that'll happen, that's still in the planning stages. Whether it's in color or not, I'm not sure. But I will say that I do have a guy, working right now, as we speak, coloring the books. [General laughter]
BB: That'd be Steve Hamaker, right?
JS: Yeah, Steve.
BB: Excellent. I really think his coloring is amazing on your work.
JS: Yeah, he's very good. And he is, as we speak, downstairs coloring Bone pages. That's because the Europeans have been asking us for five years to do a color version of the book, so, at the very least, we know have that market to take care of. So, since we feel a little more secure being able to sell the color version first through the European market, we're going to go ahead and color them, and then explore how best to release them, and in what format.
[BB here again. As astute readers and hard core Bonephiles will no doubt already know, Scholastic books has already begun to release soft and hardcover editions of the Bone saga in truly gorgeous full color. You can learn more about these objects of sheer fun and beauty by heading over to http://www.scholastic.com/bone/ or www.boneville.com, the original online home of Jeff Smith's beloved creation.]
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