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Monday, January 23, 2006

Q & A With Jeff Smith

Well, I was beginning to think it would never happen, as I’ve been waiting for this interview for somewhere in the neighborhood of a year. Jeff Smith is one busy guy, and Michael and I are grateful for him taking the time to talk to Four Color Commentary.

For those who don’t know, Jeff is the creator of Bone, one of the most successful independent comic book properties, ever. So successful, in fact, that the collections have been picked up by Scholastic Books, and are a very popular seller in schools and libraries all over the country.

I believe this interview was worth the wait. I hope you do, as well. Thanks, Jeff!

Mark: Who are some of your biggest artistic influences?

Jeff: My early interest in cartoons was started by watching animated shorts on TV. So a key influence was Chuck Jones. Later on, I really got into comic strips, so I read lots of Charles Schulz and Walt Kelly. I also really liked the artist who drew Uncle Scrooge in the old Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Carl Barks. In terms of pure comic book storytelling goodness, he was the master.

Mark: How would you describe Bone to the non-comic-reading public, in order to "entice" them?

Jeff: I would say it’s a story about growing up, if you were short, bald, had a big nose and no pants.

Mark: I commented in a 2004 review of Bone that it was a mixture of Dungeons and Dragons, Disney, and The Lord of the Rings. Every review being largely opinion, did any of these play a part in the inspiration of Bone? If not, what did?

Jeff: Disney and The Lord of the Rings certainly did. As a child the great Disney animated features like Snow White and Bambi were dreamlike experiences for me. They looked just like the pictures in my imagination. It was like the artists had reached into my head and put the images in my head up on screen. Maybe it’s me, but hand drawn animation looks very similar to how things appear in my dreams. The Lord of the Rings was instrumental in showing me the way a fully formed world could be brought into existence, creating a place for your ideas to run loose. A playground for your thoughts, almost. I tried to create that kind of playground in Bone.

Mark: Talk about life before Bone; what other works do you have "under your belt?"

Jeff: I have none. Before Bone I ran a small animation studio in central Ohio where my partners and I cranked out commercial material. Bone was my first attempt to do personal work in a public arena.

Mark: Do you have a "favorite story" from the Bone run? One during which you believe, artistically, and/or as a writer, you were at your best?

Jeff: The story that runs in the fourth book, The DRAGONSLAYER, is my favorite. It’s about Phoney Bone using people’s fears to hold them together for his own personal power and gain. I wrote that story in1995, ten years ago, but unfortunately, it’s one of those themes that never grows old.

Mark: Are there any tales you didn’t get to tell that you would like to? And, are we likely to see them in the future?

Jeff: There were abandoned plot lines, but usually they were abandoned because they weren’t interesting enough, or didn’t push the story in the right direction, so they probably won’t get told. One idea that I might flesh out one day is an exploration of Smiley Bone’s curiosity about the workings of science. It might be fun to see what happens when you mix the least academic Bone with quantum physics.

Mark: How did the deal with Scholastic come about?

Jeff: It all started with the librarians. In 2001, after years of trying to get our books into bookstore distribution systems, like Ingram, and having the door slammed in our faces (because Bone was a self-published comic book), one day, Ingram called us. They wanted to start carrying the Bone books. When we asked why, they said their librarians were insisting on it. Apparently, Bone was one of the most requested graphic novels in libraries across the country. By kids! Now, if you’ve followed my career in comics, you know I’ve fought against Bone being labeled a children’s book. Mostly for marketing reasons (today’s comic book readers are mostly adults, and a kid’s comic wouldn’t survive long), but also because I wasn’t writing for kids. I was writing for the same audience I perceived those old Disney animated films were aimed at: the movie going public.

Anyway, the kids found Bone and claimed it. They got enough librarians looking for it, that Ingram called us. And when trade magazines like Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly began reporting on the high circulations of Graphic Novels and teachers’ discovery that kids actually were reading them, big publishers like Scholastic took notice. Since most of the articles either featured Bone or at least mentioned it, the people at Scholastic gave us a call and in short order convinced us they understood what Bone was and that they could run with it. Now, a year and five hundred thousand books sold later, I think they were right!

Mark: What is the current outlook on any incarnation of Bone to the big screen, or television screen?

Jeff: I get offers constantly, but I’m waiting for the right filmmaker and the right proposal. I hope it will happen. I obviously love animation, and I think it would be great.

Mark: Now that Bone is finished, the obvious question is, "what next?"

Jeff: I’m currently working on a four issue mini-series for DC Comics called “SHAZAM: Monster Society of Evil” that could come out sometime this year, and I have started working on my next independent project which for now has the working title “BIG BIG.”

Mark: Why do you believe there are so many people who are only too anxious to get to the comics section of the newspaper, but would never even consider buying a comic book, even considering them children’s fare?

Jeff: Well, just a few years ago, I would have said the reason was a ridiculous stigma that has been attached to comics since the 1950s, but now I’m not so sure that’s really the case. People are anxious to buy graphic novels. I think we're on the new threshold of a new adventure!