Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Alexandra DuPont’s been working on this one for a while, and I’m going to actually break it down into a few pieces to run over the next few days. The article she turned in runs just shy of 84 million words, so I figured it might be better digested in pieces. Since Jeff Smith’s about as independent as a comic creator gets, and since today is Independent’s Day (isn’t it?), here’s part one, and you can expect the other two over the weekend:
Jeff Smith: The Ain't It Cool Interview
So last November I was buying some "Bone" collections for my stepdaughter from the comic's official Web site. On a whim, I asked the woman helping me with my order if series creator Jeff Smith would consent to an AICN interview.
As a matter of fact, he would. It turns out Smith is an Ain't It Cool fan - he'd met Harry in San Diego and, as Smith put it to me later, "We were able to geek mind-meld." Harcourt Fenton Knowles gave the green light. Schedules were juggled. Finally, last April, Mr. Smith and I talked on the phone.
For over two hours.
Talk about redlining your geek-o-meter. In this room, it pretty much goes without saying that Mr. Smith is widely considered one of the world's best living comic-book creators. For the last 12 years - working with his wife Vijaya and a single employee (the incredibly helpful and cool Kathleen) - Smith has self-published "Bone," his fantasy saga about three creatures who look like the Brundle-chamber offspring of Pogo and the Shmoo. Bringing his animation background to the Bristol board, Smith created one of the most fluid, exciting all-ages comic books since Carl Barks was hammering away at Uncle Scrooge.
Along the way, Smith has collaborated on two "Bone" spinoffs - "Rose" (with Charles Vess) and "Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails" (with Tom Sniegoski) - and tried (and failed) to negotiate a "Bone" movie deal with Nickelodeon. And as his main series went on, it took on a surprising, Lord of the Rings-before-it-was-cool-again gravitas - focusing on the heroic journey of its human protagonist, Thorn, as she discovered her mystical "Dreaming" powers and royal past.
The story's going to end soon. Smith conceived of "Bone" as one long, self-contained tale. "Bone" #55 will be the final issue; "Bone" #51 hit the stands not too terribly long ago.
Over 120-odd minutes (and some follow-up e-mails), we talked about the final issues; Smith's upcoming work on "Captain Marvel"; exactly why the movie deal went to poo; Charles M. Schulz in a tux; the boxing-match feud with "Cerebus" creator Dave Sim; "Bone"'s brief association with Image; Frank Miller; living up to "The Two Towers"; his background; self-publishing; his apparently quite awesome wife; and much, much, much, much more. An edited but still entirely too long transcript follows. [Oh, and WARNING: The more neurasthenic among you should know that some of this conversation contains mild spoilers about the structure of the final issues of the series.] - Alexandra DuPont
THE 'LORD OF THE RINGS' INFLUENCE - and 'BONE''s ORIGINAL, ARARCHIST STORYLINE
ALEXANDRA DuPONT: Now, you've said repeatedly that you've written the final pages of the "Bone" saga - you know how it's going to end.
JEFF SMITH: Yeah.
Now, what has it been - 12 years now? - and you're finally drawing those final pages. How much are you revising that script you wrote a decade ago?
In the broad outlines, it's very close. It's the same ending I've been steering toward. In the details, however, it's completely different.
I always knew that there would be some sort of confrontation at the end between the forces of the Locust and sister Briar versus Grandma and the Bones and the dragons. But the actual confrontation is nothing like I thought it was. And some of the personal conflicts between the actual characters I didn't foresee. But that's fun. I'm having a great time.
Are there whole scenes that are being added to fulfill some of the character arcs that you've developed along the way?
Oh, absolutely. That's kind of happened the whole time. I mean, in the early days, I didn't plan on having the Great Cow Race - which became the story in comics that I'm most well-known for. That was not in my original outline - I just wanted to have Phoney Bone do something to get himself in trouble and fleece the local people out of their money, and it just became the cow race. And that's how it's gone for the past 10 years: The characters have fallen into different troubles, and I just kind of go with them, and as soon as I see where it's going, I'll plot it out.
I did not see this big, climactic, fantasy battle at the end.
I did not. In fact, I fought that - I did not want the big, Tolkien-esque, every-fantasy-story-has-it, free-for-all battle between the forces of good and evil. I just did not want it, I fought it - and it was just inevitable. [laughs]
You're drawing this, and these fantastic "Lord of the Rings" movies have been coming out -
Yeah; I'm pretty thrilled with those.
- and I was wondering if you were thinking, "Oh, poop! This is the stuff I was going to put on my pages, and now it's up on the screen!" Because there are some similarities in tone.
Yeah - and it's not really a coincidence. Lord of the Rings was really my model for the overall story structure. I definitely followed what I felt like was the Lord of the Rings path: I wanted to start with the Bones where you didn't feel like was a big, epic adventure - something I always hated in most fantasy: It always starts off with, "We're on an epic quest! And we're going to take five people and...."
Right. Your story didn't start out with, "AND BONE CAME DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN OF DOOM....."Yeah. There was no prophecy that said that the little man would come and save them.
But I did end up having to have this big fantasy battle; it just was inevitable in the genre. I had gotten all the characters [to Atheia], and the good characters were inside the wall, and the bad characters were outside the wall surrounding them, and the battle began. And I had done all of my research; I had the correct medieval armor and weaponry.... I've read so many books on the sieges of medieval fortresses that you wouldn't believe it. And I actually drew "Bone" #50 before the last "Lord of the Rings" film came out.
Before Helm's Deep was put onscreen.
Before I saw that imagery the way Peter Jackson had put it together. And if you look at "Bone" 50, it's pretty paltry compared to what you see in "Lord of the Rings." [laughs] And when I saw "The Two Towers," I said, "Oh, my God - that guy just showed the whole world what this battle looks like, and now I have to go back!"
So in "Bone" 51, the battle scenes are on a much different scale; they're much more epic in scope - you know, I have more war ladders being put up. I mean, I had to - "Lord of the Rings" showed everybody what it can be. And when I collect "Bone" 50 into a book, I'm going to have to add some more soldiers. [laughs]
So there will be kind of a "Special Edition" for the collected novel.
Oh, I always go back and completely re-do the stories when I collect them in books. I re-edit them, even. For the last book, "Treasure Hunters," I actually took some scenes from later comic books and moved them up earlier in the collected version, because a book has a different cadence to it than reading 20 pages every two or three months.
Do you re-draw it, or do you use Photoshop so you can preserve your original art?
No, I get out the old art boards and I re-draw right on there. I add whole new pages. Add a lot of backgrounds.
Okay, so here's what I originally wanted to do [with the ending]: I wanted to tell a story where there was no government. I wanted the Bones and Grandma and all the characters of the valley to not need a government or a king or something like that - they could take care of themselves. And I had originally thought there might be characters who would come into the valley and try to impose bureaucracy on them. In fact, in the comic strip I did in college, that is kind of the direction I went with it.
But when I was doing the comic book, it suddenly became apparent to me that the story I was telling was that Grandma Ben was going to march her granddaughter Thorn down south and put her back on the throne. And I was horrified by that idea. [laughs] I'm very anti-war, and I don't like really violent movies, and I was against the idea of having this big battle.
I remember talking to Vijaya and talking to some of my cartoonist buddies, and being dismayed that this was the direction that the story was going. And I was in a bar one night with Larry Marder - the cartoonist that does "Beanworld" and who now works for Todd McFarlane - and he heard my story, and he just looked at me and said, "Trust your story."
And from that point on, I was helpless: We were fighting to preserve the kingdom [laughs] - all the fantasy conventions fell into place, and I'm finding now that it's a better story.
Well, you know, conventions are valuable. Conventions work, usually. It's the riffing on conventions that's interesting.
That's exactly right. What you have to do is avoid clichÃ©.
For example, when it came time to depict the ancient city of Atheia, I wanted to stay away from the obvious European/King Arthur stereotype of most fantasy kingdoms. I needed an old place that was full of mysticism, that once had great glory, but has since fallen on hard times - and I decided to model Atheia on Kathmandu. Vijaya and I spent a week in Nepal. I walked around and took pictures and drew what it looks like - The narrow streets, the gutter where the houses meet the street, what kind of masonry they use. And I took pictures of alleys and temples, things that people have in their front yards. And all that's in the book. People who've been to Kathmandu have written me and said, "Oh - you got the prayer flags in the background, prayer stones, and all that stuff." That all comes from Nepal.
But what [modeling Atheia on Kathmandu] does is it breaks the clichÃ©. It allows me to play and keep the convention fresh.
You know, for someone who doesn't like violence, you just published one of the more disturbing comics sequences I've seen - where Briar reveals her face and it's Tarsil's before he was burned and then she slices Tarsil in half with a scythe.
Yeah. Dismemberment seems to be a running theme in my book. I think I should probably get myself checked out. [laughs]
You're like Lucas with the limbs getting chopped off everywhere.
Yes, yes, yes. It's an image that occurs again and again in old stories. Couldn't tell you what it means, though. Life is violent, I guess.
FINAL-ISSUE HINTS (plus an INVASIVE QUESTION about READERSHIP LOSS)
Are you feeling an undue amount of pressure as you wrap these books up? Are you actually having more trouble producing these final four issues?
Um, yes I am. Part of it's just because there's a lot of battle scenes, and they really take a long time to draw. Also, I'm doing a lot of research. The first two-thirds of "Bone" took place in a fairy-tale forest - something I'm very familiar with and can make up. But [the final issues] take a lot of research.
I was talking to Frank Miller about these final battle scenes, and he said, "Well, what kind of military movement is that?" [I said,] "Oh, uh, I think it's a pincer movement." And he goes, "Mm-hm. Yes it is. Okay." [laughs] I had to make real military movements; it had to feel very real.
You have to vet things past the fellow who did "300."
Yes. [laughs] And there is pressure that I'm putting on myself to make sure that it pays off after 12 years. I want to make sure it's good. So I'm not skimping.
I have to say that the comic-book community has been extremely patient with me - especially in these last two or three issues, because they're running slow. But I'm definitely feeling support. Because they could be telling me to go take a long walk off a short pier, but they're not.
Well, when you took a year off to go put together a "Bone" movie, that was a risky thing to do. I mean, people who self-publish talk again and again about the fact that you really have to deliver something consistently if you're going to maintain your audience - because they are unforgiving. And you've tested audience patience a couple of times.
[laughs] Whatever do you mean?
Have you paid a price on that level, readership-wise?
I've always been very worried about it. I took a very big chance when I put the book on hiatus to go work on the film. My gamble was, "If I come back with this good film, all will be forgiven!" And of course the movie deal was becoming sour, to say the least, and I really began to panic - because I had no idea what I would come back to when I tried to start the book back up.
Having Frank Miller and Alex Ross do alternate covers for your "comeback issue" [Issue #38] probably helps.
Yeah, having friends like Alex Ross and Frank Miller did help - and they did step in just for that very reason: to make sure that the first book I did on the way back would get everybody's attention.
And my numbers didn't seem to fail at all; in fact, obviously, the Frank Miller/Alex Ross issue sold very well, and then immediately my numbers were pretty much back where they were before - and have stayed there ever since then. I apparently have not paid much of a penalty, knock on wood.
Right. Well, let's talk a little about issue 55, the final issue of "Bone." You told the Onion, and I quote, "There's some good fun/wow stuff coming." Care to offer any hints on what we'll be seeing?
Well.... One of the reasons I was able to accept a conventional good-versus-evil battle scene is because that is not how the book ends. I do have this other ending that involves Thorn and Fone Bone in the Dreaming with the Locust - and it's a very Stanley Kubrick thing. [laughs] And it's what I've been going for the whole time. It's a nice piece, and I can't wait to draw it. It's going to be hard, and it's a show-stopper in some ways.
Whether anybody likes it - that I can't promise. But that's about as much of a hint of that as I want to give.
Now, we've seen images of a giant locust that represents the Lord of the Locust throughout the "Bone" books, including "Rose." Is that what the Locust will actually look like when we really see him in the Dreaming with Thorn and Fone Bone?
We ... will see him in action.
Okay. Are there any panels in Bone 55 that you're dreading drawing?
Yes. There are some that are just technically going to be very difficult - little sequences - and there's some that are just going to be hard to draw because there's so much going on. I thought about getting some of my computer-animation friends to help me with some of these sequences - [have them make] models or something that I can trace, because there's going to be some crazy stuff to do.
The first comic with animatics.
[laughs] Exactly! The first comic with Pre-Viz!
I've read that Dave Sim and Gerhard, when they're drawing large structures, will actually build models of some of the buildings.
I've seen that. That's actually pretty cool. There's a lot to be said for staging - actually knowing where your characters are in relationship to the building they're in. It's very easy to confuse your readers if you don't give them visual clues to where everybody is in the room at all times.
I should point out that most of that ["fun/wow stuff"] is going to happen in issue 54. Fifty-five will be the dessert. There's a lot of good stuff in 55, but the real "fun/wow" stuff, that's gonna be 54.
Oh, we're close. Things are falling apart right now. Wait 'til you go read 52.
Will we finally find out what young Thorn has been looking at when she's with all those dragons in the flashback sequences?
Oh, of course.
Is it the Crown of Horns?
We'll have to see.
ORIGINS: POGO, JUVENILIA and ANIMATION
You've said that your early Ohio State Lantern college strips were sort of a cross between the current "Bone" and "Doonesbury" - but you've also said you don't like looking at those strips now. I'm just wondering why.
Well ... because they suck. [laughs]
Well. There you go.
They're just awful. I mean, any artist who looks back at something he did more than 10 years ago is gonna cringe, just because the more you draw, the better you get - it's sort of automatic. And I look back at those, and they're so awful. I mean, the characters look different in every single panel, and the humor was all very sophomoric.
So it was a typical college comic strip.
Any chance where I could have a tree limb tear Thorn's shirt off, that's what I needed to do, you know? [laughs]
Has anyone ever turned up at a signing with one of those 2,000 copies you sold of your college-strip collection?
About once a year, someone brings one up to me. And it's in crazy places - like in Finland. I guess they got it over eBay or something.... I have a box of about a hundred [books] left.
The way you've described it, it sounds like you might have been striving for a bit of a "Pogo" tone in some of those early college strips.
Well, "Pogo" was a huge influence on me. I think I was 9 when I saw a "Pogo" book; it was like 1969, and someone brought a "Pogo" collection book to school - a collection of the daily comic strips. And I was blown away by it - because not only was the artwork so gorgeous, and the linework was lush, but it looked like a Disney movie; that was the kind of quality that was in the cartooning.
And it was fat; a comic book that thick, I thought, was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. So I really studied Walt Kelly and "Pogo" from then on out.
Didn't Walt Kelly work in animation? He used to be a Disney guy, didn't he?
Oh, yeah - he worked on "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo." He worked on the famous crow sequence in "Dumbo." He was a Disney animator, and after his Disney experience he came back to the East Coast and started doing "Pogo."
You have an animation background. How much animation training did you actually have?
Um, none. [laughs] A very good friend of mine from elementary school, we were in college together, and we were fascinated by animation. We shared a similar taste in comics and cartoons. We got a hold of a book that two Disney animators had done - Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson - called Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. And in it, two of Disney's Nine Old Men decided that they wanted to capture how they did the animation before it was too late - before it was gone.
We got this book and it was like, "Here's all the secrets to Disney animation" - and for fun, we would try them. We built our own little peg-boards and light-boxes, punched our own paper for registration holes, and taught ourselves out of that book. I can't remember when it came out, but it was the really early '80s, and Disney animation was pretty much a thing of the past. This was before "Little Mermaid".... I think the best thing from that period was "The Aristocats."
So what kind of gigs was Character Builders, your animation company, doing?
Well, when we started, it was this friend I was talking about, Jim Kammerud, and another friend we'd met at Ohio State University, Marty Fuller. The three of us thought, "What if we could make some money doing local commercials?" And Marty had some contacts in the advertising industry, so we did a lot of public-service announcements and ads for local grocery stores.
And then, slowly, we began to get work from Hollywood studios that would have a big movie going on, and they would farm out individual scenes. We'd also work on television shows like "Doug"; they'd send us the storyboards and we would do all the layouts.
So you're kind of a Disney alum by association.
I suppose, yeah. I don't think "Doug" was Disney back then. We worked on "Bebe's Kids" and "Rover Dangerfield." [pause] We were not responsible for those....
And then, after I left Character Builders, I sold my share to my partners; they've gone on and worked on every animated feature film except for Disney that happened in the '80s and '90s - that huge boom. Now they do a lot of Disney direct-to-video sequels, like "Little Mermaid II" and the "101 Dalmatians" sequel, that kind of thing. They actually direct them and write them, in some cases.
When you get the "Bone" series done, have you thought about going back to Character Builders?
Oh, well, that's who I went to Nickelodeon with [on the attempted "Bone" movie]. We gave that a shot - and maybe we'll do it again. Who knows?
SPEAKING OF WHICH: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED WITH NICKELODEON and the 'BONE' MOVIE
These days, comics have a lot more reverence for their characters on the big screen; recent Marvel films have been really strong, valuing character over effects. Does that bode well for you?
As far as doing a "Bone" movie? It might. It might. I think, when you talk about Hollywood, it ultimately comes down to [whether] the person with the money looks at the project and he or she thinks they're going to make their money back. As much as "Lord of the Rings" does sweeten the environment for me, it'll come down to that money person making a decision.
Did you ever run into any trouble because the name of your property was "Bone"?
[laughs] Not in the way that you would think. No, not at all. In the mid-'90s, Disney Adventures Digest, that little check-out magazine, serialized "Bone" for about two years - it was very popular, but it also gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, you know? If Disney could run something called "Bone," then that wasn't the problem.
[laughs] Good point.
Where I ran into a problem is when we began having meetings about "Bone" with Nickelodeon, and we just began to over-analyze everything. They felt Thorn was the character who actually had the greatest story arc - which is true - and they're starting to think, "Well, maybe the movie should be called 'Thorn.'" And of course "Thorn" is what I called the strip in college, so I had this opposite realization and journey, where I took the story back to the Bones. But that's about the only time the name ever gave me trouble.
Any truth to the reports that Nickelodeon wanted you to aim the story more squarely at kids?
Yes. Of course. I guess in some ways that's to be expected. But the truth is, we - meaning myself and the Character Builders and Vijaya - pitched Nickelodeon a fairly complete story idea. You know, we had big art boards made up, big beat boards, and we pretty much showed them the movie that we wanted to make - which would have been: The Bones get into the valley; they meet the princess; they're in the cow race; and they defeat the rat creatures. Very simple, straightforward movie.
It would have set up a sequel if necessary.
Yeah. We had an ending in and of itself, but we could have gone on to finish the larger story in a sequel if it was warranted.
Well, we got into the meetings - and like immediately, they just wanted to change everything. They wanted the Bones to be voiced by 6-year-olds - by children. They wanted to change the ending. They wanted the mood and tone of the story to be much more kid-friendly. And, I mean, we had talked about all this beforehand, so I was a little surprised.
For me, the famous moment was the suggestion that Fone Bone could have "magic gloves" so he could make things grow.
Are those the green gloves that the Fone Bone figurine packaged with the color issue #1 is wearing?
Yes. Those are the magic gloves. He has one scene in the comic when he was wearing gloves because he was helping Thorn garden - and that just happened to be a picture that some of the licensees had picked up on and used a lot. So that became kind of the iconic drawing of Fone Bone, where he had these little gloves on.
Anyway. They said, "He should have magic gloves on so he can make things grow!" And I said, "He's not Jesus Christ! Come on!" [laughs]
Oh, that's painful.
So it was a bit like negotiating through a swamp.
Any truth that they wanted a Britney Spears-style pop song?
No, they didn't want a Britney Spears-style pop song - they wanted a Britney Spears song in the film. And I like Britney Spears; I like pop culture; I like Madonna and Michael Jackson as much as anybody else. - but I had a very different kind of a film that I was trying to make.
And in the late '90s, I was really adamant that there would be no songs in the movie - because all animated feature films seem to have these awful formulaic songs. I think that's a law somewhere - "Animated film for kids? Put some crappy songs in it!"
Like when we pitched Warner Brothers while we were in Annecy. They took us out on a boat and were really wooing us - until I got to the point where I said, "I need it in writing that there will be no songs." And it was pretty much, "Swim back to shore." [laughs] That was it. That was the end.
But Nickelodeon did agree to no songs. In writing. So this pop-song thing was probably the turning point in the whole affair for me; this was about a year-and-a-half in. I mean, we had a great time with Nickelodeon - they were a lot of fun, the actual executives that we worked with. I really liked them. We would go to New York, where Viacom is, or we would go to Paramount, and we always had a wonderful time. But one day after lunch we sat down ... and the executive there turned to me and said, "Okay. We can get $12 million right now if we put a pop song in the movie. So, Jeff - do you see somewhere in the body of the film where we could put a Britney Spears or an N'Sync song?"
Oh my God.
And I just turned and looked at Vijaya, we looked at each other, and I said, "No." I mean, that's not the kind of movie that we were making. I mean, you wouldn't put a Britney Spears song in the middle of "The Empire Strikes Back" or the middle of "Lord of the Rings". And because Vijaya had insisted that clause be in the contract, they couldn't force me.
Things went downhill rapidly after that. I think I became, instead of "the director and the writer," I suddenly became "the creator who was being too protective of his little baby."
"The person they had to wrest it from."
Yes, yes. I was being too sensitive.
Did you ever have a moment where they said, "You're being too sensitive, Jeff"?
Oh, of course. [laughs] They were trying to be very gentle with me because I was the creator and I didn't want to see my babies hurt. They didn't see me as a filmmaker with a vision - at least not after I turned down 12 million dollars. [laughs]
So basically, it ate up your time, it bore little fruit, it was frustrating. Did this further validate your decision to self-publish?
Well, let me go back and say that I didn't think it was that frustrating, and I didn't think it was a waste of time. I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, and it was not all Nickelodeon's fault; part of it was my own inexperience in the system. If I could go back in time and do it again, I would have sat down first thing and storyboarded the movie that we had all agreed on to begin with. I didn't know to do that then. I didn't know - I kept thinking there would be a moment where someone would say, "Okay - start now." Do you know what I mean? So I actually thought it was a pretty good experience. I got to learn a lot about Hollywood; I got to learn a lot about story structure. In Nickelodeon's defense, they found weak points in my story - and they held my feet to the fire until I screamed and figured them out. And they ultimately did agree to a contract that allowed me to keep my rights when it didn't work out. That isn't the juicy part of the story to tell, but that's the truth.
And also, everything I do affects my comics. So not one bit of that was wasted time. I mean, it was a gamble - I could have lost my readership in comics - but that didn't happen. What was the other part of your question?
Did this further validate your decision to self-publish?
In a way, yeah. I mean, it has been our experience - Vijaya's and mine - that "Bone" only works when we do it ourselves. The syndicates were interested in "Bone" as a comic strip, but ultimately they couldn't sell it the way we wanted to do it - and the same with Nickelodeon.
What are the chances that you'll revisit the film deal after you're done making the books?
Well, I'd like to, to be honest. But will I get to? I don't know. It might be one of those things you just get the one shot at, so who knows?
But my plan is when the comic book is done, and while I'm finishing up "Captain Marvel," I plan on putting together another script. And I got a lot of calls from other studios and producers once I left Nickelodeon, and I tried to be polite and say, "Well, you know, I'd like to finish the book; can I call you back later?" So we'll see. I have a lot of phone numbers.... Maybe the time will have come and gone. We'll see.
So if I'm hearing you correctly, next time you're going to basically do what Peter Jackson did with "Lord of the Rings" - he basically had the whole movie storyboarded in advance. He showed the cast the whole film in storyboards with temp-track voices.
That's exactly right. And my understanding is that quite a few directors do that - Miyazaki, for instance - not just Peter Jackson. I mean, they see the movie in their head.
Warmest, Alexandra DuPont.firstname.lastname@example.org