AICN COMICS EXCLUSIVE! Alexandra DuPont Interviews BONE Creator Jeff Smith!! Part THREE!!
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Look! Two parts in one day! And this one wraps up this massive interview. I want to thank Alexandra DuPont for organizing and conducting the interview, and Jeff Smith for consenting to it. Nice stuff all the way around, and I hope BONE fans enjoyed it, and that non-BONE fans take a shot at it soon.
How hard is it to put your strip aside and relax at the end of the day?
Sometimes it's very easy. But if there's any kind of a deadline pressure, you just don't get to - you have to stay up and get it done.
I am able to go on my merry way and think about stuff, work it out, and go and have a nice evening out with friends.
How much does your wife Vijaya contribute to the "Bone" enterprise?
She reads all the books, and if she doesn't laugh, then I don't put it in there. She shares with me a real enjoyment of cartoons in general. And she makes the business happen.
Basically, it splits down like this: I write and draw the books and I design the books and I promote the books. She handles the lawyers, the printers, the logistics of storage and shipping. And Kathleen Glosan works with her to make sure all that happens. Kathleen handles my projects, and all that kind of stuff. She's the traffic manager; she makes sure that what I'm doing is on schedule. She keeps us all together.
What happens to Cartoon Books when Book 9 is done?
We don't really know. I don't think it's going to be over when the last issue comes out. There's a lot going on in terms of bookstores; the "Bone" books have a life of their own now. They've sold consistently in the comic-book stores, and libraries have bought them, and now they're moving into the mainstream bookstores.
Actually, right now, Barnes & Noble is conducting an experiment. It started last month [in March]. They have "Bone" Volume 1 and Volume 2 face-out on their little graphic-novel display - what they call a "waterfall" display. It's an experiment that's going to go through the summer, and in July they're going to add Vol. 3 to it. So if you want to help me out with this experiment, everyone should run to their Barnes & Noble right now and scoop 'em up. [laughs]
Something has tipped, and comic books are suddenly real-world, mainstream stuff. Mostly the librarians have brought this about. From what I understand from librarians, the circulations for shelves in the library that have graphic novels on them have increased 300 times. To them, that means there's a chance that they can get a kid to read instead of playing a video game.
Comics are reading. People forget that.
Comics are reading. They're still a visual art form, and a lot of the shots are composed like film shots - you know, wide angle for establishment, close-ups for the interior monologues of the characters - but ultimately it's reading. It's left-to-right, top-to-bottom. It is literature.
FUTURE PROJECTS: COLORIZING 'BONE,' CAPTAIN MARVEL, ROBIN HOOD, 'BIG BIG,' and (maybe) a 'ROSE' SEQUEL
Now, for "Bone''s 10-year anniversary, you re-printed "Bone" #1 in color. Any chance we'll ever see the remainder of the series in color?
I hope so. I don't have an actual plan for it. It would be a huge amount of work; it would be very expensive. All the foreign publishers want to do it in color, so they're willing to pony up the money. But I think I want to wait until the story's done and I can concentrate on how it would be best to do that. I'm perfectly happy with it in black-and-white, though.
Well, you'll get a chance to do color anyway because you're doing something with Captain Marvel, right? What's up with that? You've planned a 200-page Captain Marvel story?
DC gave me a call one day and they said, "When you're done with 'Bone,' would you consider doing any superhero work?" And I didn't [want to] really - but I didn't want to say that, because what do I know? I don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done with "Bone."
So I asked if they had anything specific in mind, and they said, "Captain Marvel." I said, "What do you want me to do?"
"Anything you want - do you want to draw it? Do you want to write it?" I said I would think about it.
When I told my mom that I'd had this offer, she was crazy for it; Captain Marvel was the biggest hero around in the '40s and early '50s - it was her favorite character when she was a kid.
So I started to look into it, and the more I read the old material.... It's kind of goofy by today's standards, but the essence of it is adventure with a lot of crazy characters and really weird villains and a lot of falling off cliffs, being strapped to bombs.... Talking tigers? It's right up my alley!
Captain Marvel's a character that's ripe for a proper re-visit.
Yup. And I've got a good idea for him. We'll probably do it like "Kingdom Come" or "Dark Knight" - four 48-page books that will eventually be bound into a book.
One thing you didn't ask me that you said you were going to ask me: What's up with me doing superheroes when I've said I didn't like them? I didn't get a chance to defend myself.
Oh! Hey - what the hell's wrong with you, doing superheroes?
[laughs] Well, I actually like superheroes - I liked "Superman" and "Batman" movies. It's the piecemeal work process that I've never really liked - the monthly slot that you fill on the conveyor belt - [where] you either draw it or you write it or you letter it, you know what I mean? It doesn't appeal to me.
The way I've been able to work this ["Captain Marvel"] thing is that I've got plenty of time to come up with a single story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, so I can explore the characters. And I'm writing it and drawing it and coloring it, and pretty much giving it to them - with their approval, of course - on a disk at the end.
The way I wanted to approach the story is to treat it as one might a film - as if nobody's ever seen Captain Marvel before. They said, "Please do. That's fine." It was funny - once I agreed to it, I started getting calls from other people at DC's editorial department saying, "That's great! You're not going to put the talking tiger in it, are you?" I said, "Are you kidding? That's the main reason I took the gig!" [laughs]
Let's hear about this "Robin Hood" story you've always wanted to do.
Well, I love mythology, and the story I want to tell will not only be a re-telling of the Robin Hood legend, it will also be a fun way to talk about how legends are built.
I don't know when I'll get to do that. I originally thought that would be the project that I would get to do when I finished "Bone" - but this "Captain Marvel" thing has come up and I've got a great sci-fi concept thing with Paul Pope called "Big Big." So "Robin Hood" might have to be third in line.
So what is "Big Big"?
Well, Paul has a science-fiction story that he wants to tell; I have a science-fiction story that I want to tell; they're each about 40 pages long; so we'll just do our stories and package them in a big book. We haven't committed to how our format is or how we're actually going to do it, but we're both still very enthusiastic about it. We talk about it all the time.
Any hints as to what your science-fiction story's all about?
Originally, it was supposed to be a warning tale about religious fanatics taking drastic actions and blowing up buildings in New York.
Never more relevant.
Well, it seems a little pointless to tell a warning story about that. [laughs] So that's one of the hold-ups; I'm kind of re-tooling my story. But for me, the tag line in my head is: "A modern fable about the speed of light." I think I'll just leave it at that. That's a couple of years away.
I loved "Pan Fried Girl" [a collaboration with Paul Pope, set in the "THB" universe, that appeared in the "Dark Horse 100" anthology]. I'd love to see you two kick around a little more in the "THB" universe.
Well, one of the ideas - I'm going to tell you before I even tell Paul - is that I want to do "Big Big" more like "Pan Fried Girl," where we actually work together on something. Because "Pan Fried Girl" was a lot of fun.
Sometimes a collaboration between two artists can be rough - but it sounds like you two have had a lot of fun working together.
Well, when I worked with Charles Vess on "Rose," that was one of the most rewarding things I'd ever done. He brought to the table this vast knowledge of mythology and fables and all this rich visual information that he could put into the story. That was incredible - greater than the sum of our two parts.
I love the translucent speech bubbles in "Rose." That was an innovative solution.
Which I liked, but I got a lot of flak for that. That was actually an accident. It was one of those deals where you have a different person writing and a different person drawing, and Charles wasn't leaving enough room. He was painting things - beautiful things! - where the balloon was going to have to go. So we decided, "Why don't we make the balloon see-through, and you can see some of that stuff back there?" I actually thought it ended up being fantastic - but I got basted by the message-board crowd. [laughs] Oh, they hated that.
Any chance you'll ever re-visit the worlds of Big Johnson Bone or "Rose"?
Probably. Right after "Rose" came out, we had such a good response - people were immediately wanting more. Charles and I have talked about it, and we're definitely committed to doing a sequel to "Rose." We love the world, and "Rose" doesn't tell the whole story - that's only, at most, half of the story of Rose and Briar and Lucius.
Well, you've got the whole fall of the kingdom and being driven out of the kingdom to cover still....
And the real betrayal hasn't even begun. We're not in a hurry. We started "Rose" in '96, and finally began to go into production in 2000, and it was 2002 [before we finished]. It's like a film: You're going to eventually commit years of your life to a project.
ALEXANDRA's STEPDAUGHTER HAS SOME QUESTIONS
My 13-year-old stepdaughter has entirely too many questions she wants me to ask you.
Go for it.
"Will there be an introduction of new characters in the final issues?"
There will not be any brand-new characters - we've met everyone. But there will be a lot of characters who step forward, and we'll find out a lot more about them - like Mermie, one of the dream masters.
The woman who made the fiery apparitions in the last issue.
Yes. And of course we're going to get to see the Lord of the Locusts, which we've been waiting 12 years for.
"Will there be any more books set before or after 'Bone' in the 'Bone' universe?" Will we, for example, see a Boneville story?
I'm going to try and avoid the temptation to do a Boneville story. I decided early on that people have got their own idea of what Boneville is - some people think it's pre-technological, some people think it's Duckberg. I'm gonna avoid that temptation to go there. But I might.
You've already kind of answered this, but: "What books inspired you to write 'Bone'"?
Well, comics-wise, I'd have to say "Uncle Scrooge" by Carl Barks, "Pogo." And of course Lord of the Rings - we've talked about that.
But really, the books that most interested me are classic adventures of literature, like Moby Dick or The Odyssey....
You've probably done more to get kids to read "Moby Dick" than just about anybody.
[laughs] And they're cursing me to this day. But I love "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" and the King Arthur books by Mallory. I've worked hard to get that kind of literary structure into this work.
I love this question: "What did you want to be when you grew up?"
Well, you know, from age 9 - from the day I was standing on the playground behind my elementary school and somebody handed me that "Pogo" book, I knew that's what I wanted to do. That was a turning point. From that point on, I went to the library and tried to find out how cartoons were made, what pens were used, what inks....
"Is it possible that a person can make a living wage drawing comic books?"
Well, I do know people that are doing it. But if you want to follow your own muse and draw your own comics - meaning self-publish or work through a small-press publisher - it's more difficult. So that's a trade-off.
Do you want to draw your own stories? It's a little harder to make the money. If you're willing to work at Marvel or DC, you can make a nice living.
Now Bartleby is her favorite character, so she wants to know: "Does Bartleby have a part in the war?"
He does. And it's a good one.
Excellent. And then some questions from her that you won't answer: "Do the Bones split up at the end?" and "Do they go back to Boneville?" and "Does Thorn come through?"
Well, that - she'll have to wait and see. I won't even tell Vijaya that.
No - Vijaya knows that. [laughs]
THE DAVE SIM BOXING MATCH, THE LINDA MEDLEY FEUD and OTHER TOUCHY SUBJECTS
[Alexandra's note: Before reading this section, here's some crucial background for any readers who've made it this far: "Cerebus" cartoonist Sim had a very public spat with Smith over remarks Smith made in a December 1999 Comics Journal interview. Earlier (in "Cerebus" #186), Sim recounted an evening where Smith was unable to handle the truth of Sim's theory on the "Male Light vs. the Female Void," and Smith's Asian wife is described as "inscrutable." Sim claimed the argument ended at an impasse; Smith told the Journal that the argument ended when he threatened to give Sim a fat lip. Sim responded in the pages of "Cerebus" #264 - disputing the account and challenging Smith to a three-round boxing match. You can read more about this bizarre feud here .]
Now, we're almost done. But I have four questions that you may not want to answer. First of all: Any final words on the whole Dave Sim boxing-match thing?
Which, by the way, speaking as a lay reader, was incredibly amusing to follow.
Yes, I hope it has been. [laughs] I don't know how much readers of Ain't It Cool News want to know about the particulars of the comic-book industry. I think, just in general, when a friendship - or any kind of a relationship starts to fall apart, it's complicated, and there's mind games, and it's not pretty, and it's difficult to explain as it is. But when it's so public -
And in print -
- It's been a very public parting of the ways. And it's been done against the background of what was essentially a revolution in comics, and there's a lot of people with very strong feelings on every side. It's been very difficult to talk about it publicly. In fact, I've made a pretty good effort not to speak about it publicly - just the one time, and all I wanted to do was clear the record. I still stand by my statements in the Comics Journal.
Are you still a reader of "Cerebus"?
I did keep up with it for a while - even checked it out for a year or so after the big "Dear Jeff Smith: Let's keep this private ... in public...." But I have to say, for about a year now, I haven't looked at it. It's a bit difficult to read.
I would say that if you did take him up on the boxing match, you could raise some money for charity.
[laughs] Well, he specifically forbid that in his original letter.
That's too bad.
Well, it's just such a leap to go to the boxing match. That was just such a non sequitur to me; I just never knew what to think of that, you know?
Well, if memory serves, he was obsessed around that time in the pages of "Cerebus" with the whole idea of men challenging each other to duels.
Well, I guess. After he published that, he was in Ohio at a show - and I went to see him. And he didn't seem that interested in fighting, as far as I could tell.
Another possibly tough question: What happened to Cartoon Books' plan to publish Linda Medley's "Castle Waiting"?
Well, that's a very different and equally sad story. We wanted to publish her, and we had the best intentions - but she became very unhappy right away. I'm not quite sure exactly what caused it. We had worked out a long-term plan; I've always felt the long-term goal was to create a library of books, and I thought we could add "Castle Waiting" to that library.... So I thought that was a pretty neat idea. And I don't know really where it went wrong; I do know she felt, somehow, she wasn't getting enough money and we weren't promoting her enough - and it just went bad. I'm very sorry about it.
I love Linda - I think she's a brilliant cartoonist. We spent a lot of money on ["Castle Waiting,"] and we worked really hard to promote it, and I don't know exactly what went wrong. We haven't really talked very much. I hope that relationship heals someday. It's different than with Dave. With Linda, we were really close.... You know how it is - people can be dramatic. We were at San Diego and she gave me the cold shoulder at some thing, and then later we were in San Francisco at the Alternative Press Expo, and I gave her the cold shoulder.... I hate that. I hope we patch things up. We're were brother and sister, really.
Now, dare I ask the numbers question? How many "Bone" books are currently in print?
There's quite a few. I was recently asked this by the book distributors and the librarians and the people at Barnes & Noble who want to know these things - and it was a lot harder to figure out than you might have thought. Vijaya and I had to go through all these old files that are 10 years old and add things up. Now it's all done on computer, but back then, you know, we just wrote it on scraps of paper.... We had to piece it together. And it looks like we're in the 400,000 range of "Bone" books in English.
Is that in print or sold?
Well, in our business [comic-book direct sales], that's sold. And we only print a few at a time, so we don't order more unless they're gone. We probably sold 50,000 of the first "Bone" collection within like 16 months - a year and a half.
That must have been gratifying.
It was pretty sweet. [laughs] It was also very unexpected - but it was exactly the best-case scenario I could have imagined.
And then we started counting the foreign editions, and the first German "Bone" book alone has sold 100,000 copies in the last five years. Which surprised me - but I stopped counting after that. [laughs] I got tired. So if we extrapolate, I would say it's near a million copies worldwide - not counting sales of the comic books.
Let's say you got done doing "Bone" and you threw your hands in the air and said, "I'm done doing comics forever." Would you ever have to work again? Can you actually retire on what you've accomplished?
Well, no, not really - because you don't just put the money in your mattress; you funnel the money back into your company.
The decision Vijaya and I made years and years ago to keep "Bone" in print, to keep the story available always - that's a very expensive proposition. Keeping eight books in print in softcover and hardcover, paying for storage, all the other kind of merchandising things that we do - toys and action figures and statues. We constantly funnel the money back into the company.
However, we have talked about moving to southern India, where Vijaya's family's originally from.
Naw, probably not. But we could retire there. We could live nicely there. I'm just saying that the money's not that liquid - you have to use it.
It would be interesting to see what kind of comics you'd produce living in India.
It would be fun to do that for like a year or something. We've often talked about just spending a year in France doing a project while I'm there.
HELP from LARGE, MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS
Now, you signed briefly with Image Comics, and then you backed out.
Now, my first part of my question would be: What happened? And the second part of my question would then be: Is there conceivably a day, if you achieve national prominence, where you might give a publisher custody of your property?
Well, I went to Image when the industry was in trouble - and I'm talking about the infrastructure. There were some seriously aggressive moves made by Marvel and some of the distributors, and the situation became sketchy pretty quick. "Bone" was selling a lot, and I was selling a lot of books directly to stores at that time - and suddenly people were in desperate straits. Companies were losing business, and the industry was collapsing.
Not only was Marvel making aggressive moves in distribution, but the bubble burst in comics - people had been buying multiple cases of new number-one comics, thinking that they were going to go up in value, and when they found out that wasn't true, they left the marketplace.
In disgust, no doubt.
Yes, in disgust - it was pretty amazing. Stores were suddenly desperate, and companies were desperate. And when a store [owner] had to decide what bills he was going to pay, he paid DC, Marvel, Image - and Cartoon Books was pretty low on the list.
And you know, a year earlier, I had split with Dave [Sim], and was no longer part of the whole self-publishing "movement" - and plus once it became a "movement," I no longer wanted to be associated with it. To me, self-publishing was all about creative freedom, not following Ayn Rand's rules, you know?
So I've never really said this in public, but I thought that [moving to Image] would make a little statement about creative freedom - that you didn't have to be self-published. [Self-publishing] was just a technicality; what was important was making good comics. I thought that was all right: It made good business sense to ally myself with a powerful group of six cartoonists who were running their own company, and at the same time show that I had moved on.
So why did you end up leaving Image?
Well, it wasn't a perfect match, "Bone" and the other Image titles, and it was never meant to be permanent. I mean, I kept the "Bone" [collected] books out of the deal, and it was open - maybe it would be permanent, maybe not.
But I think that Larry Marder, my friend who was working there, always knew that it was a temporary situation just while I sorted out what was going on in the world. I was kind of alone at that point - I had split from the self-publishing movement, and I was a little lost. [laughs]
You took cover briefly, and then went back out there.
Yes. Well, I gave it a shot -but moving to Image provoked a very bad reaction. I got hate mail, you know? There were people sending me letters saying, "I used to love 'Bone' and read it with my sons, but I will never let my children read it again because you sold out self-publishers and you're giving legitimacy to these horrible Image guys." It was overwhelming - I couldn't believe people cared so much about it. Eventually I had to admit that self-publishing was more a part of my identity than I realized. I had to get back out on my own.
You're going to get "Bone" done. You're going to move on to other things. You're going to be doing "Captain Marvel," you're going to be doing stuff with Paul Pope, you're going to be working on the film. Do you think there's ever a logical point in the future where you'll get tired of maintaining warehouses full of books - and maybe move "Bone" to a place like Image? Or have a place that distributes these back issues?
Funny you should mention that: I just reached an agreement with Harper-Collins to publish "Bone," in an agreement somewhat similar to the Image deal.
Now, I haven't signed a contract for this yet, but the negotiations are done and we've got a potential deal where Harper-Collins will publish a digest-sized version of my books - identical on the interiors, but with new covers or something - as children's books. And they'll promote them and do what they have to do in Barnes & Nobles or something. And yet Vijaya and I will still sell our "Bone" book that we've always had as the core of our company - we'll still sell those to comic-book stores and the chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.
So you'll still retain the rights to the characters - but there will be new versions of these books in stores.
Yes - with the marketing power and the ability to get the kind of placement in the store that Harper-Collins can offer.
Vijaya and I have been trying to get into bookstores for years; it's only been recently that librarians have kind of forced the issue. They've brought "Bone" to the forefront of this graphic-novel explosion that's happening right now.
I'm excited about it. It could be a whole new step for "Bone." [Strikes the tone of a proud parent] Having the little kids go off on their own!
As horrible as it is to say this, there is something to be said for the marketing apparatus of a large multinational corporation.
Yes. But there's also something to be said for the artist hanging on to guiding it. To me, that's the most important part of it: We didn't let go.
You've found a way to keep your "street cred."
Sort of. I think my reputation has its ups and downs -but ultimately, the story – the work itself- has never been affected by that.
THOUGHTS on SELF-PUBLISHING
Would today's comics climate allow you to self-publish?
I believe so. I think that the legacy that the self-publishing movement left is still with us. People remember the good parts.
I think there have been opportunities for Diamond Comic Book Distributors to close the door on self-publishing. I think the work that Dave and Gerhard have done, and the Pinis with "Elfquest," and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and what Vijaya and I have done with "Bone" - there've been comics that pleased people and earned good money for the system. I think that legacy is still strong and the door has not been closed, and you still can self-publish. The avenues are there; it's up to the cartoonist to get it done.
The situation now is not that different from when I entered the marketplace; it was very negative. There had been a black-and-white self-publishing boom shortly after the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" success, which had gone sour...
That's because most of that stuff was utterly horrid.
Well, you know, most of everything is horrid - whether it's movies, books, TV.... By 1994, self-publishing had become, like, 17 percent of the market every month. That is a massive number in terms of a marketplace. And we had a lot of power. Now, there was no organization, so we didn't really have power - but, you know, power to the people. [laughs] And I think that lingers in people's minds. A great deal of it was garbage, of course - but there was an awful lot of very good stuff, man.
I think of the people who work in comics who run the stores, the people who run the distributors - they're all people who love comics. In that way, we're not like book publishing or filmmaking; the people all the way up the chain of command in the comic-book companies are all comic-book lovers. And if there's someone who's got a good product, everybody wants to see it. I think that's the truth.
Will we ever see anything like the "Trilogy Tour" [where Smith went on the convention circuit with Charles Vess, Linda Medley and a bunch of oversized props] ever happen again?
I hope so. One of the realities of the small press and self-publishing is that you have to promote yourself - and I think you need to give people their money's worth. The Trilogy Tour was a nice, big event; it focused a lot of attention on the work that Linda Medley and Charles Vess and I were doing. If I could think of a big, good event that will be a showstopper, I'll definitely see if I can talk somebody into doing it with me.
TWO FINAL QUESTIONS
What character's the hardest to draw these days?
The same character that's always been the hardest to draw - Thorn. She's a human, and she's got to be appealing and attractive, and she's just really hard to draw, and I still have trouble with her. It's a real effort to make sure her head's the same size.
And I have to do tricks, because Fone Bone only comes up to, like, the top of her leg - and yet in close-up shots, I have the two of them cut off at the waist, and I think Fone Bone must be standing on a crate or something off-camera. [laughs]
I've noticed that Thorn's sitting or crouching a lot.
I remember reading an interview where you said the Bones got difficult to draw for a while.
I don't remember what particular problem I was having at the time; they're still pretty easy to draw. They have to be very solid and believable and look like they have weight - so a little extra effort has to be made to have them fit believably in the scenes a lot of the time. As far as [drawing] their expressions and faces, that's a pure joy; I have no problem drawing that at all.
Last question: If you could participate in a "jam drawing" with anybody working today in comics, who would be in on it?
Well, right off the top, Paul Pope and Frank Miller - who are not only two very good friends and troublemakers, but they're also two people whose artwork excites me and still pushes the envelope. I'd love to have Charles Vess in there. I'd love to do something with Mike Mignola, Jaime Hernandez - I love both their work.
I think the person I'd most like to do something with would be Art Spiegelman; he's always out there on the edge, and I'd like to see what the air's like out there. That's what interests me: what's out there a little email@example.com
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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July 10, 2003, 7:04 a.m. CST
I've ever only read one Bone comic a few years back and liked it a lot. just never came around to read the series. But this fantastic interview has made me curious once more. So I've just ordered the first two trades - thanks to you. - Now that should make Jeff happy :) - Thanks again for the great interview.
July 10, 2003, 11:55 a.m. CST
One of the best comics related interviews I've read in a very long time. Enjoyabel from beginning to end. Now when are going to interview Dave and Ger? LOL!
July 10, 2003, 12:48 p.m. CST
But seriously, that Dave Sim is an interesting case. How often do we get to see one man's evolution from (more or less) normal guy to oddball eccentric to full-blown loony in a such a public way? sk
LOL. This was a very interesting interview. Thanks. <a href="http://provilluswarning.com/">Provillus</a>
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