The beauty of Jeff Smith’s work is that it’s never sought to reinvent the wheel—instead it’s content to remind you exactly what it was that made you love said wheel in the first place. Smith’s long-running Bone series–which lasted a dozen years and 55 issues, before drawing to a well-plotted end uncharacteristic of an industry defined by pointless sequels, spinoffs, and conversely countless sequels canceled in their prime–effective captured a sense of wonder rarely seen since the days of Walt Kelly and Carl Barks.
After closing out the series that came to define his life for more than a decade, Smith is ready to make a comeback, in a big way, having briefly left the shelter of Boneville and Cartoon Books (the four-person publishing company he runs with his wife, Vijaya) for the world of superhero books, by penning a series mini-series starring that long-neglected DC character, Captain Marvel.
The massive success of Bone, one of the few truly great family-friendly books of the past quarter century, has also afforded Smith the opportunity to take on a character even dearer to his heart: Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Smith will be creating covers for Fantagraphics’ forthcoming Complete Pogo reissues, which will boast a similar format to the widly-successful Peanuts books designed by Seth.
We gave Smith a ring at Cartoon Books’ world headquarters in Colombus, OH, and spoke about McCarthism, Hollywood producers, and heroes, both super- and non.
How large of an operation is Cartoon Books?
Not too [laughs]. We bought a little house that was built in the 1800s, and we have two employees—we have Kathleen and Steve, who’s my assistant and does all of the coloring, and anything that’s art-related that isn’t drawing a comic page.
You only put out your own work?
Was there any desire at any point to branch out and distribute other artists’ work?
There was a moment, in the mid-90s, where we made the decision. I remember Vijaya saying, “what do we want? Do want to have a floor of a building and 30 employees that we don’t know [laughs]? Or do we want to be just be four people and do our little books? And we decided that this was the way to do it. I think aesthetically, I’m much happier this way. And I also think it was a smart move, because a lot of people I knew—Jim Valentino, Image, and all of those guys went for the big studio thing, and times, they change.
What prompted you to start up the company?
Well, I wanted to draw comics, and nobody wanted to publish them [laughs]. I had originally shopped it around as a comic strip. I was trying to get Universal Press, or King Features, or someone to pick it up as a daily. After two years of talking to a couple of syndicates, it became very clear that I was never going to sell it. So, I just gave it up. One day I walked into a comic book shop, in Columbus, Oh—Monkey’s Retreat, which is one of the oldest comic book shops in the country—and came across Love & Rockets, and Cerebus, and The Tick. I remember looking at them and thinking, they’re in black and white, and you can really tell that they’re driven by their creators. I was used to reading comics like Archie and Spider-man. I thought, ‘maybe that’s the place where I can take this comic strip idea and expand it into a book. ‘
Had you shopped around the story as a full-length book?
No. I was so dejected from trying to sell to the syndicates that it didn’t even occur to me to show it to Marvel or DC. And I didn’t know enough about comics to know that there were companies like Fantagraphics or Darkhorse.
Was the original strip gag-based? Was there a punchline at the end of every strip?
Yeah. It was a weird comic strip. I drew it in my college newspaper, everyday for four years. And it was the same thing that Bone is—it had the Bone characters, they were lost in this fairytale forest, with monsters and bad guys. It didn’t have a point to it. I was just doing it because I was a fan of Heavy Metal, which had come out just a couple of years before, and I was also a big fan of Carl Barks and Pogo, so it was just natural for me to want to draws that kind of mixture of Walt Kelly and Mobius, but it really didn’t have a point, as far as why these characters were there, and what was going on. It bugged me that the comic strips had no point—I mean, the jokes were okay. The editors let me do it every day for four years, so it did all right. There really wasn’t any reason to tell until. Eventually, though, I came up with a story that was worth putting the time into. It was around the same time that I discovered comic book shops, and I began to create a really long story for it, the equivelant of taking all of Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge stories, and putting them end to end, and having a full-cycle story, throughout the whole thing.
So really, the entire story arc of Bone was conceived of before you even started working on the series?
Yeah, yeah. When I was searching for this point, I finally came up with a story in my head where I saw what everybody was going for. And what kind of arc the whole thing will cover. And I wrote the ending, in 1989. I still have the piece of paper—I drew the last page of the last issue, and it’s the same one that I drew in 2004, where you see the Bone cousins riding away from you, downhill. It’s the same joke. So, from the ending I could kind of work backwards. I had it all planned out, very, very broadly. I had no idea if it was going to be 300 pages or 2,000 pages—it just worked out to be 1,300 pages.
So you knew that when the story was over, it was over.
Oh yeah. I had been aiming for that ending for years.
Was it a bit frustrating that it was so hard to get to?
Well, there were times. But I had a pretty good run with it. I was able to keep people’s interest in the story for 12 years. I feel pretty lucky that I was able to get away with that. I had all sorts of business plans. My wife made me sit down and write a business plan, before she was ready to commit to the company. One of the business plans was proving that I could make money. I had to convince the bank that this was real. Part of the plan was that I was going to reprint the collection in books, to always keep the story available. I always wanted to do the big one volume edition, too. One of the things that I wanted to do was change the model of comics and make them restockable, instead of comics just being up on stands for a month and then coming down and going back into the longbox, after getting marked up a bit. I wanted this to be always there. You needed the early parts of the story to always be there, so when number one sold out, put 5,000 more out on the market. The next stage was to go into the trades, and keep those in stock. It was very necessary for people in the middle of the story to be able to very cheaply and very easily go back and get those. That was in my original business plan, and it was a bit of a fight with the retailers to get them to think that way.
[Continued in Pt. Two].