Interview: Jeff Smith Pt. 2 (of 2)

Categories:  Interviews

Jeff SmithIn 2004, after 12 years and 1,300 pages, Jeff Smith said goodbye to the Bone cousins, who had played a role in the artist’s life since his kindergarten years. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, Smith largely dropped off the radar following the close of his magnus opus.

The opening months of 2007 marked Smith’s return to the fold, this time fully immersing himself in others stories, beginning with an original Captain Marvel mini-series, another in a long line of attempts by DC to resurrect the big-grinning supermensch who once ruled the comics scene with an iron fist. This round promises a decidedly Smithian take on the hero, one which will assuredly ooze with the charm that the cartoonist famously poured into his Bone series.

Smith is also trying his hand at Pogo, doing for Walt Kelly’s much-loved possum what Seth did for Peanuts before it, by designing the covers for Fantagraphics’ upcoming Complete Pogo, which is sure to find its way onto countless bookshelves.

For those in need of catching up, Part One can be found here. Part Two of two, after the jump.

Are you completely done with the Bone characters?

Yes. There will be no follow ups in the traditional sense of a sequel. I’ve drawn those characters since I was a little kid. I know them very well, and am sure that I’ll draw them again, in fact, I don’t feel like I’ve stopped in some ways, because Scholastic started reprinting them in color, so I’m still working with them. And I’m drawing covers. I just drew a cover for number seven, which is coming out, next spring—a year from now. The characters still have life. They’re still popular.

What’s the story with the film?

There is no story. I just keep talking to Hollywood people. I just don’t believe they really get. Some are interested. I’ll talk to someone, and it will be like, “wow, have you even read this?”

If you go back and read some interviews from, like, 1999, they say that the film is imminent.

I got very close, once, with Nickelodeon and Paramount. We went to town on that. We were writing scripts, and I was excited. It was my first go with Hollywood, and I believed—but it was just not destined to happen. I’ve talked to some studios and it’s gotten pretty far—then at the last minute…you know, you have to push ‘em. If you push ‘em, you can get the truth out ‘em. They don’t really get it. They don’t really get it.

You mentioned Nickelodeon. Do you consider Bone a family-friendly series?

I guess it is, man [laughs]. When I was doing it, I was thinking that it was like Bugs Bunny, which I guess is family-friendly. I wasn’t aiming for kids. I was thinking, like Pogo, or even Peanuts. I’m not trying to compare it to Peanuts, but to its audience. But it was kids that found it and claimed it, and brought it, kicking and screaming out of the direct market, and into libraries and Barnes & Noble.

The more books I come across, the more I realize that, these days, there’s a huge lack of comics for kids.

It looks like there are starting to be more. I’m liking what I’m seeing. Like I said, I didn’t really consider Bone to be a kids’ comic, I just thought of it as—I don’t know what I thought…I just liked cartoons, so I was making one.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that, between the lack of objectionable material and the Walt Kelly or Dinsey-esque artwork.

What is surprising is that there is such a big audience for it. You have all of these kids—I can’t believe that no one is fulfilling this need, but I think that people are trying now, as fast as they can. I’ve seen some good stuff. I know that, Kazu Kibuishi, who does the Flight anthologies, he’s doing a book for Scholastic, called Amulet, which is just draw droppingly beautiful. That’s going to be a beautiful adventure series.

The Captain Marvel series started running last month.

Yeah. The first one came out last month, and the second one came out, this week.

Have you been a fan of the character for a long time?

Not a huge fan, or anything. Back in the 70s, when DC originally attempted to revive him, I bought that—I think I was 12. He was kind of a cool character. I liked the idea. But what was really interesting to me was the golden age of comics—1930-1945, and Captain Marvel the king of hill back then. He was the best-selling comic at the time. And a lot of people, my parents age read that comic, and Billy Batson was a household word. There’s something about that that did interest me. So I went back and looked at all of the golden age Captain Marvel strips, and looked at other strips from that time period. I also looked at serials and Fliescher brothers cartoons. It was that sort of stuff that I was interested in. Even as a kid, I used to get books about comics, like Jules Feiffer’s book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. I was fascinated by the old pages that were reproduced in those books. There’s a much more direct feeling in those comics. There’s a lot less drama. It’s pulpy and that’s what was interesting to me, and Captain Marvel is one of the few real important characters from that age that hasn’t gotten that facelift, to make him a real important part of today’s world.

So you’re modernizing him and trying to keep the feel of those old books?

Yeah. I was trying to do both. Can I? I was trying to figure out what it was about the characters in the forties that made them appealing in the first place, and at the same time, take a character and make him readable to modern audiences. In the forties, comic books were pretty simple and pretty raw. Guys were creating a language as they were going. And there was some just plain goofy stuff that you can’t read as a modern reader. We’re just too visually literate as a society. On the one hand, I went back and capture a simpler kind of fun; I’m a superhero, bullets bounce off me, I can fly. I’ve got a magic word, ‘Shazam,’ and I can go dash away now.’ but I try to make the characters happen today, with today’s sensibilities.

Why hasn’t the Captain Marvel translated to a modern audience? Is he too dated?

I don’t really know for sure, but my suspicion is that he’s Superman’s rival. He’s got the same powers, basically. The people who have the rights to the character are the same that own Superman. I think that the attempts to take that character and put him into the same ‘city,’ so to speak, as Superman, have forced him to take a second banana role. One of the main changes that happened to the character—I don’t know when this happened—maybe in the 80s—it used to be that Billy Batson said ‘Shazam,’ and turned into Captain Marvel, an invincible god. Some time in the 80s, DC had him say the magical word, ‘Shazam,’ and all of the sudden the little boy turned into the bigger guy, but he kept his 12-year-old brain. So you ended up with a kind of emotionally stunted Superman. You had a Superman who wasn’t really quite up to it. That’s the way the character has been portrayed for probably 20 years, and I think that’s probably his biggest problem.

So you weren’t forced to keep with that continuity?

No. I just went back to the golden age, where Billy turns into Captain Marvel, but it’s not a little kid transforming into a body that’s too big for him. See, I thought a lot about it [laughs].

How much freedom did you get from DC?

A lot. They had the final say, and of course they had to approve everything, I thought it would be fun to work on, but I had some things bubbling in the back of my mind, so when they asked me if I would like to take a crack at this character, I had enough interested to take a crack at some ideas. I said, “let’s do this up front: I’ll tell you some of my ideas. If they’re too weird, or you’re too uncomfortable doing them, then you can find someone better [laughs].” And they were totally fine with that, so I just shot them off idea like making Mary [Batson, Billy’s sister and superhero, Mary Marvel] stay seven years old. I thought that would be more interesting and would be more fun for me to write. It wasn’t too far off the idea—well, it was pushing it, a little bit. And they liked it. They said, “fine.” I put everything upfront, when we started, because I didn’t want to get into a situation where I was turning in ideas after I was committed, and have them not like them.

Was the idea to resurrect Captain Marvel their idea?

It was their idea. I got the original phone call—I wasn’t in the office when they called. When I got back, there was one of those pink message pad things on my desk. ‘Mike called from DC comics. When you get done with Bone, would you be interested in trying superheroes?’ It had never even occurred me to do that. I was getting to the end of Bone, and I did have something else in mind, but I called him and said, “well, what are you thinking?” He said, “Shazam-Captain Marvel,” seriously, if he had said anything else, Batman, Superman, The Spectre. I mean, I didn’t think they’d offer me Superman—I thought they’d say, ‘hey, wanna try Dr. Fate?’

And one of the benefits of Captain Marvel, a opposed to something like Superman or Batman is, in those cases, you’d probably be brought in on issue 300.

Yeah, and that’s another thing that’s appealing to me. This is a character that they’ve tried to restart a couple of times, but basically, he hasn’t been going on. That made him less precious to them. You asked me how much freedom I had—they said, basically, “look, the character is broken, you can’t make him any worse. Go to town.” That’s really what it was. And I’m honestly having fun. It’s a short thing—a two-year project. I still have a couple of pages of number four. I was penciling them, when you called.

So the idea on DC’s end is to essentially resurrect this character and do a proper series?

Yeah, I hope that was the original idea. They originally wanted me to do a series, but I really like the idea of doing a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.

It also must be tough committing yourself to someone else’s character for a few years.

Yeah, it is. But I also thought, after I finished Bone, that it would be good to do something that’s completely different and unexpected. Anything I do after Bone is going to get compared to it. This was, it’s Captain Marvel and it’s not really comparable to it, so I thought it was a good way to cleanse my palate.

And you’ve also done the cover design for these upcoming Pogo books.

Yeah. That is something I’m really interested in, because I’ve been a Pogo fan since I was like, nine. I used to collect Pogo books when I was a kid, and it would say in the front of the book, ‘other Pogo books.’ It was like 15 books, and I was like, ‘where can I find those?’ and Pogo books back then—this was in like ’69 or 70—they just didn’t keep stuff like that in stock, and you’d have to find them in flea markets or bookstores, the old dusty bookshop. When I was ten, I used to have dreams that I would find Pogo books that didn’t really exist in old, dusty bookshops. I’d lift up this pile of books, and it would be like, ‘oh my god! It’s the complete Pogos in sequence!’ so I’m really pleased to be making these books now. This is the thing I’ve been waiting for for 40 years!

I’m amazed that they’ve been out of print for so long.

I think the real turning point was the Complete Peanuts books. They were so well done, and Seth did a stellar job with those books. And they sold like hotcakes. That changed everything. I don’t know what the sales were on Fantagraphics’ last attempts to reprint the Pogo books were, but I get the feeling that they struggled a little bit.

Yeah, I have a few of those old books, and the big difference is that the Peanuts books are something that you would want to but on a bookshelf for everyone to say.

Yeah, and that is a big difference too. People will now put comic books on their bookshelf. That wouldn’t have worked, even ten years ago.

–Brian Heater.

23 Comments to “Interview: Jeff Smith Pt. 2 (of 2)”

  1. CampSteve | March 26th, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    Great interview! I was an animator at Nickelodeon during the time they were interested in doing a Bone movie. I was able to briefly meet Jeff and we talked about Pogo, since I am a huge fan as well. I was soooo hoping that Nick would do the movie so I could beg my producers to let me work on it. But oh well. I can’t wait to see the upcoming Pogo books!

    Hey, check out the Zingerding Blog about comic strips. http://blog.zingerding.com

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