Cartoonist Jeff Smith rocks the world of graphic novels
Jeff Smith recently returned from a world tour, an endeavor most often associated with religious leaders or rock stars. Smith won't be riding in a pope-mobile any time soon, but he's got Bono-worthy status in the world of comic books and graphic novels. The writer-artist didn't harbor dreams of having fans worldwide when he began drawing his Bone comics. Nor did he suspect that his work would someday be published by Scholastic, which launched its new Graphix imprint with the Bone books. The latest entry in the nine-volume series, Bone: Ghost Circles, is out this month. Smith spoke to BookPage from Columbus, Ohio, the home base of Cartoon Books, which he launched in 1991 to self-publish the Bone books (his wife, Vijaya, became his business partner in 1992).
"I started Bone pretty much in the garage, writing and drawing a black-and-white comic every couple of months and putting it into the comic-book market, for other cartoon-heads," he recalls. "I definitely wasn't picturing them as children's books."
Instead, he wanted to create comics with characters reminiscent of the ones he'd loved as a kid—Uncle Scrooge, Bugs Bunny—and with storylines he craved, but could never find. "We always think of comics as a kind of ephemeral thing," he explains. "They're in the newspaper every day, and Charlie Brown never gets to kick the ball or change his shirt. I always thought the medium of comics could handle a really large story with a large structure." Smith drew a daily newspaper cartoon when he was a student at Ohio State University and, after college, he founded an animation studio. But his interest in creating a more substantive story never waned. Then, in the mid-1980s, "I discovered the indie underground comic book world . . . a movement where people were drawing their own comics and telling their own stories."
For 12 years, Smith created his story: 1,300 pages via 50-plus issues of Bone. The epic story focuses on the adventures of Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone. The cousins are little blobby guys who, despite their small size and adorable appearance, prove to be quite strong. This is fortunate, because the Bones keep encountering scary creatures that want to eat them. They also have to climb over mountains, dash through dark forests and reason with dragons as they journey through unfamiliar territory rife with unusual beings, dark magic and other surprises. Smith encountered his own surprise when he began talking with Scholastic—namely, the suggestion that the Bone series be published in color. Smith says that, when he first created Bone, he stuck with black-and-white for several reasons, including a small budget, an affinity for newspaper comics and his desire to pay tribute to Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel memoir, Maus. It's a bit, well, comical how things turned out: Spiegelman was instrumental in convincing Smith to add color to the Bone books. (Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly—art editor of The New Yorker—were advising Scholastic on the imprint-launch.)
"At first, I thought the idea was a little sketchy, that it would be like colorizing Casablanca," Smith says, adding that he's not comparing Bone to the classic movie. "But then, I felt we could do storytelling things with color: create depth, direct people's eyes, create a mood. If something is happening at sunset or twilight, you can only tell the reader or draw really long shadows [in black-and-white]. But if you throw a bright orange light on it, you can really change it. I've been won over." And the books have won over young readers. Smith's cartoon-head fans share the books with their own children, but he says librarians deserve a lot of credit for getting the Bone books into kids' hands, too.
"Librarians and teachers have let me know they are getting reluctant readers to read with Bone. So people can actually see there are benefits to graphic novels, vs. the stigma that always was attached to comics. . . . I knew it wasn't true. I learned to read because of comics." Smith says he loved reading about Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes when he was younger; he later turned to The Iliad, The Odyssey, Le Morte d'Arthur and Moby-Dick. "I really like epics. Moby-Dick is honestly my favorite book. I'm just fascinated by the literary structure," he says. He cites The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an influence, too: "It was a real model for me. It starts off very much like a boy's adventure story, but it quickly grows darker and the themes become more complicated and sophisticated." Bone: Ghost Circles has no small amount of darkness; Smith says the book is the beginning of the final act. "A volcano has loosed ghost circles: vast areas that are too poisonous to enter. It's the darkness before the dawn."
The Bones and their friends must make their way past the circles, battling thirst, fear and confusion about the Moby Dick costumes they suddenly seem to be wearing. There's plenty of humor amid the scary, suspenseful storylines and—while eager readers can quickly devour the story, thanks to lots of dialogue—they'll surely be slowed by drawings that feel as if they're moving or, in some cases, breathing. It's that inimitable mix of art plus story that makes graphic novels so stimulating and engaging, Smith says. "As an author, I'm extremely aware every day that, when it comes down to it, you read [graphic novels] left to right, top to bottom, just like a book. They have their own subsets of symbols that don't belong to prose and movies—it is its own visual art form that works on its own and makes an immediate connection with a reader."
The success of Bone has brought Smith a new level of respect, even from his own family. "One really fun thing that's changed [since Scholastic began publishing the books] is that my parents and their friends' kids know about Bone now," he says. "Before, it was only in the comic-book stores, but now it's in bookstores. All of a sudden, my parents are like, 'Oh, my gosh!' "