To describe Bone, Jeff Smith’s 55-issue comic series published between 1991 and 2004, as a fantasy series is technically correct, but far from complete.
The dragon-laden tale is high fantasy, but less of the classic Western knights and swords fairy tale and more the Ghibli-esque yarn of young women with strange destinies and dark creatures in the woods. It’s also a comedy adventure in the tradition of Carl Barks’ duck comics, with drinking and gambling thrown in. It’s also a little bit of a talking animal book?
Bone defies categorization, yet developed a firm grip on success, particularly in places where very few American comics had found success before. Although Smith didn’t intend the comic to be purely kids’ fare, Bone saw its first “overnight” popularity from republication in Disney Adventures magazine through the late ’90s. In 2005, just as Smith had finally put out the story’s conclusion, Bone was picked up for publication in color by Scholastic, the undisputed monarch of the school book fair, becoming the first supernova of the YA graphic novel boom.
Now, the series is finally reaching that nadir of the modern media landscape: a comic book adapted to the screen. But when he started out, Smith says, he just wanted to get his work to a place where it was always in print and available — not something that came easy in the world of American comics until, well, Bone and its cohort of wildly creative, self-published comic books showed it was possible.
On the occasion of Bone’s 30th anniversary, Polygon sat down with Smith to talk about his comic’s legacy; his newest book, Tuki: Fight for Fire; and the rise of comic books from back issues to book fairs.
This year marks 30 years since first issue of Bone came out. Does that feel like yesterday or a million years ago?
Smith: Maybe it doesn’t feel like yesterday, but it doesn’t feel like 30 years. I mean, what was I doing that whole time? I guess I was just sitting at my board and drawing. Time went really fast.
I had such low expectations for Bone. I was just hoping I could make enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries and stuff. And it just immediately — well, not immediately, it took a couple of years. But when it started to take off, it moved quite quickly — and I suddenly found myself doing all sorts of things I didn’t expect to, like making t-shirts and pins and lunch boxes. Statues. Signings. Doing special stories for Disney Adventures and for Wizard magazine …
I planned to bring up Disney Adventures — you must be accustomed to grown adults telling you that they were very young when they first read Bone. The first place I ever saw panels from Bone was flipping through Disney Adventures magazine in the checkout aisle of the grocery store.
That was actually one of the best things, [one of the] the luckiest breaks I had, especially in the early days. All of a sudden, when Bone took off, it was almost like a light switch. I was almost not even prepared for it, and suddenly everybody wanted to talk to me and wanted to do something. Marv Wolfman and Heidi MacDonald were the comics editors for Disney Adventures digest. I ran into them at one of the comic book shows up in California, and they were like, “Hey, we want you to do an original eight-page [Bone] story just for Disney.” I was like, “OK, cool.”
So I did that and then they went, “It got a great reaction, now we want to serialize …” I don’t know, the first six issues, “and we’re going to break them up into eight page chunks.” I had to make new pages to start the story up again in the middle and carry it on.
I think the amount of people buying comics then was in the 200,000 range. But I think then [Disney Adventures] had a readership of 6 million or something like that. All of a sudden, Bone was like, the most read comic in comics. So that was a crazy thing. Most people I talk to, that’s where they saw it the first time.
We’re talking about the 30th anniversary of the first issue of Bone in 1991, but you spent over a decade making it.
I worked on it and was very immersed in Bone and in promoting it and going on the road for like 13 years. Right after that, I was ready to be done with it, but then Scholastic called me as I was working on the last couple of issues. They wanted to start up a new graphic novel imprint for young adults and they wanted to launch it with Bone. We were going to color it to make it different from the black-and-white book that I had self-published for all those years.
Well, suddenly, I’m not moving on from Bone. Bone starts over again, in a way. It took us about five years to color the whole series and all of a sudden I have a new audience of young kids and I’m going to schools, giving talks. It’s almost like now Bone is never in the past. There’s a new generation in the schools that pick up on it all the time and I feel incredibly lucky. It was certainly nothing I could have planned for.
My arc is parallel to that. I rediscovered the comic at a local library in college, around when Scholastic was publishing the colorized books. And now there are images from Bone that just stick in the back of my mind indelibly. Do you have certain images or panels that are just written on the back of your head. Or is it all just “work that you did”?
No, no. Actually, a lot of the scenarios or the moments in the book usually had an origin of a picture I wanted to draw. I had this idea of the Dragon Slayer story. I knew I wanted to do this ridiculous thing where they took a little tiny tree and put like a — what would be the kind of trap you would make for like, a squirrel or something, with a giant rope?
It was like, four feet thick. I knew that I wanted to do that, so with certain images, I work backwards and figure out “How do I get to draw that really ridiculous but funny visual that I really want to have?” There are many things like that — like Rock Jaw. Mostly the early stuff like the snow dropping in one big blanket. That was something that I really always wanted to draw.
One of my favorite moments in Bone unfolds over one page: Fone Bone wandering in the canyon, with no dialogue. It’s him in different spots; he’s on top of a very skinny rock and he was leaning down. Like, How did he get up there? And in the next panel, he’s somewhere completely different. That single page communicates so much with so little. You’ve said Carl Barks and Disney-style humor are a huge influence, but what else do you feel has taught you to make comics? Because that’s the thing about Bone, people talk about it as a great fantasy comic but it’s also just a great example of comics as a form.
Thank you. Well, for one thing, I bring inspiration in from many different places: from Monty Python, television shows, from movies. And I think the, the page you’re talking about, if we could just focus on that, is sort of like a montage from a movie. I’ve got to show that he’s really going far and into strange places that are weird, and showing him sweating and sitting in the shade of a rock. But then a minute later, he’s finding himself up on that little pointy pinnacle, looking down. So it’s like a montage and I guess that’s not that usual in comics, but it’s very usual in film.
Another thing from film that I got was getting rid of those little “Meanwhile...” boxes. When you cut to a new scene in a comic book, it’s always been very traditional to say, “Meanwhile, at Commissioner Gordon’s,” but in a movie, you wouldn’t do that. You’d just cut to Commissioner Gordon’s office, and you’d just be there, and as an audience, you know what’s going on. You’re in Commissioner Gordon’s office now. I thought I don’t need those little exposition boxes to let people know where they are. These people are visually hip enough to just know how we’ve, basically like in a movie, cut to new scene.
As long as we’re talking about movies, let’s talk about the Bone Netflix series. How are you finding the adaptation process?
Much better than previous attempts. I mean, I think Nickelodeon and Paramount was the first deal that we had for Bone and that was in 1998 — so we’re talking 23 years or something of “not making a movie” with different studios and it’s been just awful. Just awful.
I had a particularly miserable experience at Warner Brothers. When those rights finally reverted back to us — I say “us” because Vijaya is my wife and my business partner — we didn’t want to even tell anybody that we had the rights back. We were like “I don’t care about this. I never want to talk to a studio executive again.” But of course, it only took like a day before we started getting calls from streaming services and stuff, but it was Netflix that understood it and knew what it was.
Here’s basically the problem I had with the studios. It really wasn’t a personal problem. All the studios really wanted to make a good movie, but they were very stubborn about it. It would only be, “They’re going to do the whole movie, in an hour and a half.” A kids’ animated film. The whole book, all 13 hundred and 50 pages, or whatever it is.
I was like, “You can’t do that. Let’s just make the first part of it and then we’ll make it seem like it ends, but then we can make a sequel and we could keep the story going.” And nobody would do that. They wanted the whole thing in one movie and that just wasted 23 years.
So anyway, Netflix. I almost said Scholastic because Scholastic also really knew how to handle it. They knew. “We’re going to treat it like it’s a real book, not stick it up on the Dungeons & Dragons magazines, or stuff like that. We’re going to put it on the bookshelves with kids books, right next to Harry Potter.” Same thing with Netflix.
They’re like, “We’ll do it as an animated serial. We’ll follow the book and it’ll unfold in much the same way that it did in the chapters of the comics.” So I was like, “Well, all right. I guess you do kind of get it.” We’re in the writing process. I will never allow myself to believe it’s really going to happen until it’s actually on TV [laughs]. I’ve been through it too much. So I can’t just say, “Yeah, it’s going to happen.” But it is going to happen. I’m pretty sure this time.
As I was flipping through the books again, I was reminded of the “stupid, stupid Rat Creatures moment.” That seems tough to translate one-to-one to animation because you have to show them actually leaping. It’s funny because there’s a panel break and then they’re there.
Yeah, I wonder how we’re going to figure [that] out. Maybe there’s a way to block it, so you’re close in on Fone Bone when he says “stupid, stupid Rat Creatures,” and then you pull out and they’re already on the branch.
The timing on that gag was inspired by the original creator of Popeye, the 1930s Thimble Theater Popeye. His timing was so funny. It’s hard to not like the cartoons with Olive Oyl and Bluto at all. He was just this really rough sea dog, a dock rat, and then he would just punch somebody so fast. Like, there should have been one more panel where he pulled his arm back or was swinging toward him or something. But instead, he’s already punched the guy and his teeth are flying. The timing was so snappy and so ridiculously fast that it just makes you laugh. That’s the kind of thing I was going for with that. Don’t waste time watching them jump. Get them there.
Bone holds a very important place both in the history of self-published comics in the 1990s and also in the YA graphic novel boom of the ’00s. Do you feel like you are constantly seeking out new modes of publishing comics? Or are there some cases like Scholastic where you just in the right place and at the right time to say yes to the right opportunity?
Very much big, whopping hunks of both. Vijaya and I were always trying to broaden our audience. Once Bone had its legs, and we felt like, OK, we’re going to for this, and she actually left her job and became my full time partner and took over all the calls — as she points out, it’s all the unfun stuff, doing legal stuff and tracking the publishing and shipping and distribution — and I focused on the comic and publicizing it. But we always thought that we were missing some audience. We felt like there’s an audience beyond the comic book collector. At that time in 1991, when I started, 30 years ago, there obviously were were women and some kids reading comics, but not very many. It was mostly just guys my age at the time. If we could get women reading comics, that would double our audience, right off the bat.
There were quite a few of us who were thinking that way. Scott McCloud, Neil Gaiman. We were all thinking, Boy, if we could just widen our market. And what happened was a bunch of us also wanted graphic novels in the comic book stores because we were sort of the second generation of underground comix. But we were not doing rebellious comics, you know? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll just because we could. The first generation had already proven that.
So we were this group of people coming in who wanted to just tell our own stories. We were more like authors telling stories about the characters and situations that we owned, but we didn’t want our comics to go into long boxes and never be seen again. We wanted them to be available like books. That was a big movement in the early to mid ’90s to get comic book stores to stock and restock the graphic novels, and it was a huge struggle. There was so much pushback because that’s the model for a comic book store; you sell the new comics and then you have back issues, which usually increase in value and are a little more profitable. But we kept saying, Yeah, you can make a couple bucks, but if you sell a $12 graphic novel, you’re going to make five bucks every time. It’s not just one dollar or whatever you’re getting.
We had sort of succeeded in getting retailers to carry graphic novels. Then around 1998, I started to be aware that libraries were carrying Bone, school libraries and just regular libraries, because there were a lot of librarians that were secret comic book nerds. We had moles out there. And for about the next two years, I would meet librarians at comic book shows who would say, This is the first book we’ve been able to put on the shelf since Maus. And I’m sure that was a bit of an exaggeration, I know there are other books, but in quick succession a couple things happened. I think Chris Ware did, I want to say, Acme Novelty Library. Anyway, his book was a big moment in normalizing comics for bookstores and libraries. And then that same year, I think in 2000, the American Library Association had a graphic novel day, and they invited [Art] Spiegelman, me, Neil, Colleen Doran, and then a couple of librarians to speak to the librarians about it.
I remember that morning we were all huddled around. We’re going OK, this is our big chance to convince the librarians, we can do this. [To convince them] that this is reading because, there were still people — there are still people even now, right? — who still think that [comics are] not real reading. That it’s some kind of lazy reading.
But we got up there and started talking and we didn’t have to convince the librarians of anything. They knew it was reading. They were telling us that check outs or, the activity, on all the shelves in the library and all the sections were going down except for graphic novels, which at that time had jumped up like, 300 percent. So we weren’t there to convince them. They just wanted to know what’s going on. Are we going to make more books? And how can we get more graphic novels? So that was it. That was the tipping point.
I think a lot about the shift, from comics being mostly disposable to comics being always available. Not too long ago almost nothing got collected. If you wanted to find out what had happened, you had to go find actual back issues. It makes me feel like I’m going When I was a kid, I had to walk 15 miles to the library to find comics in the nonfiction section next to the How to Draw books!
I’ll walk to school both ways up hill for you. When I was a kid riding my Sting-Ray bike around, we used to have to go to a drugstore and they’d have a spinner rack. And man, you wanted that next issue that had a Neal Adams Batman story in it and it never showed up. Two issues in a row might not show up and then you’d get one. And it was really was crazy being a collector back then. You were riding your bike all over town, trying to find that Uncle Scrooge story by Carl Barks.
Let’s talk a little bit about Tuki, your new two-book series set in the Peleolithic age. It began as a webcomic, then you revamped it almost completely, and now have funded a new print edition through Kickstarter. You published Bone through Image for a while, and you have your own publishing company. Why did you want to do a Kickstarter?
Well, for a couple of reasons. It just has always turned out — in fact, my wife Vijaya says this — Nobody will publish your stuff. We have to publish it ourselves first. We tried to sell Bone, not to comic book people, but we tried to sell it to the newspaper syndicates and everybody looked at it like, What? There are humans and cartoon characters? So we just published that ourselves. Worked out okay. Then we did RASL [Smith’s first post-Bone work, RASL was a hard-boiled scifi yarn that followed an art thief who could hop between parallel earths]. You know, I had a really wonderful relationship with Scholastic, but obviously that was not a Scholastic book.
And then, I was kind of getting the same kind of feedback on Tuki. So first I did the webcomic, and then I tried to collect the webcomic comic books, and it just didn’t go over very well. So I said, Okay. There’s some things I know I need to redo here.
Especially, all of a sudden, there’s these kids that come into the story, these three lost children, and they just throw their lot in with Tuki and I realized, Oh. This is a different book. This is a book about family and I need to actually start over from the beginning. So I set it aside, and I’ve worked on it ever since then, but I’ve been distracted by things and it finally just came together.
So really it’s not the same book. I kept two major moments from the webcomic. One where Tuki has a giant battle with a god. I kept that and then a couple more scenes. But basically, it’s brand new. It went from maybe 60 pages that I’d put up on the web, let’s see, almost 250 pages. I actually had enough to make two graphic novels. So I did. I actually drew them out during 2020, I didn’t have anywhere to go or anything to do, so I actually put together two separate books. I finished the first one and I’ve 90 percent finished the second one.
And then I was just going to self publish them — I guess my answer is starting to feel really long to me — but I was about to self publish it, and I happened to talk to some guys I knew from back in the self publishing days, Billy Tucci and his wife, Deborah, and Francisca Pulido and Brian Pulido, who, they do Lady Death and [Billy and Deborah] do Shi. These are self published comics, back when I was self publishing.
Anyway, they’re doing Kickstarter and they were like, you’ve got to check this out. They were like, People know you and they’re going to go crazy and they’ll support you. They talked me into it. They talked Vijaya and I into it. And I’m really glad we did, because it’s really more about marketing than — I mean, we could have self published it the old way. But this way, it was just a more direct conversation with readers and people who are interested in comics, as opposed to really only trying to talk to the distributor or the retailers. There’s just no gatekeeper involved in the Kickstarter and as a proof of concept, it was pretty successful. We got the first two books funded. The first one is at the printer and it’s actually printed and they’re saying it’s going to be bound within a week. So we will have that first book in a week and we’ll start sending them out, if they really come in a week; there were supply chain issues.
And then also available in bookstores.
Yeah. There’s going to be a slight gap, I can’t remember exactly. But the people who did the Kickstarter will get it as soon as we get the books and then they’ll go into bookstores in the fall, probably October, I think.
Tuki takes place in the Paleolithic era, in which multiple different branches of the hominid evolutionary tree existed at the same time and interact with each other. You’ve said that you were inspired by visiting Olduvai Gorge, which sparked a deep dive into paleoanthropology. What was it about paleoanthropology that just struck you so deeply, and made you want to explore in a story?
I mean, it’s the big question. Where do we come from? How did we get here? And when I realized that there was this particular moment two million years ago that was a fulcrum moment — I don’t know if that’s the right word. It just came out of my mouth. A crossroads in the planet’s history when, two million years ago there were multiple branches of early humans that were still around at the same time when our direct ancestor, Homo erectus, shows up and for the first time, with fire.
[Homo erectus] cooks with fire, can control fire, and make fire. Two million years ago. And this is also the first time we were hairless. All the other ones were still covered with fur. They know through genetics of lice, they can look at lice and they can tell when they were only on our heads; they know when that happened, and it was two million years ago. So there’s, all these things happened. Our first true ancestor, and fire, and I just think that’s just an amazing thing.
In my mind, the other members of our extended family, [for them] to not follow our lead with the fire — I thought, what’s that story? Maybe they fear it, or consider it blasphemous, or something like that. That’s where I got into all that.
There is a sense of holiness or wonder or magic in “the ancient” that flows throughout Bone and your Shazam! miniseries — The Rock of Eternity as a place that you need to take your shoes off before you go in because it is a special place, because it is very old. Tuki also has this idea of the holiness just in ancientness, that is connected with the actual supernatural. Where does that idea come from in your work?
You are correct in that I am fascinated by the forces that we cannot see. I mean, there’s obviously so much, just in science, we know there’s gravity. You can’t see gravity. Magnetism. You can’t see that, but how does that happen? I’m fascinated by that, and beyond that, there must be so much more than what we can see or detect with our senses. I find that that is one of the things in storytelling that is the most interesting for me. It’s where I like to go.
In Bone, it was this idea that somehow dreams can connect us all on some profoundly primitive level. And then, of course, I take it to a story step where someone can actually use that connection to move between people’s dreams. In RASL, it was literally physics. It was all about physics and parallel universes and things we can’t see. And, and Shazam!, it was the Rock of Eternity. That was a place beyond space and time and it is — I went to the Taj Mahal one time, and then you take your shoes off when you go into the Taj Mahal, and I remember that. And then, of course, in Tuki, there’s a similar hidden world where there are forces that live there that Tuki is contending with, because the old forces do not really like the direction that Tuki is going in.
I’ve always loved that quality in Bone. Maybe mysticism is the word, but there’s clearly a real fascination and love with the invisible and not knowing. There doesn’t have to be a logic to the supernatural parts of the story. They just are.
Yes. It’s a mystery. There’s a mystery out there and it’s fun to explore. I mean, people give it different names, but it’s for sure out there. I am very fascinated by it.