Interview by smoky man and Antonio Solinas. Answers received as mp3 files in June 2009.
Transcription by Antonio Solinas.
Originally printed in Italy on Scuola di Fumetto magazine (N. 70, October 2009, Coniglio Editore).
Presented here in English for the first time with the artist's permission.
Above: Cover for Bone N.1. Bone is copyright and trademark Jeff Smith.
Jeff Smith site: www.boneville.com
Talking about your last work, the sci-fi series Rasl. I read the first issues and I found them really intriguing with an unusual main character: an art thief able to travel within dimensions with a personal history full of mysteries to be discovered. Can you present this new creation of yours to the Italian audience?
RASL is the first real project I have worked on since Bone that was my own. It’s the story of an inter-dimensional art thief, who is not really a hero: he is more of an anti-hero. He is a man who is trapped. What I am trying to do is to mix science fiction and noir together, and I thought it would be more interesting to have a bad character, rather than the usual hero.
I know you did tons of researches for this new comic, that you read many scientific and physics books. You also went to Arizona and visited the local desert for research. So, what’s about the initial seed for the story? What’s about its working in progress, its development?
As it was my desire to mix noir and science fiction, the science part comes from my own love of physics: I love to read about string theory and M-theory. Some of the ideas scientists have, are pretty far out there, they involve parallel universes, and that’s the real science. The fringe science is just as interesting, but it’s a little more conspiracy-driven. Nikola Tesla creating death rays, and Albert Einstein completing his unified field theory in 1928, but withdrawing it because the human race was not really ready for it yet: I love all that kind of stuff, and then when you mix that with noir, you have those tough, brutal, primal characters trying to just survive. I started to like this idea of this character who has these portable thermo-magnetic engines on his shoulders and then I was off.
Rasl seem to be quite a departure from the “all ages” subject of Bone, isn’t it? Were you worried that your established audience could be a bit surprise by it? Or do you simply don’t mind because this is the story you want and have to tell?
You know, I really wasn’t that worried that the people who read Bone would be upset about a more grown-up story from me. I mean, it’s just a story I want to tell and I assumed that if I just did the same thing, and if I did another Bone story, that would be lame. So the fact that it worked out was kind of lucky and there were people that were a little shocked, but I think that everybody is dealing with that alright.
What’s about the schedule for this news series? How big in scope is it? Will it be another 15-year opus as Bone?
This will not be another giant 1300 book. I probably had only one of those, I mean. I am not going to live long enough to do another book that big. I guess probably RASL will be around 350-400 pages. It depends, you know, on how the story rolls out in the end.
Let’s talk about Bone. It has been – and still is – an incredible (and well deserved) success all over the world. It’s obvious that Bone is gained the status of an evergreen comics, one of the gems of this Art form. How do you feel about that? Also, what’s your feeling to be “labelled” as the guy who creates comics accessible to kids?
You know, I don’t really think about being labelled by kids cartoonist or something like that. I just did Bone because I wanted to do it, it was something I wanted to read when I was a kid, but when I was doing it I approached it as an adult (book) talking to other adults, with classic cartoon characters. How someone wants to label it, that’s all marketing.
Regarding Bone - and I suppose a similar thing could be applied for Rasl - I have always been curious to know how difficult it was for you to manage all the different production and promotion aspects on your own. What was the most difficult part of self-publishing, for you?
The early days of self publishing require an awful lot of different... hats. You have to wear a lot of different hats, you have got to make sure your books are shipping to the right places, that you are dealing with invoices, and distributors: there is a lot of travel involved. I remember being overwhelmed by all the paperwork that was involved in the early days.
And that’s not even counting writing and drawing a strip that is liked by anybody beside your own mother. That’s always a struggle. Of course, now I have my wife, Vijaya, my business partner: she handles a lot of that stuff, as well as Steve Hamaker and Kathleen Glosan, and Tom Gaadt. I mean, I have a pretty good team that takes care of a lot of that stuff for me now, so it’s not quite as tough as it was in those early days.
You always mention Pogo by Walt Kelly as one of your major influences. Is there any other comic or cartoonist that plays a major role in inspiring you in this phase of your career?
Nowadays, one of my favourite cartoonists is Paul Pope, who does sci-fi/noir/fantasy comics, like Heavy Liquid and 100%. And whenever a new comic comes out by Paul, I get really excited and I kind of try to keep up with the level of intensity and depth that he gets in his stories and in his frames.
Let’s talk about some technical aspects. What drawing tools do you use in your work? What do you think about digital art? Have you ever resorted to Photoshop? What’s your approach to technology?
My approach to technology is almost like a double-headed coin: on one hand, my actual comic pages are pretty old school. Two-ply Bristol board, plate finish, pencil, and I use a Number 1 horse hair brush dipped in India ink: I just use that one size brush. Pretty straightforward when it comes to that. However, in the early days of Bone, I would use xerox copies or something, to replicate something in the background if it was absolutely necessary that it stayed the same. I think Photoshop is just the new version of that, so sometimes I use Photoshop to move things around: I am not afraid of it. My feeling on technology comes out of this: if you can use something in the comic and the reader doesn’t notice it or it doesn’t stop the story, then use it.
Before jumping into comics you worked as an animator. Have you ever thought about going back to doing animation, now that you are famous and respected?
Fuck no!!! [laughs]
Let’s talk about your approach to creating a story. Given that you do everything by yourself, how do you normally proceed? Do you work with a full script, or do you just write down an outline of the story? Do you always employ the same method or does it change, from time to time?
My methods are pretty consistent. I start with an outline: key element, though, is that I really like to know the ending, before I start, so usually the first thing I do is to write down the ending, and then write down the beginning, and then the middle, and then maybe find two more spots to hit on in the outline. And then... then go, baby!
A question about the visual side of your work. You normally ink yourself. How does this affect your pencils? Do you draw loosely and then put the finishing touches when inking, or do you do most of the work in the pencil stage?
I do always ink myself and because of that I draw very sketchy and very loose, and I really do the final drawing while I am inking. Sometimes I have young cartoonists asking me if I have pencils so they can have access to my pencils so they can practice inking on, and I always have to tell them that my pencils are worthless: you just couldn’t possibly ink them unless you were there when they were pencilled in my brain.
Bone was definitely a plot-driven story, a choice that doesn’t seem very common in an era where “decompressed” storytelling and cool dialogues seem to be the norm. What was the reason for this choice and what do you think about the whole “decompressed” storytelling thing?
Decompression: I just don’t think it’s that easy to label stories, you know. I am very guilty of taking whole issues for a scene, and sometimes three issues to tell one scene, as early as 1993 or 1994. I just think it depends on what the pacing of the scene is. I mean, I think people can tell if you are full of shit and you are trying to stretch something out because you don’t have a story. But if you are telling a story, and it takes a nice long time to tell it, then decompress it. If not, don’t.
Do you still have the time to read comics? Which comics and cartoonist do you follow regularly? I have always admired you for your support to the indie comics scene…
Well, the kind of comics that I like to read aren’t really mainstream comics. I don’t follow books that come out on a normal schedule. The guys I like are like Jeff Lemire, who did the Essex County Trilogy and has got a few more projects coming out that are very interesting. I mentioned Paul Pope, he is also very sporadic. That’s what I like. I like the guys that are doing stuff and when they come out they surprise me and I got to find them.
After years of rumours about an animated Bone movie, it seems that you received an interesting offer from Warner Bros. What about the status of the deal? What can you reveal to us?
Yeah, I am working on a movie with Warner Brothers right now. I learned a hard lesson last time I had a movie deal and I was working with Nickelodeon and Paramount, and so I don’t really like to talk about it. If Warner Brothers want to talk about it, they can talk about it. But they are working on it.
For a long time, your work has been published in black & white. Then Bone was coloured for the Scholastic edition and you wrote and drew the Shazam! miniseries. Did colour affect your approach to comics in any way?
I don’t think so. I had completed Bone in black and white before we even started to consider doing colour. But Shazam!, when I wrote it and drew it, I knew it would be in colour and I like to think that I would do it the same way, but you know I was aware that some things, like night skies and things like that would be a lot easier to communicate in colour. There are a few scenes where Mary Marvel and Talky Tawny are talking by the river at sunset, and I could evoke a mood with the golden colours and I knew I would get that. So, yes, in a way it gives you a little bit to lean on.
Let’s talk about Shazam! For years, you have been the embodiment of the independent attitude in comics. How did it feel to cross the barrier and work for a big publisher, such as DC Comics?
Oh, it felt alright! DC Comics called me, as I was getting near the end of Bone and asked if I wanted to work on a superhero comic, and when they suggested that I would work on Captain Marvel, I thought it was a pretty good fit. Let me just point out that they called me the week before 9/11, so I returned their call a couple of weeks later, in 2001, and I thought that superheroes were actually invented to be propaganda against the Axis, in World War II, and I thought that Captain Marvel would be a great way to talk about fighting an enemy like that. I mean, half the enemy was our own government [laughs] but it seemed to be a useful kind of thing to work with.
What was the reason behind your decision to work with DC? How was working with an editor, after years of total freedom?
I had a great experience working with DC. My editor there was Mike Carlin and to be honest with you, I kind of expected him to give me a little more trouble than he did. But really, they gave me a free hand to work with Captain Marvel, and I think Mike is a really good editor. The comments he gave, he would state them in such a way that he would make me think it was my idea, so it was a pretty good experience all around.
Why did you pick Captain Marvel, of all the DC characters?
What was really interesting to me about Captain Marvel was that he was a character who had not undergone through a revamp, one that all the characters seemed to have gone through ever since Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, making them very melodramatic and giving them problems and a lot of darkness. That happened to Captain Marvel’s enemy, I can’t remember his name, he’s got Captain’s Marvel suit in black instead of red [he is referring to Black Adam]. He has been updated and so he is horrible. He actually rapes and kills people, which to me is a stupid thing to have in a comic book: I don’t even understand why someone would do that, or want to read it. But Captain Marvel was not like that. He was almost like he was trapped in amber or something: he had been suspended since the early Golden age of comics and I was intrigued by working on something that would connect me so directly to the dawn of American comics.
What can you say about your soon to be released children’s graphic novel Little Mouse gets ready? How did it start? What’s the story about?
Little Mouse Gets Ready: this really is a children’s book. The idea of the Toon books series is to create graphic novels for emerging readers, I think we are talking about between 5 and 7-years old. This is the brainchild of Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, and they asked me if I had an idea for a story. And the idea came up with Little Mouse. It is kind of based on a character that I had around when I was very young, sometime between six and seven or so. I just had this mouse wearing a red vest, so I thought that I could try to do something with that and concentrate on the story on a very simple level and try to draw kid to a comic from panel to panel. It was kind of fun!
A personal question. Your wife is from India and last year you went on tour there. How do you think the close interaction with a culture so different from yours had influenced and still influences you both as human being and as an artist?
I think that’s a big question. Because Vijaya’s family is from Southern India, we have been over to visit a number of times, and I think it’s had a huge effect on me, both in terms of my art and as a person. Any type of travel outside your country is going to be an eye-opening experience and most likely a good thing. I mean, I love to visit Italy or Spain and since I am usually a guest at a comic show I am always lucky enough to have people that want to take me out and get me a good meal and show off the local cuisine. It’s mind-expanding: I think it’s good for you. In terms of my artwork, in America there are certain kinds of things to see, you know, we have the mountains and the desert and the skyscrapers, but in Europe some buildings are over a thousand years old, thousands of years old. And in India, those old temples and churches are still living, and the gods are still residing on the street corners, and I think quite a bit of it made its way into Bone, especially the final act, where they are in Atheia.
A political question. I am curious to know, which are your feelings about Obama as the new USA president? I think it’s a great opportunity of change, not only for USA but for the whole world…
Well, I think you can probably tell from my answer to the Shazam! question that I was not very happy with the Bush administration. I am very happy about the Obama administration coming in and I think it’s a miracle that he kept the US economy and probably the world economy from going down the toilet, because clearly Bush and Cheney were lighting oil fields on the way out of office just like Hussein when he was leaving Kuwait [laughs]. I am very hopeful and I hope the world can forgive us for letting those bastards hang around for as long as they did.
A final question, a fan question. Any chance that you will return – sooner or later – to tell new comics stories of the Bone cousins?
I am a big fan of NOT doing sequels, but the Bone cousins have been such a big part of my life for so long, I am sure I will find some excuse to do something with them again. So, fingers crossed! [in July 2009 Jeff Smith said something more about this. Read the details at his blog]