The Adventures of Jeff Smith
An old-fashioned epic becomes a new model for cartoonists.2008 seems to be the breakout year for graphic novels, which have been slowly demanding more shelf space and call numbers for years. Works by a generation of young cartoonists, including of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Daniel Clowes' Ghost World have proved healthy sellers in an otherwise down market. The influx of Manga helped convince bookstores to create graphic novel sections.Jeff Smith has been involved with the alternative comics world for decades. He self-published his comic, Bone, for fourteen years. In 2005, Scholastic started a new graphic novel imprint, Graphix, just to publish Bone, paying for it to be laboriously inked in color and distributed in nine separate glossy volumes (Volume 8 was published in August). Bone has sold over two million copies thus far. Warner Brothers is making a movie. And kids-including this author's nine-year old son-are sleeping with stuffed animal versions of Bone's main character, Fone Bone. Smith is suddenly a crossover star.But wait. Does all this success signal the end of the outpouring of creativity from graphic novelists? We know the story: underground movement with energy and innovative aesthetics gets co-opted by mass markets.Smith is betting no, that co-optation is a twentieth-century move. He is angling to be both mass-market star and indy darling. His is a model to watch, and root for.Bone is a textured, engrossing, nine-volume epic. The plot is part Huck Finn, part Odyssey, part Lord of the Rings: three Bone cousins (Bones are human-like, cute, small white creatures), Smiley, Fone and Phoney Bone, get kicked out of Boneville. They end up in a desert and a valley where they have adventures both madcap and pseudo-mythological. They run into quiche-loving rat creatures, the Lord of the Locusts, the Hooded One, good and bad dragons, the complicated cosmos of the land and the supernatural gifts of Fone's love, Thorne Harvester. They try to save the day (or, in the case of Phoney, the money-grubbing Bone, take villagers for all they've got).Let's just say it is an old-fashioned epic.That it is told through pictures and words in bubbles formatted into panels is what makes it new. Only recently had the medium attempted to tell good old stories. Before, they were strips, episodic, serialized snippets. The breakthrough moment, the year that cartoonists realized they could also be novelists, was 1986.
I realized this medium that we generally thought of as just schlocky children's stuff could really be powerful and pull you in. It was mind-blowing."When I originally got into comics I wanted to do a strip, like Doonesbury, Peanuts and Pogo," says Smith. "Then, when I was in college, I read [Art Spiegelman's] Maus. Maus showed me that comic books were a place you could tell really interesting stories. I started to explore comic book shops and found a whole array of underground talent. A lot cartoonists were telling stories that I wanted to tell."The publication of Maus in 1986 coincided with the publication of two superhero-related books, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Watchmen. Miller and Moore, like Spiegelman, exploited the medium for narrative purposes. Their books had a beginning, middle and end. "In 1986 I realized this medium that we generally thought of as just schlocky children's stuff could really be powerful and pull you in. It was mind-blowing."Smith started Bone in 1991. He got it into the hands of readers by publishing it from his garage in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife, Vinjaya, founded Cartoon Books. "Part of me really likes that ethic of do-it-yourself. I loved that freedom to do anything I wanted, to decide myself what my threshold was."Smith sold Bone in comic book stores and at comics conferences, where the self-publishing movement was gaining steam. He went on "tours" with other self-publishers, drawing big crowds. By 1995, self-published books accounted for 17% of the comics market. But that mini-revolt was crushed when Marvel started buying up distributors, leading to the bankruptcy of others. Smith briefly distributed Bone through Image Comics.
But he had a solid fan base, and returned to putting out the next adventures of Fone, Smiley and Phoney himself. He bucked a long-standing comic book trend by reprinting back issues, thus eliminating the collectables market. Although his Bones are all-too-cute, and his material PG-friendly, he refused to market them for kids, since the children's comic market was weak.The then-nascent Internet helped launch Bone, as early adopters talked it up in newfangled chat rooms. In a 1997 dictionary, Cyberspeak, a phrase from Bone, "Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures," is listed as an "Exclamation of disapproval…Often customized to suit the occasion, most often along the lines of "Stupid, stupid end-users! Mac's bug must load before all over system extensions!"Smith kept drawing Bones, the villagers of Barrel-Haven, red dragons and Bartleby, the friendly rat creature cub, for thirteen years. He drew his last panel-see it to find out if the Bones make it back to Boneville-in 2004. The "brick," the one-volume compilation of Bone, runs 1344 pages. And while you can buy the slick, individual color volumes from Scholastic, the one-volume book is only available through Cartoon Books.One reason graphic novels have become popular is that Miller, Moore, Bechdel and others transformed a medium associated with children and made them adult-only. Smith, ironically, has seen his career go the other way. He imagined his audience to be college kids and comics geeks, and was puzzled when kids took to it. "I consciously set out to take the conventions of American cartooning, like Donald Duck, Snoopy and Pogo, and send them off on a really crazy big journey like Moby Dick. I imagined my audience to be 20-40 somethings, all guys," he says.But Bone became one of the most requested graphic novels in children's sections of libraries. At first, he was "hesitant and caught off guard" when he would go to signings and have children request he draw a Bone on the title page. Now he loves it, but remains bemused, because, as he says, "It's a giant book about heartbreak."Smith is now working on a new comic, Rasl, which is only published by Cartoon Books. In December, the first volume will be for sale at major bookstores. "I still believe in self-publishing," Smith says." I still like to go to small press shows. You get really talented young people, newcomers, who still have the indy mindset and don't want to draw the Hulk. They just want to write like an author, a cartoonist. They don't want to go through normal gatekeepers. They can set up shops with just a Xerox machine. You can find fantastic stories, pieces of art at the Expos. You might find a comic where each book is individually silk-screened, or in origami."Meanwhile, Smith pursues larger market opportunities from Columbus, where he still lives, because "I've always had one belief in comics and that is the market should be bigger. I don't think I should suffer for my art and only want one person to read it. I always wanted to expand the market. I've been very lucky because I've been able to have it both ways. I think you should try to expand the audience at all times. But I don't want to give it all up. I still want some kind of control and street cred."LEARN MOREboneville.com