Nov 2, 2018

Q&A With Jeff Smith

I recently reread Jeff Smith's Bone with my girlfriend, and it strikes me that this is a comic that I've used time and again to get non-comics readers to read comics. While reading it, I had a lot of thoughts, namely about the nature  of world-building, the idea that characters need to have story arcs, the  influence of Carl Barks, and a whole host of other stuff. I was gonna write articles about them, but you know what? I decided to go one better. I reached out to Cartoon Books, and with the help of their Production Manager Kathleen Glosan, was able to get some answers straight from the man himself, Jeff Smith.

Spoilers for Bone are up ahead, so if you've never read it, stop reading this now and go buy yourself a copy, and then come back.

Q&A with Jeff Smith
by Duy

DUY TANO: Who do you consider the actual protagonist of Bone? Fone Bone is the ostensible main character, but Thorn is the one who goes through this big heroic arc, while Phoney drives a massive portion of the plot.

JEFF SMITH: Fone Bone and Thorn share the role of protagonist, I think. You are right that Thorn is the one who goes on the classic hero’s journey, but Fone Bone and his cousins are still the stars of the book. It’s like the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. There the “story” is really about two young star-crossed performers in the opera that are thwarted by the powerful elite that run the show, but everybody knows it’s the Marx Brothers who help them succeed that are the real stars!

From the very beginning, the Bone cousins were fully formed.

Bone is notable in 2018 I think because it shows three very strong women: Thorn, Gran'ma Ben, and Briar. It must have been notable in the early 90s as well because these very strong women are presented as full characters and not oversexed secondary characters. This is something I think has led Bone to age very well. May I ask if you have any insight on the readership of Bone, and if perhaps the gender breakdown is more even than with other comic books?

In the early days, my readership was mostly all male because that’s who bought and read comic books. Over the course of the work, the readers changed. First women and then children started showing up at book signings, and to this day I have a pretty even mix of males and females, adults and kids.

I am not aware of the gender breakdown on other books. Certainly, the range of subjects and the influx of female creators and readers has exploded since the days when Bone started, and in general the community of comics is more reflective of real life. That has really upped the quality of our art form and makes me happy.

Does a character really need to have a growth arc? Phoney Bone is the same greedy character he is from beginning to end. There is a bit of a development in him refusing to leave his cousins at the end, but he still tries to steal the Harvestar treasure and is regretful when that doesn't push through.

He’s a stinker, isn’t he? It goes back to my Marx Bros. comparison. Like the Bone cousins, the Marx’s are cartoon characters, but the world doesn’t seem to notice. They exist outside the rules. The rest of the cast and the story advance only with their help. In Bone, Thorn, Gran’ma and even Lucius, along with almost all the rest of the characters had real arcs. Some were life changing. The cousins needed to show a little growth, but only just enough.

The ability to lead the audience into believing that a story is about one thing (humor, slapstick) while then slowly leading them into another genre altogether is something I've seen mostly with the Simpsons and Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics. How did you manage to balance out so many conflicting tones, spiraling from epic fantasy to humorous slapstick? This is a world where some people have read Moby Dick and have copyrights on ice cream and pastries, but where dragons exist in valleys where no one has heard of any of those things. And none of it feels wrong, or out of place. How did you manage that balancing act?

The trick was to keep the story and humor going so fast that folks wouldn’t stop and ask questions. I had rules that I followed but tried to keep them as invisible as possible. I’ll give you one example: whenever Fone Bone and Thorn would talk to animals, like Miz Possum or Ted, it always took place at the farm, far away from the town and humans. That kept the world of Aesop’s fables separate from the more frontier-like setting of the tavern.

If you had to name just three things that you took from Carl Barks (another creator I talk about a lot on the Cube), what would they be? Are there specific Barks stories that have stuck with you?

From a Carl Barks Donald Duck story in the Golden Age. Coincidence?

Three things. Ok. One: The sense of adventure and imagination. The Ducks roamed the earth, visiting distant cultures real and made up. And always on a ridiculous but awesome premise. Two: Pacing. Barks knew how to move a story and make it alive. He knew when to skip around and speed up the pacing or when to slow down and spend time with the characters. Three: The art. I loved the line art! I loved the simple cartoony characters shown against a hyper detailed and realistic background.

There are certain things in Bone that feel to me like Jeff improvised in the middle. I'm thinking mainly of the reveal that Briar was the Hooded One, when prior to it, it seemed that the Hooded One was male, and also that the traitor was originally a nursemaid. But I'm also thinking of Rock Jaw, and how at the very end, he did nothing, despite the build-up going in that direction. How much of Bone was planned out, and how much of it was improvised? How important is flexibility when running a serialized story?

There absolutely was improvisation during the writing of Bone. Things would come up, I’d get new ideas, but I always attempted to steer the story toward the ending that I’d settled on. However, the reveal of Briar as the Hooded One was not one of those things. Ten years earlier, during my first bash at Bone in a college newspaper strip called Thorn, I revealed to a stunned Fone Bone and Thorn that the Hooded One was Gran’ma Ben’s evil twin sister! The fact the rat creatures didn’t know she was a woman and assumed the Hooded One was male (fooled by the whispery word balloons) was an intentional misdirect.

How do you think your background as an animator affect the way Bone reads? Personally, I find that most of your contemporaries had a type of staggered pacing, as if they read a bunch of Peanuts strips and mimicked that type of pacing, but Bone flows completely differently, and more smoothly.

Animation definitely played a role. But even before that, back when I was a teenager looking at comics by Carl Barks and Will Eisner, I thought there was a way to combine those styles and create a more seamless, complete  flow.

Thorn Harvestar, Princess of Atheia

Jeff has said that he didn't create Bone for children; he did it for himself, and that children back then were likely not to be reached by comic shops. Given that he managed to create what I would argue is the go-to all-ages comics recommendation, how would he propose that the comics medium and industry reach a wider audience, and what is the comic shop's place in it?

Well, the thing I latched onto was graphic novels. The format allows for a more durable product and promotes the idea of restocking books for new customers. The relative newness of the form also invites new ideas, new topics and genres, as well as new distribution possibilities, like libraries, bookstores and on-line stores. A wide selection of genres is key. As for comic shops, they started this movement. Most shops have graphic novel and Indy sections, and most are very welcoming to the general public. Women and children have dollars, too!

1 comment:

DANRY said...

Great interview, Duy

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