Jeff Smith, creator of the award winning epic fantasy comic Bone, released the last issue of his latest series this past week. RASL is a much smaller, but no less engaging, sci-fi epic, and I had the great pleasure to interview him about the series, his reflections on Bone and the current state of the industry. Check it out after the jump.
CBNAH: Jeff, Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! I want to begin with RASL. It is in many ways a very different story to Bone – how was the transition into finishing a sweeping fantasy epic to starting an intellectual sci-fi?
Jeff Smith: It wasn’t too hard. I did need a break between the two, mostly because BONE was so all consuming for so long, but I don’t see them as all that different from each other. The art of comics is keeping the thing alive in every panel, and that takes the same sense of focus and control whether you are working on a fantasy or a science fiction piece.
CBNAH: Why Nikola Tesla?
Smith:I needed two things to hold my story together; a basis to hang the science and technology on, and a fetish object that everyone in the story was after. Tesla’s career as a brilliant and famously mad scientist provided the science - - the very real H.A.A.R.P Antenna Array in Alaska, which is the basis for the St. George Array in RASL, is based on Tesla technology. And Tesla’s lost journals became my Maltese Falcon.
CBNAH: What level of research did you go through for RASL?
Smith:A fair amount. There was Tesla and the history around him, but also the great conspiracy theories, like the Philadelphia Experiment, and the Tunguska Event. I studied String Theory and M Theory, both of which point to the existence of parallel universe. Somehow I was able to find connections between Tesla and the newer ideas in physics. That was the moment I knew I had a story when I decided to have Rasl, an ex-military engineer, bridge the gap between Tesla and M Theory so he could discover parallel universes.
CBNAH: RASL is a much more compact story than Bone – did you have ‘epic fantasy burnout’?
Smith:Yes! I’m kidding. RASL is a different type of story. It’s a potboiler with a sci/fi twist, and 1400 pages aren’t necessary for that kind of tale. But it is over 500 pages long, so it will still look pretty robust on the shelf - - even next to BONE.
CBNAH: Did you have the ending mapped out?
Smith:The ending was always there. As with BONE, I made sure that the characters, story and ending were solid before ever drawing a single page.
CBNAH: Have you got anything lined up post-RASL?
Smith: I do, and it is in development now. But I’m keeping mum about it until there’s more to show.
CBNAH: Talk us through your process – do you write a few scripts and then draw?
Smith: I outline the entire project in my notebooks, then I approach each issue individually. I write the script as a little thumbnail comic, then I start working on 14”x17” 2 ply bristol boards. I always do the lettering first, then pencil the whole issue. Usually five or six pages at a crack. I ink the faces first, because it’s fun, and also that’s where the acting is, and it needs to be right. As soon as the issue is complete, I consult my notebooks, and start writing the script for the next one.
CBNAH: You spent the better part of 14 years working on Bone. What’s it like to have that hard work recognized, both through awards and sales?
Smith: I am very grateful. The recognition and support of your peers is the most helpful thing in the world. Ultimately, what a cartoonist is trying to do, is to create a work that satisfies him or herself, and it was the support I received from readers and the industry that gave me the means and the opportunity to do it without compromise.
CBNAH: What inspired you to create Bone?
Smith: As a little kid, I was a big fan of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Pogo, and Snoopy, and I think I was trying to come up with a character of my own. The little guy called Fone Bone just popped onto the page one day and never left. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about what all those other characters had in common: they were animals! By the time I realized my guy should have had a tail or dog ears, it was too late...he was a bone!
CBNAH: Who were some of your influences as a young Cartoonist?
Smith: Carl Barks and his Duck comics, Walt Kelly and Pogo. Joe Kubert’s run on Tarzan was incredibly exciting to me. Shortly after that I discovered reprints of Gould’s Dick Tracy, and Segar’s Thimble Theater Starring Popeye.
CBNAH: As someone who is somewhat detached from the mainstream comics industry, what do you make of the state the industry is in? Are comics a dying art form?
Smith: Quite the opposite. We are in a golden age for comics and graphic novels with audiences spread far and wide. When I started, comics were only available in comics shops, and the customers were men in their 30s. I used to sit on panels at comic book shows and ask the people assembled, Guys, wouldn’t it be fun if there were some girls in here? If we had women and children buying comics, we could triple our audience! Now, twenty some years later, in addition to the comic shops, our books are being sold to libraries, schools, and sold in bookstores and on-line. Back in the mid-90’s, all of these options were off-limits to us - - it was unimaginable that Amazon.com would sell a comic, or that the New York Times would create a Graphic Novel bestsellers list! Comics are hip. Most major publishers have Graphic Novel imprints. Comics are routinely reviewed in literary circles, and attendance at comics shows seems to be on the rise, with visitors being made up of males and females, friends and families. Digital comics are finding brand new readers every day. This is a great time to be a graphic novelist.
Mainstream superhero comics? I have no idea how healthy or unhealthy they are.
CBNAH: You’ve collaborated with a few people in your career – who was your favourite, and what would be your dream collaboration as a writer and an artist?
Smith: I’ve only collaborated a couple of times, and both instances were with friends that I wanted to work with, on books that I published: Rose with Charles Vess, and Bone: Tall Tales with Tom Snigoski. Both were happy experiences! For me, most collaborations come in the form of events, such as signings and book tours.
CBNAH: What comics are you currently reading?
Smith: Currently I’m reading tons of small press comics and ‘zines. Recently enjoyed Goliath by Tom Gauld, Hark! A Vagrant b y Kate Beaton, Daytripper by the Bros. Ba & Moon, and Jerusalem by Guy Delisle.
CBNAH: Finish this sentence – Comic book nerds are hot because…
Smith: We guys aren’t that hot, but the chicks are SMOKIN’, because...well, look at them!