Paul Karasik, head of programming for Comic Arts Brooklyn this year, interviewed Jeff Smith (Bone, RASL) on Saturday about his life in comics and the process behind his work, and then Smith live-inked a Bone illustration for the audience, and the piece was then auctioned off on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, of which Smith is now a board member. Karasik introduced Smith with some humor as "a phenomenon in cartooning" because he produced "a really great book that actually sold a lot of copies", a rarity in comics in terms of money-making.
Karasik started off the conversation with questions about Smith's youthful exploits and he explained that he "always did cartoons even as a kid", bouncing off Saturday morning cartoons, cartoon strips, and Mad Magazine. In college, he "tried to mix Heavy Metal, European grown-up comics, with Uncle Scrooge by Carl Barks", with mixed results. He couldn't sell Bone as a newspaper strip, he said, though he tried for years. He'd get 2 months of work for dailies, produce them, submit them, but then they never got printed. One of the editors gave Smith feedback to "first take all the humans and dragons and monsters", focus on Boneville, and "make them talk in thought balloons". "Why?", Smith asked, "They're not telepathic". At which point, the editor "looked at him like a dumbass" and commented that Garfield talks in thought bubbles. This was between 1984-6, a heyday for Garfield. The experience was "heartbreaking" to Smith, bringing the realization that a "gatekeeper didn't know anything about cartoons". It was a sobering wake-up call that signaled future struggles to publish Bone.
Smith then "gave up", realizing he was never going to work in strips, so started an animation studious with buddies, but over time he realized he wasn't "getting his creative rocks off". He still had the idea for Bone and around 1986, he wandered into a comic store for the first time (since as a kid all his comics came from drug stores), looking for Maus and The Dark Knight Returns. He was amazed that a comic shop actually existed, albeit something of a "head shop" with plenty of "peraphenalia". He found Love and Rockets, Eight Ball, and The Comics Journal and was immediately struck by this "beating pulse, a golden age of comics hidden in little hobby shops". He decided to sell his animation company and do Bone as underground comics, which his wife was skeptical about but supportive, as long as he came up with a "real business plan" for a 5 year effort. This forced him "to figure out where the money is in the system and how to get money on your book".
Karasik described this as Smith's "taking the initiative to self-publish", but Smith commented that you "can still do it today and the web offers more. You can show pages of new webcomic today which nobody has ever seen before". At the time, he was "afraid to tell everyone" that he had a 400 page "tolkienesque fantasy" in mind. Tolkien, he explained, was "uncool at the time, and unleashed imitators". "I hate that shit", he laughed, "I didn't want everyone to think that was what I was doing".
The first 2 years on Bone were "pretty slow, but it started getting press", Smith said. He started with one year of comics, planning 6 issues. A review in the Comics Buyers Guide made a big difference to him in the era before the internet. He also got a big ego boost when a Producer on the Canadian show "Prisoners of Gravity" sent him a video tape of Neil Gaiman being interviewed, and at the end of the interview Gaiman spent thirty seconds gushing about the first three issues of Bone, which Gaiman had discovered in an airport shop. "Neil and I were the wave just ready to go when Maus, Dark Knight, and Watchmen happened and we changed our entire trajectory because of that", Smith said. They both had the goal of producing "literary stories with a beginning, middle, end", Smith said. But this was also a time when single-issues were the only way to read comics, and they would disappear into longboxes "never to be seen again" after a couple of issues. He and other creators pushed for a "plan" of producing paperbacks to keep the comics available and cheap but were met with plenty of resistance. They "won that one eventually", Smith smiled, to applause from the audience.
Karasik coaxed Smith in to discussing his "process" as a cartoonist in specific terms, guessing rightly that plenty of the audience at Comic Arts Brooklyn were young cartoonists looking for tips and advice from a master. There are "three ways to use blacks on Bone", Smith said, showing examples which were projected onto a large display screen for the audience. He uses inks "as background, as foreground, and as shadow", and without which Bone appears really "washed out". Then Smith moved on to RASL, showing script pages which he considers "completely illegible", because they are 8 1/2 by 11 inches, little pages, where he scribbles "as fast as I can", roughs in faces, places word balloons, and puts word balloon content down below the thumbnails. His scripts look like "little crappy comics, not screenplays", he demonstrated.
Regarding mistakes and imperfections, Smith said, "I've learned not to fall in love" with a rough draft. If he leaves things out by accident, he just uses free space in his notes to remind himself to add panels. His "scribbles" are often the source of pretty powerful inspiration, at which point he takes his "little page", "throws it on copier, blows it up, puts it on light box, traces it", and thereby gets the "scribbly energy" of the original, keeping things loose. Then it's time to "go to town" on the final version.
Smith "stumbled across this trick in 90's" when he noticed that he couldn't get the same "feel" of his rough drafts in his final images, trying to find a balance between the "funny" aspects of the original and the frequent "stiff" feeling of the finals.
Some pages don't allow for this kind of process, though, and there's no escaping the methodical work necessary. Smith discussed and displayed a page in RASL of an antenna array. Final versions weren't working so he had to do it the hard way. "This one page took me two weeks", he said. The "plan was to ink big towers and to handle the fine wires by painting in with white". That failed and looked too stiff. He resorted to drawing in blue pencil, and hand inking in between all the fine wire lines.
Smith is a man who likes to get his hands on original comic art drafts and learn from them. He is a frequent visitor to the Billy Ireland Library (as it will be christened next week at Ohio State). From the originals, you can learn the "great unwashed secrets of original art" from coffee stains to corrections.
Fans were more than happy to hear lots more about Smith's new work, Tuki Saves the Humans, a webcomic set 1.8 million years ago. When an ice age hits, Smith said, and all the moisture is locked up in ice caps, there are dust bowls, droughts, jungles disappearing, and creatures going extinct including hominids. "Somebody had to be the first human to leave Africa and this is the story", he explained. But there are also "Giants and gods trying to stop them", he warned, joking that if the work sounded "scientific" at first, that wasn't the way things were headed.
Smith has already completed first installment of 20 pages, for Tuki. Like Bone or RASL, at 20 or 22 pages a chapter, but will be posting one page a week, then take 2 months off, then come back and run the comic again. "I don't get any money for it", he said, but he'll eventually make a book of the webcomic. "I'm looking at Faith Erin Hicks, Kate Beaton, who have figured out a way to put it out and then come back and make money on it", he said, and "I think people should be able to read this everywhere", internationally right away. A webcomic can give him the immediacy and reach he's looking for.
Smith jumped into inking a large single-image page of Bone, already partially complete, as a demonstration for the audience. The projector captured each of his movements in great detail and he chatted and answered questions as he worked, interjecting advice occasionally. It was downright fascinating to see the man at work but some of his comments were also quite personal and spoke to a life cartooning.
He noted that timing changes when he's inking, as "thing become more solid, with more details to stop you". His writing process goes on throughout his inking since he works on all 24 pages simultaneously. He inks faces first to avoid deadline problems. Otherwise, when things get "crazy", he said, you're "tearing your hair out at 2:00 in the morning, with a fed ex guy waiting, and you can blow off many things but not the faces".
An audience member asked how long exactly Smith has been working on Bone. He said he's been drawing the character since about age 5 without realizing it, in the margins of homework papers, and math tests. It too him13 years to do the whole story. "I'm 53", he said, "so I've been drawing Bone for about 50 years…". That was a stunning tally all told.
When Smith was asked if he used "alternatives" like "scratch board techniques", he replied, "Not too much. I love doing exactly what you see me doing, pushing black ink around on a white page. I love it". He once tried using a Cintiq, but "I'm just too old, I'm stuck in my ways. I enjoy this way too much", he said.
The strangest question he fielded was whether he had relationship advice for someone dating a cartoonist, but he took it in stride and gave a personal, thoughtful answer based on his own life. "Cartoonists are obsessive", he said, "We are cartoonists because we have to be. No one thought I'm going to draw comics so I can get a fast car and girls! It's very easy to disappear into your studio and get lost. My advice would be, don't forget you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. You have to balance it. I will have to spend 20 hours a day for 2 weeks in a row sometimes".
Smith described his work day as starting at 5 in the morning, and ending at 2 in the morning during intense work periods. "It's an extreme situation—it doesn't happen—well, it happens a lot", he laughed. He works in a studio above his garage and because he works with his wife as his partner, he talks with her about what's going on, including tours and interviews, then goes back to work at 9:30AM or so. At 6, when she gets off work, they fix dinner together, have a glass of wine, talk about day, and around 7:30, he goes back to the studio and is there until 2AM. He makes sure she's "an important part of the day", and that they see each other. He asked the audience if the work load is the most difficult thing for cartoonists and that's why they wanted advice or "is it something else, that they are just broke ass all the time?" This provoked laughter, but he apologized that there wasn't much advice he could give about being "broke ass".
Smith's demonstration was enthralling, constantly turning his page at odd angles to get perfect curves and detail in his inking, and though the work was relatively speedy, the care he took over every gesture was remarkable. It was a rare glimpse of the man at work, and a consummate professional reaching out to talk about his real life experiences in the interest of helping other cartoonists find what works for them to succeed in comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon is Senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.