Smith returns with Tuki: Fight for Fire (Cartoon Books, Dec.), a comics series that combines research and fantasy, and is set during the period in prehistory when multiple humanoid species coexisted.

Where did the idea for this series come from?

My wife Vijaya and I went to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania; that was where [famed archaeologist and paleontologist family] the Leakeys made striking discoveries about different human species, over millions of years, who occupied the same space. While I was visiting there, I had this vision of multiple human species walking around the site, and it felt so real. I read a lot of books and did research: How do we know when we lost our hair? How do we know when we discovered fire? I’ve seen prehistoric “cave person” stories, but Tuki is set in a very specific, real time period.

Were there places where you had to guess about the science?

The biggest leap I had to make was: Could Tuki talk? There’s debate on either side, scientifically. But when you look at the underside of our ancestors’ skulls, a few million years ago, they had a voice box long enough to modulate sound. Also, molds from inside the skull show they had Broca’s areas, which is a major speech center in the brain. So, if they didn’t have speech, they were the first ones with all the equipment.

How did you balance the elements of fantasy, reality, and mysticism that the characters believe in?

I’m a big fan of the Iliad and the Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur. They mix fantasy with real life constantly. One of my favorite filmmakers is Hayao Miyazaki, who knows how to put the right touch on dream and fantasy coming into the real world. I figured ancient humans had a hard time differentiating. Everything was so new.

What has been your favorite part to draw so far?

I love presenting mystery: the jungle, and having things step out of the jungle. Or the mystery of when the shaman warns Tuki about the forces that control the world, and one of them manifests itself.

Were there artists who influenced you?

One of my favorite artists is a guy named Joe Kubert, who drew Sgt. Rock and worked for DC Comics for years. He did a great run on Tarzan.

What can readers expect from the next volume, Fight for Family?

Part One and Part Two are of a piece, hopefully the beginning of a six-volume series. A lot of the elements introduced in the first volume wrap up in the second. There’s a lot more action, and also more emotional connection with the characters. I hope readers just come away wanting to know more about this strange traveler, Tuki.