Jeff Smith’s career spans three decades of graphic novel history. His series Bone was at the forefront of the indie comics revolution of the 1990s, and its collected trade editions were among the early must-have graphic novels for bookstores and libraries. Now published by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, Bone has become a perennial for young readers; September sees the release of More Tall Tales, a new Bone companion volume written with Tom Sniegoski.
Smith’s current series, Tuki, began as a webcomic before he relaunched it as a graphic novel series. In a recent interview with Calvin Reid on PW’s More to Come podcast, Smith reflected on the growth of comics as a literary form. “There were a lot of stairs on the way up to where we’re at now, and I was on every one of those steps.”
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Smith attended Ohio State University, in part because of its research collection of comics and cartoon art. After graduation, he formed a commercial animation studio with friends. Graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus inspired Smith to consider that the stories he was trying to develop into animation might work better as comics. With Vijaya Iyer, his wife and business partner, he launched a small publishing company, Cartoon Books.
“We rented an A-frame in the Santa Cruz mountains,” Smith recalled. “[Vijaya] had a day job as a programmer, but she was already my partner. I would bounce all my ideas for stories off her.”
One day, Smith laid out the plot for an epic fantasy featuring the Bone cousins, characters he had drawn since childhood. Over Bone’s 12-year run with Cartoon Books, Graphix, and others, it won numerous awards and became one of the bestselling small-press comics of that era. Smith’s and Iyer’s decision to always keep trade collections in print, unusual at the time, made Bone available to new readers.
Smith followed Bone with RASL, a noir-influenced SF thriller about a dimension-hopping thief. He also wrote and drew a miniseries for DC Comics, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.
Tuki is set at the dawn of human prehistory. Tuki and his young companions, who represent several different hominid species, find themselves at the center of a war sparked by the invention of fire. Smith was inspired by a visit to the anthropological dig at Oldavai Gorge in Tanzania, where he had a vision of multiple hominid species walking around the site.
Cartoon Books has published two volumes of the planned six-volume Tuki saga. To Smith, Tuki represents a revolutionary spirit, “not only because he has fire, but because he has compassion. He has forward thinking.”
Jeff Smith will be in conversation with fellow graphic novelist Tillie Walden and The Beat editor-in-chief Heidi MacDonald on Tuesday, May 23, 4:30–5 p.m.
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