Cartoonist Jeff Smith recently concluded his 1,300-page fantasy epic, Bone, which he self-published for 12 years. In January,Scholastic Books will begin reprinting the nine Bone volumes in full-color editions for the first time.
PW: You created Bone's three main characters when you were in kindergarten. How did you get from that version to this massive 1,300-page story?
Jeff Smith: The short answer is that I just wanted to read a giant comic book that had all the elements that a book like Moby Dick or Le Morte D'Arthur or the Odyssey had. I wanted it to have a beginning, middle and end, with the kind of character journeys that these books had.
PW: At its core, what's the story of Bone?
JS: It's a fish-out-of-water story. There are three modern characters, who happen to be cartoons in the mold of Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny, who get lost in a fairy-tale valley. They spend a year there and make friends and enemies and get caught up in the trials and tribulations of the valley and even a war.
PW: How much of the story did you work out in advance?
JS: I had the long view, goals, places the characters needed to get to in order to move forward—but until I got to that point, I allowed myself to explore and let the story go where it would. That's the only way to write comedy. You can't really meticulously plot jokes—you have to let go, and when the characters get into trouble, you see what's interesting. Overall, there were very few changes. I've pretty much told the story I wanted to tell. Somewhere I have the last page that I drew in 1989 before I started. It's very similar to the final version, with the exact same joke.
PW: Would you do more with Bone at some point?
JS: I wouldn't do a sequel. I stand firm on that. But feeling as I do about the characters, I'm positive I have to do something with them, whether I draw them or do a short story or unrelated things. But Bone is a stand-alone.
PW: What's the origin of your deal with Scholastic?
JS: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly suggested to Scholastic that Bone would be the place to start with their graphic novel program. I don't know what they said to Scholastic about Bone, but when we were suddenly contacted by the president and publisher, Jean Feiwel, she was very excited and said everything right to us. We were blown away. I was resistant at first because I don't really think of Bone as a children's book. I didn't write it as a children's book. But Art convinced me that one of the reasons it was a good children's book was that I didn't write it for children.
PW: What are your hopes for Bone in the mass market?
JS: I don't know what to expect from it. I look at it a little like a parent seeing his kids graduate and they're off on their own now. I feel like Scholastic is going to take them somewhere, even though I'm going to be on the road promoting it just as hard as I ever did. I can only explain that it's the book I wanted to read when I was nine, and I had to wait until I was 44 to actually read it.