Mix of tradition, fantasy comics pays off for artist
First of two parts.
A doodle can lead to a career. Just ask sequential-art creator and self-publisher Jeff Smith, who took a sketch of a bulbous character that could be a distant cousin of Pogo’s and turned him into a comic-book superstar.
Mr. Smith’s illustrated epic, Bone, about the adventures of three cousins in a fantasy world, ended in 2004 after an astounding 13-year run that garnered him nine Harvey Awards and multiple accolades from the National Cartoonists Society.
He recently completed a four-part prestige-format series for DC Comics called Shazam! Monster Society of Evil and agreed to give Zadzooks a piece of his mind in the 54th chapter of a series that profiles the elite of the comic-book industry.
My early years: I grew up in a small suburban neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, and I loved to play outside and in ravines. I loved comic books and loved cartoons. I was really big into Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics but also liked Batman and Spider-Man.
How I learned to draw: I started drawing right away. When I was 5, I used to sit on the floor with crayons and paper and try to draw Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny.
When I was at Ohio State University, I drew a comic strip for the school newspaper, and I was able to practice my eventual vocation for four years. I then started an animation company and did commercials for years and some feature films like “Rover Dangerfield.”
When I decided to be a comics artist: I went into a comic-book store, probably in 1986 or so, and saw a new breed of books that really turned me on with titles such as Love and Rockets, Cerebus and later the Tick. What they were, were black-and-white sort of homemade comics that were part of a publishing environment akin to the Seattle garage-band scene in the 1990s.
I got on board with that and took some characters I had made up as a kid and placed them in with Heavy Metal [magazine] characters. I thought that would be a fun kind of strip. Mix the traditional American cartoon with this European high-fantasy comic book and see what I would get. That is how I came up with Bone.
Origins of the Fone Bone: He was a little doodle I came up with as a kid, and I kept drawing him. He would react to whatever was around me or what I was thinking.
Why I self-published Bone: In 1991, the comics industry was a different landscape. Now comic books are the new thing and respectable, but in the early 1990s, comics could only be found in specialty shops — and really, the only major players, Marvel and DC, were not looking for a Donald Duck Lord of the Rings epic. The garage-band scene appealed to me, so self-publishing was like that, a little more raw and organic. And the artist in me liked that.
Life as an independent publisher: It was terribly hard at first, but I had that animation studio. It was not a massive success but good enough that I was able to sell my share to my partners and, with my wife’s salary, I had enough money to live on. I always wanted to try and create a comic book and gave myself a year to do it.
Fortunately, at the end of a year, we got a little bit of interest from trade magazines, and the sales stated to pick up a bit, and I extended it a little bit more. I was selling enough for the printer bill and to kick in on the groceries. After about two years, it took off, and sales began to double every month.
Comfort with Bone as a children’s book: I was never perfectly comfortable with it. I was never writing Bone for kids, although I never put anything in it that they could not see. I was just trying to draw what I thought would be a good comic a la the old Disney books. I never censored myself for kids or wrote down to them.
The end of Bone: I finished the saga in 2004, and the entire series is still self-published into a compiled one-volume, 1,350-page book available at most bookstores. Scholastic is also reprinting it now, in full color. My assistant, Steve Hamaker, did the coloring.