Bone-a-fides


Jeff Smith started his road to Bone with Pogo, and that influence, while quite evident in his work, is never derivative. It was in the fourth grade that he discovered Walt Kelly, and from that moment on the young Smith was hooked on cartooning. It was the beginning of a long uphill climb. Smith was born in 1960 and thus missed the heyday of underground cartooning, which was an opportunity that launched an earlier generation of cartoonists.

Although the artist/writer had started the germ of Bone in his childhood, the real beginnings of the strip were in 1982 when Smith attended Ohio State University, a college he specifically joined for one reason: that college's newspaper had a circulation of 50,000. (He had earlier studied at an art school which had held that cartooning was a mere bastard-child of the arts, a common art school prejudice.)

With the experience of attending journalism classes by day and working on Bone (then called Thorn) until well past midnight for four years, Smith learned the skills and disciplines necessary for his first post-school venture, co-founding an animation studio in 1986. With two fellow students, Jim Kammerud and Martin Fuller, Character Builders was founded and run on a shoestring, surviving to continue on to the present. Smith, however, became fed up with dealing with the corporate environment and bailed out, but not before an attempt to sell Bone as a syndicated comic strip.

Bone #1 is already becoming quite the collectible. It was created after another run-in with the corporate mindset ( for insights on the corporate mindset see Dilbertby Scott Adams). Smith got nibbles from syndicates in '84 and '85, but mainly because the marketing departments thought that his creations would make great toys. After months of dealing with meaningless suggestions and aesthetic changes, the final straw came when a King Features exec came up with yet another change for the proposed strip: all the Bone characters would "talk" in thought balloons. Why? Because Snoopy and Garfield talk in thought balloons, naturally!

Boy, those pointy-haired corporate executives! Smith went back to animation and stayed there until another outlet suddenly occurred to him: comic books!

Evidently Smith hadn't been aware of the revolution taking place in comics. When he discovered comics like Cerebus and The Tick, as well as Frank Miller's new approach to super-hero comics, it lit a fire. Bone #1 hit the stores in July 1991-- just after the entire black & white comics market crashed, and in the same month that Tod MacFarlane's Spider-Man #1 debuted. Oops!

Obviously not the greatest timing in the world, but bit by bit, after wooing retailers and getting increasing notice and good reviews, Bone caught on. For those of you who haven't seen the Cartoon Books comic, very roughly it's about three inhabitants of Boneville, the Bone cousins, Fone, Phoney, and Smiley. Run out of town, the three are separated and one by one find their way into a deep-forested valley filled with "wonderful and terrifying creatures." During these adventures, vaguely reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Bones are befriended by humans, Thorn and Gran'ma Ben, as well as a friendly dragon, and are threatened by "rat creatures" and a mysterious hooded warlock serving a Mysterious Power. In its eight year run, Bone has won six Harveys and nine Eisner Awards and is currently published around the world in thirteen languages.

New projects for Smith include Rose, a collaboration with Charles Vess. One sign of the popularity of a comic book is the profusion of collectibles it generates. Bone memorabilia is now available (on Smith's terms) as a number of action figures produced by Resaurus (including Ted the Bug!). There are Bone greeting cards, a Bone calendar for 2000, and a limited edition statue of Thorn as a warrior. Currently there are five volumes of the collected Bone stories available in comics shops, or from Cartoon Books.

Bone has gone on hiatus with issue #37. Smith has recently turned in a first draft of a screenplay for the Bone film project to be produced by Nickelodeon Entertainment and didn't want to be in the middle of a comic book story arc while having to work on the film. Stupid, Stupid Rat Tales,the story of Boneville founder Big Johnson Bone, written by Tom (Riblet)Sniegoski, is intended to fill the gap between the suspension and resumption of the main series. Smith's other project at the moment is working with Charles (Books of Magic) Vess on another upcoming prequel, Rose,the story of Gran'ma Ben and her adventures as a young princess. Each issue of the three part miniseries is planned as a 48-page full-color squarebound publication. Work on the preliminary art for Rose has begun, and plans are for a release date in September 1999. If the work in Rose is equal to the talents of Smith and Vess, it should be a series well worth getting.
 
 

--Steve Stiles