SPX Spotlight: BONE Creator Jeff Smith Talks About His Life in Independent Comics

Credit: Jeff Smith

It’s the day after the Small Press Expo (SPX), and as a way of looking back, we’re talking to one of the show’s Guests of Honor – Bone creator Jeff Smith, who has a unique perspective on the show, and on creating the type of self-published book featured prominently at the show.

In a casual conversation, we looked back with Smith about his experiences bringing Bone to readers back in the 1990s, the new types of independent books that have him excited, and more.  It’s a must-read for not just fans of Bone or indie books, but for those interested in an inside look at the publishing side of comics.  Plus, we have a few hints about his new project premiering in a few months…and how he’ll be presenting it to readers.

Credit: Jeff Smith

Newsarama: So Jeff, I know you have the color RASL and the Bone: Artist’s Edition coming out…what all will be at SPX?

Jeff Smith:  Well, the artist’s edition probably won’t be out for the show, that’s going to be in October.  So of the three big fall projects, RASL, the Artist’s Edition and Best American Comics 2013, which I edited, only RASL will be out for SPX.

Nrama:  And I wanted to ask about Best American Comics, because that’s closest to SPX…

Smith:  It’ll be out right after the show!  And most of the artists who are in it are at the show, so I’m looking forward to seeing them and having a beer with them.

It was a lot of fun!  It was a whole year of digging through every comic I could find – minicomics, regular full-sized stapled comics, graphic novels, silkscreened covers…it was just fantastic. 

And webcomics were just amazing, because I don’t look at a lot of webcomics, but as the editor of Best American Comics, I had to go online…and wow!  It was just a revelation!  Have you been out there and looked?

Credit: Jeff Smith

Nrama:  Ohhhh, yeah.  In fact, going to shows like SPX inspired me to do a whole big series for Newsarama. 

Smith: It is full-blown.

Nrama:  The variety of stuff out there, I have to admit, really helped me keep my faith in comics.

Smith: Absolutely, absolutely.  That is so true.  And that so many of the cartoonists doing webcomics are so young – that was a very helpful thing for me.  And so many women!  Just a tremendous amount of women.

As someone who got into doing comics a little over 20 years ago, back then there were no women in comics…okay, that’s not accurate, but there weren’t many.  It really seemed like the writers and the artists and the readers were all male.

And now it’s just such a turnaround.  Twenty years, it’s the blink of an eye.  Anyway, I’m just so excited about the next generation of cartoonists. They are amazing.

Nrama:  Well, who are some of the new cartoonists who have you excited?

Smith: Gosh, there are just so many.  I love Sammy Harkham’s stuff – he’s not that young, but so great…Faith Erin Hicks, Kate Beaton…

Credit: Jeff Smith

Nrama:  I went to SPX a few years back when they premiered the Hark! A Vagrant hardcover, and they sold completely out of that by the end of Saturday.  It was pretty amazing.

Smith: She’s so good.  They asked me to pick a cover artist for Best American Comics, and she was my number-one choice, and she did a terrific job for it.

Nrama:  In going through webcomics, it has stuck me that, like you said, there are many more women creating books.  The areas I see being represented in webcomics that aren’t represented as well as they should be in print – and these are mainly areas that are interesting to me – are comics for and by women, comics for all ages, and LGBT characterizations.

Smith: I agree.  You’ll see all of those things you just mentioned in Best American Comics 2013

Nrama:  What were some of the other revelations you had working on this book?

Smith: Hmm.  Here’s a big one – my studio is filled from one end to the other with stacks and stacks of comics.  And I have no trouble filling up a 500-page book with comics that were all done by authors – there’s not a single piece in here that was done on a company time clock.  Every comic I put in there was the voice of a single creator, or a pair working together.

I love that – that was a revelation.  To find that many good pieces by that many good cartoonists was awesome.

Credit: Jeff Smith

Nrama:  It is good to find that – and I’m not speaking ill of comics retailers, but you do have to go with what sells, and often what sells is that company product, which can really run together in terms of the look and overall style of the books, like many of the superhero titles and such.

Smith: Yeah, and…you know, I haven’t been to SPX for a while.  I was just talking with a buddy of mine about some of the early days of the show.  I was at the very first show, and I was sitting in the back with Brett Warnock from Top Shelf Productions and Chris Orr and having a pig roast (laughs). 

There weren’t many people around and we were playing softball and just grooving around, and now it’s grown so much, it’s become an event.

Nrama:  When was this?

Smith: 1995 or 1996…around the mid 1990s.

Nrama:  That was a very interesting time.

Smith: That’s for sure.

Nrama:  Well, Bone was one of the few success stories from that period.

Smith: Oh, there were others.

Nrama:  Yeah, but I mean – there was a lot of product being pumped out, and a lot of stores going under.

Smith: You need to understand, though – the whole industry had a heart attack. (laughs)  When Marvel bought the number-three distributor and everyone panicked and couldn’t pay their bills, or stopped paying them.  It was a rough time, but surviving it was good

Credit: Jeff Smith

Nrama:  Obviously, you had a good product with Bone, but there were a lot of people who tried self-publishing or starting their own companies during this time who didn’t make it.  What do you feel were some of the biggest things you did, business-wise, that helped keep Bone going?

Smith: Someone asked me a similar question recently – why did other indy guys vanish, what happened to them?  And the main reason was that they were self publishers – many couldn’t stay at the drawing board and get their work done. 

That’s really important! You literally have a contract to get your book out on a certain date, and people have expectations and you have to deliver.  It’s a business that way.

Other people, you know…it’s hard, it’s a hard way to go, especially if you have a family and there’s not enough money.  But there were some people who were successful, and they couldn’t handle it, and freaked out a little.  And some had comics that weren’t that good, but they tried it anyway.  It was definitely an interesting time.

But there’s just so much energy now in the independent level of comics – things like SPX and MoCCA and APE all started happening at that time, and they’re still going…well, not MoCCA, but you know what I mean.

I think a lot of the innovation in comics comes out of that indy and self-published areas.  Like, for example, graphic novels were pretty much indy-driven, small-publisher driven, something very distinct from what Marvel and DC did, and were much more driven by individual creators and artists.

Nrama:  And you see so many of the models set by indy publishers becoming more commonplace.  Dave Sim’s “phone books” collecting Cerebus – those are almost the rule now, these big fat compilations that regularly compile series as they go on.

Smith: You’re right.  You’re exactly right.

Nrama:  It’s now something where comics aren’t as…I’m going to go all pretentious and say “ephemeral,” because they’re not just something that appear on the rack for a month and then vanish, they’re now being viewed much more as these parts of complete stories, in some cases these extended works that can run for years.

Credit: Jeff Smith

Smith: Yeah!  Comics were akin to a factory job.  If you were the letterer, you did the lettering.  If you were the penciler, you did the penciling, and so on.  Now, you’re not a factory worker, you’re an author. 

You do most of the work yourself – certainly, the ones I enjoy the most are the vision of a single creator.  That’s a huge change.  And a lot of that came of the 1980s and 1990s, and the underground comix before them.  Prior to the undergrounds, they really were a factory job, and not a very well-thought-of factory job! 

Nrama:  But that leads to the question: Where do you see things going, or where would you like to see things going?

Smith: During the self-publishing movement, I used to sit in hotels with all my buddies – Dave Sim and Larry Marder and Steve Bissette and Scott McCloud – and we would just talk about comics all night, every night. 

And a lot of things we wanted to do to change the business model, like get retailers to carry graphic novels, and expand the audience to women, and to get out of only being allowed to sell in comic stores and get out to Amazon and Barnes and Noble and places like that…all that happened.

Credit: Jeff Smith

It took a long time, and a lot of setbacks – we got shot down a lot!  But eventually, Vijaya – my wife and partner in Cartoon Books – and I were able to get Bone into libraries and bookstores from the beginning. 

But there were real barriers you wouldn’t even think about.  A lot of distributors, like Baker & Taylor, who distributed to libraries – they had rules like, “no self-published work” and “no comics.” So we had two strikes against us right there! (laughs)

But we kept coming back to them, and eventually got Bone into libraries.  And everyone was just so innovative and pushing that innovation.

So if you ask me where I think things are going – they’re obviously going onto the web, that digital frontier.  And people are already there.  So when you ask about where I think things are going, I think it’s that people have to figure out how to make money on it.

I think my next project, which is called Tuki Save the Humans, is going to be a webcomic.  It’s going to start in November.  One of the things I want to do besides changing formats and how I lay out my pages, is that I’m really interested in figuring out how to make money on this.  T

here’s different models – pay what you want, collecting it later, all sorts of ideas.  They’re shaking out a lot of different methods, and it’ll be interesting to see what catches on.

Nrama:  And what can you tell us about Tuki Save the Humans?

Smith: It’s a story of a prehistoric human.  It takes place two million years ago, and it’s about the first human to ever leave Africa.  And all the beings of all the other portions of Africa – humans, ancient gods, animals – are trying to stop him from doing it.

Nrama:  Sounds sort of midway between Bone and RASL.

Smith: That’s exactly how I’d put it.  Like RASL, it’s based in science and facts.  But like Bone, it’ll have humor and whimsy and some fantastic elements will slip in.

Nrama:  In talking about different methods of making money – some creators have been doing Kickstarter to do collections in hard-copy and such.  One thing I’m curious about is whether Kickstarter would have been something you would have used for Bone if it had been around when you started.

Credit: Jeff Smith

Smith: Oh, definitely!  One thing I remember doing was sort of like a primitive Kickstarter.  Dave Sim said, “You should do a print, a really nice print, just 100 of them, and sell them for $100 each, and it’d be a way to get a little seed money.”  And I did that, and I sold them fairly quickly!  That was like $10,000 right there, and was incredibly helpful and useful.  And to do this day, I’ve never seen one on eBay.  The 100 people who bought them still have them, as far as I know.

Nrama:  Of course, now everyone who reads this will be looking for those…

But do you feel like the way the marketplace is right now is a place where if you started Bone today, it’d be a more amenable market for it, or impossible to get something like that launched?

Smith: Well, you know, I don’t know.  I would say on the one hand it would be easier to do something like Bone in today’s environment, because the marketplace actually looks like what I hoped the marketplace would look like at this time.  I was a big fan of comic strips, which did collections – Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes – and I came into comics thinking I wanted to do something like that or Pogo, and it was a very hard sell.

And I had this long story to tell, so it was important to always have the early parts of the stories available, and available cheaply.  And when I started doing that in the early 1990s, there was resistance to it, because back issues were a big part of the economy of comic book stores.

Nrama:  I remember I got into comics reading the Gladstone reprints of the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge stories, and I had to save my pennies if I wanted to read older stories…

Smith: (laughs) Exactly!  So if someone like Colleen Doran wanted to have a collection available for A Distant Soil, that takes away the money the retailer would have made on a charged-up back issue sale.

From my point of view, if Bone #1 is listed in the back of Wizard at $300, then, well, how is anyone going to get into the story?  No one can afford to read the first part!  So that was a whole part of the resistance, that shift to doing regular collections and multiple printings, and a good bit of time was spent talking to retailers and trying to convince them to restock product, to treat it like a hardware store, where if you sell a hammer, you replace the hammer, because you’re going to sell more.

If Watchmen sells regularly as a collection…well, you order more collections.  You know there’s a certain level of profit there.

Nrama:  I’m seeing a certain amount of do-over with the 1990s that corresponds with what you’re talking about.  You know, Valiant was a huge publisher in the early 1990s, and their back issues were hot, but they were so hot that it was hard to catch up with the stories.  And now they’re back, and they’re making sure they have multiple printings and regular collections, and that’s played a big role in their building a new audience.

Smith: It does seem like some of the 1990s practices are creeping back in, like the variant covers and stuff, which is what a lot of those companies were banking on.

Nrama:  I remember 1995 or 1996, Marvel would have like 10 books a month with those shiny covers –

Smith: They had foil, and holographic covers, yeah. 

Nrama:  They’re doing those again now at DC.

Credit: Jeff Smith

Smith: Yeah, the 3D covers.  But the problem with companies like Valiant was the speculation – using those covers to prop up sales instead of counting on good comics to keep readers coming back.

Nrama:  Well, the stuff that lasted, were the books that were a quality product.

Smith: Yeah.

Nrama; But who can tell?  There seems to be a higher median quality in comics than in the 1990s, but I’ll always read these rumor mill things where some higher-up allegedly said, “Why can’t we get back that giant 1990s audience?”

Smith: Really?  I don’t even understand what that means.  The whole thing was that wasn’t real; people were buying cases of comic books, but there wasn’t an audience there.  There was just all this speculation, with people buying many, many multiples of comics.

I don’t think there were actually a quarter of a million readers there; these books were selling millions of copies and people were buying pallets of them, and now they’re not even worth the paper they’re printed on.

Nrama:  I keep encountering people who think all their 1990s number one issues are worth a fortune.  I’ve had to break some hearts.

So, to wrap this up – anything you want to say about your upcoming work or SPX?

Smith: Well, mainly, I’m looking forward to all the new books I’ll be seeing!  I’m going to have to hit the bank machine before I go into that hall. 

The other good thing is that everyone kind of hangs around in the same hotel together.  It’s a lot more friendly and…I want to say “fraternal,” but we have a lot of women around now!  So that’s another reason to go there.  You can hang out with everybody.  I know I’ll be hanging around. (laughs)

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