The History of BONE & Jeff Smith
The Self Publishing Movement
“There was a period of nearly three years where we couldn’t go to a convention without being mobbed. We would start at 9 in the morning and we couldn’t get away to eat – - we couldn’t get away to go to the bathroom. We’d get a short break for dinner, then rush back to the hotel bar or up to Dave’s suite and sign autographs and draw sketches for retailers until 3 or 4 in the morning.” – Colleen Doran, self-publisher, A Distant Soil
In July 1991 Jeff Smith started Cartoon Books in Columbus, Ohio to publish his black & white comic book BONE. A humor book about the adventures of three cartoon cousins inspired by the work of Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. Each issue of BONE was actually a new chapter in what would eventually become a 1300 page single story, but in those early days, Smith’s larger plans were known only to himself and his wife, Vijaya Iyer. The first few comics relied heavily on humor and adventure to keep readers coming back for more.
Grass root support for BONE started on the Internet. It was one of the first comics to benefit from the new network of comics web chat rooms that were springing up all over the globe. For the first time in history, “word-of-mouth” could spread around the world at the speed of light. One of BONE’s taglines even slipped into everyday computer speak:
Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures! (online jargon) n. Exclamation of disapproval. From the wonderful comic book “BONE.” Often customized to suit the occasion, most often along the lines of “Stupid, stupid end-users! Mac’s bug must load before all over system extensions!
– CYBERSPEAK, Random House Dictionary of online phrases, 1997
In 1992, a few good reviews began to appear in The Comics Journal and The Comics Buyer’s Guide, and Neil Gaiman, the hugely popular writer of The Sandman series from DC Comics, even mentioned BONE on the Canadian TV show: Prisoners of Gravity.
To take advantage of the new interest in BONE, and to keep the first chapters of the continuing story available, Smith reprinted the earlier issues and put them back on the market. This was controversial in a market that counts on valuable back issue sales.
Smith went against all the conventional wisdom of the time and went back to press with the early issues, making sure new readers would be able to find early issues cheaply. A short-sighted philosophy, he was told by market gurus and successful independent publishers of the day – never undercut the value of your back issues, or collectors will shun your product forever. Strangely enough, most of those publishers are out of business today, and Jeff Smith is publishing the most successful black and white comic of the last ten years. When the first six issues were collected in trade paperback in Out From Boneville, it sold over 100,000 copies. —Knights of the Dinner Table, November 2000
The first comics event that Smith attended was a retailer sales conference; a business affair put on by distributors and publishers to present the year’s upcoming projects. Jeff set up an easel, pinned the cover painting of BONE #1 to it and started signing free copies of the first three issues of BONE.
Jeff at 1992 Diamond Conference
Jeff at 1992 Capital Retailer Conference
When asked by cartoonist Mike Oeming in 2006 how BONE managed to get off the ground, Smith answered:
“Pure luck, really. I got friendly with some of the local shop owners and started tagging along with them to industry events, and because of that, most of my first contacts in the field were with comic shop retailers. I would go to the Diamond Retailer sales conference, and since I didn’t know anybody I would hang out in the lounge with Jim Hanley, Rory Root, Joe Field, Chuck Rosanski, and all these kinds of guys. My first year or so in comics was like that. Later on I started to meet other artists like Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess, and Dave Sim. Also in the lounge, I might add.”
In 1993, Smith joined with four other young Self-publishers on a jam drawing to hand out to comic shop owners. This group included Dave Sim, the most famous and outspoken of Self-publishers, as well as fan favorite Colleen Doran, Martin Wagner and newcomer James Owen.
Their appearances together at industry events fueled speculation that the Self-publishers were going to join forces the way the Image Comics creators recently had. At the Diamond conference, a giant crowd appeared in front of their table, turning into a long line as retailers waited to get the jam drawing signed. For the next three years the Self-publishers drew bigger and bigger crowds, rewriting the rules of guerilla promotion and creative freedom. When they were barred from signing autographs and sketches on show room floors, they would set up in the lounge and announce a “Bar Con”. An invitation to the after hours party in Dave Sim’s suite was the hottest ticket in town. The comics press followed their every move and sales began to climb, especially for Smith’s BONE, whose circulation numbers doubled with each issue. The Self-publishing Movement had begun.
The comics industry at this time was experiencing a huge growth boom, fueled in part by speculators who would buy multiple copies of hot comics. Once big comic book companies started manufacturing hot or “chase” comics specifically to cash in on this speculation craze, the rush was on. In an atmosphere of hologram logos, and alternative covers, BONE became a cause celeb just by being hand-crafted and shipped out of a garage. BONE was seen by many as the “anti-gimmick” comic. In 1994, BONE won four Eisner Awards, and three Harvey Awards.
The first six issues of BONE were serialized in eight page chunks in the popular children’s magazine Disney Adventure Digest over a two year period. With Disney’s readership of over six million,
BONE now had the highest exposure of any comic book then being published in the United States. Everywhere the Self-publishers were seen together caused a stir, especially when Jeff and Dave, who had become close friends, made a joint appearance at the first Alternative Press Expo in San Jose, California.
Every month, more creators tried their hand at Self-publishing, working on their dream projects. The Self-publishing Movement reached its peak in 1995 becoming 17% of the overall comics market. A market that had grown into a billion dollar a year industry. Then, suddenly, it all came apart. Powerhouse comics publisher Marvel bought the number three comics distributor Hero’s World and made their comics exclusive through them. Distributors, publishers and shop owners panicked. The next two years were marked by the collapse of the comic book market, and many comic book stores and publishing companies large and small went out of business. All but one of the major comic book distributors closed their doors forever. Even before the smoke had cleared, the dream was over.
The Feud with Dave Sim
Ain’t It Cool News: We’re almost done, but I have four questions that you may not want to answer. First of all, any final words on the whole Dave Sim boxing match thing?
AICN: Which, by the way, speaking as a lay reader was incredibly amusing to follow.
Jeff: Yes, I hope it has been… I think, just in general, when a friendship – or any kind of a relationship starts to fall apart, it’s complicated and there are mind games, and it’s not pretty, and it’s difficult enough to explain as it is. But when it’s so public –
AICN: And in print –
Jeff: It’s been a very public parting of the ways. And it’s been done against the background of what was essentially a revolution in comics, and there’s been a lot of people with very strong feelings on every side.
— AICN Interview Part 3
Jeff’s friendship with fellow Self-publisher Dave Sim ended suddenly when Dave published his controversial issue of Cerebus #186, in which he defined women as creatures incapable of logical thinking. Portraying an evening spent in the Smith’s home in the Santa Cruz mountains, both Jeff and his wife Vijaya were written into the text as examples of a man and his parasitic, brain-eating wife. Smith is portrayed as agreeing with Sim’s ideas and seeming to be afraid of reprisal from his wife. Vijaya herself, whose parents come from India, is described as “inscrutable”. The feud heated up again some years later when Smith related his version of events to The Comic’s Journal causing Sim to write an open letter calling Smith a liar and challenging him to a round of boxing. Smith’s response, a letter to Dave which was printed in the Cerebus comic book said simply: “Get stuffed.”
The feud has cooled of late, and Jeff and Dave have been seen talking together at comics events. The two even joined forces to raise relief funds for victims of the 2004 Tsunami, donating original artwork and raising $20,000 for Red Cross relief. An interesting overview of both the feud and the comics can be seen at Salon.com.
Image Comics, The Trilogy Tour, Rose, and the One Volume Edition
In 1995, Image Comics managed a major coup when it took over the publication of Jeff Smith’s fantasy series, BONE (originally from Cartoon Books since 1991). — Mila Bongco, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comics, 2000
After separating himself from Dave and the Self-publishing Movement, Smith began to forge new ties within the comics community. Later that year, Cartoon Books joined Image Comics as a satellite studio; however, Jeff and his wife Vijaya kept the BONE book collections out of the deal. Jeff explained in a recent interview:
“My arrangement with [Image] was pretty friendly. Technically, we still published BONE ourselves and had the comic books sent from the printers directly to the distributors, but Image collected the money. Still, knowing [my association with Image] would most likely be temporary, in order to hold our place in the catalogs we left the BONE book collections under our own Cartoon Books label.”
In 1996, longtime friend Charles Vess introduced Smith to fellow fantasy artist Linda Medley, known for her work at DC Comics as well as her own Self-published title, Castle Waiting. The three began to plan a national tour of comic book shops and conventions, traveling together on the road with huge portable sets of standing stones and a giant hollow tree. They called it The Trilogy Tour.
Smith, Vess and Medley set out from Charles’ home state of Virginia. They spent four weeks on the road, driving across the country, making six promotional appearances along the way. During the tour, BONE #28 shipped to comic book shops. This was the issue that marked Smith’s return to Self-publishing.
The tour was a success, ending its run at the largest comic book event in America: The San Diego Comic-Con International in 1997.
A second tour followed in 1998 with a larger set of standing stones, a higher production comic book to accompany the tour, and three more fantasy cartoonists: Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Jill Thompson (The Sandman, Scary Godmother), and Mark Crilley (Akiko).
Jeff later summed up his experience to Tom Spurgeon in the Comics Journal:
“The Trilogy Tour was everything that I wished for … Man, those are the two best years in comics that I can remember. It was phenomenal.”
It was around this time that international publishers took an interest in BONE, and soon Jeff and Vijaya found themselves flying to Europe, as much as twice a year to promote new foreign language editions. By the late nineties, BONE was translated into 15 languages.
In 1999, Jeff took a one year hiatus to work on a BONE screenplay and collaborate on two BONE related graphic novels. The first, called Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails was written by Tom Sniegoski and drawn by Smith. Subtitled The Adventures of Big Johnson Bone Frontier Hero, the story told a tall tale of Big Johnson Bone and his hitherto unknown visit to the Valley of the Rat Creatures. iComics Reviews wrote:
Sniegoski does a really good job of making this feel like a tall tale…if there’s a book that can bring in a new generation of comic book readers, this is it!
The second graphic novel was called Rose. Rose tells the story of young Gran’ma Ben (Rose Harvestar), and is much darker in tone than either BONE or Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails. Written by Jeff and illustrated by Charles Vess, it was described by Neil Gaiman as:
“A magnificent prequel to Jeff Smith’s BONE, but it’s more than that – - it’s a beautifully painted meditation on magic, on the mistakes of youth and the little personal tragedies that grow to decide the fate of nations and to engulf the world.”
In 2001, Charles won an Eisner for his work on Rose.
Meanwhile, attempts to bring the BONE movie to life with Nickelodeon Pictures started to run into problems. Smith tried to stay positive, as seen in this quote from a mid-2000 interview with The Onion:
O: Some press releases from 1999 indicated that you were taking two years off for the BONE movie, but the current reports make it look like bringing the comic back this year was the plan all along.
JS: I’ve found that in Hollywood there is no “no plan all along.” They don’t operate under the same rules of physics as we do. I think we were a little optimistic; we thought that because BONE was so fleshed out, our development time would be really short, like six months or so. Instead, it’s turned out to be a fairly normal development of two years. But things are going really well, and we’re hoping to put the movie out in 2002. But I don’t want to take any more time from my real field, which is comic books.
Ultimately Cartoon Books and Nicklelodeon couldn’t see eye to eye and the project was abandoned. When asked what went wrong by Ain’t It Cool News in 2003, Jeff responded:
Jeff: Nickelodeon did agree to no songs. In writing. So this pop-song thing was probably the turning point in the whole affair for me; this was about a year-and-a-half in. One day after lunch we sat down … and the executive there turned to me and said, “Okay. We can get $12 million right now if we put a pop song in the movie. So, Jeff – do you see somewhere in the body of the film where we could put a Britney Spears or an N’Sync song?”
AICN: Oh, my god.
Jeff: And I just turned and looked at Vijaya, we looked at each other, and I said, “No.” I mean, that’s not the kind of movie that we were making. I mean, you wouldn’t put a Britney Spears song in the middle of “The Empire Strikes Back” or the middle of “Lord of the Rings”. And because Vijaya had insisted that clause be in the contract, they couldn’t force me. Things went downhill rapidly after that.
In the Spring of 2001, Jeff and Vijaya spent a few weeks in India and Nepal researching customs and architecture for the city of Atheia, the major location for much of the third and final act of BONE. From the Ain’t It Cool interview:
I wanted to stay away from the obvious European castles and the King Arthur stereotypes of most fantasy kingdoms. I needed an old place that was full of mysticism, that once had great glory, but has since fallen on hard times — and I decided to model Atheia on Kathmandu. Vijaya and I spent a week in Nepal…I took pictures of alleys and temples, things that people have in their front yards. And all that’s in the book.
While on tour in Europe, on the morning on September 11, 2001, Jeff and Vijaya flew from Munich, Germany to Oslo, Norway, learning that while they were in the air, a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers in New York. The experience of watching the news events unfold on a monitor in a foreign hotel lobby resulted in the two page comic which appeared later in the fund raising anthology 9-11: Emergency Relief, published by Alternative Comics.
View the whole comic by clicking the image above.
Finally, on May 10, 2004, Smith finished inking the final page of BONE. That summer, Jeff and Vijaya debuted the 1300 page BONE: One Volume Edition at the San Diego Comic-Con International. The book appeared in two editions; one in paperback, the other a limited edition hardcover with gilded edges and a cloth bookmark. Known as the Brick, the five pound graphic novel caused a sensation at the show and quickly sold out, giving rise to rumors about sales figures and controversy over selling books at shows. At the end of the year, the BONE: One Volume Edition was chosen by The Comics Journal as the book of the year. You can read Tom Spurgeon’s review for The Comics Journal on his site, The Comics Reporter.)
During this time, BONE and Jeff Smith continued to win awards in America and around the world, totalling 44 so far; including 10 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards, more than any other comic in history.
In 2005, TIME MAGAZINE called BONE one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time.
Keeping the story available and in print was crucial to Jeff Smith’s overall plan of a long form work. In a 2006 article for Booklist, Jeff explained:
I saw comics as books, and I wanted them to be treated like books. The majority of the comic book industry, however, saw them as magazines or collectibles. When I started, a lot of people in the US comics business didn’t want graphic novels in comics shops at all. Too much of the market was built around the quick turnover of monthly products and the secondary market of back issues. Collectors will pay extra for back issues missing from their collections. Keeping a comic in a format that was meant to be continuously restocked went against the grain of a lot of the industry old guard.
In 1993, he published the first BONE collection which immediately went back to print numerous times. The surprising popularity and commercial success of the COMPLETE BONE ADVENTURES caused controversy, as explained by comics historian Stephen Weiner in his book, Faster Than A Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel:
By 1993, BONE was considered to be a commercial and critical success, and Cartoon Books began collecting the comics into a graphic novel series. This decision caused waves in the comics community; back issues of the comic book were considered valuable and sold at inflated prices [an important factor in the economic life of a comic book store]. Collecting a popular comic book series like BONE minimized the importance of buying back issues and would cause prices to drop. But the impulse behind the decision by Cartoon Books to collect the entire series was unrelated to the collecting of comics. Reprinting the books in this way made it easy for new readers to jump right into the story.
Up to that point, only Dave Sim’s Cerebus was collected from the beginning. Even The Sandman by Neil Gaiman had not yet started to collect the whole series.
After three volumes of The Complete Bone Adventures, Jeff redesigned the collections in 1995 to more accurately reflect the arcs in the overall story. There would be nine volumes in all, comprising a 1300 page story that would culminate in 2004 with a massive single edition called BONE: One Volume Edition. From Faster Than A Speeding Bullet: The Rise Of The Graphic Novel:
[Smith] put it, “I wanted to create something in comics that up until that time I had only seen in prose; an epic on the scale of War and Peace, with a real beginning, middle, and end.” Other companies might not have been so concerned with a beginning, middle and end, but they saw the sales figures. BONE’s success with the graphic novel collections demonstrated the appeal and financial rewards of the format. Publishers small and large took notice, and the comic book field shifted even further than it had before to putting its products in book form.
As the BONE graphic novels continued to appeal to non-comics shop readers like women and children (only The Sandman trumped BONE in its ability to attract the coveted female reader), this easily restocked and readable version of the collections became not only the ultimate BONE cannon, but also the preferred way for comic shop retailers to entice a new kind of customer: women and younger readers. Again, from Faster Than A Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel:
One thing that both BONE and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman demonstrated was that a growing segment of the comic book readership had grown tired of superhero fantasy and was more interested in literary fantasy. Not only did BONE’s success move the comic book field further toward graphic novel publishing, its broad appeal helped open library shelves to works other than that new classic, Maus.
An imprint for Bone
AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION PRECONFERENCE 2002: In the mid-1990s, BONE was embraced by the public library community. Smith was asked, along with Art Spiegleman (Maus), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), and Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil, and an expert on manga), to address the American Library Association at a national gathering of librarians on the topic of graphic novels.
Scholastic, the world’s largest children’s publisher, created a new imprint called Graphix, and in 2005 launched it with a full color version of Out From Boneville. Jeff explained to Booklist how this came about:
Apparently, BONE was one of the most requested graphic novels in libraries across the country. By kids! Now, if you’ve followed my career in comics, you know I’ve fought against BONE being labeled a children’s book. Mostly for marketing reasons – -today’s comic book readers are mostly adults, and a kid’s comic wouldn’t survive long- – but also because I wasn’t writing for kids. I was writing for the same audience I perceived those old Disney animated films were aimed at: the movie going public.
Anyway, the kids found BONE and claimed it. They got enough librarians looking for it, that Ingram [the library distributors] called us. When trade magazines like Booklist, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly began reporting on the high circulations of graphic novels and teachers’ discovery that kids actually were reading them, big publishers like Scholastic took notice. The people at Scholastic gave us a call and in short order convinced us they understood what BONE was and that they could run with it. And to make it fresh, Scholastic offered to underwrite coloring the whole thing.
Scholastic sought advice from several experts including Art Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly about which cartoonists to approach, and it was Art who convinced Jeff that BONE would benefit from color. After resisting the idea at first, Jeff then embraced it. From the 2006 Booklist article:
One of the things I enjoy most about drawing comics is creating the compositions with black and white shapes. Now that color is being added, care must be taken to use it for storytelling purposes. For example to heighten the mood, and more importantly, to help direct the eye. The compositions that I originally created with black and white are now carefully being reinforced by the color. This has had an exciting effect on the stories, giving them a vibrancy and bringing them to life. Or maybe I should say a whole new life!
To be continued …