(This is an interview I did with a comics website in Italy to correspond with the release of BONE: Tall Tales in Italian. One update: Since this interview was conducted, BONE has been banned by a school district in Texas.)
Hello Jeff and welcome on Comicus.
Twenty years ago you self-produced Bone n.1. Did you imagine that this saga would have made thousands of fans all over the world and it would have been remembered forever?
Twenty years ago, my only hope was to make it through the first six issues! I had promised my wife and partner Vijaya that if the comic books weren’t making any money after six issues, I would give up and go back to animation.
What gave you the urge, the need to create Bone? Is that there still today?
Is the urge still there? Of course it is! I love comics as an art form. When I was a kid, I thought comics were the greatest. I could see more reality reflected in comics than anywhere else; from Charlie Brown’s anguish and embarrassment, to MAD Magazine’s constant skewering of institutions, or even within the creepy horror or sexiness of some books, comics were always the real deal.
As characters, the Bone cousins were born way before 1991; how much are these characters different from the ones you created as a kid? Could you finally tell us what the Bones really are?
Why, they’re Bones from Boneville! What else?
I first drew the Bones when I was five. The three cousins are still very similar to their earliest versions, which were basically: the normal one, the greedy one, and the dumb one. Their personalities grew slightly more complex over the years, but if you saw one of my comics from back in the day, you’d have no trouble recognizing them.
You have created Fone Bone when you were a kid; it has appeared then, together with his cousins, Thorn, the Red Dragon, and Grandma Ben in Thorn, a comic book that you used to published in “The Lantern”, the Ohio State University (the college you went to) newspaper. How much are these characters different from the ones who then appeared inside the Bone saga?
Those college comic strips were the first time the Bones appeared in print along with much of the rest of the future Bone cast of characters. Gran’ma Ben, the Red Dragon and the Hooded One are crude by the standards of the later comic books, but still very recognizable. Thorn is the only one who changed between the strip and the comic book. In the college strip, Thorn was sexier. The comic strip had no real story and was just a series of gags and short adventures. When I began the comic book run, it seemed that the longer, fairy tale-like story called for Thorn to be more of an ingénue.
The three main characters from Bone sum up many of the peculiarities of characters from other strip comics which you have considered being your reference point. Smiley is an intersection between Goofy and Albert Alligator; Phoney recalls Carl Barks’s Scrooge McDuck, and Fone Bone is very similar to Pogo Possum. Which other influences, not recognizable at first sight, can be found in Bone?
Hmm. While I was working on Thorn for my university paper, I was also spending a great deal of my free time in the library stacks reading microfilmed newspapers. I read every single daily and Sunday strip that E.C. Segar drew from 1928 to 1938. Segar created the Thimble Theater comic strip starring Popeye. Funniest shit ever. Reading those strips had a huge impact on me.
“Moby-Dick” is Fone’s (and yours too) favorite book, and during interviews you often mention Charles Dickens’ books and other adventure classics, like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, as important books during your teen years. Which role have these books in the creation of Bone’s story?
Structure. Previous to the launching of Bone, I had never seen a comic book with an epic literary structure, and true consequences for the characters. It was the structure of classic literature that drove me. I wanted a comic – an Uncle Scrooge story – that built with forward momentum toward a climax like in an epic novel. A beginning, middle, and end.
Reading Bone in its one volume edition, it is even more evident that the whole saga was conceived this way since the start. Since the first chapter, the Lord of the locusts (in the form of locust horde) and the rat creatures appears and the three main characters are really well presented. Did you actually think about all of this or have you just thought about the basics to develop the story in a second moment?
It was planned from the beginning, I swear! Of course, many things changed over the years, and a lot was improvised on run, but the general outline was in place by 1989.
In the one volume edition, you have reconsidered some parts of the story, fixing the narration in few points (for example, the beginning of the 8th book, Treasures Hunters, where the meeting between Briar and the Pawas is postponed of about 30 pages). Why have you felt the need to change the sequence of the events? If you had to rewrite Bone now, is there anything else that you would change?
At this point, I have no plan or desire to revisit any of the story; it is finished. However, during the twelve years I was writing Bone, it was a work in progress. I never considered the comic books the final versions. I always believed the collections, or graphic novels, were the final word, so after each issue came out, I treated reader reaction like notes on the opening night performance of a new play – in other words, if something in the comic didn’t get the reaction I was looking for, I’d rework it for the collection. I remember this being somewhat controversial at the time, as were most of my business decisions back then, because I was always bucking the system somehow. In this case, people accused me of trying to force readers to buy the graphic novel just to get the “new” material.
Rose, a story that you have written and that was painted by Charles Vess, tells the events which took place in the valley years before the Bone family arrived. The events there are often recalled in the main saga. In your opinion should Rose be read before, during or after Bone?
Definitely after! Although I have spoken with quite a few people who read it first, and they told me it actually heightened the experience of reading Bone. So what do I know?
At the end of Bone, do the three cousins come really back to Boneville?
I always figured they must have had a few unexpected adventures on their way home, but that they would eventually make it all the way back to Boneville.
You have come back to Lucca’s convention last year in order to present Bone – One volume edition in Italian for Bao Publishing. How was the Lucca experience for you? Has something changed compared to the first time you came to Lucca in 1997 in order to receive the “Pantera di Lucca” best foreigner drawer’s prize?
Back in ‘97, the festival was held outside the city in tents, so holding the event inside the gorgeous, romantic city center was a pleasant surprise! It also lent a surreal, medieval backdrop to hordes of manga colored-wigs and giant cardboard warrior blades!
At the Lucca convention, you joined a panel entitled “Ascent and decline of the Indie Comics Scene” with other famous comics authors like Baru, Jiro Taniguchi, David Loyd e Craig Thompson. Is it still possible today to make an independent comic? Did you and these other authors agree on this topic or did you have different opinions? Would you define Bone an independent comic?
I define an independent comic as one that is owned, and to a great extent, controlled by the creator. So by that definition, Bone is an independent work. I had a problem with the premise of the panel; that the Indie scene is in decline. When you consider all the films and television shows based on indie comics, or the meteoric rise of the graphic novel – a misunderstood form of comics that was transformed by independent cartoonists and publishers over the last two decades, the indie scene is one of the dominate forces in comics. The upward trajectory of indie work like The Walking Dead, Habibi, and Hark! A Vagrant, in critical as well as commercial terms is so commonplace these days, that it is no longer remarkable… but that doesn’t make the scene any less vibrant.
Maybe the best way to put it is that the independent scene has evolved.
You believe a lot in using Bone and other graphic novels, for educational purposes. In which way can Bone be educational?
Well, I should clarify that I don’t particularly believe in using Bone for educational purposes. That’s a phenomenon that came about from the teachers and librarians themselves who found the books popular and helpful in getting boys and some reluctant readers to read books. You’d have to ask them why that is.
In 2010 Bone was unfairly accused of being not educational, at the point that a parent from Minnesota requested that it could be taken down the library of his son’s elementary school. This made you really sad, and you felt the need to personally intervene. Was everything solved in a nice way then?
What bothered me the most was a sneaking feeling I had that the people involved had an agenda and were trying to score some points with my books. The accusations being made – that the book contained sexual situations that were inappropriate for children were so bogus that it would have been funny if it didn’t actually involve the deadly serious threat of book banning. At first, I planned to ignore the whole thing because it was ridiculous, but as the story began to grow, and the local newspapers and news shows started giving the challengers a lot of publicity, I felt I needed to step in and expose the charges against my book as the joke they were.
The story had a happy ending though, when the school board voted 10 to 1 against banning Bone.
“Bone: Quest for the Spark”, consist of three novels written by Thomas E. Sniegoski with your illustrations – Can it be considered as Bone’s sequel?
On one level, yes, they could be thought of as a sequel since we revisit the Valley several years after the events in Bone, and Thorn is now the Queen of the land. However, while the books do feature a new group of Bone characters, the original Bone cousins Fone, Phoney, and Smiley Bone do not appear. That, and the fact that it isn’t a comic, but an illustrated prose book, means that it isn’t quite a true sequel.
And what about Bone: Tall Tales which will be purposed to Italian people soon from Bao?
Oh, that’s a fun book! Same kind of thing… Tall Tales is less of a sequel or prequel, than an excuse to draw Bone stories! It does have comics featuring all the Bone cousins as well as a longish tall-tale in the Pecos Bill tradition about frontier hero Big Johnson Bone. That book was half written by me, and half by Tom Sniegoski, It was a good project. Having a story meeting with Tom would always involve a lot of loud laughter!
More than ten years ago, there has been a first attempt to make an animation movie out of Bone, which eventually didn’t happen. How is it going, on the other hand, the Warner Bros transposition?
Much better. Time ago I read a script from the director, PJ Hogan, that both Vijaya and I really liked. Keep your fingers crossed!
Let’s leave Bone for a moment and let’s speak about another work of yours. You have also worked for majors like DC Comics, for which you have written and drawn Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, where you brought Captain Marvel back to the origins – recalling that “sense of wonder” that superheroes comics had when you were a child. Are you planning to do, or would you like to realize other projects connected to the characters of our childhood?
No. My interest in working on superheroes is relatively small. The SHAZAM project cropped up at just the right time: in between Bone and Rasl, and it was the right character… a mixture of golden age innocence, damaged kids, magic words, and talking animals. I enjoyed working on the book, but what I really like to do is draw my own characters.
Let’s speak about Rasl, a work which we haven’t been able to read yet here in Italy. From fantasy, to superheroes, to the purest and darkest science fiction, there seems to be a huge gap. Is it really like that? What actually links Rasl to Bone, besides their author?
Ha! There is a bit of a leap between them, isn’t there? Well, one of the common threads that underlie all my comics is the notion that there is more to our world than we can see, and about which we know very little. In Bone, there was the mystical realm of the Dreaming, and in Shazam it is the Rock of Eternity. In Rasl it is physics: String Theory and parallel universes.
Rasl has just reached his end with 15th number. I think you already knew how to end the story of the extra dimensional thief, right?
Yes, as with Bone, I wrote the ending before I ever dipped my brush in the inkwell. I dedicated two years of research into the history of scientific unified field theories, then another two years digging up fringe science and conspiracy theories such as the Philadelphia Experiment. This story has been very exciting to work on. Unlike with Bone, where comedy and fantasy were second nature to me, I was not an aficionado of noir or hardboiled writing when I tackled this project, so the discovery of how extreme the pressure can be from one’s own demons has been fascinating. Bone was exciting, but it breathed. Rasl is tightly wound, almost claustrophobic.
Bone, Shazam!, Rasl, and then? Do you already know what are you going to do after finishing Rasl?
I have a plateful of projects that are starting to line up; among them of course will be the one volume edition of Rasl. I have special plans for that.