GROTH: When you discovered comic shops and comic books, what were the comics that made the most immediate impression on you?
SMITH: The Tick, and Cerebus, which was also black and white with color covers. I could see it had a little cartoon guy in a fantasy world peopled with humans which was very similar to what I was doing with Thorn, and people were already supporting it. In comic strips there wasn’t anything even remotely like what I was doing. So at least I could see that here in comic books I’d have a shot at it. Cerebus looked achievable to me. It was self-published and not superheroes.
GROTH: Jeff, you keep referring to the strip as Thorn. Was the title Thorn before it was Bone?
SMITH: Yeah. The only reason I switched it over was because —
GROTH: There were more Bones than Thorns?
SMITH: The Bones are the main characters. I called it Thorn originally because Thorn, the young woman, was Fone Bone’s ideal love, almost like his driving force.
GROTH: Was it called Thorn in the Lantern version?
SMITH: That’s where it was called Thorn, and that was how I shopped it around.
GROTH: So besides Cerebus and Tick, what other books impressed you?
SMITH: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. That was phenomenal to me. What I saw in that was the panel-to-panel transitions. I don’t know Frank’s earlier work or what else was contemporary with it, but what flew out at me was the lack of narration panels.
GROTH: Lack of exposition?
SMITH: Lack of exposition. He would just cut to a new scene, like in a movie, and he didn’t feel the need to explain with a little box telling you where the jump was made to. I don’t know who else was doing stuff like that. I know that’s the way a lot of comic strips are handled. But still, this was new. Different. That really excited me. All sorts of things that he was doing at the time which have been copied ad nauseam, the way he was getting information across even in the layouts, was totally a new thing to me. It was the first time I had seen you could do visual, cinematic storytelling in comics. You can really manipulate timing. I’d seen that in comic strips, and I now know there are other examples of it before that, but that was the one I saw that really lit a fire under my butt.
GROTH: I guess up to that point you weren’t familiar with Eisner or Kurtzman?
SMITH: Exactly. Beyond Dark Knight, I wasn’t really looking at all the work that everybody else was doing. I was more concerned with the mechanics of the direct market. I had a plateful just trying to figure out how to get a comic book onto the shelves. And that’s a lot to figure out because you have to make a color cover — how do you get the logo on it?
GROTH: [Laughs.] And that was around ’86?
SMITH: No, probably ’88 or ’89.
GROTH: And you were still deeply involved with Character Builders.
SMITH: Very. That was a very full-time job. That was 12 hours a day, plus weekends.
GROTH: You didn’t publish the first issue of Bone until ’91, so you basically looked into the market and got inspired between ’88 and ’89 and ’91. How long did it take you to actually come to the decision you were going to do a bi-monthly Bone?
SMITH: It was about in ’89. I was 29 years old and I was going to turn 30. I thought, “I never did get to do this Bone stuff. I really want to do it. And I do see there is somewhere I could take a shot at it.” So in about ’89 I began going to the library and looking up anything I could find on comics, self-publishing, running a small business, and there is just so much more information in libraries on how to do something like this than people realize. It’s amazing. I’d find these articles on microfilm. You can type in “comics,” and it will show you all the articles in every magazine. But there’s a gap between the time a magazine comes out and when it gets put onto microfilm, so I’m reading about this incredible boom in the comic book industry — the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and the Batman movie, and everybody and their brother has a comic book out and they’re just selling through the roof. What I didn’t know is that there’d been this incredible crash in the entire black-and-white comics market.
So I’m doing all this research and am really preparing myself, [laughs] I blew it! I hit the stands in July 1991 when not only were retailers incredibly wary of a self-published, black and white book by some unknown name, but Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 came out in the same month. [Laughs.] It was bad timing. But I had promised myself, “I will do six issues, come hell or high water.” And I did. I stuck it out. It was issue #5 where I began to see a glimmer of hope in sales, where it went up just a little bit instead of down like they had been.
GROTH: Shortly thereafter you became the distributors’ darling.
SMITH: I couldn’t get arrested in the distributors’ catalogs for two years. I was buried in the back under miscellaneous with the other stray #ls up until Bone #6 or #7. It seemed like it was fast because everybody noticed Bone all at once. But for two years, nobody noticed it. And for myself, that was a long two years.
GROTH: Is that right? My impression was —
SMITH: That it just appeared, I know. Everybody thought that.
GROTH: I thought the distributors embraced you sooner than that.
SMITH: No. July of ’91. Then at the ’93 Capital show I think that the Advanced Comics Catalog did an interview with me. That was the first time that any of the distributors actually acknowledged me. That’s two years after the first issue came out.
GROTH: So that must have been around issue #10?
SMITH: No, because I wasn’t doing very well with my schedule. It was probably around #7 or #8. #8 is when most people got on board with it.
GROTH: Well, of course, even that’s a miracle.
SMITH: Oh yeah! I was getting some letters from some professionals, and that was thrilling. I clung to that. Don Thompson did a full page review of Bone late in 1992 which was outstanding. I couldn’t have hoped for something that remarkable. To me it was a big deal. That was really the first time I saw my name in print, outside my own comic book. But even that was a year and a half after the first issue.
GROTH: I think we ran something in the “Hit List.”
SMITH: You did and it was relatively early on. But the early notices were almost too late. I remember getting the first orders for Bone #4 and they were terrible. They were not going to cover the print run. They were around 1,000.
GROTH: That must have been depressing.
SMITH: Yeah — I began analyzing the market. Where do my dollars come from? Who pays for the books? Who is my end customer? And that is, of course, the retailer, the guy who owns the store. Not the reader who comes into the store and buys it off the shelf. To me this was a revelation. I know a lot of people who work in comics now for whom this would be news. The fan is not the customer. They are in the sense that you have to give them a story that will make them come in and buy it. But it’s a direct market where the comic books are sold non-returnable. Once I identified the retailer as the guy who’s got his or her checkbook open every month as they go shopping through the catalog, I started wondering how I could get through to this guy and get him to give me a chance. How can I get him to just try the comic? Because that was my big problem. That’s when I saw that Diamond and Capital, the two biggest distributors, put on retailer/publisher seminar expos, where a publisher can buy a booth — hell, I’m a publisher. I got a booth. I took every bit of money I had and printed up more Bone #1s and I showed up at this thing. I brought enough comic books to give the first three issues of Bone to every single retailer. So with airfare, paying for the booth, printing up the extra comics, hotel rooms, it was a big gamble for me. This is it. Because the book was over, it had no numbers, nobody was buying it. So what the hell? And it was at this expo that I met Don Thompson. It’s also where Larry Marder introduced me to Dave Sim, who was sharing a booth with Martin Wagner. Dave ran Bone as a backup feature in Cerebus. Things finally started to click.
So the. “overnight success” thing, yes, in terms of my having drawn only 15 comic books, is pretty miraculous, but when you think of all the things I’ve tried since 1982 to get the Bone characters into print, it doesn’t seem so overnight.
GROTH: Especially because you lived it every day.
SMITH: Yes! [Laughs.]
GROTH: That tends to slow it down. So when you gave away those copies at Diamond and Capital, is that what pretty much jump-started it?
SMITH: I’d have to say that was a big jump-start. I’ve learned since that there are certain store owners who are more willing to give different books a chance. There are a lot of store owners who are in this just for the money, so what they’re interested in are for-sure sellers. There are other owners who are interested in comics, and in the growth of the art form. There are probably about 100 of them. They’re interested and they’re active, so they’re at these functions. You get to actually meet them and talk with them, find out how their world works, what it’s like to buy 10 copies of a comic book and not be able to return them and just watch them sit there. You find out who these 100 people are, and you tap into that group. They talk to each other. If one retailer likes a book, he or she will spread the word. It definitely jump-started it.
GROTH: What were the orders on #5, #6, #7 like?
SMITH: Very small increments.
GROTH: But it did start going up.
SMITH: I started climbing slowly. I remember thinking, “Please let me get up to 3,000.”
GROTH: [Laughs.] I know what you mean …
SMITH: Very slow movement. At #8 I was around 3,500.
GROTH: Were you working on Bone full-time at this time?
SMITH: There was a point where Bone went from being something on the side at night, to being my full-time job. It wasn’t a very clean decision, as I recall, because it wasn’t really supporting me. But at some point, it must have been around Bone #4,1 wasn’t paying as much attention to my duties at Character Builders, and I was falling in love with doing a comic book. It was almost like an affair. It was a crush. I couldn’t believe how cool this was. I wasn’t making any money at it, I mean, I was going right down the shitter financially, but it was so much more fun than I pictured it would be. I sold my share of Character Builders and I had enough money then to live on for a year. My wife had a great job, so we were OK. I had a year where, if it didn’t work, I tried it. I could always get a job in animation, so I had a backup plan, had a little nest egg, my wife was working, so I had a year to take a shot at it.
GROTH: So if in a year you didn’t make it, you were just going to go get a job.
GROTH: When was the big leap? It must have taken off pretty dramatically at some point. Do you remember what issue that was?
SMITH: Hmm. It was in the summer of ’93, where Diamond noticed it and did an interview in their catalog. That started jumping things. Then that same summer, the first issue of Hero Illustrated came out and they listed it in their Price Guide with a picture. That was the first time it had ever been in a Price Guide. Before that there had been absolutely no recognition of its existence in the statistics end of things. That actually created a buzz that I noticed. I kept going to these shows and kept meeting other creators. I met Charles Vess and Mark Askwith. I met Roger Stem and Bill Loebs. Every one was really friendly and people would keep introducing me to someone else. I remember at Pro/Con ‘93 I met Neil Gaiman, and Jim Valentine, who offered to promote Bone at his own expense on the back of an issue of Shadowhawk.
So, there actually wasn’t a real dramatic leap. It was a series of individual moments, like little hallmarks, and the whole thing began to swell faster and faster.
GROTH: But you’re selling how many copies now?
SMITH: OK. Then it began to take bigger jumps. That happened around fall or Christmas of ’93, when I had a series of projects that all came out at the same time, just little promotional things but they caught some attention. Pretty much by word of mouth it began to grow, and there was a moment where it began to double every issue. That was around issue #10. It went from 3,500 to 5,000, to 8,000, then boom to 15,000, 30,000, 40,000, and then it started to slow down again. It’s holding now at around 60,000.
GROTH: That’s quite phenomenal. That’s what Elfquest was doing 10 years or so ago and that’s what the Ninja Turtles were doing, or maybe more than that.
SMITH: I feel very, very fortunate about it, in this market as I understand it.
GROTH: You’re probably the highest selling black-and-white book.
SMITH: When Frank Miller comes back with his next Sin City series, he’ll probably eclipse it. But right now …