TCJ ARCHIVE

The Jeff Smith Interview

THE INDUSTRY AND THE ART FORM

GROTH: You said something in another interview that I thought was interesting as well as a little mystifying. This is from Capital City’s Advance Comics. You said: “It’s just that I don’t take comic books very seriously. I think it’s just kind of the whole industry; it’s fun, it’s a hobby, but I take cartooning very seriously as an art form.

SMITH: OK. What do you find mystifying about that?

GROTH: I don’t understand the distinction you’re making between “comic books” and “cartooning.”

SMITH: It goes back to something I said earlier, about the lines between the mediums being blurry; a comic book, a newspaper comic strip, an animated film. They’re all cartooning. The art form of cartooning to me is extremely important. I study it as much as I can. I constantly strive to learn new things while I’m sitting at the drawing board with a blue pencil in my hand or the paintbrush in my hand. It’s always an exploration of what is a new way to do something? What’s a better way? I take it very seriously. I care a great deal about the art. Then there are all the different mediums you can choose to do it in. In that interview, which was early in my exploration into the comic book industry, where I was just bombarded by the sights and sounds and colors at these shows, and some of the politics that were going on, I guess what I was trying to say is, there’s a difference between the act of creation — when I’m alone at my desk and no one’s around to see it happening — and the hubbub of the industry. There’s no real-time review of a comic. Nobody sits there and watches you draw it and reads it at the same time; it’s a done comic when they get it. Everything in between the covers of my comic is art to me, and I take it very seriously. From the covers out is another thing. Once I’m outside the book, I have to do business, promotion, interviews with The Comics Journal, I have to go on the road. It’s the industry. To say I don’t take it seriously is slightly disingenuous. I was just being lighthearted. I don’t get caught up in all the politics and I don’t worry about it and I don’t collect them myself and I don’t file them away in mylar bags. You see what I mean? What I do focus on as far as the industry is concerned, is the retailers — why aren’t they ordering the book? Why are they ordering the book? I focus on the distributors, and on other people who are self-publishing, and sharing stories about surviving, talking to guys like Martin Wagner and seeing what he’s going through.

GROTH: You do all that in the guise of a businessman, right?

SMITH: In the guise of a businessman?

GROTH: I mean, a lot of artists who are not self-publishers aren’t as deeply mired in that part of the profession — and for good reason.

SMITH: Well, I have to be because I’ve chosen to self-publish. So yes, in order to get the book on the shelf at a store, I can’t just sit there.

GROTH: Right. So you have to take the industry seriously in your capacity as a businessman, but …

SMITH: Right. But as far as, do I collect comic books and keep them in mint condition? No. But do I go back and still look at old comic books that I thought were really well done? Yes, I do.

GROTH: Do you take the industry seriously purely as a cartoonist? Can you do that? Or is that a hopeless proposition?

SMITH: I don’t know. That is a very good question. I don’t think I can answer that… Yes. I think you can in terms of your work, and I do that. What you see in Bone is exactly the work I want to do for good or ill, right? I have never wavered from that and I never will.

GROTH: Speaking of the political dynamics of the marketplace and of the industry, you’ve allied yourself to the self-publishing faction. Does that present you with any personal quandaries, by virtue of the fact that not all self-publishers happen to be great cartoonists? I mean, obviously not all self-publishers are necessarily great cartoonists. And presumably you want to ally yourself with cartoonists you respect and admire. Is there any conflict there for you?

SMITH: I’ve talked with Dave Sim about things like this. We’ve talked about putting together tours or shows or something that we might want to do some day. And Dave has always put the emphasis much more on self-publishing, that self-publishing itself was the point. And I’ve always argued that it was the work that was the point. We were never able to resolve that because what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do stuff with involved a value judgment. The problem comes when you have to say, “No, your stuff is not good.” But it’s clear cut to say, “Your stuff is self-published.” So that was unresolved because that wasn’t good enough for me, to just say it was self-published because anybody can be a publisher, anybody can be a distributor, anybody can be anything. And on the business end of this industry, the trade shows have caught up to other industries — show-stopper booths with waterfalls and banks of TVs! So it was solidarity in the beginning to just get people to notice us. Now, Colleen Doran, she’s someone who can draw, and I love her books. And I’m very proud to be a friend of Martin Wagner’s, his work has moments that really come off the page. When he did Hepcats #11, I thought wow!

GROTH: Is that the one with the black cover?

SMITH: Yes. So, in a way, I’m very pleased with the people. I think Larry Marder’s Beanworld is an unbelievably overlooked piece of work. Nearly perfect. At night I have this rule: Always read Kray Kat before you go to bed, never read The Comics Journal if you want to be able to sleep at night. [Laughter.] I mean in order to reach some state of peace, because Krazy Kat is not boring. With me so far?

GROTH: Uh-huh. I don’t know if I like this policy, Jeff, but OK.

SMITH: [Laughs.] Never read The Comics Journal before you go to bed. It’ll give you nightmares! Because it makes you think too much — no, that’s not it, because Krazy Kat is just exactly that, it’s very cerebral. Right brain, left brain. And Beanworld is one of the few comics I’ve seen that even comes close to … It doesn’t quite go there, but it comes very close to getting to that state of … I’m not goingto try to name it because it’s going to sound like some mystical bullshit, but it feels peaceful.

GROTH: That kind of anti-Journal state.

SMITH: Right! [Laughter.]

So self-publishing in itself is just not that big of a deal to me. But I will tell you that I think the best book on the market right now is self-published. Rubber Blanket by David Mazzuchelli. I love Roberta Gregory, and she’s not self-published. I think her Bitchy Bitch stuff is hilarious. Donna Barr — her stuff is brilliant. I read that Stinz stuff and I am there. Her world is entirely complete. And she’s not self-published.

GROTH: So there are artists that are not self-published that you like.

SMITH: Absolutely! [Groth laughs.] Self-publishing was just my solution to some of the problems that exist in the market.

SPEAKING OF SELF-PUBLISHERS …

GROTH: Cerebus is one of the earliest books you picked up in a direct sale comic shop and one of your earlier inspirations?

SMITH: Yeah, that and Dark Knight and Love and Rockets.

GROTH: Do you appreciate Cerebus for more than the fact that it was self-published? Do you like the content, the work?

SMITH: What I noticed about it was that it was a three-fingered cartoon character, in a fantasy world, with humans in it. And that’s what I was doing. So here was something in the comic book market that proved that people would buy a mixture of cartoon characters and humans. Because you’ve got to remember that I was being told by the newspaper syndicates that wouldn’t work.

GROTH: So Cerebus served as an exemplar of a successful strip in that mode.

SMITH: Yeah. And I’d have to say that it is that. I don’t think I would be here if Dave hadn’t done it and succeeded and stuck with it. Because what would I know about it? I wouldn’t have thought, “Oh gosh, I can self-publish this and get away with it.”

GROTH: Of course the tone of Cerebus is so completely different from Bone.

SMITH: Well, I didn’t know that until recently. In fact, I was afraid to read it because I was worried that we might be telling the same story. But of course we are not. And actually that goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that feel-good thing or something. It’s like comedy and tragedy, in the Greek sense. Tragedies scorn happy endings as unrealistic. Which is true. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that we’re just going to die and what’s the point, anyway? Comedy is, of course, not Laurel and Hardy, it’s the concept that what we do transcends the fact that we’re going to die. There’s more to it, and let’s have a good time while we’re here. And from what I know of Dave’s work it’s pretty much tragedy while mine is comedy.

GROTH: So had you not read much of Cerebus?

SMITH: To this day I have not read much of it.

GROTH: But you read issue #186.

SMITH: Yes I did.

GROTH: Then let me ask you this. Obviously you’re allied with Dave as a self-publisher and you appear with him at trade shows and his book was a source of inspiration for you initially. That last incredibly defamatory tract about women … how do you feel being allied to him in light of that? That’s got to be a little troubling.

SMITH: I have to say first of all that I’m aware that you and Dave have gone head-to-head, so I’m going to consider my answer.

GROTH: Well, we’re buds. [Laughter.] I love Dave.

Bone #6 (November 1992)

SMITH: Yeah — but I need to consider my answer in the context of the pages of the Journal. I’ll just say that Dave knows how I feel about his theories on women. I think they’re complete bullshit. Beyond that, I’m not the kind of guy that likes to talk about … I’ll just leave it at that.

GROTH: OK, assuming that Dave knows how you feel and Dave knows that you disagree with his thesis that women are intrinsically inferior to men, do you have qualms about allying yourself with someone who holds such vehemently misogynistic views? Why are you unwilling to talk about Dave’s position on women insofar as you’ve allied yourself with him in a business context?

SMITH: Because you can’t argue it. That’s why. This tract that he’s written, there’s no point in arguing it publicly. You can attack each argument logically, but you can’t win. It’s a hermetically sealed argument, much like the Roman-Catholic Church’s arguments for why they believe what they believe. There’s always an answer. And if you disagree with the argument, then you are ineffectual because you’ve already succumbed to the forces of evil. You can’t discuss it. That’s why I just don’t want to talk about it — other than to say that it’s bullshit.

GROTH: Let me just make one thing clear: do you accept that Dave’s argument was that women are intrinsically inferior?

SMITH: That’s how I read it.

GROTH: Was that disheartening to you in any way, if you didn’t know that previously, which I assume you didn’t?

SMITH: I’m just not the kind of person to want to talk about a cartoonist in print. I just can’t go there.

GROTH: OK. Since I know you care deeply about the art form — not just about your art, but the art form in general — I am compelled to ask you the vexing question of, you are pro Image, correct?

SMITH: Yes, I’ll go with that.

GROTH: OK. Then can you explain for me —

SMITH: This is a rough interview, Gary! [Laughs.]

GROTH: Rougher even than I planned! Why are you in favor of the production of more cretinous, illiterate drivel?

SMITH: I entered the market in July of 1991. Marvel was coming out with the new Spider-Man #1 by Todd McFarlane the same month. Bone got buried. Everything got buried. What followed was an incredible blitzkrieg of gimmicks: the multiple covers, etc., and I became quickly aware that in the industry there was this thing called the Marvel Zombie. That’s probably been going on forever. These are people who are brand loyal and they will only buy Marvel comics. And the rest of us are just stuck. I would have been damn grateful to get my circulation up to 5,000 or maybe 10,000, because I didn’t see that there was much you could do about that. Then the six or seven top draw creators at Marvel walked out in the middle of this blitzkrieg to form Image and everybody thought they were going to fall on their asses — me included. I’ve read that you’ve said it wasn’t that big of a risk, but in some ways it was.

GROTH: Yes, I’m not sure I understand that argument. They were immensely popular and immensely wealthy.

SMITH: But that’s a financial argument.

GROTH: But I thought you said they were taking a risk by which I assume you mean a financial risk, which is also a financial argument.

SMITH: No. To me the risk was a career risk. I didn’t think they’d ever be allowed to work in comics again. Not the way they understood it.

GROTH: Doesn’t that boil down to economics? What is a career if not an economic factor?

SMITH: I think it’s a lot more than that. They would have been doing comics, but they would have fallen so far, Falling is bad.

GROTH: They would have fallen down to the level of Cerebus? That would have been a real shame. [Laughs.]

SMITH: Yeah, they would have fallen down to the level of Bone or any of the Fantagraphics books. That would have been a big fall for them.

GROTH: Well, why should you care about that?

SMITH: I don’t care about that.

GROTH: Good.

SMITH: I’m just explaining what happened. I don’t care about that at all. What I cared about is that we all thought they were going to take this fall because everybody could have just let them fall: the readers would continue to buy Marvel and let them fall. But the readers didn’t. The readers went with them. Now this is just my opinion, and this is how I consider the events that took place. To me, it looked like the Marvel Zombie wall was broken. That was it. When I was scoping out the market, no one was going to read my book except for the same few people who were reading Hate, Cerebus … There are a few people reading the good books, and that’s it, because everybody else reads Marvel. Well, all of a sudden, for the first time in probably a long time, it was OK for the general reading public to walk through the door of a comics store and buy something that was not a Marvel comic. They were buying an Image comic. Now, you may not see much difference, or care. But to me, there was a big hole in the wall and I went running through it. And I liked that. So for me, what Image produced in terms of comics was really secondary. What they produced to me was a breaking of the brand loyalty that existed in such enveloping terms. There was no way to break that, and they broke it.

What happens to them now? That begins to splinter off into other arguments about creators’ rights and whether they’ve just created little miniature Marvel factories. But for me, that was it. Then they did me a further favor by not putting out any books for a while, and everybody’s looking around thinking, “Well, I think I could read something, and it doesn’t have to be a Marvel book,” and Bone was sitting there, because I had run through the hole and was waving it around like an idiot: “Somebody try this!”

GROTH: I understand your argument, but I have to say that it’s fundamentally specious because I don’t think that Image had anything to do with Bone’s success whatsoever. I don’t think that people started buying Love and Rockets because Image broke the Marvel stranglehold because I don’t think those people were open to buying it anyway. I think the stranglehold they broke was filled with more crap that looked exactly like Marvel — to wit, Valiant, Topps, Defiant …

SMITH: That was all an unfortunate by-product. But it’s not their fault; they didn’t ask Valiant to come up and set up shop.

GROTH: But if you’re saying that their value lied in blowing the Marvel stranglehold, I think you have to accept the consequences of that which was all of these opportunists coming in to fill that vacuum. And if you’re going to give Image any credit for helping Bone, you also have to give them the blame for opening the market to all the crap from Defiant and Topps and the numerous other companies whose names I can’t remember off the top of my head — mercifully. I think you have to accept that as a consequence also.

SMITH: And probably it was.

GROTH: I mean, it’s hard to believe that people stopped buying X-Men and bought Bone.

SMITH: But the numbers I’m getting and the letters I’m getting do indicate that I’m getting the readership I wouldn’t have gotten before, and I think you can trace it back to —

GROTH: Didn’t you tell me that Bone took off substantially after Image formed, with issue #10, when it started doubling the sales? This is impossible to prove, but common sense seems to indicate that it’s not so much readers going from X-Men to Bone, as it is your own promotional efforts to bully retailers into stocking it, and once they took it, they sold it, and that there is a market for both children and adults for a comic as well done as Bone.

SMITH: Well, I don’t know about “bullying” retailers …

GROTH: I meant that more humorously than anything else. I admire whatever bullying you did to retailers. I wish I could do it! [Laughs.]

SMITH: It just involved a gun.

GROTH: [Laughs.] But I just feel it had more to do with your efforts — giving away free copies, pushing it at the distributor meetings, and the intrinsic appeal of the book.

SMITH: I’m flattered; and I assume, being realistic, that the book did a lot of the work. It obviously did, because I didn’t have money for advertising and it did do a lot of word-of-mouth work on its own. But still, there are a hell of a lot of books — better books than Bone — that lay fallow. And part of it is timing. There was a moment in time, to me, where a rift opened up, and the buying public, the retailers, and the distributors didn’t quite know what was going on, and in that moment in time, I was there. Part of it was I was the anti-gimmick. It wasn’t necessarily because I didn’t want to do a gimmick — but I just couldn’t, even if I had wanted to. So there I was with no gimmick. And people were starting to feel guilty about all this gimmickry and speculating and some of the greed that was in there, and Bone was an example of a book that wasn’t a gimmick, so it was pushed.

GROTH: I think that’s absolutely true. Of course you have to thank Marvel for that, for creating all those gimmicks in the first place that you benefited from.

SMITH: [Laughs.] Yeah, right.

THE HIGHEST PEAK

GROTH: Going back to artists who may have influenced you, I wanted to ask you if you are a big fan of Preston Sturges, the film director?

SMITH: Not really.

GROTH: It dawned on me that Fone Bone is very much like one of Sturges’ stock characters, the idealistic romantic guy who’s always getting rejected.

SMITH: That’s a stock character.

GROTH: Do you worry that these stock characters won’t be filled out, that they’ll remain stereotypes rather than archetypes?

SMITH: I feel comfortable, and you can make your judgment as you see fit, but I feel comfortable that they have already gone beyond the stereotypes that they began as. Except maybe Phoney. He remains fairly two-dimensional, and that’s on purpose. But Fone Bone, he is not two-dimensional. He can be embarrassed, he can get pissed off, he can be awestruck, he can be indignant. He is capable of a consistent range of emotions and reactions. I feel very good that Fone Bone is a very full, three-dimensional character. Smiley Bone is blossoming in front of our eyes, and Phoney Bone’s transformation into a more three-dimensional character is actually the point of the story.

Bone #13 (March 1994)

GROTH: The relationship between Fone Bone and Thorn, the unrequited love schtick —

SMITH: It’s classic, I tell ya!

GROTH; Right, classic! [Laughter.] I assume you’re aware that that can grow stale after a while and that it has to develop or change …

SMITH: It will change. The kind of love I am talking about is the kind of love that fills your world when you’re 15 years old and you’ve never actually seen a woman naked, but it’s all you can think about, it’s all you want to accomplish in your life. And everything that girls do in high school is amplified because your hormones are in high gear. The turn of their head, their clothes, their eyes, every movement of their fingers, and they’re mysterious and horrible at the same time in the failure that they represent. And that’s the wonderful moment that Fone Bone is in with Thorn, but I can’t show it go any further than that because it would be some kind of inter-species thing! [Laughter.]

GROTH: It would turn into an Eros comic.

SMITH: Yes. Well … do you have Eros comics like that?

GROTH: Well, if we don’t, we should! How directly are you going to be dealing with sexuality in the series?

SMITH: Sexuality in Bone exists metaphorically. But I think its presence is tangible. Their whole relationship is based on tension and desire, the give and take, the trust and the compromise of the ultimate annihilation of the ego: the coming together of the two to be one … the joining of the pair of opposites. The relationship of Fone Bone and Thorn is the centerpiece of Bone. It’s the most important part of Bone, and it’s probably my favorite part.

GROTH: Because sexuality is so central to human beings.

SMITH: It’s the highest peak. There’s nothing above it.

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