Monday, February 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jeff Smith

For the past few years, Jeff Smith has been riding high on the success of “Bone,” his epic, highly acclaimed saga that’s perhaps best described as a cross between “Lord of the Rings” and “Pogo Possum.”

Now that the series has been finished and collected (most recently by Scholastic in nifty full-color volumes), the question is: what next?

Enter DC comics, who asked Smith a few years ago if he’d be interested in reviving one of their oldest superhero franchises: Captain Marvel.

The result is the four-part “Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil,” the first issue of which went on sale this week.

Smith talked to me from his home in Ohio about the new series and the challenges it provided:

Q: As someone who’s had what has to be the most popular independant, creator-owned book in the history of comics ...

A: (laughs) I’m going to like this interview.

Q: ... what would make you want to, for next project, take on a corporate-owned character, never mind a superhero?

A: You know, that’s a very fair question. A couple of things. First of all, after working for 12 years on “Bone” and really putting my all into it, as I was getting near the end of this opus — I mean it’s a single, 1,300-page story — I have to confess to a little panic setting in as to what I was going to do after that. I though whatever it is it needs to be different, because it’s going to get compared to “Bone.” You couldn’t take more of a left turn than doing Captain Marvel.

The other thing was it just hit me right. When DC comics called me sometime in 2002 as I was getting near the end of “Bone” and suggested I take a run on Captain Marvel, it just seemed to fit. There’s something about that character that’s a lot more likeable, more ... whimsical is a loaded word, but you know what I mean. There’s something about this character that seemed to fit with my sensibilities and I took it.

Q: Let’s explore that a little more. What is it about Captain Marvel that you think is so appealing?

A: Captain Marvel is one of the few characters in superheroes nowadays, in modern comic books that hasn’t gone through this process of being recreated in some kind of realistic, grim and gritty way. You’ve seen the movies, they’re just a little bit more realistic, Batman’s real, he looks like a guy in a bat-suit.

That doesn’t really appeal to me though. I think superheroes should have a slightly more direct emotional impact and what I mean by that is worry less about if Superman actually would look out of place standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi and just have him fly in and save the day. Does that make sense?

And Captain Marvel, since he hasn’t been changed, is one of the few characters from the hey day of comics, the golden age, when they were a mass medium. When Superman and Captain Marvel first appeared, they swept the nation and every kid knew who Captain Marvel was. There’s a generation, your parents, my parents, who knew who that was. And even we still know the word. We still see “Shazam” in hip-hop videos and movies and everywhere.

In fact just the other day I was watching the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night,” on DVD and Paul McCartney turns to the camera and says “Shazam!” It’s everywhere. So there’s something about that character that’s actually connected to the beginnings of comics, and I was interested in that.

Q: It is a character whose core hasn’t been messed with too much, but it’s been a character that a lot of people have tried to mess with and failed a lot. There’s been a number of attempts to graft him into other books. How do you update the character for modern times? What did you decide to keep and what did you alter to make it your own?

A: Modern attempts to update Captain Marvel have basically been attempts to pull him into the DC comic book universe alongside Green Lantern and Batman and Superman. And I think that doesn’t really work cause Captain Marvel is just a lot gentler. There’s talking tigers and things. And talking tigers just can’t talk to Batman.

Q: I don’t know. I’d like to see that.

A: Oh, there’s talking tigers in my comic, but I don’t have Batman. That was one perameter I put around the project right then. It’s self-contained. Captain Marvel, and that’s all that’s in the story. There’s no Flash or anybody else.

What I did was bought some old Captain Marvel comics from the golden age, and I watched the old Republic movie serials, the old Saturday afternoon movie serials, and the last thing I did was go buy a DVD of all the old Fleisher Brothers Superman cartoons from the ’40s. Have you ever seen those?

Q: I know of them.

A: They’re gorgeous. I just started to look back at some of that early material and try to figure out what it was that was so appealing about superheroes, or at least figure out what was appealing to me. It’s just like going back in rock and roll or something. Like listening to Little Richard. The further back you get, and you get to the more core material, the guys who originated it, you start to get into the DNA there and it starts to break apart and you can really get right back to where it’s just a lot cleaner I think. Like I said, Captain Marvel hasn’t really
successfully been modified so he’s still a pretty clean conduit straight back to the source.

Q: OK, but what did you look at and say, well I can’t use that, I have to alter that, or that’s not going to work with today’s audience?

A: I did try to pare it down and simplify it like take the idea of the most helpless young boy, an orphan, Billy Batson, he has a magic word, he turns into Captain Marvel, and I thought, what kind of a story could we tell? He has a sister named Mary that he doesn’t know about until the
story starts and then he has to search for her.

I thought well we’ll have Billy, who’s Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and of course you have to have the wizard who gives him the magic word. And I just threw in Talky Tawny cause I can’t resist talking tigers.

But there’s so much more of the Marvel family that I just thought well, that could be brought in later if somebody wants to. It gets too complicated if you try to tie everything in.

Q: You’re adapting an original story from the classic series, the "Mr. Mind" story right?

A: Right. “The Monster Society of Evil” is one of those legendary stories that everybody talks about when they get together at comic book conventions. It’s a serial that was written and printed over 2 and half years, from 1942 to 1945. It was really long and was in some ways the very first long form comic. It’s written about in encyclopedias about comics. Steranko’s history of comics. It’s just one of those things I was interested in. And it’s pretty goofy by today’s standards. Really really silly stuff. So I tried to keep it fun but still make it so that a modern audience could have fun with it and not roll their eyes too much.

Q: I was just talking a week or two ago to Darwyn Cooke, who’s bringing back the Spirit.

A: I’ve seen just a few things of that, but it looks pretty sharp.

Q: It seems you both are working on — you both have different styles and storytelling methods — but you’re both taking established and well-known characters and updating them but also harking back to the original material.

A: I wasn’t afraid to change things. I was given a pretty clear directive from DC to go ahead and make changes that needed to be made. They had final say of course.

But ultimately the main thing you don’t want to change is Shazam, a boy turns into the most invincible being on the planet.

Q: Usually in the Captain Marvel mythos they’re the same person. You portray them as two different people or I guess two facets of the same personality, which I thought was really interesting. What made you decide to do that?

A: That’s how I read the original. It seemed to me it’s almost like Aladdin and his magic lamp. When Billy Batson says Shazam he’s rubbing his lamp and the genie comes out to protect him. And Captain Marvel is the genie.

And when I read the old comics, there were instances where Captain Marvel and Billy referred to each other as separate people. They were one, but they were two entities. It was never explained. And so you won’t really see it explained in my book either. It’s just there.

Q: It really puts it in the area of wish fulfillment, which I guess is what a lot of what Captain Mavel’s about.

A: Yeah. I see a lot of Captain Marvel being played off like Tom Hanks in “Big,” he says "Shazam," he gets the body of Superman but he has the brain of a 12-year-old. And that just kind of misses the point to me. It’s wish fullfillment. You get to be Superman.

Q: I was amazed at how willing you were to drop out the dialogue and just let the visuals tell the story. It reminded me of just how unnecessarily wordy 99 percent of superhero comics are these days.

A: I’ve noticed a lot of descriptions of the pages that have been seen describe it as being “open” there’s a lot of room for the characters. I think they’re talking about the same things you are. I can only imagine that comes out of the fact that I write and draw. All those comic books are part of a studio system where one person writes and scripts and another person draws it and another person inks it and colors it, etc.

I’m doing everything myself, so I don’t write words just to write words. I don’t feel any need to. If he’s running down the hill I don’t have to have him say “I’m running down a hill.” Or have a little box in the corner saying “Meanwhile, Billy ran down a hill.” Whereas understandably if you’re just a writer, you might put words in there to describe to the artist what he’s supposed to draw.

Q: It’s also like you’re not afraid to be quiet, which I think a lot of American comics are.

A: I appreciate that. I love animation. There’s a lot of old newspaper strip cartoons that would use quiet panels. Garry Trudeau, Pogo. Those are my heroes. You gotta have time to think. And sometimes there’s a balance between how much you want the person to use their brain and which way.

Q: Did you come across any stumbling blocks in doing a book like this?

A: Oh, huge for me cause if you remember my last project, which was “Bone,” it takes place in the woods. It’s sort of like a “Lord of the Rings” that takes place in Southern Ohio. It’s all caves and rocks and trees. All of the sudden I had to draw the lower east side of New York. I had to draw cars and taxi cabs, sewers and straight lines. It was very, very difficult.

Q: Did you have to get a lot of reference material?

A: I made quite a few trips to New York actually. I have a blog where I keep a Shazam production journal. I took my trips and posted my pictures: “This is going to be Billy’s rendezvous point with Talky Tawny.”

Q: Yeah, I didn’t see that but I was reading your blog before I called.

A: Did you see the secret code stuff?

Q: Yeah, I didn't get that. What was that?

A: That was one of the fun things I discovered when I went back and looked at the old comics. The original Monster Society of Evil story was the first comic to use secret decoder rings, so it was full of little messages that you had to use your secret decoder ring to decipher.

It was a really simple code. It was basically the alphabet backwards. A=Z, B=Y. So just for laughs I put a couple blogs up where I wrote a line in the old monster code, just to see what would happen. And within an hour I had two comments back from people who wrote me responses in code!

That was fun. So of course now I’m going to keep going. I’m going to actually put Easter eggs in. You’re going to have to read the code to figure out where the Easter Eggs are. I’ve got little videos of me inkning panels and stuff. It’s going to be fun.

Q: Talking about "Bone" for a minute, I imagine the series is still selling well, that the Scholastic volumes are doing really well.

A: Yeah.

Q: I remember when you started reselling the all-in-one edition alongside the Scholastic edition, there was some talk as to whether the two would compete against each other.

A: Exactly. In fact, part of my agreement with Scholastic was to take all of my self-published black and white versions off of the market. And I had been publishing Bone in different formats — comic books and then in graphic novels and the compete 1,300 page book. We made an agreement we’ll sell this for one year and then we’ll take it off the market. And then the color books can start. And we were just shocked by how well the big one-volume edition did. It was the best selling thing we’ve ever done. And then the color books came out and they were best selllign books. of course, they were published by Scholastic and it was on a scale that I had never even contemplated before as a little, underground comic book artist.

About a year, there were only the color versions available from Scholastic. And they did a really beautiful job. I love them. But there was a little part of me that missed the black and white original version. I noticed that comic book stores weren’t carrying the color scholastic books as much as regular book stores were. So I approached Scholastic last summer and said “I sold a lot of those black and white books. Not as many as you sell. you wouldn’t even notice if I brought them back.” And they said, “You know, go ahead.” They felt historically the one-volume edition had a place, should be there for a reason. So I was very happy and my wife and I brought the one volume back. And it’s been doing gangbusters since last fall.

Q: So once you finish "Shazam" what are you working on next?

A: I have another independant project I’m working on. It’ll be science-fiction. But that’s about as defined as it is right now. Probably next year.

Q: Are we going to revisit "Bone" at any point? Is that story pretty much finished or will we see those characters again?

A: No, it’s done. It’s like Moby Dick or The Lord of the Rings. It’s finished. I’ll try to think of an excuse to draw the Bones again in something short, but I don’t think I’ll do a story. That’s out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006



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