Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jeff Smith

When I did my column on Jeff Smith's new series, RASL, early this month, I opted to do a more feature-y story than the usual Q&A, due to newspaper space restrictions more than anything else. You can read the original article as it appeared here, but I thought for P&P it might be fun to run the whole unedited (except for spelling errors). So here it is.

Q: What was the inspiration for RASL?

A: There were two things driving me to it. One was I’m really interested in science. I love to read Brian Green and Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. All the stuff about unified field theory and string theory. They really believe there are multiple, multiple dimensions, possible quantum pathways. All this really far-out stuff fascinates me. It all sounds like science-fiction, even the real stuff.

So I wanted to do a comic about that. The other thing I was interested in is I wanted to do a comic about a bad guy. With Bone, the main character was a good guy just trying to survive. But his cousin Phoney Bone was this really rotten, greedy character. And he was so much fun to write. I just thought “What would it be like to do a comic about the rotten character?” That was kind of the idea behind doing RASL.

Q: Are there any kind of themes or goals that you’re hoping to explore with the book?

A: I’m also interested in noir, film noir. There’s all sorts of themes of betrayal and the kind of things you find in psycho-thrillers. I’m really interested in that. I wanted a character who was world-weary and has made a lot of mistakes in his past, and the mistakes are catching up to him. Very noirish. It’s kind of a standard thing. But if you play with it and you care about your character, I think it’s going to be fun to explore.

Of course, everything I do, I’m looking for that “secret of the universe” type thing. I want that. And here’s a guy who’s got a machine that let’s him touch the unimaginable, the total theoretical. And so I’m going to get into that too.

Q: You mentioned science fiction and noir, and certainly those are both very well known genres. And certainly with Bone and RASL you work very well exploring certain genres. But do you worry about being hampered within a genre? Or being labeled to a certain extent?

A: I do think about it sometimes but I can’t do anything about it. I just have to write the stories that I want to write and I’m working in genres that turned me on when I was a kid. I mean, that’s what I liked when I was a kid! I loved Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Pogo, and I like science-fiction.

Inside those genres, even as a kid I can see there was metaphors for politics and things that were going on socially in the culture. It’s kind of cliched to point it out but everybody remembers that Star Trek was really about what was happening in America in the '60s. I think that’s a great way to explore themes. So I have no problem with genre. The idea of literary fiction, or someone who’s kind of an outcast who doesn’t get along with anyone at his job, that’s a genre also. Genre just means category. Although I know what you mean ...

Q: Yeah, it’s an unfortunate categorization. I think you’ve been able to tap a rich vein in a lot of ways.

A: I agree. I think people like genres and like stories and if you can tell a story that has good characters, the genre doesn’t matter. There’s bad science-fiction stories and there’s bad straight fiction. But the good ones are the good ones.

Q: How aware are you of the cliches when you’re working with something like RASL, saying something like “Well, people are going to expect this sort of cliche coming up, but I’m going to completely twist it around” or “I’m going with the flow here because that’s a true sci-fi staple and I’m not going to mess with that”? Do you know what I’m talking about?

A: I do know what you’re talking about, and in Bone that especially came into play as I reached the end of this giant 1,300 page story, it was pretty clear that in a big, epic fantasy I had to have a battle. There’s that final battle between good and evil, right? It had to happen. So I was aware that I wanted to try to handle it in a slightly different way which in the case of Bone I decided to go with an old city that was based on Katmandu, eastern palaces and things instead of the more traditional Camelot, Cinderella-type looking things.

The same will be true in Rasl I’m sure. There are certain things in noir and sci-fi. There’s a femme fatale. You have to have one. I definitely will play with expectations.

Q: There’s a pretty big difference between RASL and Sin City and both are considered noir to an extent.

A: Mine’s kind of a more personal — I actually think Sin City is a good example.

Q: I didn’t mean that as a slam against Sin City.

A: I didn’t take it that way.

Q: You mentioned Bone and despite doing Shazam last year, this is going to be seen as the official big follow-up to Bone? Do you feel any pressure since Bone was such a huge success for you? Are you feeling any sophomore slump?

A: It’s totally true and I’m a nervous wreck about it. I’m putting everything I’ve got into it. I putting into it as much as I do Bone.

But I didn’t know Bone was going to be as accepted and successful as it was. I put this out and it’s been out since Wednesday. You can talk to any of my friends, I was a nervous wreck. I was just a nervous wreck. I was so sure everyone would hate it and find things that are wrong with it. I’m not reading the reviews. I read the first two that popped up and they were good. I said, “That’s it! I’m not reading anymore!”

It seems to be selling out. That was a surprise. We got re-orders from our distributors on Friday. So that’s a very good sign. We may be going back to press. I’ve got my fingers crossed, but yeah I’m a nervous wreck.

Q: Why do it as a pamphlet series, especially when the market wisdom is the small press publisher should be focusing on graphic novels?

A: Well you know I did the Shazam book — it came out as a serialized four issues but then it came out as a book. We may have well skipped the four issues, I did it all ahead of time. I worked on it for two years and we put it out and it came out as a collected graphic novel in October.

I just really didn’t enjoy the process. I drew it, I wrote it, I put it out, the people liked it — some people didn’t like it — but I was unable to roll with comments.

There’s something about comic books, there’s something about the community, that allows us to go back and forth between the reader and the artist. You get these letter columns. When I was doing Bone for a decade, after every issue I would get all these letters from people — and it turned into emails about halfway through — you can react to what people think. If people are excited about something you can play into it and deliver it and make them happy or deliberately twist and shock them and that’s fun. I was unable to have any organic feedback from Shazam. I just put it out and there it was. You either like it or you don’t.

So I decided intentionally to go back to the way I did Bone so that I could get feedback and incorporate that reader response into the book. I think it made Bone a better book and I think it will be good for RASL too.

Q: What is your schedule for RASL? How long do you think it will take you to do the entire story?

A: I think it might take me about three years to do a big arc. That will probably be it. But that depends, I may have more ideas and want to keep going. This might be the first Sin City-type arc and then I may do more with the character because the world might be kind of ...

Q: Do you see it as a whole universe here?

A: Yeah. Or multiple.

Q: How do you see this differing in form and content from Bone and how is it similar?

A: It’s similar just because it’s me doing a comic. I draw a certain way and I pace comics a certain way. I think you can pick up a comic and tell it was me doing it just like you can see a movie and know it was Steven Spielberg. There’s a certain flavor, certain kids of shots that I do. Certain kind of drawing. I’ll do a panel with no words as a pause. There’s a signature to what I do.

But flavor-wise, this is going to be nothing like that. This is going to be much more bloody. A little more world weary. As opposed to Bone which is much more filled with wonder.

Q: Are you surprised by how Bone has been adopted by libraries and kids in general? I know it was a very personal project for you.

A: Yeah. Aren’t you?

Q: Um, no. I think ... how can I put this ... You mentioned that sense of wonder and I think that’s something that kids can latch onto very well.

A: I guess I’m not really surprised that kids like it. I think I am surprised to the degree of it and how it’s been just really taken to heart by kids and librarians and schoolteachers. I’ve really been surprised by that.

Q: What do you attribute that to?

A: I don’t know. I’m not kidding you. I really don’t know what it is. I’ve always tried to figure — is it the humor? There’s a Scott McCloud theory that the Bones aren’t anything they’re not a particular face or race or even gender or age so anybody can put themselves into it. But I don’t know.

Q: We talked about being hampered by the success of Bone but in what ways has the success helped you?

A: Well I’ll tell you what. When I decided to do this book RASL? I didn’t have any trouble getting publicity. When I rolled this book out baby, I rolled this book out. (laughs) It’s a double-edged sword for sure. And I love that Bone was successful. If that’s the only thing that I’m going to be remembered for, that’s not going to be a problem for me. It’s not like something I just tossed off. It took me 13 years.

I don’t think anything I do will have to live up to it. And possibly that’s why I wanted to do something that was very much in a different direction. So it wouldn’t have to live up to Bone.

Q: One thing I noticed in reading the first issue is you really take your time to set up place in mood, as in the first issue where you have your protagonist walking through the desert. I’m assuming that comes from your interest in animation but it struck me that it has a lot in common with manga as well.

A: It may. I’ve not read much manga but what I have seen it’s very clear that manga artists are going for the same things I’m going for which is an amount of time goes by in each panel. I think it’s trying to recreate this very cinematic experience.

I do draw on what I believe is all our collective experiences, watching film and TV we’re a very visual educated culture. I can use that. In that same scene where he looks up at the sun and then looks away at the moon, then I can use that as a transition into the next scene where the moon became a pebble which fell into the water and brought about the next scene. Those kind of matching cuts are — we’re very visually literate as I said, we can do that kind of stuff in a comic and I expect the reader to feel that and understand it.

Q: You are one of the original self-publishing stalwarts. When people think of the self-publishing scene there’s you, Terry Moore and Dave Sim. And now all of you are within a month or so releasing a completely new series in pamphlet form. It seems like an odd coincidence. What’s your take on that?

A: I think it’s an odd coincidence too. And all these projects are very well developed and there’s no way any one of us could have pulled something out really quick. I just think there’s something in the air. I don’t know.

Q: Do you feel like someone coming in could do self-publishing a bimonthly or quarterly series and make a go of it?

A: Yeah I do. They’d have to do it in their own way. You can never do the same thing twice. The market’s changed so much. There were 11 distributors when I started. But there weren’t really any self-published things so I had my own little things to try to figure out. I had to make it OK to like a self-published black and white comic book, which was hard in 1991.

On the other hand I didn’t have a lot of competition. Once I did, I stood out. Now there’s a lot of competition but the markets are much more accepting, and we have the Internet, which allows so much. When you start out you have to be willing to start small. My first orders for the first issue of Bone were something like 1,100 so you have to start small and be willing to work your way up.

The big difference I see in the indie comics now from 15 years ago, is the sheer amount of talent. The amount of good cartoonists and good books that are coming out, almost on a monthly basis, is mind-boggling. Cause it took me 10 years to do Bone, it took Art Spiegelman 10 years to do Maus. It takes a long time. But now there’s enough people working that they’re doing these books in three years and there are some beautiful books coming out. Have you seen Tales from the Farm by Jeff Lemire?
Q: Yeah.

A: And of course you mentioned Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. She’s been doing alternative comics for a long time but this was her first shot at an original graphic novel and it’s a doozy.

But that’s what I’m saying. The quality level of this material is fantastic. And we have Barnes and Noble. We have newspapers like yours writing about comics. It’s a whole new golden age. I absolutely think any new cartoonist can do it.

Q: Do you at all of that and think about the hand you hand in developing it?

A: Sometimes. I just went to SPX which was one of the shows I started as a self-publishing tour. I used to go to them all the time. I stopped going for a little while and I just started going this year and I had a blast. There was a whole generation that was 10 when I was doing Bone and they’re 25 now. To them they look at me like I used to look at Frank Miller. I had a blast. I have a really good time when I go to those things.

Q: It’s always exciting to just see the variety of material that’s out there. It does energize you.

A: Like I said, the quality is incredible. It was a much more mixed bag back when I was doing it. You could count the really good people on one hand.

Q: For someone like me, it’s so much harder to keep track of anymore. If you’re trying to be all-inclusive and talk about manga and comic strip reprints and whatnot, you can’t keep track of it all.

A: But can you imagine 15 years ago having that problem?

Q: No, that’s the thing.

A: I just can’t believe it. I think this is a great time.

Q: One last question from my six-year-old daughter. How is Gramma Ben able to run so fast?

A: She eats her spinach. She eats lots of vegetables.

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