Jeff Smith’s ‘Bone’ Goes From Comic Book to Gallery Wall

July 21, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
Loading the player...
After launching his first issue in 1991, Jeff Smith's popular comic book series, "Bone," has sold over 4 million copies and is part of a new exhibition at the Wexner Center For the Arts at Ohio State University. Jeffrey Brown profiles Smith's work and influences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised to see comics, your comics, any comics, on the walls of a museum?

JEFF SMITH, Cartoonist: Well, yes, of course. I mean, I grew up when you had to hide your comics inside your math book, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Cartoonist Jeff Smith, now 48, is no longer hiding anything. An exhibition featuring original drawings from his hugely successful “Bone” comics is now on display at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University in Columbus.

“Bone” is epic fantasy featuring three comically goofy cousins, Fone, Phoney, Smiley, who get lost in a strange world, complete with dragons, scary rat creatures, and a mysterious young woman named Thorn with a hidden past as a princess.

The series has attracted an adult audience, some 400 people here for a book signing. And that’s who Smith says he originally had in mind. But, in recent years, he’s also gained a substantial following among young readers. Sometimes, the appeal is all in the family. Professional critics have described “Bone” as a cross between Bugs Bunny and “Lord of the Rings.” And that’s just fine with Smith.

JEFF SMITH: What I wanted to do was take, like, you know, very traditional Americana cartoon characters like, you know, a Donald Duck or a Bugs Bunny, and stick them into like, a larger framework, instead of just the usual short, you know, comic book adventure that we all think of.

The start of success

JEFF SMITH: I'm actually part of a wave of cartoonists that really thought more could be done with comics, that the medium could actually handle, you know, real literary structure.

Smith put out the first issue on his own in 1991. It was part of an underground comic scene picking up readers by word of mouth. And, soon, it began to take off.

JEFF SMITH: It was moving fast. And I was starting to screw it up, because I was not only drawing the comic, but, at first, I was actually filling the orders and, you know, getting invoice -- doing the invoicing and everything. And I was actually putting boxes on a UPS truck. And I was falling behind. But I said, come on, honey, quit that Silicon Valley job. And let's go publish comics out of the garage.

Because, if you look real close, it does look like...

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith's wife, Vijaya, became his business partner. And the two left the West Coast and moved back to Columbus, where they had attended Ohio State.

In 2004, the series complete, they published the entire tale in a 1,300-plus-page volume. Then Scholastic, publisher of "Harry Potter," began a re-release of the series in colorized versions, in many languages. And sales have grown to almost four million and counting. It's all part of the wave of popularity of long-form comics marketed as graphic novels, and increasingly taking over shelf space at book stores.

Smith defied the odds

Lucy Shelton Caswell has known Jeff Smith since he was drawing cartoons for "The Lantern," Ohio State's student daily.

LUCY SHELTON CASWELL, Professor and Curator, Ohio State Cartoon Research Library: At the time they first started publishing "Bone," people in the comics industry thought they were a little bit loony. And...

JEFFREY BROWN: They thought they were loony because of the way they were doing it?

LUCY SHELTON CASWELL: Because of the way they were doing it. Nobody would want to buy black and white comics. Certainly, the market for fantasy comics wasn't well developed at that point.

Who wanted to read a story about funny-looking little doughy creatures named the Bone cousins? So, the fact that Jeff went on to write this epic and publish it the way he wanted it, not the way some big corporation wanted it, is truly, truly amazing. And this is worth celebrating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Examples of Smith's student work are on display now at Ohio State's Cartoon Research Library, which Caswell heads. One of the nation's leading repositories of cartoon books and art, this is clearly a place that takes comics seriously.

LUCY SHELTON CASWELL: Why not? It's a major art form. It's consumed by millions of people. It's a multimillion-dollar industry. It tells stories that are worth knowing, worth thinking about.

JEFF SMITH: When I'm telling a story...

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Wexner, Smith's work is side by side with original drawings by some of those who most influenced him, artists who, to Smith, prove that this is indeed an art form, Carl Barks, who created "Uncle Scrooge," E.C. Segar's "Popeye," George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," and, of course, Charles Schulz and "Peanuts."

"Pogo" by Walt Kelly holds a special place.

Early influences, future projects

JEFF SMITH: I first came across "Pogo" when I was like 9 years old. And a little girl on the playground brought me a copy of her dad's, like a collection, like a paperback election of "Pogo" comic strips.

JEFFREY BROWN: You remember this? You were 9 years old.

JEFF SMITH: I remember it clearly. I remember the cover. I remember everything. And the drawings were just beautiful beyond belief. I mean look at this like -- OK, look at the -- in the woods behind this fox's head. I mean, just the wood goes on forever.

It was "Pogo" that made me actually go to the library and approach a librarian and say, how is this done?

JEFFREY BROWN: Wexner curator Dave Filipi said Smith added an individual flare for long-form storytelling and a drawing style influenced by training in animation.

DAVID FILIPI, Curator, Wexner Center for the Arts: He is just so skilled at depicting action, character movement, just the nuances in facial expressions and body movement, and giving the impression of just gesture and things like that. That all comes from animation.

These days, Jeff Smith is working on a new series called "RASL," a noirish tale of a time-traveling art thief. And while he is clearly happy for the success and the wonder of seeing his work on a museum's walls, the 9-year-old in him has not completely disappeared.

WOMAN: He does the original drawing large enough...

JEFF SMITH: Of course I want my art form to have this kind of respectability. I worked really hard. I'm one of the people that worked really hard to make it happen. But I hope they don't lose their punkness. I hope they don't.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition of Jeff Smith's work, "Bone and Beyond," will be up through August 3.