COMIC-CON 2011: SPOTLIGHT ON JEFF SMITH (Friday, Room 5AB, 12:30 p.m.)
It’s been 20 years since Jeff Smith was repeatedly rejected by newspaper syndicates declining his comic, “Bone.” Today that same comic has been serialized in graphic novels published in 28 countries with sales of more than 6 million copies in North America alone.
Now the slapstick tale of the three Bone cousins getting lost in a Black Forest fairy tale is being turned into a screenplay for Warner Bros., and is celebrating its anniversary by throwing a party as part of this weekend’s Comic-Con International. (Smith is also featured on four panels and at multiple signings over the long weekend.) Not bad for a guy who started publishing “Bone” as an underground comic out of his garage in Columbus, Ohio.
“I feel really lucky,” said Smith, who spent 13 years writing and drawing the black-and-white, 1,300-page graphic novel that has won 44 awards and continues to top best book lists.
“Crazy” is how Smith describes the second life “Bone” is now enjoying as a full-color graphic novel series for kids — a series that is prompting the debut of Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone plush toys this weekend. Smith originally penned the story “mostly for adults — a kids’ book that wasn’t necessarily for kids,” he said of a series originally self-published as 55 comic books.
But in 2005, Scholastic’s Graphix imprint responded to a call from school librarians, who saw “Bone” as a kid-friendly, graphic-novel follow-up to Art Spiegelman’s bestselling “Maus.” Divided into nine books and colorized at the behest of Spiegelman, who suggested to Smith that “Bone,” unlike “Maus,” was about life and wouldn’t be finished until it was in color, “Bone” is now among the top 25 graphic novels the American Library Assn. recommends for young readers.
Smith, 51, first came up with the Bone characters when he was about 10 years old, he said. The look of the characters was inspired, in part, by Snoopy from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”—a comic that Smith admired for its realistic channeling of children’s emotions.
The three Bone cousins first appeared in the “Thorn” comic strip Smith penned for the Ohio State University newspaper in the 1980s. Named for the voluptuous, redheaded love interest that eventually became the main protagonist in “Bone,” the comics Smith drew then were simply funny little stories that ended with a cliffhanger, Smith said. They lacked the larger fish-out-of-water plot he later developed from reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” as well as fairy tales, books of mythology and Indian folk stories.
Various film versions of “Bone” have been in the works for almost 10 years, Smith said, but translating the elaborate tale of the Bone cousins being kicked out of their town and landing in a valley they never knew existed “has been a real puzzler,” even though the cartoon portion is already drawn.
Paramount and Nickelodeon were involved in early film attempts. In the last couple of years, Warner Bros. has taken up the charge: Two scripts have already been written and rejected — a third is currently in the works and will most likely yield three separate, computer-animated, 3-D films, Smith said.
“I’m a comic book guy, I’m not a movie guy,” he explained, adding that he’s “actually excited about the movie for the first time in a long time” after having seen a four-minute “Bone” short recently put together by Warner Bros.
“Fone Bone was falling in the water and going through cliffs and canyons. The dragon moved in from off camera in the shadows with smoke around him, all in 3-D. It was pretty mind-blowing,” said Smith, who estimates that the earliest a “Bone” film would be done is two years from now.
Smith’s more recent comic-series-in-progress, the adult, sci-fi, noir title, “Romance at the Speed of Light,” a.k.a. “RASL,” is also being turned into a movie with a different Warner Bros. production studio. “Bone” and “RASL” each were released digitally as a downloadable app last week through Comixology.com.
“If you read ‘Bone’ on the iPad, you’re reading a comic. The reading process is complete. There’s no compromising of what I was trying to communicate to the reader. It’s really good,” said Smith, who likes the accessibility and affordability of digital comics but expresses reservations about the digitization of print material because the business model isn’t as lucrative and the technology could become obsolete.
“I learned to read because of comics,” said Smith, who grew up reading “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes” comics in the Sunday newspaper with his dad.
As for modern kids’ adoration of “Bone,” he said, “I have no idea why that is, other than to say that comics are intuitive. They’re appealing. Comics have a different language to reading. You read left to right, top to bottom just like any normal book, but there’s story information in the drawings, not just the words.
“The readers are suddenly participating in a much different way than they do with abstract words,” he added. “They’re making the comic come alive in the mind of the reader.”
— Susan Carpenter
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