At the beginning of his spotlight panel at last weekend's Alternative Press Expo, or APE, in San Francisco, Jeff Smith asked the near-capacity crowd in the room if anyone there had attended the first APE in 1994.
"One guy!" Smith exclaimed, pointing to someone in the back. "Well, I was there. That was a long time ago."
Smith said that, in those days, he and other alternative comics creators would travel around the country – "Heidi McDonald called us 'Drawing Board Warriors'" – to various shows to promote their books. To see what APE has evolved and grown into today, he said, was unimaginable at the time.
"There was always a real diversity of material at APE and SPX and MoCCA, but it's crazy to go out here now, and there's women? Children? I'm very, very happy. I think my ultimate goal was to get chicks in here," Smith joked.
Later, he added how impressed he was with how elaborate some of the material he saw at the show were. "You go out there, and you look around the tables out here, and I was blown away," Smith said." I actually haven't been to APE since 2002, and I just can't believe some of the level of artwork I'm seeing. We were mostly just little underground comics and minicomics done at Kinko's, but there are guys out here who have their own resin toys and stuff. It's quite elaborate and beautiful."
Smith said he was inspired to start creating comics after the "big bang" of 1986, when "Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Maus" were released. He particularly admired the storytelling techniques that Frank Miller used in "The Dark Knight Returns."
"It was the first time I ever saw anybody just switch scenes, and he didn't put a little box in the corner that says, 'Meanwhile, at Commissioner Gordon's Office,'" Smith said. "I mean, up until 1986, you just did that and you didn't even think about it. But Frank realized that we're all very visual, and we all watch television and go to the movies, and when the scene changes, we know. So he realized you didn't have to do that."
The longtime self-publisher of "Bone" and "RASL" was joined by his friend Larry Marder, who moderated the panel. Marder, who has worked both on the creative side of comics with his "Beanworld" series and the business side as executive director of Image Comics and president of McFarlane Toys, among other roles, said that he first met Smith in 1991. "Jeff called me, and I think he'd done two issues of 'Bone.' We had lunch together in Chicago, and we just started dreaming about what self-publishing could be."
Marder said that, at the time, the industry was heavily dominated by monthly comics, which were available only through the direct market. They imagined "a world where there would be collected trade paperbacks and long-form graphic novels," Marder remembered aloud. "We really felt like the sky was the limit. And it is, but we've certainly had a bumpy ride."
Smith then related how comics were being sold in the early 1990s.
"The new issue of a comic book would come out, and then was on the shelf for four weeks exactly," Smith said. "Then, when the new shipment came in and the new issue came out, it went into plastic, and into a longbox, and got marked up a quarter or a dollar or whatever. And that was it. If you wanted to buy a back issue, you had to go digging through the back issue file."
Smith said that he used to talk with creators like Marder and "Sandman" creator Neil Gaiman about a different model.
"If you could take a comic and put them into these trade paperbacks, which is what we called them before we called them graphic novels, and make them so they were like something you'd buy in a music store, like an album. When it sells out, you could restock them. If it was a hit, you could get more of them. And that was a completely radical idea, and I remember at the time we got a lot of resistance."
Smith also recalled that, back when he started self-publishing, shops could order from multiple comics distributors, rather than ordering the majority of their books through just Diamond Comics Distributors. Marder noted that there were also a lot less news outlets covering comics back then, as they were limited to print publications like "Comics Buyer's Guide," "Amazing Heroes" and "The Comics Journal."
"Essentially, if they didn't take a liking to you for whatever reason, then your message just didn't go anywhere," Marder said. "Now we're in the Internet age, where anyone can put their message out, it's just a matter of working your way through the filters. So it has to be a very, very different experience." He added that the web also let creators build an audience by giving away their content for free.
In terms of content, Marder said he had a specific objective when he first started working in the business end of comics. "One of my goals was that you should be able to have a cradle-to-grave comic book fan who never passes through Marvel or DC, except for Vertigo. And I think we're really, really close," Marder said. He emphasized that he had nothing against the superhero genre, even noting he was reading DC's "Blackest Night," but he hoped for a time when someone could "be a fan for your entire life, and go to a comic book store, but not be dependent on the super hero genre. That was my dream, and I think we're getting there. This economy, in this room, is definitely that."
An audience member asked Smith about the help he had along the way in his career, noting that it's impossible to build success like he had alone. Smith credited his wife with helping him with the business side. "She's brilliant," Marder added.
Smith noted that it's also important to make friends with other creators. "That group of friends is as important as any business contacts you'll have," Smith said. He mentioned creators like Gaiman, Marder, Colleen Doran, Dave Sim, Scott McCloud and Charles Vess as being part of his "tribe," who he'd see on the road as he traveled to different shows around the country and who he spent dinners and nights with, talking shop about comics.
"That group of people is crucial, because they'll know things you don't know," Smith explained. "They'll have made mistakes that you haven't made. I mean, Dave Sim had made tons of mistakes that he was able to warn me about."
Another fan asked about the "Bone" animated movie. Smith mentioned the deal he signed with Warner Bros. for a CGI cartoon, noting he was very happy with the progress so far. No release date has been set yet, but he said they'll probably end up making three films.
Marder asked if it was a big decision to do a computer-generated cartoon instead of a hand drawn one. Smith noted he was a huge fan of hand-drawn animation, and had even tried to pull together a "Bone" cartoon with some friends he has in the animation business. "It was just too big, too expensive," he said. "I ended up just spending my time trying to get everyone to get along with everyone else."
Next, a father, who has a nine-year-old who loves "Bone," asked Smith what he thought made the story connect with people, especially kids.
"I never thought a kid would read it," Smith said. "I was kind of doing a love letter to Carl Barks and Walt Kelly, and talking in that language, and I was hoping other cartoon heads would dig it." He added that the humor probably helps people connect with it, and "it really is the story I wanted to read when I was nine."
Smith said as a kid he would fantasize about getting all of Carl Barks' "Uncle Scrooge" comics and "lining them up so they made one gigantic story." He said he wanted an Uncle Scrooge story that was the size of Homer's "The Odyssey."
"And I just have never really forgotten that," Smith continued. Even when he started the "Bone" comic, he knew it was one big story. "Incidents on the first page would be echoed and repeated and called back all the way to the very end," he said. "In fact, I wrote the end of 'Bone' in 1989, before I actually started drawing it."
A fan asked if Smith had ever met Carl Barks. Smith said he met him at a big party for Barks on his 92nd birthday. "I did meet him, and he did say he liked my comics, but I wasn't sure if he really knew who I was," Smith joked. "But I did meet him, and that was good enough for me."
Smith also related the story of meeting "MAD Magazine" artist Don Martin, whose "MAD" work inspired the name "Fone Bone." While signing for a really long line of fans at a convention, Martin and his wife approached Smith. Smith didn't realize who it was and directed them to the end of the line. They waited in line, and when they finally made it to the front of the line and introduced themselves, Smith said he jumped over the table to shake his hand.
"He knew it was a tip of the hat, and he appreciated it greatly," Smith said. "Even after I insulted him."