Jeff Smith greeted the crowd at Comic-Con International in San Diego along with his wife and publicist, Vijaya. The plan was originally for Tom Spurgeon to interview Jeff about the 20 years they've been creating comics, but he was unavailable at the last minute. Instead, Smith treated fans to an hour of his stories and a nice retrospective slideshow of the past 20 years, which, according to Jeff, is "dangerously close to family vacation slides."
Some highlights from the slideshow were: a fan-made Mystery Cow costume from the mid-'90s, Vijaya at the real Old Man's Cave in Ohio, and lots of early photos from conventions from 1994 to now, which included his staff -- Steve, Kathleen and Tom -- who have been with them for ten years.
Another great slide was the copy of a letter he received from the late Will Eisner. Jeff sent a copy of "Bone" #1 to Eisner and received a letter full of praise that he was allowed to use to promote his book how he saw fit. "And I did," Smith said.
A great jam drawing from Colleen Doran, Dave Sim and others was what Smith called "the beginning of the self publishing movement." The print was so in demand that the year it debuted at Comic-Con the year it debuted, the lines for the artists' signatures clogged the halls so much that Marvel and DC complained. They moved to a bar to finish the signing "and drank too much."
Smith also created an eight-page original Bone adventure for Disney Adventures Magazine. At a time where 250,000 people were reading books like X-Men and Batman, his strips in Disney Adventures had "6 million readers."
Another milestone was issue #21, which was published by Image, as well as the next five issues. This allowed him to get the book into even more retailers' shops.
Bone is currently published in 30 languages. Around 1998 Smith started touring other countries to promote the book and the reception is always warm.
In 2000 Smith took a year off, to write a screenplay for Nickelodeon, and figure out the ending of Bone. As he put it, he "needed a breather." During this time, he wrote two Bone prequels: "Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails," and "Rose," which was painted by Charles Vess, for which he won the Eisner Award for Best Painter in 2002.
The ending of Bone takes place in the city of Altheia, where Thorn, Grandma and Ben are originally from. Smith didn't want to do a big fantasy ending in a Cinderella castle like Lord of the Rings, so he visited Kathmandu and India for ideas on how the city should look visually.
2002 was a bad patch due to the fallout from 9/11 and "the depressing bits of the end of Bone." "Castle Waiting" creator Linda Medley was unhappy with the distribution contract she had with Jeff and Vijaya, so they let her out of it rather than risk losing the friendship. This resulted in a company that was losing money, so they had to lay all their staff off except Kathleen, close their studios, and move into the studio over Jeff's garage to make that ending work. Smith had never talked about this part of the history of "Bone" publicly before, and it was a moving moment.
At the 15-minute mark, Smith ended the slideshow on a picture of the real Old Man's Cave and opened the floor to questions.
The first question was about Smith's world travels, and the differences in fan reactions. According to Smith, one of the ways it was the same all over is that "everyone seems to connect to the characters, to the point where I have people come to get their book signed, and to me, they speak English," but right behind them in line, other fans will be speaking their own language and he'll hear "Grandma Ben" or the other characters' names mixed into conversation.
Vijaya added that "comics are a universal fandom, and there are great similarities, and we're always well received, people are very enthusiastic." In fact, as Smith noted, they had just started publishing "Bone" in Israel, and his publisher there had given him a "big binder full of drawings that Israeli kids have sent to her," and they are the same drawings that kids all over the world have given him.
The next questioner was interested in the new "Quest for the Spark" series, and wonder what it's like to have someone else working in the world he created?
According to Jeff, the "idea [for Quest] really came from Tom Sniegoski." Smith said Sniegoski is fun to collaborate with, and that he makes him "laugh so hard it's just embarrassing." In reference to doing more Bone books, he "might do one more Rose, I'm done with Bone," but Sniegoski wanted to keep going, and Scholastic wanted more books. "I only have one rule, I don't want the three cousins to be in the story, because I didn't want it to be a sequel."
The process, as Smith details it, is that Sniegoski had the idea for a story, he sketched it out, he has a "good handle on the rat creatures, humor and really spooky. I tweak it a little bit so it stays on the 'Bone' universe." The series is set to be three books.
As to how much of the overall story as planned and how much was discovered along the way, Smith said "a lot was pre-planned, but a great deal was discovered." Part of the original business plan was to do something "no one had done, a BIG STORY, like 'Lord of the Rings' or something." Vijay helped Smith come up with this business plan: each issue would be a 24 page comic, but each comic was also a chapter. "We didn't tell anyone we were doing that," they were worried that if they told people we were doing a "big sprawling epic fantasy, people would be turned off by that."
"Bartleby was not in the original outline," Smith admitted. "A lot of things caught me off guard."
The next question was: If Bone became a TV series, who would voice the red dragon?" Smith threw that one back out to the audience and one person shouted "Jeff Bridges," which Smith agreed with. Vijaya stated it would be Johnny Cash if he was still alive.
In regards to a "Bone" movie, "Warner Brothers has the rights and is working on a script." One writer did a couple versions of the scripts that no one really liked, but the new writer they brought in is "doing a good job and doing the 'Bone' we all know."
According to Vijaya, Warners has "done some fabulous test animation." Smith recounted that they had gone to Warner Bros. and seen a 3D short, four minutes long featuring "Fone and Phoney running around in the desert with a map," and said it was very well done. When it was done, Vijaya immediately told them to "do it again!"
"I think Vijaya and I would both prefer hand drawn," but notes that that is "not realistic, no studio will do that" these days when asked about a 2D or 3D attempt. When the fan pressed about his worries, Smith put him at ease by saying the 3D animation "looked like my drawings walking around."
The final question came from a man whose nephew would not touch comics until he gave him "Bone," and now he loves them. He asked Smith to do a quick sketch for the child, and he obliged.
As people were heading out, Vijaya mentioned that there is a new digital app for "Rasl" and "Bone" comics and they were giving out a postcard for some free downloads at Booth #2109 during the show.