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The Rise of the American Comics ArtistCreators and Contexts$

Paul Williams and James Lyons

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781604737929

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604737929.001.0001

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(p.46) Interview

(p.46) Interview

Source:
The Rise of the American Comics Artist
Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi

To date, Jeff Smith’s commercial success and critical attention has concentrated on his black-and-white bimonthly series Bone, published by Cartoon Books. Bone narrates the adventures of the three Bone cousins, who are slowly drawn into the political machinations and history of a valley filled with humans, dragons, rat creatures, talking bugs, and other fantastical beings. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Cartoon Books is an example of the creator-owned comics companies the self-publishing movement of the early 1990s was based on (Smith established Cartoon Books in July 1991, and his wife Vijaya Iyer is credited as publisher of Smith’s comics).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bone’s success as a self-published comic was unprecedented and unmatched in the 1990s. Further, that success took place in an industry experiencing profound economic uncertainty. In 1993, American comics sales peaked at $1 billion, but from 1995 onwards sales fell dramatically; inflation, the evaporation of comic book speculation purchases by investors, and Marvel’s ill-judged acquisition of various comic- and non-comicrelated assets were some of the reasons later cited (Wright 2003, 283).

In 1995 Smith decided to publish Bone through Image Comics to safeguard and extend his book’s ability to be distributed to comics shops. Image had been established in 1993 as a partnership between various creators who left Marvel in order to publish their own comics featuring characters they created and owned. Smith’s tenure at Image was a short one, however, and according to former Image Executive Director Larry Marder, Smith returned to publishing Bone solely through Cartoon Books when it was clear that his production costs as a self-publisher were less than the fixed production costs incurred by publishing through Image (Dean 2000).

From 1993 onwards, the Bone comics have been reprinted in various formats: as a graphic narrative in its entirety, as a series of graphic novels collecting each of the nine chapters constituting the Bone narrative, and in smaller-sized, full-color books published by Scholastic, to name but three (p.47) of its versions (it was first published in collected editions under the rubric The Complete Bone Adventures). Since Bone’s conclusion Smith’s projects have included a miniseries featuring the original Captain Marvel, co-editing Fantagraphics’s new series of Pogo collections (Walt Kelly’s seminal mid-twentieth-century comic strip), and in March 2008 the release of Smith’s RASL, an ongoing bimonthly self-published black-and-white comic from Cartoon Books, featuring a dimension-jumping fine art thief.

The following is a summary of an interview conducted by telephone on December 4, 2007. Initially the interviewer asserted how The Rise of the American Comics Artist was exploring a transformation in the perception of comics in the press, in universities, and in the wider reading public since the late 1980s, before mentioning some of the writers discussed in this collection, such as Chris Ware and Jim Woodring.

Jeff Smith:

  • What happened in the last twenty years was down to a lot of the people you named, who were outside the mainstream at the time, but doing what basically became graphic novels. Will Eisner and a few others were trying to get people to call them graphic novels, but even in the early 1990s we were more likely to call them collections or trade paperbacks.
  • Paul Williams:

  • You raise the issue of graphic novels: Bone’s been available in a few different formats: the Complete Bone Adventures, and then you had the nine books [publishing each chapter of the story together].
  • JS:

  • OK, well, from the beginning I saw Bone as a 1,300-page novel: Huckle-berry Finn meets Moby Dick. I knew the story would have to be tight, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but in a marketplace driven by pamphlets—monthly or bimonthly chapter books—the story also had to be exciting and accessible for the reader. The question I asked myself was “How do I keep this story available for the reader?” If this is a single, giant story, how do you keep the first chapter available for new readers? At that time there was not really a trade paperback or graphic novel market. There was a back issue market, which was a big part of the economy of that time for comic stores. But with back issues, once they are sold, they’re gone. You can’t buy that comic any more.
  • So after a series of false starts, I was still experimenting to see how people would take to complete collections. Some comic companies, such as Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics (with their complete Krazy Kat), were entering this market. So I took a block of six issues for a year of Bone and collected them into a book. After three of those, I could see that the natural rhythm of the (p.48) story didn’t go in 6-issue chunks. Some arcs, or chapters, were only five issues long, or eight or nine issues by the end. After the third Complete Bone Adventures collections, I scrapped that version and repackaged the story in books that felt like chapters. Having scrapped the Complete Bone Adventures, I gave the collections new titles. So the first chapter when the Bone cousins are run out of Boneville was titled “Out of Boneville.” But the idea was always a one-volume edition. Fortunately the technology appeared to make this possible when the story was finished; otherwise I don’t know how I would have had the whole thing bound!
  • The collections were obviously going to affect the store owners’ ability to resell back issues. Me and other indy creators would sit around at conventions, and this could be Glasgow or Oakland, we would have long discussions about whether there was a market for these books. The comic business didn’t seem to operate like other businesses. I didn’t understand why a comic store didn’t work like a hardware store, where if you sell out of a hammer you restock the hammer. But with comics, if you sell out of something you can’t order any more. I can’t think of any other industry like that. If I go into a music store, I can’t imagine not being able to buy The White Album; if you go into a bookstore, you can always buy Moby Dick. But in the early 1990s, you couldn’t buy Superman #1! Neil Gaiman was just starting to collect The Sandman into books. We were browbeaten by retailers thinking we were undercutting their profit, but we pointed out that the profit margin on an $11 book was better than a comic that cost $2, $3. And with a book, if it sells you can restock it, and it’s even more profitable. We would talk about this all the time, Scott McCloud and I.
  • PW:

  • I was hoping you would say a little more about that really, because it was controversial. It seems so commonplace now but 15 years ago it wasn’t that well heard of. Was there much browbeating?
  • JS:

  • Oh yes. In the mid-to-late 1990s, I did an interview with Comics Retailer magazine, and I referred to a revolution in format. This put the interviewer on edge; they were upset by the word “revolution.” Discussing the idea that the marketplace would turn upside down was frightening.
  • PW:

  • What do you think the status of back issues is now, given that things really have gone 180 degrees? Walking past the local comic shop, the things they have in the window are graphic novels or trade paperbacks. You really have to dig for the comics now. (p.49)
  • JS:

  • I was trying to get out of the back issue market but I succeeded too well in getting Bone into other markets and being a “book.” My next project is going to be released in issues: this thing is for comic stores.
  • PW:

  • It sounds like you already have firm ideas about how your next project, RASL, will be serialized and collected together at the end.
  • JS:

  • Of course. I wrote out a business plan in 1989, before I started self-publishing Bone. You kind of have to, it goes alongside the creative process. If you were making a movie you would have to plan it out completely before it started. Way ahead of the ending I knew how the story was going to conclude.
  • PW:

  • How far do you see the success of Bone as your success in finding viable distribution deals at pivotal times in the history of the industry? It is not as if comics have been an unmitigated success story in the last few years—the industry is so convulsive it is often hard to track. It seems to me one of the reasons for Cartoon Books’s success is in the negotiation of those distribution pitfalls that have put many companies and comic shops out of business.
  • JS:

  • The reason why Bone was a perfect thing for me is because I wasn’t a publisher trying to find commercial properties. With Bone, I had lived with it for so long it was more like having a child and finding places for it to go. But I didn’t want it to starve: it wasn’t that we said, “There’s a door here, let’s go through it,” but “Let’s make a door go there.”
  • With the libraries, Bone switched to hardcover editions when we moved from the Complete Bone Adventures. The durability of hardcover editions made it more friendly to librarians, and they played a large role in Bone’s success, getting the book into the hands of children. That would have been impossible to do in the comic book-directed marketplace. So in terms of distribution being part of Bone’s success, that was a big part of it! The Superman and Spider-Man comics, they sold to a certain collector type, a certain type of reader obsessed with certain details about the character, and their vulnerabilities or whatever. And then there are underground comix, whatever you want to call them, that are a broader genre, including serious autobiography, and the kind of fantasy that Jim Woodring and I do.
  • PW:

  • Do you want to say a little about the difficulties involved in trying to promote comics as a credible artistic medium, while at the same time young readers through the libraries have been a big part of Bone’s success story? Are you very conscious of the balancing act there, between promoting comics for (p.50) their literariness, as a viable artistic medium, while aware of the fact that popularity comes from a universal audience?
  • JS:

  • First, I don’t think something that’s universal should be shallow or with-out artistic merit. In terms of negotiating, there wasn’t much to do. Through the libraries the book was being read by children and their parents, by parents to their children, and then by parents on their own. This was happening without my knowledge; librarians were putting it on their must-read lists. By about 2002, the graphic novel seemed to be making money in Barnes and Noble and Fnac [two entertainment store chains]. By 2004 to 2005—and I think manga was a big part of this, because they made graphic novels a profit center for book stores—at this time there was a big enough body of work to start stocking shelves, so you could have a whole section of graphic novels. I don’t have to tell you which, you know the ones I mean, the twelve books everyone can name!
  • As for publishing comics as an art form, any piece of literary symbolism I’m aware of I can put into Bone. It doesn’t matter whether kids get it or not, but it’s there.
  • PW:

  • How do you feel about comics, and your work in particular, becoming the subject of academic study? Being put on reading lists, say, or lectures being given on it on twenty-first-century literature courses?
  • JS:

  • I’m ambivalent about it. I mean, I won’t lie, I am rejoicing in the serious acceptance. But part of me, the part that got into comics when I was nine, is thinking “Did we actually manage to make comics boring?” But I do love the dignity comics have now. Back in the early 1990s Scott McCloud and I would talk a lot about how it was unbelievable these great comics were things that weren’t taught. That was a good time to sit in the bar at conventions getting drunk and discussing comics at midnight.
  • PW:

  • In that short space of time since the early 1990s it seems the whole field and the status of creators has changed. Do you feel that the battle for respectability is over?
  • JS:

  • Almost. It’s partly over. Back then we treated it as a lost cause. Gary [Groth] and Kim [Thompson] at Fantagraphics had a lot to do with the fact that it wasn’t. Most people’s attitude at the time was you just do it—you do it for the people that get it. You didn’t do it for kids, you did it for cartoonists. I did it for me and other people that got it. But as for the current levels of respectability—I didn’t think it was possible! With Bone, I knew the medium (p.51) could handle it, a full-length story, that it could be read by more people than were reading it. I often get requests from professors for information, so somebody is getting it—I like that.
  • PW:

  • In terms of the medium, it seems alongside the consolidation of graphic novels there has been a raiding of the archive and bringing to light a hundred years of comic creators. Can you say a little about your involvement with Fantagraphics and the republication of Walt Kelly’s Pogo? I am tempted to say now is the best time to be reading comics, because you can get hold of comics you simply couldn’t have got hold of five years ago, let alone twenty, thirty years ago.
  • JS:

  • I’ve been saying this for years, Paul—it just keeps getting better. I stated this in Bone. When I got hold of the complete Popeye, I had never seen all of them. To see all of them, to get a feel of it together … it was like when Fantagraphics republished Krazy Kat. I knew who these artists were, I had seen their work in different places, but now you had a resource you can draw on. The complete Peanuts was long overdue, because by the end of the run you forgot how good the early stuff is.
  • My involvement with Pogo began with Fantagraphics republishing Walt Kelly’s Our Gang, which was based on The Little Rascals films. They are not that fantastic. But it’s still Walt Kelly, right? With the republication of Pogo, it has been slow going because Kelly’s syndicate did not survive [unlike Peanuts’s syndicate]. That means it has been a longer story to get good, acceptable prints. Each book will contain about two years of material. It is all being published from the start for the same thing happened to Pogo that happened to Peanuts—you don’t remember how good the early ones are! They hold up really well. That first year is so funny. And as we get into the early McCarthy era, that material is so relevant today. So working on this project is Gary Groth, me, and Carolyn Kelly, Walt’s daughter.
  • PW:

  • As a sense of twentieth-century comics solidifies into a real history of comics with its big figures being put back into place, is there anyone you think is due a revival? Do you think the world of comics has forgotten some people that should be remembered?
  • JS:

  • For me, Walt was the last one. The greats for me are Barks, Schulz, and Kelly. I do think that Joe Kubert needs a monster book. He is a different kind of figure altogether, but a great comic artist whose work should be collected. Of course, he drew comic books. (p.52)
  • PW:

  • That’s interesting because the people who are being republished are primarily known for their comic strip work.
  • JS:

  • Yeah, I think cartoon strips are where the most interesting work was being done in comics in its first one hundred years. The big work being done today is in comics and graphic novels. This is partly because the space the newspapers dedicate to strips is shrinking and the strips are getting smaller.
  • PW:

  • Are there strip artists you read today? Do you still turn to the funny pages?
  • JS:

  • Actually, I think Dilbert is a funny comic strip. My brother works in a partitioned office so he doesn’t think so! Apart from that, the only recent comic strip I have been impressed with is Calvin & Hobbes.
  • Y’know, this wasn’t what I was expecting to be talking about!
  • PW:

  • Well we are interested in an industrial point-of-view. One of the ways we are approaching the field of comics is from a cultural studies background, so we are particularly interested in the material text, production and distribution, and similar issues. Do you often talk to academics, and do you have an idea about what academics do with comics?
  • JS:

  • The kind of people I talk with are, say, librarians writing about graphic novels. Also, high school-level teachers, who are finding they can get people who won’t read anything to read Bone.
  • I started out on two tracks: to create the art and to get people interested in the story, but to finish it I had to make sure it made money. I did not try to get rich but I did want to make enough money to get to the end of the story! By putting a spine on the story you look at it as something more real. It structures that work by fitting it into the spine of the graphic novel. It needs a beginning, a middle, and an end spoken in a single voice. I rarely read collections of superhero comics produced by a team of creators—actually, except for that 1960s Fantastic Four stuff.
  • When I go to talk in schools, or to any group in fact (and I get invited to talk to all kinds of groups: national librarians’ conferences, managers of Borders, universities, high schools), I give a very similar talk to all of them. I say that comics are a literary art form: the smallest unit of a comic is any two given panels. You need that to make time elapse and for actions to occur. You read it left-to-right and top-to-bottom, like a prose page. The other thing I talk about is the graphic novel itself, the form. When I talk about the art itself I refer to my symbolism.
  • For instance, I use water as a symbol. This because I’m a Moby Dick, King Arthur fan. When Arthur comes across any fountain surrounded by women (p.53) in the middle of the woods you know something good is going to happen! In Bone, water signals that an important point has been reached in the story: when Fone Bone enters the valley in “Out from Boneville” [the first chapter of the Bone narrative], he leaps from the waterfall; when he is being chased, he says “Stupid, stupid rat creatures!” while he is suspended on a branch by the waterfall; when he first meets Thorn, she is bathing in a stream. The Dragon comes out of a well when Fone Bone goes to fetch water from it, and at the end of the story, when the water is rushing by, all the dragons come out in the flood, that kind of thing. Like Huckleberry Finn, water is an integral part of the story’s symbolism.
  • PW:

  • I am enthused to hear you talk about the two together, these two tracks, because I find that even very good students who have no problems tucking into Huckleberry Finn do find reading comics unusual. I don’t mean from the position of “Why are you giving us a comic instead of a book?” but literally the act of reading—you do need to practice it. If you are brought up reading comics it is easy to forget that if you are not brought up reading comics they are actually quite alien ways of telling a story, and you can’t just throw students a comic and say “Look at the symbolism.” The eye has to be trained to read the comic and the symbolism in a symbiotic relationship.
  • JS:

  • I remember sitting around at a convention, and some of the older car-toonists, like Sergio [Aragonés], or Mark Evanier, were telling the story of how they had gone, as a group, to Africa on an official visit. They were showing comics to people who had never seen them ever before. And they were asked the question “Why does this character have no legs here?” when the cartoonist had gone in for a medium shot. This was probably in the 1960s, so perhaps these first-time readers were not really familiar with the vocabulary of television or film images more generally, like the long-shot or the close-up. No, now I think I might have read this story in Mark Evanier’s book! Wherever I came across this story, I think it shows that comics do operate as a language you have to learn to become fluent in.
  • PW:

  • It does sound like you see a great deal of continuity between Bone and other Great American Novels, say Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Did you have that in mind as you were executing it?
  • JS:

  • Without trying to be pretentious, I was trying to do something like Mel-ville does in Moby Dick, which is a book I enjoy reading for the sheer act of reading. The book spends so much time when nothing is happening with the story, but for the reader it is a pleasure just being in the presence of the author. I think that is why it has never been a really good movie. There are (p.54) also its layers and layers of symbolism. I did try to get a Moby Dick style of narration where you just stay with the story because of the pleasure of being in its company.
  • If we are dignifying issues as chapters, Huckleberry Finn was perfect for the overall structure. It starts like a boy’s adventure story (which I enjoy anyway) like Tom Sawyer—it has the start of a swashbuckling boy’s adventure, but goes on to get darker and more sophisticated as the story progresses. When I was reading Uncle Scrooge written and drawn by Carl Barks, I wished there was an Uncle Scrooge story that was as long as Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey, which is where Bone came from. I hope it worked.
  • Works Cited

    Bibliography references:

    Dean, Michael. 2000. The Image Story. The Comics Journal. http://archives.tcj.com/3_online/n_image4.html [accessed 12 Mar. 2010].

    Wright, Bradford W. 2003. Comic Book Nation. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.