I had the wonderful experience of interviewing Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, RASL, and Tuki, earlier this year, and you can hear our full conversation on Comic Book Herald’s “Creannotators,” either in podcast or Youtube.
But since some people prefer the ancient art of “reading,” we’ve also transcribed the Bone portion of the interview below, including a surprisingly candid assessment from Smith on Netflix’s cancellation of the Bone animated series. The transcription has been slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!
CBH: Was there any part of you that recoiled at all at the perception of Bone as kids’ lit? Because that was not what you were creating. You were creating comics. You weren’t writing them for kids, necessarily, right? You were just telling your story. But in the 90s, you were in the movement with the likes of Neil Gaiman with _Sandman_ and Art Spiegelman and _Maus_, right? These are the “serious,” if you will, graphic novels that sort of break down these barriers. Bone works in that vein, but was there any part of you that was like “this isn’t for kids! This is adult stuff.” How did that work for you?
Jeff Smith: I did think about it. For me, Bone was supposed to be a kids’ book for adults, because there weren’t too many kids reading comics in the early 90s. And in fact, when people in the comics press would refer to it as a kids’ book, I would fight against it because there were no kid readers, so if I was perceived as a kids’ book, I would be out of business and I’d be in trouble because retailers are like “I don’t have the kids shopping in here,”. But I never thought there was anything kids couldn’t read because my goal was to do _Peanuts_ or _Pogo_—to be in the newspaper with _Peanuts_ and _Pogo_-so _Peanuts_ and _Pogo_ were in there, but so was _Dick Tracy_. And if you read _Dick Tracy_ in collections from the 30s or 40s or 50s—good God! You could be squeamish reading that thing. But that was my goal, to do something that could be in the newspaper, not necessarily worrying about saying “fuck,” or something. I wouldn’t say that, but I’d find a way _not_ to say that if I was in the newspaper, so that was nothing in there that the kids couldn’t see.
I mean, of course the day we were going to sign the deal with _Scholastic_, they asked us to come in early and it was because at the last minute, we’d actually flown to New York to have a signing ceremony and the whole day was planned. We were going to meet with different groups and book fairs apparently had a little freak out, so the publisher pulls a stack of our self-published books and sets them on the table. There’s some post-it-notes in there, and I could see words on there like “tobacco,” “beer,” the word “jeez.” And I had j-e-e-z sometimes. That was flagged, and there was all that there and the publisher said “You know, book fairs has a little bit of a problem with that” and I said “I see the word ‘beer’ there” and she said “yeah, well, couldn’t we change it like in _Harry Potter_ to something like ‘butter-beer’,” and I said “Yeah, but this isn’t _Harry Potter_” and then I said, “the good characters don’t drink beer. Fone Bone doesn’t drink beer.” And Smiley Bone has a cigar, but it’s like a VOD-ville prop. It’s a “grouch-o” marked cigar. And VJ and I had agreed ahead of time that if this is ever came up, we were going to just thank them and leave. So we said that. We said “Look, _we_ didn’t say it was a children’s book. All the librarians said it was a children’s book. Parents said it was a children’s book. Parents and children all over the world said it was a children’s book. I never said it was a children’s book. And it’s already done! It’s already a children’s book. It’s all over the world. It’s done. We’re not changing anything.” She looked at us and she picked the book pile up and set it down on the floor and she says, “well book fairs are just gonna have to catch up.” And they did. They caught up pretty quick, because they sold a ton of them.
CBH: Yeah. I think it would work best for all parties. We actually had a question here from a Twitter fan called “Licensed 2 Chill” that asks if fans bring up their experiences with Bone being directly tied to the book fairs a lot with you? Do you hear about that a bunch from different, new fans?
Smith: Yeah, I do. Yes I do. I mean, it’s been around for a long time. 30 years, so there are people who got in on it when it was a little indie black-and-white book, just available at the comics shops. And there are people who just saw it in the early 90s in _Disney Adventures Digest_ and I’ve had people come up to me all the time and say “I can’t believe I didn’t know it would pass! I never knew what happened to it and now I found whole books.” And yes, then of course, the book fairs. Of course, those first book fairs, people were all in college now. But yeah, it’s crazy! We’re on at least the third generation by now.
CBH: Yeah and you’ve kind of begun setting the stage now too to like—you know, like I mentioned—I have these younger kids and they can’t read yet, so they’re not quite “of age” with Bone but it’s something I think about a lot. Like “oh, seven-eight, when do I want to hand them the ‘all-in-one’ volume?” But you had the actual literal kids book; the picture book that you’ve done of _The Bone Adventures_ too now, where I can share _that_ with them, right? And get the next generation reading Bone which is pretty cool.
Smith: Oh! Have they seen it yet? What did they think of it?
CBH: Yeah, I actually just read it to them this week. So, I have a five-year-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old, and a baby. So the baby had limited feedback, but the other two, the five-year-old in particular, he wanted to read it twice. He was like “Again! Again!” And I do the voices for Fone Bone and Phoney.
Smith: Oh good! “Again” is great.
CBH: Yeah! And it’s like the highest praise, that is a five-star review.
Smith: Yeah, yeah I hoped for that. That’s a five-star review, that’s my favorite. Yeah, I hope I’m not telling tales out of school, but Jed Winnick—you know who he is?
Smith: When his kid was a little toddler, he read all of Bone to him and when he was done—oh wait! I’m mixing up my books. He read _Little Mouse Gets Ready_, which was also an actual kids’ book, and at the end of that, there was like a little surprise, a little explosion surprise. And apparently, every time they read the book, he did the same thing. So he filmed it and the kid gets on the floor and he starts doing the Curly shuffle on the floor going “Again! Again! Again!” And squealing. It’s a five-star review.
Smith: So these stories of people who tell me they’ve read it and it’s been with them their whole life, they take it with them to college and everything, that’s removed any possible qualm I ever had about it being a kids’ book. It’s never been a kids’ book. One worry I had was that I would go to book signings and my grown-up readers would be turned off by a line of moms and kids. But that wasn’t true. That did not happen. People still lined up to get their books signed, but they were just mixed in, and the grown-ups don’t talk down to the kids, they just talk to them about the books. It’s pretty awesome. It turned out really good.
CBH: Yeah it’s really cool to see how those books evolved. You’ve revisited Bone a handful of times since 2010, with _Rose_, _CODA_, these books, do you find yourself writing or thinking about the franchise differently now that you know your audience has evolved since there’s a generational aspect in the readers aspect, is there something there when you’re writing _CODA_ that wasn’t there the first time?
Smith: No, not really. Doing something like _CODA_ or _The Tall Tales_, or these little short stories that I’ve snuck in every now and then, the whole point of that is that I don’t want to say goodbye to _Bones_ but I don’t really want to do a sequel. I just don’t think I could top that. That’s a young man’s game. I mean, I am trying to, I’m trying to play the game with _Tuki_ and I think I can, but to top something like that that was lightning in a bottle, I think that would be a fool’s errand for sure. I was gonna say that when I wrote _CODA_, it just fell right into place for me and there was nothing different. They’re the same characters, they immediately came alive in my imagination and started arguing with each other and it was making me laugh, so it was great. So, we’re doing _A Tall Tales 2_ which the first one was Smiley Bones and Bartleby sitting around a campfire telling stories and I used that to get rid of a few orphan stories I had around, and we wrote a couple new ones as well. Well that’s the same thing with _Tall Tales 2_, we’re going to color _CODA_ and put it in there. There was another orphan story that Stan Sakai drew that was about a little riblet thing that just wrecks havoc with the two rat creatures. So we’re coloring that and we’re going to put that in there so that’s going to be fun. And in fact today I am drawing the bookending, the framing pieces of Smiley Bone and Bartleby setting up camp and getting ready to tell stories around the fire.
CBH: That’s awesome. That’s great to hear. You know, my library had a copy of the black-and-white _Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures_ so I picked that up this past week and said “you know this is a Stan Sakai story” and I was like “no way!” I had no idea.
Smith: It’s _really_ funny. Have you read that yet? Okay, I didn’t write it.
CBH: Yeah! Riblet is hysterical.
Smith: It’s hysterical. Tom Sniegoski, who writes a lot of things. He’s everywhere. He writes _Vampirella_, he did _Buffy_ and _Angel_ and it’s very funny. He did a great job and while we were coloring it, we kept reading it while we were trying to color and just cracking ourselves up.
CBH: That’s awesome. So _Tall Tales 2_ is happening. Do you know when that’s supposed to be out to the public?
Smith: It’ll probably be Summer of 2023.
CBH: That’s okay. And I heard you say in an interview, I think it was off-panel with David Harper, that they were plans for a 30th anniversary Bone all-in-one with the likes of _CODA_ and these _Tall Tales_ included. Are there still plans for that?
Smith: No, they kind of fell by the wayside. We kind of ran out of time. We had some ideas, and maybe we might revisit it because we _do_ talk about it every now and then for another anniversary. Maybe the 35th or something. Yeah we were talking about doing like three giant, maybe four giant books. So you’d have Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 of Bone oversized, in color, and have a forth volume that would have _Rose_ and _Tall Tales_ and _Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures_ and all that stuff. All the bonus material.
Yeah, but it was too complicated and we couldn’t get it done in time for the 30th, but one of the reasons we couldn’t get it done was because I was like “I want to do _Tuki_ for the 30th,” so that’s what we did.
CBH: Yeah. Sure, sure that makes a lot of sense. I actually had the experience. I’ve read Bone, obviously, quite some time ago and I loved it. But I had no idea there was more, you know? I had just read the all-in-one edition and I was like “I got it. I did Bone” I didn’t know there were all these sort of additional stories, so these past couple of weeks as I’ve been getting ready for this interview, I was so delighted to see that there were these _Tall Tales_ and _Coda_ and _Rose_ and all these things, so that was a blast. So I do think a fourth, connected hardcover thing, I think fans would be really excited about that. Should an anniversary arise where that was an appropriate move.
Smith: Yeah. Either the 35th or the 40th, or something. One of the big, giant box with four oversized hardcovers. You’ll have to take out a mortgage to get it. I don’t know what it’ll cost, so we’ll probably have to take out a mortgage just to get it printed.
CBH: That’s great. So one more Bone question here, you’re working on _The Quest for the Spark_, you worked on the illustrations, these young adult novels, you mentioned you don’t want to do a sequel; that kind of functions like a sequel.
Smith: I know.
CBH: It kind of functions like a post-Bone saga. Is that your _Bone 2_? Is that kind of the sequel?
Smith: Well, I guess in a way it is, because it is a story that takes place a little later in the valley, but that’s also why I don’t want to do any more. I didn’t realize it would come out like that. I just loved working with Tom Sniegoski so much, I mean, we make each other do crazier and crazier things I don’t think either of us would do on our own. But I just figured “well, I know how to protect it. As long as the three Bone cousins aren’t in it, then it’s okay.”
But then I ended up with Grandma Thorne in it and there was a new kind of villain, and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with it, it was a good story. He really nails the rat creatures. He’s really got them down. He’s really good at that. But it was a little too close to a sequel for me and I said “I don’t want to do any more of those, that’s too much, too close.”
CBH: Gotcha. If readers haven’t checked those out, they’re very engaging. So if you are looking for more returns to the valley of sorts with a new crew, those are out there.
And we have to talk too about how as recently as late 2021, there’s been interviews of you talking with confidence about the Netflix animated Bone and obviously these last couple weeks, you’ve learned that they’ve decided to cancel—or we’ve learned that they’ve decided to cancel—the series. It’s gutting, for fans, and I can only begin to imagine what it is for you, having been through this for decades as you put it in a comic strip. It’s the Charlie Brown football being pulled away time and time again. How long have you known, and what insight do you have into what happened there?
Smith: It happened right before Christmas last year. They let the crew go. We had a very small crew, we only had like four people. We had Kat Morris and Nick Cross, two incredibly talented, genius people who have worked on shows like _Steven Universe_ and _Adventure Time_ and _Over the Garden Wall_. That was very lucky to get them. And I think I was kind of more crushed than upset for them. Part of me didn’t really believe it was going to happen. And I usually say it in interviews, even when I was confident because I had this dream team of creators working on this and they did a deep dive into Bone. They could talk Bone. They could breathe it. They got it, and they were very carefully structuring out maybe two seasons and planning it that way. We had a lot of trouble from the beginning though. Not of our own making. The first was COVID. We announced at the end of 2019 that Netflix had purchased it and then nothing happens in Hollywood after Thanksgiving. That’s it. Nothing happens until January. So January, the producer Curtis Lelash, and Curtis had just come from Cartoon Network, where he also had a lot of great shows, including one that they just named to his credit. And he was a huge Bone fan. So we were talking and having fun and saying “Hey what kind of ideas? Anything goes” and he had been given green light power, so we were like “Anything goes. Whatever we want, we could do” and I was very excited about the concept of doing it episodically because the real problem with the movie studios, nobody sets out to buy a property and screw it up.
What happened was the executives were in this mindset where it had to be a 90-minute movie and it had to be the whole story. That happened over and over and over again. So it got shit-canned a couple of times at Warner Brothers, but a new executive comes in and gets rid of it, and Warner Brothers bought the rights, so it was stuck there. And then the new executive comes in and they would love it and go “bring it back up” and then just as we would get going then they’d get a better job offer somewhere else and move. So that was ten years. I was at Warner Brothers for ten years and I don’t know why they bought the rights exactly. They wanted to do something I didn’t obviously see because they kind of cut me out of it. But the point of that is that once the rights did revert to me in 2018, everything they had spent on it in ten years, I had to pay them back with compound interest. Which was in the contract! I signed that deal, but it seemed so impossible that we weren’t going to make something until ten years and then that would come back and then I’d have to pay back everything we spent in that time. Well anyway, it did happen and it was such a miserable experience and VJ and I were like “let’s stop. Let’s not even tell people we got the rights back.” But word spreads fast, so we immediately got contacted by streaming networks and studios, and Netflix made the most sense because of Curtis. He really had quite a resume and had this green light power; “let’s go.” And he was able to convince Netflix to buy the lean off of Warner Brothers, so they took over the lean, so now the consequence is that now that they’ve canceled it last Christmas, but they still have the rights. So I didn’t make any announcement and they didn’t make any announcement, and you know, I would just have to see. I don’t know what the future holds.
CBH: What a mess. What a tangled mess of rights and misfortune there.
CBH: Because it just makes so much sense. Yeah. So let’s talk about the potential positive, I think, not of this situation, but of getting it animated. What’s the stuff that you’re most excited about in terms of your vision of what it could be. Like, what are the things that had you so jazzed about what it could have been?
Smith: I could picture people falling in love with the characters again. It’s happened over and over again in the comic book market, in the graphic novel market, in the children’s YA market. It just happens over and over again, and I thought that this could be a really big audience and to be perfectly honest, half of me was just as excited about the fact that I would sell a lot more books as I was about the movie. But the seeing it animated, I’m also excited about the things I couldn’t do in the comic book. Which are really show the environment, _really_ really spend a moment to look at the clouds or water going over a little rock in a stream. You know, bring the world to life. There would be birds and sound effects, and I imagined there would be a lot of fun in the recording studio working with voice actors and I pictured that there would be a lot of laughing. And I pictured it would be a lot of fun. You know just in the writers’ room.
Unfortunately we started talking without a crew in January and I was going to fly out there April 1st, to start interviewing and picking who we would have as staff. And then March 20th was COVID. The Lockdown. So everything was cancelled. And we didn’t know what was going on and I know that some studios were already in, and in the middle of production. They were very resourceful and were able to switch to Zoom and somehow, I don’t know how they did it, but we didn’t have anything. We didn’t have any crew. We were just started. So we lost most of that year. We lost that whole year up until September when we finally got Kat and Nick, and we were just like “yeah, can’t wait to get started” and then this huge shuffle, the big executive scramble at the top, a big shift—the biggest shift that I’d seen in show business was right over my head. That’s not true, I have at least two more, but I won’t waste your time. So, it was never easy for us. Because six months after that executive shuffle, our guy Curtis, couldn’t take it any more and he had to leave. So that was another major blow. So we struggled on and we were finally really starting to gel, and then the news came that it was just over. But they still have the rights, so we’re still waiting to see where we’re going from here.
CBH: Okay. Did they give you any insight at all as to the rationale for it? Or did you not get that sort of thing?
Smith: I was not told about the meeting, I was not invited to the meeting. But on the Friday before the meeting on Tuesday, Kat and Nick called and were like “we need to put together a pitch,” because we were under the impression that we didn’t need to make a pitch. We thought we had a green light. We knew that there was a moment when we would get the green light and we hadn’t had that moment. But once Curtis left, they had taken away his green light power. So we got caught a little off guard by that and afterward I got the word and I asked Kat, “who were the executives? Who was in the meeting?” She said “I don’t know.” The Zoom meeting started, no introductions were made and they said “go.” And we had some inklings that they were like “justify this” and we were hearing things like “justify this, explain what this is, why is this? What are some sales figures?” It was some mighty impressive sales figures but they didn’t seem to make any difference. So we don’t know. We’ll have to wait to hear from them, which we probably never will.
CBH: Aw man. Well that’s too bad. So I don’t know how much you want to, or can get into this, but it’s stuck there. Is there some sort of out for you to get the rights, or is that just a whole web?
Smith: That is an unknown at this point.
Smith: There’s no use stressing about it.
CBH: Yeah, right. Okay. Aw man. It just kind of sounds like there was so much potential. Yeah, and the pandemic, obviously, messed up the world, but I mean like deadlines and schedules and all that stuff, and then you get executive shifts and not seeing your vision on top of that. It kind of sounds like a perfect storm.
Smith: It’s always a perfect storm. I mean, I’m not going to get that mad at them. They made their decision. I’ve gone without a movie for 25 years. If a couple more go by, it’s not going to kill me. Well, I might die by then, but then I really won’t care.
CBH: Hopefully not. When I think about the adaptation, just on my own selfish fan level, it’s like “I don’t need it. I’ve enjoyed the story, I’ve got it. I’m good.” But then you think about just what happens when these things get the visibility of a show or a movie, and how many more readers come to the table and would get to enjoy Bone in a way that they wouldn’t. They have their own baggage of graphic novels, they don’t think they’re worth their time, et cetera, et cetera. Obviously would have done something. So yeah. It’s too bad to see that not happen, because it’s a book that deserves it, I think. And I think that anyone who has read it agrees.
Smith: Well, the one silver lining was the reaction to the announcement. I personally was very happy that it finally came out because I was having to play word games or try not to talk about it or something. Or try to look on the bright side, and I was not enjoying that, so I’m glad it happened, but then you see my wife and I got up Friday morning to go “look Bone is trending” and we were like “oh.” But then it was like 70,000 tweets of people really shocked and not happy. Very unhappy that it happened. And the story was not about Bone, the story was about all the kids animation just being shut down and they had all sorts. They had the executive shuffle, there was the stock drop, there was the subscriber loss. That was the story. It was a big story about a lot of things, but man, most of the headlines and the images for those stories were about canceling Bone. I thought that was a good sign that, I don’t know, maybe they’ll see that and rethink. It proves that people did want Bone. Who would want to see it? Everybody!
CBH: Yeah, everybody was gutted. I have not seen a single “oh, makes sense” reaction. I have not seen a single fan who was like “hm, yeah, well Bone didn’t need animated.” Everyone wants it, everybody was excited. I don’t know, there is some precedent with them recognizing they canceled a thing too soon or whatever and then doing it, but obviously, time will tell on that front, so. I’m sorry to hear it, for you, for the team. But obviously, fingers crossed that you can find a resolution that works.
Smith: I hope so. I’m trying to keep myself occupied with _Tuki_. That’s my real job, my real passion. And so, it’s doing pretty well. It’s getting very good reviews. It actually just came out in December and we’re going back to press for a third printing. And the second book is done, and like I said, we must have sent you the digital copy. That will be in stores in July. So I’m actually pretty occupied with _Tuki_. It’s exciting. So I’m worried about that. And if—_if_—things change for Bone at Netflix—I hope—but I’m going to worry about _Tuki_ for now.