On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May, Mershon Auditorium was predictably only about 2/3 full. The mix in the audience was a little heavy on the 20-50 year-old "cartoonhead" men (Smith's term, not mine), with some kids aged 8-12 (mostly boys, parents in tow) mixed in, and a sprinkling of other
Scott McCloud tried valiantly to stick to his list of questions, but luckily the conversation was mostly free-flowing.
On Jeff's early years: Jeff Smith moved to the Columbus area in kindergarten, and lived in Worthington growing up. He never really wanted to make comics as a youngster, because that seemed as exotic as wanting to be a movie star.
When did he realize there was an artist behind the comics he read: He knew it all along, at least theoretically, because Walt Disney himself introduced The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday and we all knew that Disney himself was responsible for all the drawing of every Disney character in comic books and film...
How he got started drawing comics as a kid: "I tried to make up characters," as he believes all kids do. (I did. Mine were an ant and a snail.)
Jeff "really did roll up comics and stick them in my back pocket."
His first hero was Pogo.
His first drawing of the Bone cousins was when he was about 6. He drew a character that looked like a phone receiver (some folks in the audience could remember those). The name Phone Bone came later, borrowed from Mad Magazine's Don Martin, whose generic character name was always "Mr. Phone Bone." Smith has met Don Martin, who was pleased with the hidden tribute to his work in Phone Bone's name.
Interesting tidbits for writing teachers: Because the early Bone comics went back to print so frequently, he had (and took) the opportunity to change things he didn't like. By the time all of the Bone comics were collected in the 1300 page black and white book, he had done a ton of revision!
The inspiration for his characters can be found in his life: Thorn's gestures and mannerisms are those of Vijaya, his life partner, and the Bone cousins are all manifestations of different facets of Smith's own personality.
The serialization of Bone in the early years meant that Smith got lots of feedback from readers as he went. He saw that interaction with his readers as vital to the development of the plot.
How have things changed for him since Scholastic came into the picture: "Look -- there are women and kids in this audience." Smith talked at length about the acceptance of comics in mainstream culture in the last five years.
Insider trivia: Check for similarities between Smith's dragon and Doonesbury's Zonker.
What does he read besides comics? The Odyssey, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Arthurian legends, classical fairy tales...stories that start off seeming like kids' books but that turn dark and complex. All of that reading took place pre-Bone, however. He doesn't read fiction now because he wouldn't be able to enjoy it. Now that he writes extended fiction stories, he feels he would spend all his energy figuring out how the author had constructed the story.
Who was his intended audience for Bone? None. There were no intentions. He wrote Bone "For myself. For adults. For grownup 'cartoonheads.' " BUT...it's the book he would have wanted to be able to read when he was 9 -- a "big story in comics." He's thrilled that parents and kids around the globe have claimed Bone for a new generation. And the reason Scholastic got the color version deal is that they really "got it." They knew it needed to be a book on the shelf. (Oh, btw -- book 8 will be out in July!)
The pivot question: Desert island. One collected works: Walt Kelly, Charles Schultz, or Carl Barks? After a bit of hemming and hawing -- Walt Kelly.
Jeff Smith on Wickipedia
Scott McCloud here and here