Jeff Smith's landmark comic 'Bone' turns 25

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

ThoughBoneturned 25 this year, the iconic comic's principal characters - Phoney Bone, Smiley Bone and Fone Bone - have hardly aged a day since local cartoonist Jeff Smith first introduced them to the world in 1991.

"The three characters aren't that different from when I was drawing them at [age] 10. They're solid," said Smith, 56, who first dreamed up the characters, which resemble animated dog bones, when he was in kindergarten. (Just last year he discovered his mother had preserved his first-everBone drawing, which he completed at age 5.) "The jokes and things I can do with them are more sophisticated now, but their personalities locked in pretty quick."

Earlier this year, to mark the quarter century that's passed since the comic debuted, Smith revisited the characters for the first time since he completed the series in 2004, turning out a companion story dubbedBone: Coda, which picks up where the tale left off a dozen years ago.

"I was worried I wouldn't be able to draw them the same, or I wouldn't know the characters' voices and they wouldn't come back. But that wasn't a problem," said Smith, who will join cartoonist Raina Telgemeier in conversation at the Columbus Metropolitan Library as part of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus on Sunday, Oct. 16. "They immediately started arguing with each other. They were right back to the way they were."

Smith, who was raised by an artist mother and a father who managed an ice cream factory, said he conceivedBoneas an epic tale - he described his initial idea as "the Marx Brothers get thrown into [J.R.R. Tolkien's]The Lord of the Rings" - and he entered into its construction with the full knowledge it could take a decade or longer to complete the work.

"There were times I started worrying: What happens if I get in a car accident or have a heart attack? Or people don't like the book and stop buying it, and I don't get to finish it?" he said, and laughed.

Prior to drawing a single panel ofBone, which was originally serialized in 55 issues and has since been released in various alternate forms, including a 1,332-page, single-volume collection, Smith already had an ending in place. Of course, this didn't make the task of finishing the book any easier, and the end of the series' run was pockmarked with delays as the artist negotiated those complex final turns.

"It's one thing to write a little note in an album about what's going to happen, but when you actually get [to the end] and it's a living thing with threads and tendrils everywhere…," Smith said, trailing off. "Pulling it all together in a way that was satisfying and still organic was extraordinarily difficult. You'd think you were onto something - 'I've got it!' - and then it's, 'Oh, shit. I forgot about this important thing that's not in there.' And you have to throw it all away and start over. I got a real reputation for being slow and erratic at the end. But I couldn't put out an issue until it was right."

According to Smith, he was die-cast as a cartoonist from a young age. Even before he could read, he would spend hours studying the Sunday comics, absorbing the likes of Walt Kelly'sPogo, which remains a strong influence on his style. In addition, both of Smith's grandmothers played a key role in shaping his earliest artistic development.

"My grandmother on my dad's side would readGrimms' Fairy Tales and terrify me, and then my maternal grandmother would give me crayons and paper and let me play with clay," he said. "There you have it right there: The author and the artist came together and now I'm a cartoonist."

Jeff Smith in conversation with Raina Telgemeier

Columbus Metropolitan Library

12:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16

96 S. Grant Ave., Downtown

cartooncrossroads

columbus.com