Jeff Smith Goes Back to Boneville

Peter Tonguette
Jeff Smith, with Smiley Bone, in his German Village studio

Jeff Smith has spent the better part of five decades thinking about, and drawing, the iconic comic Bone and its inhabitants.

As a youth in Worthington, the 58-year-old Columbus cartoonist created the bone-like characters he would repeatedly return to throughout his career. In the 1980s, as a student at Ohio State University, Smith placed some of theBone cast—including main characters and cousins Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone—in a comic strip that appeared in the student newspaperThe Lantern.

Then, in 1991, Smith gave the characters from Boneville a comic book of their own. The series, which Smith published through his own company, Cartoon Books, continued until 2004 and received the prestigious Harvey and Eisner comics awards. Young readers were not Smith's intended audience until 2005, when Scholastic began releasing colorized versions of the stories for students in grades 4-8.

Although Smith moved on to other projects—including DC Comics'Shazam!and the web comicTuki—he has gone back to theBonewell for a new picture book for preschoolers: “Smiley's Dream Book,” featuring Smiley Bone, from Scholastic.

Though Smith promises that the series proper is over, a secondBonepicture book, “Finders Keepers,” will come out next year.

Columbus Parentrecently caught up with the cartoonist to talk about his love for comics and writing for children.

Q: What led you to become comics-obsessed?

A:My mom did little paintings of flowers and things that she would take around and sell through local gift shops, so she definitely had some artistic talent. And my dad seemed to like cartoons. He readMadmagazine to me before I could even read. He would read the Sunday funnies to me. They're not really artsy people in general, but they definitely had that element to them and they encouraged it in me.

Q: You had a strip in The Lantern.

A:It was proto-Bone. It was actuallyBone, but I didn't call itBone. I called itThorn, because it was about the little Fone Bone's crush on this princess, a human. … I did that every day for five days a week for four years, and it was great practice.

Q:What did you do after leaving college?

A:Initially, I thought I would try to get the strip I was doing inThe Lanternsyndicated in newspapers in the mid-'80s. I just didn't find a syndicate that was digging it. So, meanwhile, some of the friends I'd met at OSU, fellow art students, were into animation and we started up an animation studio [Character Builders], which was in Clintonville and then in Worthington for a while. We did a lot of local PSAs and local commercials, and we got good enough that we were actually doing pieces of feature films out of Hollywood in the '90s [including “Space Jam”].

Q: Did you hope that kids would read the Bone comic books?

A: Actually, not at all. What I was trying to do was kind of do a love letter to the comics that I loved growing up in the '60s and '70s—Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny and Peanuts, Pogo—and mixed them with what was still current when I was in college: these incredible, grown-up fantasy comics coming out of France and Belgium by Moebius and Bilal. … The fact that it actually became a real kids book, instead of just something that's supposed to look like one, was something I never anticipated.

Q: Given your preference for long-form stories, what was it like tackling a picture book?

A:It was actually difficult for me, especially doing one that involved one of theBonecharacters. It was hard not to step off of what I was supposed to be doing and get involved in unnecessary background details and storylines. … One of the things I figured out that made it possible for me to actually do this was to think of each page as just a panel of a comic, because you just want one big image on each page. And then I moved transitionally the way I would in a comic.

Q:Did you have a favorite picture book when you were a kid, or did you stick to comics?

A:I definitely was more into the comics, but I do remember Dr. Seuss books. They were just so free; they were just so surreal. It's hard to believe that adults were allowed to show them to children.

Q:You and your wife don't have children of your own. Were you able to put yourself in the mind of a kid?

A:Well, I apparently have no trouble just becoming a 9-year-old. And with this children's book, and the one that's coming out next year, they're really similar to the stuff I was writing when I was 9, except now I'm an adult and I can put a little polish on it.

Q: Do you ever see yourself revisiting Bone in long form?

A:No, definitely not—not in like a “Bone 2: This Time It's Personal.” I have little ways of allowing myself to cheat and draw the characters again. One are these picture books.