Cartoonist Jeff Smth
Cartoonist Jeff Smith

Born: 1960
McKnees Rock, PA
USA

Current Home: Columbus, Ohio

On November 14, 2006, cartoonist Jeff Smith participated in a chat with Scholastic students and teachers. Smith is the author of the BONE series, republished by Scholastic's Graphix imprint.  Books 1-4 (Out from Boneville, The Great Cow Race, Eyes of the Storm, and The Dragonslayer) have been been re-printed in color and is enjoyed by children and adults of all ages.

Welcome to today's chat with Jeff Smith, in celebration of Read for 2007.

Who inspired you to be a cartoonist?
I think the earliest role model I had was Charles Schulz, who draws Peanuts. When I was a kid, I really loved Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

Where did you get the idea to write BONE?
That's a little more difficult to explain. I like to read books a lot. Some of my favorite books are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Don Quixote. These are pretty long books! But I like to read comics too, like Batman, so I decided I'd like to combine the two types of stories, to take a classic American character and tell a story that was equal in size and scope to a real novel, like Huckleberry Finn.

Are you going to make a book that tells why Phoney Bone was driven out of Boneville?
Probably not. I think it's more interesting to only suggest what used to happen to characters before the beginning of the book. What happened to the characters before the first page of the book is called the "backstory." And if the character's backstory is interesting enough, and you want to write a story about it, that's usually a good sign.  

Three Illustrated Self-Portraits by Jeff Smith
Three Illustrated Self-Portraits by Jeff Smith
How do you get your ideas for your books?
Well, sometimes they come from real life. For example, one time I was having a disagreement with my wife. A conversation! I wrote down everything we said, and made the monsters in the book say it to each other. It came out really funny! And sometimes I just make it up out of my head. 

Is there going to be a fifth book?
Yes, there's a fifth book coming out in January. It's going to be called Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border.

Why did you name the character Bone? And why is he in such weird settings?
I named him Bone because his head is sort of shaped like a cartoon dog bone, like the kind Pluto would chew on.

And he's in such weird settings because that makes for a more fun story. The valley where the Bone characters find themselves - where they meet all the characters and monsters - is based in Ohio, on the scenery where I grew up! Not far from my house, there are lots of forests and cliffs and waterfalls . . . and dragons.

Will you have Bone die?
LOL - you'll have to keep reading! You'll find out in BONE #9.

Is Gran'ma Ben going to be OK?
I can't tell you that kind of stuff! You'll just have to read and find out.

How many books are you making?
Nine. And it all goes together in one big story.

Do you have to read the entire series in order to understand the storyline?
Not entirely, but it helps!

How long does it take to write a book?
About a year. Each chapter took two to three months to write and draw. And it takes six months just to color. I have an assistant, Steve Hamaker, who does most of the coloring work. And I help him.

What is your favorite thing about writing the books?
I think my favorite thing about writing books is that while you're writing, the real world kind of goes away. You get to spend a very focused amount of time in a very private world.

Do you recommend any other graphic novels for young students who love Bone?
There's quite a few! Let me think. . . . At the top of my head, there's one called Castle Waiting by Linda Medley. Another one is called Owly by Andy Runton.

Do you have a favorite Bone character? And who is it?
I think it has to be Fone Bone, because he's the guy in the middle. He's the guy that everyone counts on to help get them out of trouble. He's the one that has to figure it all out. But Phoney Bone is fun - it's sometimes fun to be whiny and complainy.

How did you come up with three Bones?
I'm not sure. I made them up when I was very young - like when I was 5.
I don't remember exactly what I was thinking, but there's something about having three - like the three Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, the three Seinfeld guys (Jerry, George and Kramer!), and of course, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. There's something about the same three similar characters over and over again. So I kind of went with that.

How did you come up with rat creatures?
That's an interesting story! When I was about 9, I was playing in the backyard. And it was that time of night when the sun is gone, but it's not quite dark, so it's a bluish, twilight color. There were a lot of shadows all over my backyard. And at the corner of my eye, I saw something big and dark move between two bushes. And it looked like a "rat creature." It was probably just a cat or possum, but in my imagination, it was much more like those Rat Creatures. So that's where I came up with that monster. 

Will you ever get to see the Hooded One's face?
Maybe . . .   

Why did you use real humans and fake characters together?
(
Evil chuckle) Hmm . . . I don't know! I guess I thought it would be fun, and I was right.

I'm new - can you tell me a little about the book?
It's an adventure story about three lost cousins who find themselves in a strange, mysterious valley. And they meet monsters and dragons, princesses. They also uncover sleeping gods and more secrets.

Are any of Bone's experiences from stuff that has happened in your life?
In a way, yes. I try to disguise it a little, though. Something that's happened to me, it might be in a comic, but I change it a little. But since it was real, I know how to change it a bit so you have emotions and reaction to it.

Are any of the characters based on real people?
The only one that's based on a real person is Gran'ma Ben. She was inspired by a real grandma who used to raise cows. She was very strong! Not as strong as Gran'ma Ben, but pretty strong!

Can you say the titles of books #6, 7, 8, and 9?
I can - #6: Old Man's Cave; #7: Ghost Circles; #8: Treasure Hunters; #9: The Crown of Horns.

Is there any chance of BONE books being made into a movie?
I don't know. But if it were made into a movie, I think it should be a cartoon and not "live-action." It's a very cartoony story.

Did Bone always look the same? Or did he evolve from a previous version?
That's an interesting question! When I drew him when I was 5 or 9, he looked different. He had stick arms for a while! But as long as I've been drawing him professionally, he's pretty much looked the same.

How did you come up with the Hooded One?
I'm not sure. The Hooded One is kind of like how Death is portrayed - with the cloaked figure and the scythe. I guess it's kind of corny in movies, but it's a pretty good symbol for a bad guy!

When did you decide to write the books?
Well, a few years ago, I decided I would try to write the comic book I always wanted to read when I was a kid. I wanted to read a really, really long comic book that was one story. So in 1991, I started writing the story. Such a long time ago!

Are your books more popular with girls or boys?
Hmm . . . I think they're pretty popular with both! I don't know why that is. I think there's a little romance, a little adventure and danger. I think BONE was one of the first comics that a lot of girls started to read. Before that, comics were mostly for boys. I think I wrote it trying to draw from something honest. Like when you have a crush on someone for the first time - it's really embarrassing! It's embarrassing and exciting at the same time. That pretty much explains Fone Bone's entire adventure.

Do you have a favorite type of pencil or pen when you draw BONE?
I do! I use a paintbrush and dip it into ink. Then I paint the pages. All cartoonists use different pens and tools, though. Whatever works for each of the artists is right for them.

Do you draw anything else besides BONE?
Yup. Right now I'm drawing a superhero comic for DC Comics called Shazam!
(The exclamation mark is a lightning bolt.) That'll come out in February, so I've been working on it for a while.

What are some movies/books/comics that help inspire your ideas for BONE?
Some of the movies I've really liked - monster movies, like Jaws or Jurassic Park. They're fun! I also like animated movies, like The Lion King or Snow White.

Is Bone going to tell Thorn he loves her?
I think he will.

Is Bone a real bone?
He is not hard like a bone - he's soft. If you touched him, he'd be warm and cuddly.

Is there other Bones?
There are, but I don't know if we'll see them or not. Back in Boneville, there's a whole city of them. There are doctors, firemen . . . cartoonists!

What mood do you like to draw or write Bone in? Happy? Sad?
I like to draw him when he's happy. When I'm drawing a character, I find myself imitating the character. Like, when he's scared, I find myself gritting my teeth! I'm scared too! So when Bone smiles, I find myself smiling.

Does Bone ever go to the restroom?
LOL! Yes, but we don't ever see it. He's very polite, that way.

Will Gran'ma Ben's sister ever die?
That's one of those questions that you'll just have to read the books to find out.

How do the locusts make Gran'ma Ben's sister come back to life?
That's a question past Book #4! 

I don't know. What, do I look like an evil locust?! But I'm sure it's really creepy, how they do it.

How can I become a comic writer like you?
Well, whatever you want to be - whether it's a comic book writer or a football player or a writer - what you have to do is study your favorite person who does that! If you like comics, read comics by your favorite author and try to copy it. If you like basketball, watch that player and try to play like them! Just really watch and study your hero, and then go to the library and get books on how those subjects are done! There are a lot of books on how to draw cartoons and how to get into the business.

What's Bone like?
He's the kind of guy who doesn't know what he wants to do in life - and he gets stuck on this adventure, and has to take care of everyone around him and get them out of trouble. And he's a pretty nice guy.

How can you write all those words!
I used to write it all by hand when I first started. But then I put my lettering into the computer and type it, so it looks just like my handwriting. I usually put the words on the page first, before I draw the picture. And then I see how much space there is around the words and draw around it. I had a plan for the whole story, from the beginning.
So I was never afraid of running out of ideas, because I knew where the characters were going to go the whole time. I had an outline and knew the ending that's in Book #9.

Moderator: Mr. Smith, is there anything else you'd like to add?
I just want to say thank you to everyone who's reading this, and that I'm grateful to teachers who recognize that comics are reading and not just looking at pictures.

And if you like BONE, read some of the books I mentioned previously, like Huckleberry Finn or Owly! Or Sherlock Holmes! (I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan when I was a kid.)

And thanks for all the questions! You guys were great. :)