If there was ever the definitive epic in graphic cartooning, Jeff Smith’s self-published Bone certainly reigns. A masterwork of the form, the collected story of Fone, Phoney, Smiley Bone, and an unforgettable cast of princesses and rat creatures pushed the boundaries of what independent comics could achieve. And even though it has been more than a decade after the final original issue was published, the quest of the Bone cousins remains popular the world over. In the intervening years, Smith has revisited the exploits of the three expelled Boneville denizens in spin-off books, as well as creating new stories for readers of all ages.
It was a most welcome and pleasant development when Graphix, the young adult graphic novel imprint of Scholastic, announced that Smith would not only be revisiting the Bone franchise for this latest work, but that the book would be a vibrant picture book designed for very young readers. Indeed, Smiley’s Dream Book is a gorgeously designed and vibrant book, with bright colors and charm suffused on every page. And even though the content isn’t Melvillian in scope like the original comics, the book has a free-flowing and winsome enchantment that will appeal to long-time and new readers. While Smith was unfortunately unable to chat at San Diego Comic Con, I caught up with him recently to ask about why now was Smiley Bone’s time to shine, the challenge of writing for early readers, and if we might be seeing any familiar faces in their own dedicated books in the future.
AJ FROST: Late last month, Graphix published Smiley’s Dream Book, your first picture book using your iconic Bone characters. While you’ve been working on Bone spin-offs ever since the main series ended, when did you realize it was the right time to bring back these characters in a book for early readers?
JEFF SMITH: It was serendipitous. Children’s books or picture books weren’t necessarily on my radar. My original Bone comics were for general audiences that included children, but picture books are an entirely different discipline. These are for early readers. I had done one picture book a few years ago called Little Mouse Gets Ready for Toon Books. It was popular, and I enjoyed making it, but it was a one-off. I wouldn’t mind doing another one, but I didn’t have an idea. It was Scholastic that suggested a Bone children’s book. Well, that put me right in my comfort zone. As you mentioned, I’m always looking for an excuse to draw the Bone boys!
FROST: In your opinion, what does Smiley Bone bring to the table that Fone and Phoney Bone can’t, at least for the purposes of this book? What was the thinking behind having the affable, but somewhat scatter-brained, Smiley be the main character of the book?
SMITH: Smiley is the most free-spirited of the three. A story about flying dreams seemed to suit him. And he is perfect for a solo outing. Fone and Phoney need each other for a story. They are yin to each other’s yang. Smiley is more independent.
FROST: While Bone, of course, is an all-ages book, Smiley’s Dream Book is the first time you are using these characters in a didactic context for emerging readers. I suppose I’m wondering, why was now the right moment for you to create this specific book?
SMITH: It’s barely didactic. Counting is just an excuse to start turning pages. Although, I bet more than a few kids will count out loud along with Smiley, especially when he starts counting backwards! It was just a moment that appeared, and I took it and had fun! I wouldn’t or couldn’t root the message of the story to anything specific in the current zeitgeist. It’s about the things I remember dealing with when I was young. Dreams, good and bad, bullies and counting.
Also bird poop.
FROST: In your mind, would you classify Smiley’s Dream Book as a comic book or an illustrated book with dialogue balloons? Am I off-base here in thinking that the final product here is something akin to being a comic book while not actually being a comic? I’m not trying to be pedantic or snobbish, I swear! Just curious about what philosophically and aesthetically constitutes a “comic book” for you.
SMITH: You are not wrong. My pictures books so far, Little Mouse, and Smiley (as well as a third one currently in the pipeline) are basically comics that have a single panel on each page. It’s work meant for a specific audience and a specific market. I probably wouldn’t try to tell a complex story in this format, but the principles of staging and panel to panel transitions are the same. And they talk in word balloons. Case closed!
FROST: Several years back, you published Little Mouse Gets Ready with Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books. How would you compare the process of working on that book versus creating the story for Smiley’s Dream Book? Or would you consider them completely separate in terms of process?
SMITH: Very similar. The difference was when Francoise asked me if I’d like to do a picture book, I jumped right to my 5-year-old self. The thing wrote itself. The whole book went from idea to completion almost instantly. With Smiley, I got caught up with the weight of Bone and kept getting sidetracked with unnecessary background details. My editors at Scholastic were very patient and, bless them, waited until I got my 7-year-old groove on. After that, it went very quickly. The same for the next Bone book coming out next year.
FROST: The influence of the Bone series grows with each passing year and judging by the number of products that were available at SDCC displays a continued interest in these characters. What are your thoughts on the legacy of the Bone as a purely comic book enterprise and the future of the franchise in terms of possible transmedia potential?
SMITH: Who knows what the future holds! Warner Brothers had the film license for ten years but now the rights have returned home. This might sound strange, but I am proud that Bone is known around the world as a comic book. It’s been translated into something like 35 languages. Places like Finland, Russia, and Israel. Croatia! I’ve been to festivals in India, Brazil, and Poland and people know and love the characters. I’m game for whatever!
FROST: What’s the route you see these Bone picture books going in? Are we going to see other familiar faces like Thorn or Gran’ma Ben appear at some point in the future?
SMITH: I… don’t think so. Maybe. Definitely not.
FROST: Ultimately, where do you see the Bone cousins heading? Their journey is complete, but is there possibly a new one around the corner…?
SMITH: That’s a big unknown, good buddy. These characters have been with me for so many years and yet they continue to surprise me. I feel lucky just to be tagging along.
FROST: Thank you so much for chatting with me today!
Smiley’s Dream Book is available now.