Cartoonist Jeff Smith on ‘Bone,’ Drew Barrymore, and His New Series ‘RASL’

Jeff Smith Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Books

For thirteen years Jeff Smith wrote, drew, and published his epic comics series Bone all by himself. The series, about the three comic Bone cousins stuck in a Lord of the Rings–style fantasy adventure, was a cult favorite for years, until Scholastic started reprinting the stories in trade-paperback form — and suddenly Smith's little comics series is among the most popular children's franchises around, selling more than 150,000 copies in the last year alone, according to Bookscan. Today Smith releases the first issue in a brand-new series, RASL, which follows a dimension-hopping art thief into a decidedly adult mystery. Vulture talked to Smith about RASL, the Bone movie, and what you'd get if you chopped Fone Bone in half.

Related: Check out a preview of RASL here.

I’m sure you’re asked this a hundred times a day, but what’s the status on a Bone movie?
Um, you know what? I get calls on a weekly basis from producers. And one of these days I’m gonna give in.

It's a matter of you giving in?
Yeah, I just think, it’s gotta be — I’m just waiting for the right thing to hit me: the right group of filmmakers, just the right person. I’ll know it when I see it.

Do you have someone in mind you'd like to solicit in this interview?
I’ll tell you, there’s one person who I would dearly love to be involved in this and to play Thorn, Drew Barrymore. I just think she’s — Drew Barrymore would be the perfect voice for this.

Let's hope Drew Barrymore has a staff of people Googling her at all times.
Yeah.

As each Scholastic reprint of Bone gets published, it seems like your audience gets younger and younger. How old a reader did you intend Bone to be for?
You know, I didn’t think it through, honestly, when I first started. I was picturing other people who liked cartoons the same way I do, people who, even though they’re grown up, still watch Bugs Bunny on TV.

Bugs Bunny is an interesting comparison.
There’s kind of this very broad slapstick sometimes in Bone. And I do blame that primarily on Chuck Jones, Fritz Freiling, the whole Warner Bros. crew. But also Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strips from the fifties and sixties. Walt was a good example of someone who had a really good use of the English language. In fact, he tortured it, but only because he understood it so well.

The mention of Pogo makes us think of another character from that strip, the Shmoo, who was sort of an indefinable creature. If you were going to explain to me exactly what species Bone and his cousins are, what would they be?
You know [laughs], I don’t know what the Bones are. They look kind of like cartoon bones, that’s why I named them that. Like a Shmoo, if you cut one of the Bones in half, he would look like a big cartoon Tom & Jerry ham. With, like, one bone in the middle, which was how the Shmoos looked.

RASL seems like quite a departure from that kind of whimsy.
It’s very different from Bone, yeah. I wanted to write a story with a bad character as a lead. With Bone, there was the main Bone character, Fone Bone; he was a good guy. But he had a cousin, Phoney Bone, who was kind of bad and selfish and greedy.

It often seemed like he was the most fun to write.
He was. And I suspect he was a lot of people’s favorite character to read. So I thought, What if I could write a book that just had the bad characters? That's where RASL came from.

What comics are you reading right now?
I’ve got a couple. I’m really loving Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. There’s another series that I just got into called Tales From the Farm.

Oh, Jeff Lemire. We totally love that series, and we don't even like hockey.
[Laughs.] I heard a great podcast with him where he had this whole plan where he was going to get comics people to read about hockey and hockey people to read comics.

Finally, these two disparate worlds will meet.
Yeah, and the other book that I just finished reading that I loved very much was Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi.

This fall, a mini-debate popped up on comics Websites about the Best American Comics anthology. Heidi MacDonald, who writes the Beat, asked why more of the comics in that book didn’t tell great stories, and she specifically cited you as the kind of writer who is conspicuously absent from anthologies like this. And the debate about Bone in particular is continuing even this week. Do you think that there really is still a great split in the comics world between art comics and pop comics?
Yeah, I do. I’m not sure I’m too concerned about it. When you work in comics, you’re kind of used to lines in the sand. From the time you’re a kid, you’re kind of raised in this either/or type of a mind-set with comics: If you like Marvel comics, you can’t like DC comics. If you like superhero comics, you can’t like indie comics. There’s kind of like — I believe — a false dichotomy which puts a Chris Ware at one end and Bone at the other. But I don’t think one is more valid than the other. What are you going to do? It’s high art versus low art. You’ve got Chris Ware, who is Beethoven, and you have me. I’m the Beatles. One’s not better than the other. They’re just making different music.

Related: See our exclusive preview from RASL, issue one!