As the 25th Anniversary is underway and a new story stands unveiled, we reflect on Jeff Smith’s Bone and recall one amazing weekend
I’m honored to say that I’ve worked in and around the comic book industry for almost 30 years. Over that time, I’ve been a storeowner, a webcomic creator, a comic writer, a news reporter, a convention owner and now a professional writer (and editor) guiding a team discussing collectibles daily here at CompleteSet. To say I’ve come away with a lot of stories from those years would be an understatement. I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the industry, met a ton of celebrities and attended some utterly amazing events. To me, at many points along the way, it felt like I was being allowed to run off and join the circus. I think sharing some of those stories could be interesting. This article is one such story.
Today, I’d like to walk you back to 2008 and share the details on what I consider to be one of the most interesting (and coolest) events I ever attended. I’m writing about it today as there is a hook at the end of this article that ties in firmly to 2016 but I’ll save that little tidbit for the finale. First, I’d like to share with you the story of a gallery show, a comic creator gathering and an extended discussion that took place in Columbus, Ohio on May 10 to 11 of that year. The gathering honored one of my favorite comic book stories (and creators) of all time. Here, I’m flashing back to share the creativity of Jeff Smith and the phenomenon we call Bone.
From the start of May through early September of 2008, an exhibit titled “Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond” took place at the Wexner Center for the Arts in conjunction with the Cartoon Research Library (now known as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum). In early May, the Center held a two day celebration that was nothing short of phenomenal.
If you haven’t heard of Bone, you need to understand there was a time when it became the closest thing to the Harry Potter phenomenon we’d seen in the comic world. It was the creation of an independent artist and writer and it began as a simple story with a short print run coming out of a creator’s home office. Those humble beginnings grew into a monumental work that influenced and inspired a generation of creators challenging them to consider stepping away from the established industry, honoring their own creative vision and making what they love a reality. It also ushered in a generation of new readers in a way that was utterly remarkable.
Originally serialized over 55 issues, which came out from 1991 to 2004, Bone was much celebrated within the comic industry and the wider world. It received an unbelievable ten Eisner Awards (think of them like the Academy Awards for comics) and eleven Harvey Awards (a prestigious award nominated and selected by the full body of comics professionals). The National Cartoonists Society named it Best Comic Book and it has won additional awards in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Finland and Norway. Even TIME magazine called it “the best all-ages graphic novel yet published” and I have to agree it deserves every one of these honors. Since partnering with Scholastic that story became a million-selling series of graphic novels that has delight fans all over the world in a variety of languages.
Getting past the reason you should pay attention and returning to our story, that weekend’s activities in Columbus featured four distinct events focused on Jeff Smith and his work as a comic creator. The weekend began with the gallery opening titled “Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond”. This feature event unveiled and displayed roughly 80 original black-and-white pages from Bone, a smaller selection of full-color Bone covers, a mix of some of Smith’s post-Bone artwork and a sampling from other creators that influenced his creation.
The Wexner Center lent itself well to the gallery show. Upon entering the main floor, you were greeted by an information desk and a large sweeping staircase to your right. As you descended the stairway, it was immediately clear that you are entering the world of Bone. A massive mural was presented on the wall, which the staircase overlooked and featured the full color mural depicted above. This same image was also featured as the official show poster commemorating the event which is a piece of art I still prize in my home.
For the evening, finger food and a full bar highlighted a reception area which began at the mural, encompassed much the main room and flowed into an adjacent glass walled reception hall. This area gave guests the feel of entering a celebration as they came down the stairs. For much of the evening, the reception was filled with people that spilled out into the main show area in front of the Wexner bookstore.
The actual art exhibit (a first of its kind for a comic book series in this portion of the country) presented in four connected areas kicked things off. For the most part, Smith’s art was shown on traditional white walls with informational plaques mixed throughout the exhibit. What made this presentation really pop was the long wall that could be seen from anywhere within the exhibit. It was done up in a striking two color design evoking the legendary rainstorm sequence from the Bone series as a backdrop. Mixed with the white walls, it really proved an exciting focal point for the exhibit. For a gallery presentation, this is as visually striking as any I’ve seen previously (or since).
If you kept an eye on that crowd, you could spot Smith’s parents along with his wife Vijaya who I had the honor of meeting that night. Bone colorist (and comic creator in his own right) Steve Hamaker was on hand along with representatives of both Cartoon Books and Scholastic Books. Comic legends Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar and Terry Moore were just a few of the creators present for the event. Start to finish; it was an exceedingly well attended gallery opening.
For me, meeting and talking with the sadly now deceased Harvey Pekar was a true honor. His slice of life approach to comic storytelling was groundbreaking. This “poet laureate of Cleveland” really established the standard for excellence when it comes to drawn memoir and the autobiographical comic narrative.
Setting aside the honor of meeting Harvey Pekar, my true fanboy moment came when I spotted an individual whose comic book work rivaled Smith in terms of holding my respect and admiration. I immediately picked Terry Moore and his wife Robyn out of the crowd and introduced myself. I simply wanted to express my appreciation for his work as he toured the gallery. A gracious individual, It was only a brief chat but it would lay the ground for many additional conversations between us over the years. To him and his wife I became “that guy in the hat” at shows long before they knew my name. His series, Strangers In Paradise, from Abstract Studio, remains tied with Bone as my favorite comic book read of all time. Moore, a longtime friend of Smith, had flown in from Texas for the weekend to attend the opening. Here he examines part of the exhibit.
On Saturday, “Jeff Smith and Scott McCloud in Conversation” featured the two creators discussing Smith’s work and fielding questions from fans. Scott McCloud literally wrote the book on understanding comics so I knew this was going to be pretty amazing.
During the conversation, Smith and Scott McCloud took the stage at precisely 2:00 PM. The two were introduced by Lucy Shelton Caswell, then professor and curator for Ohio State’s Cartoon Research Library. In truth, the conversation itself was like listening in on a chat between two old friends, which it’s clear these two were. Covering topics ranging from what influenced Smith to the business side of Bone to women in comics, Smith and McCloud spoke for about 50 minutes batting questions back and forth (though most were directed at Smith). Follow-up questions from the audience ran for an additional 40 minutes bringing the entire conversation in at about an hour and a half. An enthusiastic crowd was on hand with some traveling from as far as Florida to attend the event. Organizers estimate the conversation was attended by a little over 350 people.
That conversation, for which I had a front row seat, is still one of the best examinations of the creative process I’ve seen to date. Hearing these two pull apart and examine not just Smith’s work but the broader industry was a rare treat. Should you wish to hear it for yourself, you can find it as a DVD extra on the 2009 “The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics“. If you watch closely as they pan the audience at different points, it’s not too hard to spot me with a huge grin on my face.
After the conversation came to a close, fans flooded out of the theater to form a line for a signing. Watching the exits as the event transitioned, I can say that almost no one left. The entire hall simply moved from the theater to form a line to meet Jeff and Scott. To these two creators gracious credit, both stayed until every last fan was met, every last book was signed and Smith, wrist brace in place, was drawing small Bone sketches with most signatures. What really struck me was the way he took time to make every single kid who approached him feel like this entire event was all about them answering questions, asking them and telling stories until he got smile after smile. Scott McCloud actually came out into the line at several points telling stories, jokes and entertaining folks with song.
On a personal note, I was busy grabbing photos as the line formed but still wanted to get a book signed. Bringing up the end of the line, I was there at the very close of the event. The line lasted just a little over three hours. When I made it up to say hello, both creators proved just as gracious and friendly as if we had been the first in line. They had to be tired, but they didn’t let it show for a moment.
Time and again, what made this event so much fun was the enthusiasm that could be seen on the faces of fans, no matter the age. From the very young to the well seasoned in age, Bone draws people together and ignites a passion to read. I didn’t just read Bone that first time through; I devoured each issue hungry for more. It was nice to be reminded that weekend that I very much wasn’t alone in that experience. Seeing that passion to read ignited in younger fans is particularly fun. If you look closely at the following image, you’ll see one aspect of why Bone is so deserving of respect…
Bone is open and being read. The Nintendo DS is in the off position.
The gathering itself was very relaxed while still maintaining an air of excitement. At the time and even to today, I feel like the Wexner Center should be commended for making the public feel right at home within the facility. Security, where it was present, was very supportive of the patrons and seemed to genuinely enjoy hosting the event. The art gallery itself was open early and remained accessible past the referenced hours in honor of the event. Quite refreshing!
Now, at the start of this article I promised you I would tie this one back into 2016 and give you a relevance for why I decided to take you on this journey today. Back in 2004, Smith stepped away from Bone to pursue other series like RASL and Tuki. Much like J.K. Rowling returning to Harry Potter, Jeff Smith announced earlier this year that he would be returning to Bone and it made news!
He’s come back to these much loved characters adding a new tale to the story of the three cousins with “Bone: Coda“. Created in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the series, this new volume is a one-shot special that presents the first original Bone tale Smith has drawn since finishing the series in 2004. Loading the volume up with extras and tidbits, this one had fans (me included) very exited. It was officially rolled out at Comic Con International in San Diego and went on sale to stores on July 27th. You can order yours today and I give Bone, as a whole, my absolute highest recommendation. This series was simply magnificent.