A conversation between a writer of cult comic books and a comics buff isn’t the kind of thing that makes for popular reading.
That’s the first thing that crosses this writer’s mind as Jeff Smith and he sit down for an interview on a park bench (it’s Tull season in India and a lateral homage of sorts seems in order) on the verdant lawns of Sanskriti Anandgram in Mehrauli, a Delhi suburb. And halfway through the interaction, Smith sums it up well when he says, “I can’t believe some of the things we’ve been talking about.”
Smith is, arguably, the first true-blue comics star to visit India. At 48, he looks like a healthier version of a young Robert Plant (Led Zep’s lead singer), and it’s probably because of the way he wears his hair. He has broad band-rings on several of his fingers and a couple of Indian-style bead bracelets on his arms.
Out of the box: Smith says there’s nothing trippy about Indian comics. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
And he is at home in India. This is his sixth or seventh (he can’t remember which) visit to the country. His wife (and fellow poster on www.boneville.com), Vijaya, is an Indian (from Kerala, but born and brought up in the US), so India isn’t the new and novel experience to Smith it is to many other visitors.
Smith, though, is set to become a household name in India.
His Bone books have been re-released by Scholastic, and a day before this interview he actually participated in a children’s book festival, signing copies for children.
That’s strange because the books don’t read like they were written for children and Smith admits as much. “I wrote them for young adults,” he says. But that’s probably why they appeal to children, he adds.
We joke about the fact that Scholastic published and distributed the Harry Potter books in some parts of the world and is now handling the Bone books—a big leap for a book that was self-published. Smith jokes that he’s lost his street-cred because of this but doesn’t look at all unhappy at the prospect—after all, if it means more people will get to buy and read the Bone books (and, by extension, that Smith will make more money), why should he complain?
Bone: Scholastic, 138 pages, Rs350
Bone, for the benefit of the uninitiated, is a set of books about three characters called Bone (Fone Bone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone) who live in a place called Boneville (which is never seen in the book) and embark on a sort of epic quest.
And while the simple style of the books—reminiscent of Walt Kelly who created Pogo (Smith acknowledges that he was an inspiration)—may make readers think otherwise, there is no doubt in Smith’s mind that Bone is an “epic”.
One influence, he says, were the Uncle Scrooge comics. Scrooge McDuck (the richest duck in the world) was a character created by Carl Barks, and Smith says that when he was in school, he dreamed of an epic series, a sort of continuing story-line, for the Uncle Scrooge comics. So, when he had an opportunity to do something with the Bone books, he went ahead and did just that.
Bone’s commercial success—apart from the Scholastic re-issue, a movie from Warner Bros. is due next year, for which he will be executive producer—has given Smith what he jokes he wanted when he decided to make a career in comics.
In reality, Smith has two cars, a Jaguar and a Smart car, and got into comics because he had an “itch”. He “wanted to do it because you like it”. His growing global success is also evident from the fact that this is his “first business trip” to India; on the earlier trips, he says, nobody knew him.
Smith breaks off to run to his room to bring back a copy of RASL (the first trade paperback version of RASL, or collection of individual comic books) he wants this writer to see. It’s edgy, in a noir sort of way, and is a sort of sci-fi-meets-noir story of an inter dimensional art thief who, in Smith’s own words, “has to take all these sort of drugs to manage” the movement between dimensions.
This could explain Smith’s fondness for Heavy Liquid, a Paul Pope comic about a drug that is also an art form (it’s complicated, so we will leave it at that).
His other favourites include Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller.
“Yes, I loved Black Hole.”
Smith says he has seen a lot of Indian comics—usually the mythological “Ramayana kind of stuff”. He thinks they are very stiff—“nothing trippy about them.”
According to him some of these remind him of the Classics Illustrated, a 1960s/1970s effort in the US to make classics such as Moby Dick accessible to young people through comics versions.
He has kind words, however, for illustrator-writers Manjula Padmanabhan and Sarnath Banerjee. No, he hasn’t read Banerjee’s first book Corridor (promoted in India as the country’s first graphic novel) but he has read his second, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, and he thinks it’s as contemporary as any other work being done in comics elsewhere in the world.
And there is, he says, a lot of that work happening elsewhere.
“There are 20-year-olds doing” trade paperbacks. That bodes well for the medium and Smith says he has no worries about the future of comics: “Coming up behind me is a Tsunami.”