Jeff Smith Talks Bringing the Prehistoric Epic to Kickstarter

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Jeff Smith is one of the most celebrated comic book creators today, with ten Eisner Awards and eleven Harvey Awards as the writer and artist of such enormously successful titles including Bone. For Smith’s first-ever Kickstarter campaign, the acclaimed creator is revisiting his past prehistoric tale TUKI for a pair of original graphic novels that reimagine the world he created into brand-new stories.

In an exclusive interview with CBR, Smith spoke about his first experience launching a Kickstarter campaign, how the new format lends itself perfectly to revisit TUKI the way Smith always intended and reflect on Bone‘s legacy as it nears its 30th anniversary this July. The Kickstarter campaign page to back Smith’s TUKI is live here.

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CBR: This is your first Kickstarter! How has that whole experience been?

Jeff Smith: It is my first Kickstarter, and I don’t know why it took me so long. Billy Tucci and his wife Deborah, and Brian Pulido, and his wife Francesca were doing a podcast and they invited Vijaya, who is my wife and business partner and done publishing with me since the beginning. They had her on, and they were just talking about Kickstarter and how great it was and how it’s like the new self-publishing era. They kind of insisted we really look at Kickstarter and we did, and I’m pretty excited!

TUKI started as a web-comic. What made you want to revisit this prehistoric story and kickstart as a pair of graphic novels?

Smith: I set it aside because it didn’t quite work as a comic; I was trying a web-comic experiment and my inspiration was the golden age of Sunday comics like Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant, these big, epic pages. I wanted to fill the screen with a Sunday page and I wanted to do it once a week and I did it for about two years, maybe a little more. But when I collected them in comics… they didn’t flow; they didn’t read right, there would be a stop-and-go quality to it. Because it was landscape, I had to publish it like a calendar — some people didn’t like that, some people loved it — but that wasn’t my problem with it.

My problem was the stop-and-start element that happened with these pages that I didn’t create as one flowing thing. I didn’t know what to do with it and I also set it aside because I was starting up a comics festival: Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. I co-founded it with Thomas Spurgeon, my wife Vijaya Iyer and Lucy Shelton Caswell, and that just took all of our attention for a couple of years. But then, in 2019, I started to play around with TUKI again, but it wasn’t until the lockdown last year that I really sat down and reimagined it and reinvented it. I almost redrew the whole thing; it’s a completely new book, it’s not the web-comic.

It’s similar, it’s the same kind of idea, it’s no longer focused on the first humans to leave Africa. It’s now focused on the first humans to use fire because that was also happening around 2,000,000 B.C. It created a much better story for it because the other humans that were alive at that time — Australopithecus, Homo habilis — I thought they could be terrified by this fire and almost think it stolen from the gods and blasphemous to use fire. And I have this situation where things are getting set up for a showdown and, at 2,000,000 B.C., our immediate ancestor was Homo erectus. They showed up right then and they looked different: They were tall, sleek, had bigger brains and ate, cooked food and controlled fire.

I thought this was a much more interesting thing so I sat down this lockdown year, and I made a 144-page graphic novel and it’s completely done. And not only is it done, I did a second one called TUKI: Fight for Family, so this campaign is really about two books and I’m super excited about it.

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In speaking about Fight for Family, what made you want to bring children into this narrative?

Smith: They were always part of it, I was just didn’t think they were as important as they became. And that was one of things about doing a web-comic that made me set it aside, because all of sudden I really saw the family that was there and I thought there is a different story here that I want to make. And that’s what I was able to come back and do: It’s a story about family and I didn’t know that when I was doing the web-comic.

After years of self-publishing and this as your first Kickstarter campaign, how has the experience of getting it set up and establishing incentives and stretch goals been?

Smith: Strange! It’s a new experience for me, so I didn’t know how it was going to work. The energy, though, does feel very similar. The only thing that’s really different from back in the day is we were selling it to retailers. Back then, retailers had to buy the books and the direct market buys books non-returnable, so you really need to do some work getting retailers on your side believing in you and trusting you.

This time, you have a different job: Now you’re talking directly to readers, which is a strange concept for me, I’m not used to that. [Laughs] But it is a bit more natural and, back in the days of self-publishing, there were 17 distributors at the time; there wasn’t just Diamond. So this, in a way, is very different but I really think the vibe is similar. Here’s the big difference between then and now: There were a handful of mega-talented people back in the early self-publishing days in the ’90s. Now, there are lots and lots of dozens of people that are so talented it’s mind-boggling. There are such good writers, good artists — everybody is an Alex Ross now — it’s really, really exciting and a really exciting time to be doing comics like this.

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You’re looking for the first volume to ship in July which is also the 30th anniversary of Bone

Smith: Ah yes, Bone #1: July 1991…I am old, we can just get that out of the way. [Laughs] I’m actually very excited, and it makes sense to me to announce my third creator-owned independent project. Bone was number one, RASL was number two; the final edition of it came out in 2014. Following the tradition of those two projects, this will be black-and-white. Bone was originally published in black-and-white, so was RASL and now TUKI will be in black-in-white [for] two volumes, and I think that’s the best way to celebrate Bone‘s birthday.

I was just wondering if you could speak to the legacy of Bone three decades on.

Smith: Thirty years is definitely something to be proud of. It’s still a book happening right now: Scholastic took over, closing in on 17 years or something, Scholastic brings it to a new generation every couple of years. It’s phenomenal to me that, after 30 years, it’s not only in print but reaching new audiences all the time; I’m proud of that.

What are you excited about to revisit TUKI, with the benefit of hindsight, and for with readers to see it in this new format?

Smith: This is a new story, I was able to repurpose some of the art but many of the word balloons are rewritten. I had time to think and put this story back together the right way so everybody’s going to see this as a new story, even if you recognize a panel or two. There’s a battle with an ape guy and that’s about the only scene that got through unscathed, everything else got mixed up with brand-new panels and I moved a few panels around; this a brand-new book. You’re going to get one book in July and the second in October, and I think this is going to be a much more recognizably Jeff Smith reading experience.

Written and illustrated by Jeff Smith, the Kickstarter campaign for TUKI: Fight for Fire and TUKI: Fight for Family is live now.

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