CBUS Cartoonist Takes Bone to Netflix
Jeff Smith had a movie deal. After humble beginnings as a newspaper comic strip and years of development into graphic novels, Smith’s Bone was set to be a big screen feature.
And he just kept hoping that movie would never be made.
“Fortunately, in my contract, if they didn’t make a movie in ten years, it came back to me,” Smith says.
The clock ran out, the phone started ringing, and Smith – a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Columbus – has now signed on as co-creator and executive producer of a Bone series for Netflix. When news of the deal got out, Smith’s phone lit up again.
“It was bigger news that I expected it to be, actually,” Smith says. “When the announcement went out, it got picked up by everybody and the response was frankly overwhelming. We were hearing from other cartoonists and animators. Not only are they saying congratulations, but they want to work on it! That was the part that really surprised me.”
Bone, which follows the fantastical adventures of the three Bone cousins – Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone – actually began at Ohio State in 1982 with Thorn, Smith’s comic strip for OSU’s student newspaper, The Lantern.
“It was sort of like a proto Bone,” Smith says. “It had all the same characters, the Bone cousins. It had Thorn the princess, it had her grandma, the dragon, the monsters, everything, but it didn’t have a story. I did it every day, five days a week for four years.”
After leaving OSU, Smith found ways to keep coming back to the world of Bone, and for years he tinkered with ideas to make it bigger.
“I liked those characters,” Smith says, “but I had wished there was a story that pulled everybody along. I came up with one, eventually. In 1991, I decided to self-publish it as an underground comic. It just made more sense to name it after him (Bone) because the Bones are the star of the feature.”
Smith’s audience continued to grow, as did the awards and accolades (including a spot on Time Magazine’s list of “The 10 Best Graphic Novels of All Time”), and the big studios came calling.
“It started with Paramount and Nickelodeon,” Smith says. “We worked on it for a few years but parted ways because we just had different ideas about how it should work. Then it ended up at Warner Brothers (WB), and they took it and kinda cut me out of the picture. And studio executives come and go and, oh, they made a mess of it. There was nothing I could do except wait for them to run out of steam.”
Bone’s core adventure is an expansive mix of light comedy and Tolkien-style fantasy thriller. It was not something Smith could envision fitting nicely inside a 90 minute structure.
Smith explains, “The problem that everyone had – and not just WB – they could not figure out how to make Bone. The full story is like thirteen hundred pages, and everybody always wanted to make it into one single feature film, an hour and a half kids movie. And I was like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And they would just insist on it.”
Eventually, Smith said the studio just stopped updating him on the project, and he quietly started watching the clock.
“I wasn’t gonna push it, stay low for a while, but as soon as word got out that the rights were open again, my wife and I started getting phone calls,” Smith says. “Netflix was by far the most exciting one.
“What’s great is, it’s gonna be a series, just like the comic book that I did out of my garage, one chapter at a time, and then it built graphic novel collection by graphic novel collection. The story came to life that way, and the exact same kind of serialized storytelling that we did in the comics we can do at Netflix. And they get it. They’re assembling a team that’s beyond my best wishes.”
As executive producer, one of Smith’s first jobs is to stress patience for the finished product.
“We just started. Very loosely, don’t hold me to this, but with any luck, we’ll have shows on the air by fall of 2022,” he says.
After so many years and so many setbacks, is Smith feeling nearly as much relief as excitement?
Laughing, Smith says, “Yeah, I’m glad you hear that.”