A good story is hardly enough, for the real magic lies in its telling. For James Smith, it was a double challenge as the narrative was a confluence of text bubbles and images. Small wonder then that to write and draw nine volumes of the epic fantasy, Bone, he took 12 years.
The time-consuming task was self-imposed. “I love cartoon characters like Tintin and Bugs Bunny. I always wished their stories to be much lengthier, like Moby Dick or Odyssey,” he says. So in 1991 he decided to write “a different comic book, which will blow everybody out”. He had figured out the major incidents and the ending from the start. But fleshing out the story, unhurriedly, was the challenge. “Sustaining readers’ interest over the years was even more challenging,” he adds.
By the time he ended the adventures of the goofy Bone cousins—Fone, Phoney and Smiley—in 2004, the series had found its place among the world’s best graphic novels. The series— revolving around the Bone family of white, small, bald
humanoids with big noses, friendly dragons, scary rat creatures, a young girl named Thorn with a hidden past as a princess and her mysterious grandmother—had created a cult of followers with its gripping story and superlative images. This wouldn’t have been an incredulous achievement, had Bone not started as an underground graphic novel—scaling its way to the top mostly by word of mouth. “Over the years, the perception towards graphic novel has also changed. It’s no longer confused with comic books,” says Smith, who has printed most of his books.
However, the wait for the US-based graphic novelist to conquer popular imagination in India has been much less. Maybe word of mouth as well as the Internet had created a group of ardent Bone collectors much before
it occupied shelves in bookstores. Scholastic has already published and distributed the first four volumes of the series, priced Rs 350 each. The
remaining five volumes will follow soon. Originally Bone was serialised in 55 irregularly-released issues from 1991 to 2004.
Much before Smith came to Crossword, Kemps Corner, a group of Bone fans were waiting for him armed with their copies. Most of them were animators and graphic novel fanatics. They seemed to be quite well acquainted with the band of Bone characters, Smith’s art, life, moves and future projects. “It’s a surprise to meet my secret admirers here,” said Smith.
The novelist too had a surprise for them. Indian influences have seeped into the latter Bone volumes of the story unfolding in the strange land. His wife and business partner, Vijaya, who has her roots in Kerala, can probably claim the credit for it.
However, the wait for Smith’s second project, RASL, could be long. This noir-ish tale of a time-traveling art thief will be released in the US next month. “To reach India, it will take some time,” he says. Though Bone had started as a black-and-white graphic novel, its colourised versions started appearing in 2004. But with RASL, Smith goes back to his favourite palette—black and white. “It’s a hardboiled crime story. These colours suit its dark mood,” he says.
Smith confesses his penchant for dark stores. Bone, though started with lots of humour, turned darker with each volume. “I love complex tales. In the beginning, Huckleberry Finn seems like a children’s story but it gets much darker later,” he says. In spite of that Bone has found young fans. But he rules out RASL repeating it.