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A story 2 million years in the making: Jeff Smith on creating 'Tuki'

Comic Books

A story 2 million years in the making: Jeff Smith on creating ‘Tuki’

The legendary ‘Bone’ creator dishes on two exciting new GNs.

Fully funded in just 10 minutes, readers are hungry for new work by Jeff Smith. The legendary creator of Bone and RASL is back with not one, but two graphic novels available for backing via Kickstarter. The campaign includes Tuki: Fight for Fire, which will ship to supporters in July. T(hat date is important since it’s 30 years to the month the first issue of Bone was released.) The second book, Tuki: Fight for Family, will ship later in October.

Both volumes are oversized and landscape format, with a bonus material stretch goal, though Smith has said they’ve already met that goal and then some. The return to black and white line art is in keeping with the initial runs of both Bone and RASL. The story itself is set at the dawn of humanity and focuses on a mysterious traveler named Tuki. A rival species known as the Habiline hunt and kill anyone found using fire. Although it’s based on historical fact, Tuki encounters gods and giants, too.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

AIPT sat down with Smith to discuss Tuki, its creation during the pandemic, how self-publishing has changed over the decades, and much, much more!

For even more from Jeff Smith, make sure to tune into the AIPT Comics podcast with our full interview coming shortly. We discuss the upcoming Bone show, its years in development, his thoughts on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (having met both), and more!

AIPT: You mentioned in the Kickstarter press release that you really dove back into Tuki when COVID hit. Can you tell us a little bit about the process and why it felt like it was finally time?

Jeff Smith: Yeah, so when I set it aside, another reason was I was co-founding a comics festival called Cartoon Crossroads Columbus or CXC in Columbus, Ohio with Tom Spurgeon and Lucy Shelton Caswell and my wife, Vijaya. And that was almost a full-time job for a while. But then, in 2019, it wasn’t a full-time job. I got Tuki but still just thinking about it. I took some pages to San Diego Comic-Con International. But when lockdown happened I just suddenly had all this time to be at my desk. And I sat down and it got serious. And I not only knocked out and finished, I mean, completed, inked everything, Tuki: Fight For Fire that is done and ready to go to the printer. But I finished the second one. I have a second book called Tuki: Fight For Family. And it’s 90% done. I just have like the last chapter.

AIPT: So everybody says they’re gonna get so much done during the lockdown.

Jeff Smith: Actually, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I would have been happy if I did one book and I did two.

AIPT: Are there other ways the story evolved since you’ve gone back to it?

Jeff Smith: Yes. It still takes place 2 million years ago, BCE, which was a very fascinating crossroads in our history. It’s a real focal point, for many reasons. One, there were multiple human species alive at the same time, including Australopithecines, which was Lucy. And that right there, I want to draw that. One of the things around time period, our direct ancestor, Homo erectus, really starts to expand and takes over large swaths of Africa and actually leaves Africa and eventually settles Asia and Europe. My focus in the original thing was, I’m going to talk about the guy who, who did leave Africa, or at least led a band out.

Then I realized that the really amazing thing that happened 2 million years ago, that made Homo erectus, our real ancestor, and gave him the power to do all these things, was that he figured out how to use fire. He learned how to control fire and ate cooked foods. And that changed us anatomically, we no longer have these big fat hominid guts that had miles and miles and intestines that you need to digest all that raw meat. That’s when we lost our body hair. Everything happened. So the main focus now is that its fire and family and it’s a warmer story and it’s a lot more connected to itself than it was in the webcomic.

I call it a pilot.


AIPT: You make it sound like homo sapiens are almost like superheroes. And this was their moment to like gain their powers.

Jeff Smith: It was, it was. It was our best party trick. Then I decided the other hominids didn’t like fire. They almost felt like you’ve stolen a secret from the gods. That’s bad. That’s scary and dangerous, and it’s actually blasphemous. So some of the other species actually hunt and try to kill anyone they see using fire. That’s the story.

Jeff Smith: The stakes are high. Spoiler alert. We win!

AIPT: It seems like the core of every myth and this story, I don’t know why it makes me think of myth, is humanity’s attempt at understanding the world. I wanted to ask you, what are you trying to understand at the core of Tuki?

Jeff Smith: Well, there’s a level of myth in it. There’s not quite real, it’s grounded in reality. But also there are gods and giants in the story. So there’s that level of kind of mythological storytelling. But I think I’m not sure that I want to understand it. Well, maybe I do. I’m interested in evolution. And I’m interested in this period. I guess I just want to go there.

One of my favorite stages of making comics is doing the research. When you’re just all you’re doing is watching documentaries, and reading books and crazy articles online. I actually went to Olduvai Gorge in the 90s. That’s the famous archaeological site of the [Mary and Louis] Leakey’s. When I was there visiting, I went down into where you can go in and look at them, they have a little place where you can look at the light layers, the depths. And you can see how there were campsites and there were occupations over time at different levels. And I remember looking up and there was like a kind of a dirt wall going up. And then above that was, you know, there were trees and stuff. And there was a really strong memory of the tree trees kind of swaying in the wind, and kind of having this like, vision of like, all these different, you know, Homo habilis and Australopithecus and Australopithecus Amida. Walking around actually interacting with each other, I don’t know, almost like in a marketplace, and almost felt like I was seeing an echo of something that really happened. And that was actually when the seeds are planted for Tuki.

I’m not sure I want anybody to learn anything as much as I want to learn. What could be there? What was there?

A story 2 million years in the making: Jeff Smith on creating 'Tuki'

AIPT: Do you have any rituals to get into the right headspace to create?

Jeff Smith: A little I mean, I see a lot of people do like the warm-up sketches, or, I don’t know if writers are the same way, Maybe a warm up poem.

AIPT: Just a haiku to get the day started.

Jeff Smith: Sometimes the night before. Before I go to sleep, I might start thinking about what’s Tuki going to do tomorrow? That’s actually quite fun. And I did that a lot with Bone as well. What’s Fonebone gonna do tomorrow. And that was actually a really fun way for me to drift off to sleep. And often when I wake up, you know, and I can kind of see the scene I want to do, and the panel’s kind of appear to me, and I can kind of see what that is. And then I just go and I just get out the paper and do it.

AIPT: Was there any books that helped or inspired you when you were creating Tuki?

Jeff Smith: Um, yeah. One was called Catching Fire. That was, it was about the fact that capturing fire and eating cooked food is what pushed us over the edge from being you know, hominids and primates. There weren’t very many documentaries that were very helpful.

AIPT: We need to get time machines going. When you’re approaching Tuki, is there anything you’ve embraced, like digital technology, digital comics? Are you playing in that in that area?

Jeff Smith: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously, it started as a webcomic. I wasn’t enjoying it. I’m not blaming webcomics. It didn’t work for me. For one thing, you have to be really connected to the audience, you need to really, you know, talk to them. And it wasn’t something I was strong in.

Beyond using InDesign for laying out books, we color in Photoshop, but I still do all the artwork. And that’s all done with a paintbrush and some ink. The colorist and people I work with, they try to get me to work on the computer. “You can ink you can draw,” I explained to them, it’s too late for me.

A story 2 million years in the making: Jeff Smith on creating 'Tuki'

AIPT: Since you have come from the world of self-publishing, and now there’s this modern thing called Kickstarter that’s self-publishing, has it improved the experience? Is there anything that was that’s better when you were publishing before and now with this digital like Kickstarter thing?

Jeff Smith: It is a gigantic change. I think It’s so different that, well, let me back up and say like, in the 90s there were 11 comic book distributors. Now there’s just one, Diamond. But there are like, at least 11. There were regional. Some of them were nationals or regional. But if, if one of them didn’t carry you a bunch of other ones would. So in that sense, this is a different landscape now for self-publishers. And I have to say, I like it, that Kickstarter offers the self-publisher a way to get around gatekeepers.

But I want to stress that even if we want to get around gatekeepers, we still want to be on store shelves, right? So I’m not sure we’ve got that quite figured out yet. But I’m excited enough about the attention and publicity that these things get and not just for me, but for a lot of other books. That this is a way to prove that your book is a viable product that is a big improvement. That’s a big improvement. The only thing I’m worried about is that it kind of cuts out some of the middleman stuff which, yes the gatekeeper part I don’t miss, but I don’t want the retailers to be missed. So I’m gonna work with people and retailers and see if we can figure that out.

AIPT: Yeah, it’s a really crazy time for distribution too since Marvel’s leaving Diamond and going to Penguin Random House for all their distribution.

Jeff Smith: And DC already did. Since we do a lot in the book market. We, we use PGW which is a big distributor for us. But I remember when we first went to Scholastic. Getting versions of Bone into bookstores was difficult because they weren’t used to that market and that kind of Yeah, it was a challenge. Yeah, in fact, graphic novels entirely were a challenge.

Don’t miss the rest of our interview with Jeff Smith on the AIPT Comics podcast, coming soon!

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