Jeff Smith is on the road again! The popular cartoonist’s first major work, the 55-issue, 1400-ish page cartoon epic Bone, earned him countless accolades, including (but not limited to) multiple Eisners and a coveted spot on TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Graphic Novels of All Time. Earlier this year, Smith embarked on a national tour to promote his latest project: TÜKI.
Originally conceived – and released – as a webcomic, TÜKI follows early humans as they navigate a world that has just discovered fire. The two-volume (for now) story launched on Kickstarter in the spring of 2021, reaching its funding goal in under nine minutes.
Dubbed The Dawn of Man Route 66 Tour, the cross-country road trip will take the comic creator to bookstores and comic shops across the United States. The tour, which kicked off at Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle, includes stops in Oklahoma, Illinois, Texas, New Mexico, and California.
STARBURST sat down with Smith at C2E2 (Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo) for a career-spanning interview, talking about everything from TÜKI and Bone to the utility of Kickstarter and how the Dawn of Man tour came to be. He even teases a brand-new Bone project (not Tall Tales Vol. 2, but we do talk about that, too!)…
STARBURST: Really quickly, let’s recap what TÜKI is about for readers who may be unfamiliar with it.
Jeff Smith: TÜKI takes place two million years ago, and the idea is that multiple human species in our evolution were all still alive at the same time. So even the species that the Lucy skeleton is from, members of that genus were still around at the time. So interestingly, that’s when homo erectus, our direct ancestor, first appears, and so does fire. He controls fire, and that’s kind of the day the game changed. I thought, “Why has no one told that story? There’s gotta be a story there!” There were at least a dozen human species alive in Africa at the same time, but only one survived.
We’ve noticed that when you find a topic that really fascinates you, you dive all in and learn everything you can. You did something similar with Nikola Tesla in RASL!
And physics! I could actually talk to you about physics around the time I was working on RASL! It’s all gone now. I didn’t retain any of it. [Laughs]
What else can you tell us about early humans? What kinds of things did you find most interesting or most helpful when you were doing your deep dive?
In order to tell this story, I wanted to be able to have the characters talk to each other. So could our ancestors talk at that time? I had to do a lot of research into that. I really found that there were two things: If you look at skulls from that period, whether it’s homo erectus or homo habilis, they had a voice box. They would do casts of the interior of the skull, and there were nodules that are really important to our use of language.
It was important to me that it was at least possible for them to speak.
If early humans were not able to speak, how would that have altered your story? Would it have been as straightforward as telling it wordlessly?
Yeah, I might’ve tried to do it wordlessly. There’s quite a bit of that in there.
So what’s next for TÜKI?
I’m hoping there will be six books altogether. So this was Act 1. I’m into trilogies. I have been all my life. I don’t know why. In fact, I originally did RASL as four books, but my French publisher rearranged it and broke it up so that it was three. I looked at where he did it, and I was like, “That’s the natural break.” So I switched it so that RASL is three acts in paperback.
Let’s dive into the Dawn of Man tour. Can you talk a bit about how it came to be and what kinds of stops you’ll be making?
It’s a mixture of comic book stores, independent bookstores, and libraries. I can’t wait!
RASL was critically well-accepted, but it didn’t get a lot of traction. Tüki seems to be getting a lot of traction. I mean, the first book is in its third printing and the second book’s already in its second printing. I thought, “I need to get on the road and promote this.” With COVID and everything, no one was doing it anymore.
I love the American Southwest, but I’ve never done Route 66. It just popped into my mind: The Dawn of Man Route 66 Tour. Everyone goes, “Alright!” They get it. We don’t even know what we’re getting, but we all get it! I have a very good team and a great staff. Kathleen Glosan [Cartoon Books PR manager] has never been to Route 66, but it’s on her bucket list.
Kathleen’s a superhero.
You’re not kidding! She has been with Vijaya (my wife) and me for almost 30 years, and she has never been on Route 66, so she’s really into this.
Walk us through your experience running the Tüki Kickstarter.
I never even thought about doing one before. Basically, we had help. Back in the ’90s, there were a bunch of self-publishers, and we all knew each other. Billy Tucci, his wife Debra, Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti were all trying to get V and I to join this club, and we’re like, “We don’t know anything about it!” They showed us what they did, and we launched it. And it was crazy! It was like a day job.
We’re gonna do it again! We’re gonna do a second Kickstarter. What we’re gonna Kickstart this time is something people have been asking me about for decades. We’re gonna take all the college strips I did and the early Bone stuff called Thorn, and there’s probably about 200 of those over the three years I did it. We’re gonna collect them all in a deluxe book and include really early drawings that my mom just found when she was going through her closet. She found stuff from when I was really young, and I only just saw it like three months ago. There are old pictures of Fone, Phoney, and Smiley Bone from when I was so young, like 8. They had stick arms.
I’m a Beatles fan, and they started doing those 50th-anniversary deluxe versions of their albums. They’ll do really nice things like put them in boxes, slipcases, or extra little goodies. We’re going to do something like that.
That’s incredible. Bone Tall Tales Vol. 2 hits in September. What can you say about the book at this point?
I had a few orphan stories that didn’t make it into the original canon of Bone. Stuff, I did like an eight-page story for Disney Adventures Digest. It was just sitting there. So I said, “Well, I’ll have the Bone scouts tell stories around the campfire. And then my friend Tom Sniegoski wrote some of the stories, and we put that in the first Tall Tales. Then Tom said, “Let’s do some more.” I was like, “All right!”
Find out more about Jeff’s Dawn of Man tour here.