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Jeff Smith: Tuki, Best 2013 Comics, and More

Jeff Smith has had a busy year. The indie-comics pioneer has seen his mind-bending sci-fi epic RASL collected in a comprehensive hardcover edition, edited the anthology BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2013, and begun writing and drawing a new webcomic (which will be collected in print, beginning with a first trade sometime next summer), TUKI SAVES THE HUMANS. We caught up with Smith to ask him a few questions about comics.

Was 2013 a good year for comics?

I think it was. It continued the trend of the last couple of years with big releases in the fall that garnered a lot of favorable attention from the national press. Comics online are not only getting better, but people are starting to figure out ways to make a little scratch. And comic book conventions keep cropping up in new cities, attracting new people all the time. Not to mention the overwhelming amount of truly good work that’s being done right now. I can’t think of a time in comic book history when our art form was so well respected.


What are some of your favorites in BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2013?

That’s a tough one. To make it through to the final cut of Best American Comics 2013, they all had to be favorites. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf was a good one. Sophie Goldstein’s The Good Wife was another. Evan Dorkin’s strips are killer. Two comics that really floored me were Jesse Jacobs’Divine Manifestation of a Singular Impulse and Sam Alden’s The Haunter.


What were some of your criteria in choosing the stories that made it into this collection?

I had a lot to choose from, every format from mini comics to hardcover graphic novels to web comics, and every possible genre and style. I decided right away that only the comic counted, not the size, subject matter, or the platform. As I say in the book’s introduction, my main criteria was originality, grasp of the tools and syntax of panel-to-panel progression, and most important, if the thing surprised me, it was in.


TUKI, your new series, is about a point in history when humankind could have perished completely. How did this idea come about for you?

Yeah, yeah. It gestated for a long time. The first inkling, or image that came to me, was of a man walking. Didn’t know who he was or where he going. Just walking. That’s all I had. Then I remembered a trip I took to Africa with Beanworld cartoonist Larry Marder. We visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and the site where they discovered Lucy, the famous Australopithecus skeleton. I’ve always been a paleontology buff, and the current thinking is that multiple species of humans were all alive at the same time until around 2,000,000 years ago, when a tremendous era of climate change drove them to extinction. All of them except one, Homo Erectus. Homo Erectus left Africa and successfully settled India, Asia, and Europe. Well, somebody had to be the first one, and that’s the story I decided to tell.


TUKI is starting out as a webcomic, which will later be collected in print. How did you decide on this new business model, and is it scary or challenging to venture into?

It’s a little scary. The technology alone is daunting for an old luddite like me. But on the other hand, we will still be following the basic formula that [my wife] Vijaya and I began with back in the ’90s. We’ll collect the stories into small graphic novels for the comic book market and eventually compile the whole story into a single book when it is finished. I don’t know how long the story will be exactly, but we plan to release the first print collection to the direct market next summer.


Ultimately, do you see TUKI as a fantasy/adventure series, or would you describe it another way?

Fantasy/adventure is correct. The setting is grounded in science, so you won’t see Tuki battling or riding dinosaurs, but there are plenty of nonarchaeological themes for me to play around with, like spirit animals and ancient gods. Tuki will have his work cut out for him if he wants to survive.


It’s interesting to note the colloquialisms used in the first several pages of TUKI. How will you depict language and the evolution of speech in TUKI? Is that something you will delve into?

Well, obviously our ancestors didn’t speak English, but I want the story to feel current. We know from the fossilized skulls of Homo Erectus that they had a space at the back of the throat for a long, nearly modern-size voice box. Whether or not they could talk the way we do is conjecture, but I subscribe to the notion that our ancestors were not that different from us in the ways they thought. That is, they are essentially us, but without the discoveries and experiences that make us modern. However, the other species that coexisted with them did not have developed larynxes. Homo Habilis had a much shorter space in their skull for the voice box, and the Australopithecines were probably only capable of the kinds of sounds an ape can make. As you will see in the strip, I came up with a trick to let the different species communicate with each other.


How far in advance have you planned TUKI? Are the beginning, middle, and end already mapped out in your mind?

The story is loosely planned out.  As I did with both BONE and RASL, I wrote down the ending of TUKI before ever picking up my brush.


Do you think you will ever do a story as long and ongoing as BONE again?

Who knows? Never say never!