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Jeff Smith and Charles Vess explore the Bone universe in a three-issue, painted prequel.

By Trent D. McNeeley     October 11, 2000

For those unfamiliar with the Bone saga, the basic story is neatly summed up by creator Jeff Smith in his introductory text to nearly every issue: 'After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousinsFone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Boneare separated and lost in a vast uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures...'

What the world is about to learn is that, long before the Bone cousins ever came to town, that deep, forested valley held adventures for many others. One such adventure is contained in Rose, the three-issue mini-series from Smith's Ohio-based Cartoon Books. It's written by Smith and fully painted by artist Charles (Stardust) Vess, who also provides lettering in his own font.

'This is the story of the valley years and years before the Bones ever got there,' says Smith. 'It's set when Gran'ma Ben was very youngjust a teenager. She and her sister are the princesses of the land and they have to take their tests to see which one should wear the crown.'

The tests involve The Dreaming, the holy order of the valley. They journey to Old Man's Cave to take the tests, but something goes wrong and the Lord of the Locusts is awakened. Rose ends up having to fight the Lord of the Locusts, who takes the form of a giant dragon who besieges the town. Yes, most of the dragons in Bone are friendly, but Smith says this one is a puppet for the Lord of the Locusts. 'I can't give away more than that, but all their destinies are unfolded,' teases Smith. But Vess throws out one last hook: 'It's got a really great tearjerker of an ending.'

Character Study

Most of the characters in Rose will be familiar to Bone readers: Rose and Briar Harvestar, Lucius Down, the Great Red Dragon and the Headmaster of the Veni-Yan warriors (whose job is to protect the royal family) and The Dreaming. But there will be others, including Rose's parents, who'll play important roles.

One of the most fun things about this project for Vess is the opportunity to draw some of his favorite characters when they were young. 'Jeff has given me my own say so on some characters, while being very firm on the look of others,' says Vess. 'Jeff gave me character sketches of Lucius and at conventions it's great to show them off. He's this strapping young man with a full head of hair pulled back in a short ponytail. You say 'That's Lucius' and people's eyes get really big.'

'He kinda looks like Superman with a ponytail,' chimes in Smith. 'But he's definitely recognizable as Lucius.'

Vess has also gone to town with the inhuman creatures. His dragon is phenomenal, promises Smith, and his rat creatures are awesome. 'They actually look like big animals that you'd be afraid of if they jumped onto the path in front of you,' says Smith, 'which they do in the story, of course.'

An Idea is Born

So, why a prequel that eschews Bone's namesakes? 'It was actually Charles' idea to do a Rose mini-series,' says Smith, turning the tale of the series' impetus over to his collaborator.

'Well, I was up visiting Jeff and we were walking through Old Man's Cave, an actual state park where a lot of the action takes place in Bone,' recalls Vess. 'And I just asked him if there was a backstory. We were walking in this incredible valley with all these huge rocks and trees growing up, roots all over the place and the sunlight was dappling downit was a pretty beautiful day.'

Vess recalls that Smith began relating a backstory for an amazing world he had invented. At the end of the discussion, Vess turned to Smith and said: 'If you ever want to do a comic of that and you don't want to do [the art], I will!'

Smith said he took Vess there because he knew the painter would love the landscape. 'If you've seen his work, you know that he loves gnarled trees growing out of the sides of rocks, with roots entwined around and snuggling into cracks of rocks,' continues Smith. 'But the idea of using that backstory as a comic surprised me quite a bit.'

For those new to the Bone universe, Smith describes Old Man's Cave as a sanctuary for the Stick Eaters, a religious order dedicated to preserving The Dreaming. Smith said the order is based on his imaginings as a kid when he would visit the real cave. But while the real cave has a deep history involving Native American tribes, the young Smith embellished his history with hooded warriors. Years later, when pulling together ideas for Bone, Smith added these cultists into the fray.

In the here and now, Smith says it suddenly became clear that what started as simply informational backstory for the current comic book would really be fun to tell on its own.

Old Friends

Smith and Vess first collaborated on a Rose story in the Trilogy II Tour Book. That story, which Smith describes as a six-page trial run, will be incorporated into the mini-series. But the duo's friendship goes back to Smith's earliest days in comics.

'Even as I had done the third or fourth issue of Bone, I knew nothing about [the business of] comic books, about shows or anything,' remembers Smith. 'Someone told me I had to go to San Diego, to the con there, and I didn't know anything about it. By the time I found out, I couldn't even get into Artist's Alley.'

Enter Vess. Through a mutual friend, Vess called Smith and offered him half his table at the 1992 show. 'And he had longer lines than I did,' laughs Vess, who says he'd had the same experience when he started out with friends sharing space, and he was just keeping up the tradition.

A few years later, they did the first Rose story together. 'That was the first time I bought Charles some drinks to talk him into something,' says Smith. 'But as we were working out the details we realized this was a mini-series on the level of a Kingdom Come or Marvels.'

Because of that, the story will be told in three 48-page square-bound issues. That level of work, for a painted story, is rare even in today's market. 'I had to talk Charles into doing this as a comic,' says Smith. 'He mentioned that it could be like an illustrated story, like Stardust, but I insist people want to see Charles Vess comics again. And from taking sample pages to Chicago, San Diego and the Small Press Expo, I know we made the right choice.'

Vess agrees: 'You know you're doing it right when people come up to your table where you might have Xeroxes of all the pages, get all excited and by about the third page put it down and go, 'I'm going to wait until it comes out.' Okay!'

Special Delivery

Those very same fans, who've anxiously awaited Rose #1, will find it on stands today, a few weeks later than its scheduled September ship date. 'You are after all dealing with me,' says Smith with a self-deprecating chuckle. 'While I believe I've always been fairly regular, delivering five or six issues of Bone a year, my approach to these comics is that they are art. When it's done and comes out, it better deliver. It's more important that it deliver than if it ships the first week of the month it's scheduled.'

That said, Smith also is a publisher who knows the legalities of shipping too late after the anticipated date. 'I've never missed that legal window,' says Smith. Still, instead of the anticipated bi-monthly schedule, Rose will have a staggered release timetable, according to Smith. Rose #2 should ship in December, with Rose #3 shipping in March or April. In addition to the story, Smith also hopes future books will have room for an art gallery featuring the saga's characters in the days of both Rose and Bone. A young Rose, for example, would be shown beside Gran'ma Ben.

Smith sees Rose as part of the Bone saga that is entering its final phase. But even after the tales of this legend are gone, he says he hopes to collaborate with Vess again. 'Charles has raised my level of storytelling. The air is thin up here, man. And I'm sure we'll do something again.' Vess, for one, says you can count on it. 'A good collaboration creates something that either party involved could not have done as well individually. It's exciting.' Until then, Smith and Vess hope readers will stop and smell the Roses.

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