Interview: Jeff Smith on Cartoon Books’ Tuki: Save the Humans

Tuki: Save the Humans #1

Tuki: Save the Humans #1

Jeff Smith is the creator of the popular comics Bone and RASL. His current story, Tuki, is being serialized on his website, Tuki Season One will be available in print this July as Tuki: Save The Humans #1. Westfield’s Roger Ash recently spoke with Smith to learn more about Tuki and his world.

Westfield: How did Tuki come about?

Jeff Smith: I went to Africa in 1996. Vijaya and I went with Larry Marder and his wife, Larry’s the Beanworld cartoonist, and while we were there, we were in Tanzania and we visited the Olduvai Gorge which is where the Leakey’s did a lot of their excavations. Over millions of years, different species of humans lived there and I remember looking at some of the fossils that they had on display. It’s outside, so you’re standing there and you can feel the sun coming down on you and smell the plants and the animals and see the dirt and the grass. I remember really being able to picture our ancestors alive and walking around. That was the very beginning of the idea.

Westfield: How much research did you do for this?

Smith: I did a lot of research into what order our ancestors came in and tried to figure out at what point they were able to start talking. It’s amazing. Experts can look at the base of a Homo erectus skull and see that it had a long enough voice box so it could modulate sound. Also, they can look at impressions inside of the skull and see that it had a Broca’s area which is a major speech center. We don’t know that two million years ago Homo erectus could talk the way that we do, but they certainly were the first ones who had the equipment.

Westfield: Did you also do research into what the landscape would have been like and what animals were around as well?

Smith: Absolutely. I wanted to know what plants were around so when Tuki eats a fruit, he’s eating fruit that we think might have been around back then. It’s somewhat conjecture, but I went with what the experts think. And, of course, dinosaurs were gone for 63 million years when we showed up, so there are no dinosaurs in Tuki.

Westfield: But there was megafauna around at the time.

Smith: Yes, there were some big animals including the saber tooth, which is my favorite.

Tuki begins

Tuki begins

Westfield: What can you tell us about the story?

Smith: As I was doing the research, I came across a couple of different epochs when a turning point was reached. The one that I settled on that I thought would make a good story was two million years ago for two reasons. One; at that time, there were multiple different human species living at the same time; they were overlapping. So you had Australopithecus, you had Homo habilis, and some Homo erectus. They were all alive at the same time and would have interacted with each other. I thought that was interesting. You don’t really think about that very much and it would make a good story. Also, around that time was one of the world’s first ice ages which was changing the world and drying it out in a lot of places and forcing a lot of animals into extinction. But Homo erectus did not go extinct; he left Africa. He dominated the world, in Africa as well, when the other animals went extinct. So it’s a turning point where our direct root ancestor took over and survived while all the other human species went extinct. The story doesn’t feel like a grand turning point in history. It’s just a story of this one guy, Tuki, who is trying to move north. He’s walking, just trying to figure out how he can survive the day and get some food. There are people who are against him leaving Africa and they’re trying to stop him; mostly ancient spirit gods and things like that.

Westfield: Who are some of the other characters we’ll meet in the story?

Smith: That’s some tricky territory. I don’t want to say too much. We’ve already met a shaman, this Homo habilis character, who is surprising me already. I thought he was going to be a dangerous character, but he immediately turned into a worrying mother type. [laughter] I don’t know where we’re going with him. As soon as Season Two starts, which should be the first week of June, we’ll meet another Homo erectus; a child. We got a very quick glimpse of him in the last strip I drew. He was way off in the distance and you saw a saber tooth was stalking him. We’ll get to meet him. We’ll also meet the little ones, we just see their eyeballs in the first season, and those are Australopithecines. That’s about all I’ll say except that we’ll get to meet our first giant.

Westfield: You are doing this as a digital comic first. Why did you decide to do that?

Smith: It’s obvious that’s where we’re heading in the future and I wanted to be part of it. That doesn’t mean that I think print is going away any time soon, and I certainly don’t want it to. Vijaya and I have been doing this for twenty years and when we see a trend, we want to play; we want to get into it and figure it out.

Web comics are some of my favorite comics right now like Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton and Haunter by Sam Alden. I just thought it would be fun to do. We are going to do a print version. We’re going to do a color comic book that will come out in July, but I was curious about what would happen. Would the ability of people in Europe to read Tuki have any effect on the sales? I don’t know. We’ll find out.

Tuki attempts to eat a monkey orange.

Tuki attempts to eat a monkey orange.

Westfield: What sort of challenges did you find telling the story this way as opposed to a 24-page comic?

Smith: One challenge was that the screen was more horizontally shaped, so I had to change my grid and rethink how I look at panels on a page to tell the story. That was fun and I ended up kind of approaching it like the Golden Age of newspaper comics when Hal Foster used to do Prince Valiant and Alex Raymond did Flash Gordon. They put a lot more emphasis on the illustration. They wanted to leave the audience with something to look at to hold them over until the next week. I thought I’d try that. That also meant the story had to be the same way; I need to do something on every page. It doesn’t always have to be a joke, but some thought or process has to be complete on the page. We put them up on Mondays and Fridays and I want to try and evoke that Sunday comic page feeling and give people something to spend time with.

Westfield: Are you doing any reformatting for the print version?

Smith: We want to run one strip per page, so that has some challenges. It’ll look like a regular comic book on the stand and sit there vertically and have a cover that looks normal. When you pick it up and start to read it, you’ll have to turn it and read it horizontally until you get to the end and the letters page and you’ll have to flip it back again. We’re going to put a little timeline in there too to show people where this took place in the course of time.

Westfield: In one of the early strips, you had a note about the monkey orange.

Smith: That’s a real fruit that exists today and they think that it has been around for millions of years.

Westfield: Are you going to continue putting in little notes like that to point out some of the historical things?

Smith: Yes, I definitely am. I think that’s fun. Actually, that’s part of what’s nice about the web comic, and I picked that up from reading other people’s web comics, is that little note or interaction with readers which we used to get in comic books through the letters page, but people don’t really write letters any longer. [laughter] It’s all electronic now. But I think that’s fun and I think that would be interesting to read in someone else’s comic; what research brought them to make that decision. It doesn’t really change the strip, but it adds a little interest.

Tuki continues his quest to eat.

Tuki continues his quest to eat.

Westfield: You mentioned giants and gods, so are there more fantastical elements to the story as well?

Smith: Yeah. I want him to appear like a real human who’s hungry and is trying to just survive. I want the surroundings to be very real, but it’s very far, far away from us in time. I thought the more research I could do, the more realistic I could make it; the more believable it would be that this was really happening. But at the same time there are non-archeological elements that I could play with which is their superstitions or their beliefs. The shaman was able to create a potion that would allow them to speak to each other. That’s fantasy and when the giants start coming into the story, that’s not really in the archeological record.

Westfield: Is it difficult striking a balance between the two?

Smith: Sure it is. I have to be careful, but that’s something I’ve always found really fun to do. I love to take things that really don’t belong together and mash ‘em up. So taking something that’s historically accurate and putting fantasy into it is right up my alley.

Westfield: Reading the strip, I got the impressions that there’s definitely some back story to who Tuki is and why he’s leaving Africa. Is that going to be revealed eventually?

Smith: Yes, that would have to be part of the story. You have to figure out a character’s back story before you even start, but sometimes I’m not sure how much of it to actually show. In Bone, I had this back story worked out for Gran’ma Ben and I just happened to be telling this back story to my friend Charles Vess, who‘s the fantasy painter, and he wanted to draw it. We ended up actually telling the story in Rose. I probably never would have told that story; that was just the background in my head that set it up. So we’ll see how much of Tuki’s back story comes out.


Tuki: Save the Humans #1


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