INTERVIEW: Jeff Smith & Vijaya Iyer on Kickstarting Tuki, Loving the Industry, and Having Fun

Cover of Tuki: Fight for Fire

Cartoon Books Inc’s third graphic novel series, Tuki, went live on Kickstarter last week. It has already soared past its initial goal before writer and artist Jeff Smith and publisher Vijaya Iyer even knew what was happening. Iyer and Smith practically glow with excitement on the screen as we chat about the fun they are having brainstorming new stretch goal and tier ideas. “This is a good problem to have,” says Smith. He goes on to talk about the extra 16 pages of behind-the-scenes goodies that will be added to the two volumes of Tuki. The first Volume, Tuki: Fight for Fire is set to be released 30 years to the month from their publication of the first issue of Bone, a series that has helped shape the comics and their mainstream acceptance. He’s also very excited about the 30 hand-drawn drawings of Fone Bone, Bone’s main character, that will become part of the many Kickstarter’s goodies.

The couple is thrilled with the results of their latest self-publishing adventure, but they still have so much to learn about the world of Kickstarter. They are comics industry veterans who have touched on and influenced various aspects of the industry in many ways, innovating and adapting as they’ve gone along. Smith is the creative genius who gave us 55 issues of the dark fantasy tale, Bone, as well as the sci-fi noir RASL. Iyer’s administrative, legal, and business acumen behind the scenes has been pivotal for Cartoon Books and for indie comics as a whole. When Smith speaks about the comics distribution meltdown in the ’90s, he readily points out Iyer’s significant role in working out distribution contracts for independent publishers that would become boilerplates for the likes of Diamond and Capital Books.

But Kickstarter is a whole new game that has changed the way comics self-publishing looks and works. Now that Iyer and Smith have had a taste of it, they wonder why they hadn’t gotten on board sooner. “We’ve constantly had to reinvent how we get our books into the market,” Iyer explains. “We started in comic book shops, and then we expanded to bookstores, but this is just totally new and off the charts.”

Iyer describes the experience as both terrifying and exhilarating — a rollercoaster — but they both agree that it’s also been so much fun. They are particularly grateful for the community aspect, including the people who run the platform. Friends and colleagues prompted them to try out Kickstarter and many of them offer tips and tricks to the couple. Smith describes communicating with Spike Trotman earlier in the day about the logistics of adding more award tiers to the Tuki campaign, excited to learn from her that it’s not only possible but very easy to do. “That’s part of the support from the community,” Iyer adds. “We’re trying not to use them up. You know, only ask if you can’t figure it out yourself. But everyone’s been really helpful.”

The challenges and learning the ins and outs of the platform are keeping them busy, even as Smith continues working on the creative side, but they are enjoying this new way to connect with fans. “It’s different than selling to comic shops or bookstores because you’re actually in direct contact with your fans,” says Iyer. “Yeah, you do trade shows and things like that, but this is like — we’re in direct contact with all of our fans. And we’re trying to be really good about being responsive and things like that.”

The community response also inspires new ideas for them. The platform has enhanced one of the most important ways in which Cartoon Books functions, which is to prioritize having fun. “People will talk to us about ideas and stuff. We go, ‘would it be fun?'” says Smith. Iyer grins. “We sometimes produce merchandise, not because it’s going to sell but because we want one.” That all sounds very promising for the fun things fans can expect for Tuki.

As for the new graphic novels, Tuki: Fight for Fire and Tuki: Fight for Family explore life two million years ago. Reads the description of the first volume:

“At the dawn of humanity, during a prolonged period of hardship and drought, three lost children meet a mysterious traveler named Tuki. Together, their search for the Motherherd of all Buffalo leads them far north through the dangerous territory of a rival species called the Habiline. The Habiline hunt and kill anyone found using fire. Tuki’s reputation precedes them and soon they find themselves at the center of unwanted attention not only from Habiline warriors, but of gods and giants!”

Cover of Tuki: Fight for Fire

Fans of Smith’s work will recognize Tuki from the character’s original story, first published as a weekly webcomic in 2013. But, Smith promises, this story is all new. The webcomic format isn’t something Smith would return to because, he laughs, “I couldn’t figure out a way to make money on it.” But also because the comic strip format, especially when collected into floppy issues, simply didn’t flow well enough for his storytelling style. “I talk a lot about the actual process of writing and making the thing come alive, making it move so that the gutters disappear as the story flows.” (With that description, the name of their publishing company makes total sense.)

Still, there were a lot of things Smith liked about the original story, which was inspired by a trip to the Olduvai Gorge and a subsequent deep research dive into paleoanthropology. “But probably the main thing was, as these little kids got introduced — these orphans — towards the end. And suddenly — I didn’t want to change the story. But I wanted to change the feeling of the story. And I knew this was a story about a family or building a family.” Though there may be a few familiar images from the original webcomic, the new graphic novels are a whole new approach to Tuki and his journey.

Children sitting around a fire hungrily eating meatSmith promises that both volumes of Tuki are almost complete, and will certainly be ready for the planned July and October release dates. “I’ve never been this far ahead, ever,” Smith says excitedly. Certainly, being able to slow down due to the pandemic had a lot to do with his ability to focus on bringing his latest passion project to fruition, especially with no comic conventions and promotional tours to get in the way. Not that Smith and Iyer don’t enjoy that aspect of their work. ” I don’t know if I’m going to be doing that quite as hard,” Smith says. “That’s for the younger people. But I like to do it. I gotta go to some of the big shows, you know?”

One event that he certainly won’t be missing is Comics Crossroads Columbus (CXC) — especially since they are both heavily involved with the festival, having taken over from its founder and the curator of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, Lucy Shelton Caswell. Switching to a virtual format last October wasn’t too difficult, as guests often participated virtually from around the world. Normally, the festival itself takes over Columbus, Ohio, by connecting art institutions like The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, the Metropolitan Library, Columbus College of Art Design, the Museum of Art, and more. Styled after European festivals, as well as the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, for which Smith just provided a keynote, it’s the kind of comics event that he truly loves for its relaxed atmosphere and the opportunities to meet artists without the hustle and bustle. Smith fondly recalls his earlier experiences attending such events as a young artist in the ’80s where he got to meet creators such as Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, and Will Eisner. This year, Iyer and Smith are looking at a hybrid format and Smith is very excited about the guest lineup they have planned, though the names have not yet been announced. And of course, we’ll probably get to hear more about Tuki at that time, with the second volume set to release in October, which happens to coincide with CXC.

Cover of Tuki: Fight for Family

The pandemic also caused Smith and Iyer to realize that office space was no longer necessary, especially when the couple spent several months out of the year in Key West, already working virtually with the two other long-time members of the Cartoon Books team. “One of the secrets to spending 24 hours a day with your wife and business partner for 30 years,” Smith jokes, “is you have your office in one room and she’s got an office on the other side of the house.” (Fortunately for this interview, Iyer was just a quick text away, and was able to join us online!) But the “new normal” has also blurred the lines of office hours, which they are still trying to navigate. Their usual business hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but Iyer notes, “I frequently work later, Jeff frequently gets up at 5am to get some drawing in.” This has gotten worse thanks to the Kickstarter, but they appreciate the engagement and all the hard work of their team. “Now we keep our hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” says Iyer, “just so we can be out there attending to questions and comments.”

With two weeks still to go for their campaign, Smith and Iyer are sure to get the hang of it all while balancing everything else on their creative and administrative plates. But no matter what, they’re going to have lots of fun doing it.

[Editor’s note: this article mistakenly indicated that Cartoon Books runs CXC. This has been corrected.]

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.