Recovered from cardiac arrest, Jeff Smith looks back, forward

Following an August health scare, the Columbus cartoonist prepares for the release of 'Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986.'
Jeff Smith
Jeff SmithCourtesy the artist

On August 13, Jeff Smith emerged from the basement to get a drink following a workout. Moments later, Smith’s wife, Vijaya Iyer, who was reading the newspaper on the second floor, heard a glass crash to the ground.

“And when she didn’t hear me swear, she came downstairs and found me on the floor of the kitchen,” said Smith, who had suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital.

By phone in early November, Smith described his circumstances as fortunate, in that any delay in receiving medical treatment could have led to a significantly worse outcome for the Columbus cartoonist, who said he has no memory of the medical emergency or the 24 hours that preceded it.

“The day before was one of my best friend’s birthdays, and we were over at their house, and I can’t remember anything about being there,” said Smith, who escaped without sustaining permanent damage to his heart or brain. “I don’t know how it works. The doctors were kind of saying that your brain just blocks everything out to help you, or at least that’s how I understand it. … I thought ‘cardiac arrest’ was just another word for ‘heart attack,’ but apparently, it’s the biggest, worst kind of heart attack. You just shut off. Your heart, your brain, everything.”

Smith said his first memories are of waking up a week and a half later in the hospital, where he remained for more than a month while recovering.

In the time since, Smith has resumed drawing – first penning a cover for the forthcoming reprint of Thorn, a comic strip he created in college that served as the precursor to his landmark series Bone – while continuing to process recent events. “The way that I think, just naturally, is that there’s always the future. Let’s go. Let’s do more stuff,” Smith said. “And then that happens, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m an older gentleman now. I might want to start wrapping things up.”

While the release of Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986, which is currently shattering every stretch goal on Kickstarter, surpassing $264,000 as the campaign rolls into its final days, plays like a move in this direction, Smith said he made the decision to revisit his college work well before his most recent health scare. 

The cartoonist created Thorn while enrolled at Ohio State University, with the strip running five days a week in the student newspaper The Lantern. As he neared graduation, Smith said he made repeated efforts to sell the comic into syndication but was met with rejection at each turn. “They would string me along for years, making me do tons of work. I would do months' worth of comics for [the syndicate] over and over and over, and in different versions,” said Smith, who resisted calls from executives to shave the fantasy elements from the comic, which he described as essential to its overall tone. “And because of that, I had begun to accept that the strip wasn’t any good, and in fact I had this idea that it was terrible, and so I hadn’t read it in 40 years.”

When Smith finally returned to the comic strip this last year, he was struck with how well it held up, and how wrong the notions he long held of it had been. Part of Thorn’s charm, Smith said, comes from the sense of discovery contained within its panels, with the cartoonist describing the strip as a space in which he was allowed to experiment, gradually homing in on the artistic voice that would soon flower more fully in Bone.

“The way I describe it, Bone is like a novel. It’s like Lord of the Rings, or The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s a narrative, and I knew what Bone was when I did it,” Smith said. “When I did Thorn was, I didn’t know what it was. … It’s not a narrative. It’s more like a variety show, where there are funny bits and story bits and political satire. It’s like watching ‘The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour’ or something, but it holds together much better than I thought it did.”

At times, Thorn reflected Smith’s experiences as a working student. The cartoonist worked part-time at an ice cream factory while at OSU, and for a stretch the characters in the strip did the same, appearing in the panels wearing paper hats and white uniforms splattered with melted ice cream.

Revisiting his college work also led Smith to reexamine his early motivations. The cartoonist recalled how he first dreamed up his amorphous Bone characters at the age of 5, and the thrill he received – and continues to receive – inventing new stories that centered them.

“I keep thinking of things to draw, stories to tell,” Smith said. “I just have so much fun, and that makes me want to keep doing it.”

In retrospect, though, Smith said he’s grateful that the syndicates passed on the strip, since the rejection allowed him to take his characters from the more confined Thorn and set them free within the expansive world of Bone.

“When I started drawing comics, I molded myself into telling a story in four little boxes a day,” said Smith, who gained a new sense of what could be done on the page when he stumbled into the Monkeys Retreat, a comic book shop where he immersed himself in everything from issues of Batman drawn by Frank Miller to the works of underground cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez brothers. “All of a sudden, I’ve got unlimited space. A panel could be a whole page. There could be six panels on a page, nine panels on a page. And what happened is I actually fit that canvas, and it worked perfectly for me. Instead of cramming a joke into four panels, I could do six panels. I could do three pages. And I'd get a better joke out of it, really set it up, time it. And that’s a really long-winded way of saying, yes, I’m glad those fuckers at the newspaper syndicate did not like my comic strip.”

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