Fight for Fire’ Has Returned To Save Humanity
When writer and illustrator Jeff Smith first released his comic BONE into the world, nobody could have guessed the decades of success and Eisner Awards that would follow. But the underdog story isn’t over just yet, now that Smith is giving another of his comic creations a second chance, with TUKI: Fight for Fire officially launched on Kickstarter as a brand new beginning for a possible series of graphic novels.
Originally created as a short-lived online web comic, TUKI: Save The Humans traveled back to the dawn of humanity, two million years ago. The titular hero was unforgettable, but possessed potential still untapped by the time Smith ended the first run. Now turning to Kickstarter for TUKI: Fight for Fire, Smith is teaming Tuki with three lost children in a search for ‘the Motherherd of all Buffalo.’ But only readers know that this unlikely hero has the future of humanity on his shoulders… and the gift turning the world against him is the only thing that can make survival possible.
Those signing up to support the TUKI: Fight for Fire Kickstarter campaign can look forward to not just one graphic novel, but two. If successful, Fight for Fire will ship to supporters in July, 30 years to the month the first issue of BONE was released. The second book, TUKI: Fight for Family, will ship in October. Both graphic novels are oversized and landscape formatted (11.375” x 8.875”) with approximately 144 pages each, with a bonus material stretch goal. And to make sure this second shot at giving Tuki his time in the spotlight isn’t missed, Screen Rant spoke with Jeff Smith about the origins, the evolution, and the new arrival of this TUKI epic. Readers can find the full interview, as well as preview images of the first book, below.
Screen Rant: This isn’t the standard Kickstarter comic project, so let’s begin at the beginning: how did the idea of Tuki first start? How did that idea first sink its hooks into your brain–in a way that obviously stayed there longer than even a lot of your fans assumed it had?
Jeff Smith: You’re correct. I always was fascinated by evolution. I was one of those people that loved National Geographic specials and all that kind of stuff, like Nova. In the mid 90s, I went to see Olduvai Gorge, that was an archeological site where they discovered many different humans that had lived there over long periods of time. It’s in Tanzania. And while I was there, I was pretty excited about it. I went down into the gorge, and there’s not many places that you could go as a tourist.
I remember looking up and down at this big wall of dirt up beside me. But up above it, I could still see trees swaying gently in the wind. And I just had this vision of all these different species of human beings walking around and interacting with each other. It almost felt like an echo of something that really happened. Of course, I learned later that 2 million years ago, that could have happened. There was Australopithecines, like ‘Lucy’; there was Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and about a half dozen other species of humans all walking around on two legs at the same time, 2 million years ago. I think that was really when an idea started rolling around in my head.
SR: With the way that the comic industry has constantly changed, more people will be aware of this coming release than the original version of Tuki. While the experiment with moving from paper to digital didn’t work the way you would have wanted, Tuki is not going to suffer for it.
Jeff Smith: Yeah, I now refer to the original version as the pilot version. That kind of encapsulates what happened. I set the original webcomic version, and it ran for just about two years. I would put up a page once a week, maybe every two weeks, and I stopped for a number of reasons.
But the two main reasons were that when I collected them in comic books – I printed like four of them that reprinted the webcomic – they didn’t work together when you read them all at once. I had this idea in my mind that I wanted to do something like an old classic Sunday page, like Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant or something. But when you put them all in and you read them page by page, and you’re expecting a page to blend into the next page, it didn’t have enough energy to bring it to life to my satisfaction.
The second reason was that at the end, these little kids come into the story. And I just fell in love with the kids. As soon as the kids strip, I realized this was a family story. This was a story of a family, and I just needed to start over from the beginning. That’s what I did. There’s a little gap in there because I was co-founding CXC, the Cartoon Crossroads Columbus festival in Columbus, which is now in its sixth year. I can step back from that a little bit, as it’s running very well on its own now. I started tinkering with this family idea and got it going.
SR: The casual comic reader will be very familiar with seeing daily or weekly comic strips compiled into trade paperback collections. But you’re saying that when your bi-weekly or monthly strips were assembled, it didn’t match the overall vision?
Jeff Smith: The collections are there, but when I read them, I didn’t get excited by it. Sometimes the pages would go quickly; you’d read one page and go to the next page, and the energy was there. But most of the time, it just stopped because it was a cliffhanger, or a “to be continued.” That just didn’t satisfy me at all.
In 2019, I had pulled it off the shelf, blowing the dust off it, and had started working on it. I even took some pages to Comic Con in San Diego and had sample pages out. At that point, I was still thinking about self-publishing, but the ideas were still not complete yet. Lockdown happened in 2020, and not only did I write and draw and complete Tuki: Fight for Fire, which is what I was calling it now, but I finished a second graphic novel called Tuki: Fight for Family. So, the Kickstarter that I’m doing to relaunch Tuki actually contains two full graphic novels that are 144 pages each.
SR: Even though the ‘Family’ title is for the second graphic novel, the kid characters will be there from the first one, right?
Jeff Smith: Yeah, the kids actually open the book. They open the first book, and then we go to Tuki before he kind of gathers them. So by the time they get to the second book, they are a family and they have to fight to stay together.
SR: When you say it ended up being a family story, I guess I would ask: what does ‘family’ mean in this context, for Tuki?
Jeff Smith: In the original version, Tuki was kind of a Ronin character, or a Clint Eastwood type. Like in the spaghetti Westerns, he was a loner. These kids were kind of glomming onto him, and it seemed as if he didn’t like it. But you know what? I think he did like, and that changed it for me.
I felt like at first he’s gonna be like, “This is a hassle,” but they had something to offer each other, and I wanted to bring that to there. It doesn’t change really the story too much. Tuki is still being challenged by the powers that be and other rival human species that don’t have fire yet and perhaps are afraid of that.
SR: I remember the original teaser line for this story, that “2 million years ago… one early human left Africa.” Like you’re saying, that’s a total Ronin story that comes across as a great start for a Western. But these are going to end up being modern people, so it’s a social story more than anything.
Jeff Smith: I think I always pictured that he would slowly accumulate a tribe around him. But something shifted from the first bit, where I was saying, “This is the story of the first human to leave Africa.” Even in my head, I still thought he was gonna lead a group of people over, but now the emphasis is on the fact that he’s got fire.
I didn’t really realize that Homo erectus was the first of our line that controlled fire and ate cook food and became us. And they didn’t just leave Africa, they spread all over Africa. All of a sudden, the stakes changed for me. Suddenly, he is now the founder of a family while everybody else is making a different call. All the other humans are saying, “Man was not meant for fire,” just like we weren’t meant to fly or something like that. And some of them are going to take it very seriously, like it’s blasphemy, and they will hunt and kill anyone found using fire.
The dynamics are a little bit different in this new story. I think it’s a little more exciting, and I actually care about the characters a lot.
SR: You’re saying the “fight for fire” is not a historical account of Homo erectus in a battle against the elements in nature to survive. It is literally a fight for fire among groups of pre-people. There is certainly a timely element there–one person has a really great idea, and the biggest threat is going to be all the people who hate it.
Jeff Smith: There are… a lot of timely elements. I don’t want to say too much, but I will. He’s still going to leave Africa, but he’s not taking all his people away. There’s just going to be a small group that are going to go and start to spread all over Africa and out of Africa. It’s still gonna be a little bit of a Moses story, of him leading his people. But the emphasis is not on leaving, it’s on fire and this new idea. It’s a crossroads moment. It’s this point in time where everything matters, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
There’s a direct line between home Erectus and us, and it’s that we covet fire. One of the things I thought was interesting, when I read all these books, is that they know when early humans lost their hair. It was 2 million years ago, and it was 2 million years ago that we started needing fire. They can test the DNA of lice and see when head lice developed, as opposed to body lice. Lice diverged two million years ago, because we had this big expanse and they evolved separately on our head. We begin eating cooked food, and a lot of physiological changes happened. We get more energy to our brain and feed it; we also begin to sweat; and we also became sleek. Before that, all the other [early potential humans] were like gorillas with big guts, that needed miles of intestines to digest raw fruits and raw meats.
So, there’s a moment where the hominids were beginning to look like humans. We’re acting like humans, and we were developing stone tools and walking on hind legs. But as soon as we started eating cooked food, that was the moment we changed. And I thought it would be fun to have everybody else trying to kill them. That’s where we’re going.
SR: I love that there is that research going into this story. That an anthropologist is going to look at Tuki: Fight for Fire and say, “There is actually lot going on behind the scenes here that is accurate.” Is that a point of pride for you?
Jeff Smith: Yeah! It was really important to have somewhere to ground the story. But of course, I love fantasy. And I also, I would say a thread that runs through all of my work is that there’s more to the world than what we can see. And what is that? In RASL it was physics and parallel universes. In Bone it was the Dreaming, which is like a version of the Force, but more based in Jungian psychology. In this one, it’s something called the Hidden World, which is just the belief systems of different peoples. Each one has their own version. Is fire alive? Is it the Force? Is it a God? That kind of stuff.
I do have actual gods in the book. So, you can not turn this in as a history paper. But I do think a paleoanthropologist would get a kick out of it, and recognize quite a bit.
SR: During this pandemic, there have been multiple stories of comic book Kickstarters that are literally intended as a sign of hope, and community, to readers. We can’t go to conventions or our local comic shops, but we can still all get together, and get excited about comics. Did that enter into your thinking for a new release model? It’s almost a lot like self-publishing.
Jeff Smith: It’s actually a lot like self-publishing. The pandemic affected the story… not to put too much emphasis on it, but it gave me a lot more time to sit at the drawing board. Like I said earlier, in 2019, I was just thinking about a graphic novel. In 2020, I actually wrote and completed two of them. So, yes, I always think about that stuff. There’s just forces you can’t control, and there are people you can’t control.
SR: With the Kickstarter, you previously looked at the shift towards digital and asked how you could mold what you were doing for that new model. Was there any apprehension now, getting into this release and distribution as you started getting into it?
Jeff Smith: There’s still apprehension. I mean we’re launching momentarily, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no idea. I have no clue. It’s new; it functions differently. When I started in the ’90s there were eleven different comics distributors. Eleven monthly catalogues was probably a pain in the ass for the retailers. But for a self-publisher, if one retailer doesn’t carry you, there’s a bunch more that will. So, that is gone now.
I think Kickstarter, in a way, helps people reach their audience by avoiding gatekeepers. It’s also a lot of publicity. That is what I see it as: a really good publicity thing. I mean, you called me, so it’s working. Although I’d like to quickly add that people that want to avoid gatekeepers by going to Kickstarter still want their books on the shelves of comic book stores. We’ll have to figure out how that works later.
I have some friends from the old self-publishing days. The Pulidos and the Tuccis were talking to my wife, Vijaya, who’s my business partner. They were saying, “You’ve really got to try Kickstarter,” because they do it all the time and it works great for them. It took us a long time to get the hang of how it really works, but I think we do now. I’m cautiously optimistic, but at least I think we’re ready. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
SR: Tuki: Fight for Fire is completed and ready to be crowdfunded through Kickstarter. But you have the second book, so for people who are hoping that they get to see the second story that you came up with, will that depends on how the first Kickstarter goes?
Jeff Smith: No, because both books are part of the Kickstarter campaign. You go in and lay your money down, or your hope or support or whatever they call it. You back the project, and it’s two books. The first book, Tuki: Fight For Fire, will ship in July, 30 years to the month of Bone number one. Then number two, Tuki: Fight For Family, will ship in October.
The second book is done, too. There’s just half a chapter I still have to ink, and that’s it. It’s done. They’re ready to roll. You’re going to get two giant books of Tuki. 140 for both books. Not quite as landscape as this image, but it’s a lot like a, like, Frank Miller’s 300. About that size.
SR: So if somebody had mentioned when Bone #1 one was coming out, that in 30 years you’d still be self-publishing…
Jeff Smith: I honestly wasn’t quite sure how long Bone would last. I didn’t think it would last 30 years. But when you’re young, you don’t really think that far. I mean, I was committed to this path. But when Bone worked, I was as surprised as anybody.
I wanted it to work, but then it did work. And then you’re worried the whole rest of time: will I get to finish it? Will it sputter out or will I get hit by a bus.? I used to talk about that with Dave Sim all the time. Dave was like, “Yeah, I think about that. But if I get hit by a bus, what do I care? I’ll be dead.”
SR: You said while Bone was running that you knew the ending of the story. Moving to Tuki, these are two graphic novels that you have completed. Do you have the ending of this story in mind?
Jeff Smith: This is just the first arc. If this is successful, we’re going to go on and have another series. I hope another four graphic novels, that’s my goal. And I do have the same ending that I planned for what I’m now calling the ‘Pilot’ web version. We’ve been working on this since December, that we decided to go to Kickstarter. And we have been running, running, running. Because I wanted Fight for Fire ready to go to the printer right now. And I was trying to get number two done too. I’m close. Certainly close enough to have it done way before it has to go out.
TUKI: Fight for Fire is expected to arrive in July 2021 is successfully funded, with the sequel TUKI: Fight for Family following in October. Readers can head to Jeff Smith’s official Kickstarter page to support the campaign today!
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