Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Big Bone

Bone: One Volume Edition; Jeff Smith; Cartoon Books, 2004

One of the problems of following ground-level comics (that is, comics which are not "underground" nor part of the big two publishing empires, usually black and white and creator-owned), is getting all the issues. Part of this is due to the oddities of the stocking system of your local comics shop, but is also due to the personal nature of these books - if the artist, writer, or artist/writer doesn't get the books done in the timely manner, there is no back-up plan - weeks and sometimes months can go between issues.

Such has been my relationship with Jeff Smith's Bone - I have always liked it when I read it, but I never got into the groove of buying it. I would pick up an issue, then not be able to find the issue before it or after it. I would buy an early collection, then couldn't find the second and then fell away. I've always been aware of it out there, like a great white whale in the ocean swells, but never sought to hunt it down. Fortunately, Smith has collected his Bone storyline in one humungeous (1300+ black and white pages) volume that I strongly recommend to everyone.

Bone is a fairy tale centering on three brothers; naive and honest Bone, his happy, off-the-wall brother Smiley Bone, and their greedy, power- and money- hungry brother Phoney Bone. Superego, Id, and Ego. Ed, Edd, and Eddie. The Bone brothers have been chased out of Boneville after one of Phoney's schemes went hideously and hilariously awry. They find themselves in an unknown rural valley, among a rural population threatened by human-sized rat-things and much darker things. Phoney sees the populace as a new pack of pigeons to fleece. Smiley finds a inn. Bone himself finds Rose, a young girl living with her grandmother, and falls in love.

And that's where it starts, as darker forces are moving that involve the Bones, Rose, and her Grandmother. The revelations all spin nicely one from the next, and move from a pastoral landscape to a high-epic fantasy (did I mention the dragon? There's a dragon. There's also a tough-guy bug. And some giant bees). I like how Smith moves expands out the scope bit by bit, while keeping Bone and Rose (and Phoney and Smiley) at the center of it. I also like his stacking of the villains - two very stupid, stupid rat-things are regularly outwitted, but they are backed up by hordes of much nastier rat-things, led by Kingdok the rat-thing ruler, who in turn serves the mysterious Hooded One who in turn serves the near-mystical and deadly Lord of the Locusts. Each foes is deal with in a different fashion (or fashions, as several must be bested a number of times), and the pacing builds as each appears in turn.

The art is deeply indebted not only to Pogo - Bone looks a bit like Walt Kelly's possum, while Smiley could sub for Albert the Alligator - but to Al Capp's L'il Abnber, particularly in the diversity of the villagers. The simple linework of the bones create a whitespace that they occupy, breaking from the more detailed other characters and backgrounds of the valley they have tumbled into. They are strangers in a strange land.

I'm not going too deeply into the plot - its one of those that should be allowed to unfold at its own pace (so no peeking). In its collected form it does have some weaknesses - characters often recap for what was originally a new set of issues, but for reading it straight-through halts the action. And some of the foreshadowing seems overlong (including Kingdok moving accross the landscape to his final battle). Yet on the whole it pulls together nicely, and is both delightful and deep. And yeah, its won a bagful of awards, so this is a good time to check it out in its entirety at a reasonable price ($40).

Go get it - you'll be glad you did. More later,