BACK TO THE BONE: Jeff Smith’s Bone Comics

Bone coverLast week, I observed a comrade’s son reading Jeff Smith’s Bone. It gave me hope. Only a month earlier, I’d wished Bone upon a brilliant student who’d written her honors thesis on graphic novels. The coincidence got me thinking. I hope everyone remotely interested in graphic narratives will read this beautiful, crazy “cartoon epic.”

The term’s appropriate. Epics are long. Mythic and historical in scope. At 1,332 pages, Bone must the single longest complete graphic narrative. Obviously many comic strips and series burn thru more pages, but they do so serially, rather than with the attempt to create a singular story arc. (For example, the complete Love & Rockets would be much longer, but Los Bros. Hernandez use the open-ended narrative structure of telenovelas; by contrast, Bone sustains a singular narrative–a version of The Odyssey. Our protagonist, Bone, spends the entire time attempting to get home. The story’s closest living relative is the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the collected Bone even comes with a map similar to those constructed of Tolkein’s world). But it’s graphic narrative is also reminiscent of modern epics, such as Pound’s Cantos or Williams’s Paterson. Although mediated differently, Smith’s comic, like these long poems, prioritizes imagistic fragments, allowing the sweep of history to lodge within ordinary life. Bone is one of the most finely drawn and thoughtfully conceived comic stories. It’s “epic” in quality as well as scope.

When I told my friend’s son how glad I was to see him reading, in my phrase, “the best comic of all time,” he corrected me: “it’s not a comic; it’s a graphic novel.” Similarly, my student’s honor’s thesis required a defense of the genre: graphic novels should be regarded as comics book for grown-ups. Bone blurs this distinction. It’s both comic book and graphic novel; it mixes the cartoon’s slapstick with the length and complexity of a Russian novel. When it first appeared in 1991, I didn’t get it. I was too “young” because I was too concerned with being “grown up.” Into more macho and ironic graphic novels, I was put off by the amorphous, Pogo-like characters, intensely slow scenes, and black-and-white printing. 25 years later, I’m charmed by its whimsy. It balances adolescent enthusiasm with poetic intensity, and plays with genre expectations in delightful ways.

THE STORY (in 5 sentences)

Three cousins–Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Happy Bone–flee a riot sparked by one of Phoney’s get-rich-quick schemes; they get separated while crossing a mountain range into foreign territory. The arrive in a magical land populated by peasants, princesses, talking animals, dragons, and other monsters. It’s as foreign to them as it is to us, while their world, which we hear of but never see, is full of nuclear waste, organic gardens, venture capitalists and Fourth of July parades. Our protagonist, Fone Bone, falls in love with Thorn, a warrior princess; with the help of her kick-ass grandmother and a Red Dragon, they defeat a Tolkienesque evil. Phone Bone spends much time bickering with his cousins and trying to keep them alive; in the end, the three of them head back to Boneville, their reality.

THE STYLE

Cartoon confrontationThe original comics were black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings. Before they were colored, Smith’s drawings depended upon the size and shape of lines, along with the spacing of narrative elements, to develop complex characters, slapstick humor, and fast-paced action. He contributed to the innovations in the use of negative space and “slow motion” that Frank Miller popularized in Ronin and the Dark Knight. But more like Hergé than Miller, Smith focused on a precise rendering of panel-by-panel actions and reactions. His work resembles Saul Steinberg’s in it’s love of the pen and George Booth’s in the the care it extends to the minutia of details.  But Smith does more; he uses two graphic styles to represent a fundamental rift in his world. Bone and his cousins are Pogo-like cartoon creatures, drawn with thick, smooth lines. The residents of the valley in which they find themselves are human and animal, rendered with thinner, scratchier lines. The Bones’ bodies are empty of all but the most significant details; the human and animals bodies are more fully “filled in” with textural marks. In other words, two styles share many frames. Compare this to Miller’s two realities but single style in Ronin or the distinct styles of Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers vs Gilbert’ s Palomar. In Bone, characters from one stylistic reality (cartoonish / clear-line) find themselves in a world dictated by a different stylistic reality (realistic / textured). 

This difference is fundamental to the entire narrative; in Smith’s world, visual styles dictate physical laws. Bone and his cousins enjoy different gravitational effects. For example, unlike the humans and animals around them, they suffer few or no ill-effects from falling from great heights, but can be literally “bowled over” by love. They function in the story’s reality, but with a difference.

Bone Falls in Love

Thorn gives Bone an extra-long look, which adds romance to her statement that “we’re friends.” We see Bone absorb this; then he’s flipped out of his saddle by a feeling. The hearts floating over his head in the last panel don’t apply to Thorn, her grandmother, or other characters of the “human” world. In the last panel, Thorn looks back in surprise. Not only is she unaware of his infatuation (he’s about to write her some very bad love lyrics), she’s confused by its physical effects. The visual metaphor appears to her as an unaccountable accident. It’s as though Bone comes from the world of the Id, while Thorn remains within the world of the ego. The ego’s world is the only world we see, but the Id’s world sounds (as disclosed in conversation) more like our own. The ego’s world is inhabited by humans and (talking) animals; the Id’s world (Boneville) is represented by cartoon creatures, who are astounded that animals talk. The on-going negotiation between these worlds–both kinds of creatures attempting to understand the other with great patience–constitutes the daily life that fills the narrative foreground, even as an epic battle unfolds. 

AN INTENSE IMMEDIACY

In it’s initial stages, the battle unfolds in meticulously rendered chase sequences. Bone’s chased by two “stupid, stupid rat creatures”: Laurel-and-Hardy monsters you can’t help but love. Consider the time sequence and intense details in this typical sequence:

Stupid Stupid Rat Creatures

Slapstick rendered with intense naturalism recalls Buster Keaton’s The General or The Navigator. In the first panel, Bone, falling off the collapsing tree, catches the rat creature’s ears. In the second panel, the rat creature realizes the size of the cliff.  Both characters recognize the need to work together. But as Bone climbs to safety, the second rat creature slams into them and everyone falls. Look at Bone’s expression in the final panel and at how the rat creature acknowledges his critique. In Daredevil in the late 70s / early 80s, Miller began to depict action with this degree of balletic detail, a marked contrast to the more symbolic sequences of “classic” superhero comics. Smith applies this technique to comic effect. Everyone survives. 

The slowing down of visual narrative is used to amplify ordinary reactions to extraordinary events. One of my favorite sequences unfolds over two pages. Phoney, working off his latest scam by doing dishes in a tavern, is confronted by a wizard resembling the Grim Reaper:

Phoney Bone and Death 1Phoney Bone and Death 2

Phoney confronts  what for him’s a typical dilemma. He’s ready to assault any entity that threatens his cousin–unless a “business” prospect interferes. The thing appears first at the window, then sticks it’s head into the kitchen, provoking a physical reaction that can only be experienced by the residents of Boneville. The page ends with a comedic jolt as Smiley slams more dishes onto the counter. On the first panel of the next page, Phoney’s jitters are the result of both his confrontation with the mythic figure and the frazzling carelessness of Happy. Then the perspective reverses, and the wizard’s actions are mirrored as Phoney looks through, then leans through, the window. Note his shadow as he peers out. Four silent panels set up his realization that surreal forces are involved. He understands capitalism, but not magic…

It gets more complicated. As the forces of evil overwhelm the peasant-warriors, a meta-level hallucination occurs. Bone’s favorite author is Herman Melville; he carries Moby-Dick and a diary in his knapsack. As the forces of evil grow, Thorn’s and Bone’ dreams grow strange. In the following, he dreams that he’s Ismael and Phoney, Ahab. 

The White Whale

The dramatic perspective, technically precise detail, and embedded frames are typical of the entire comic.  Notice how the background details fade in the middle panel and disappear entirely from the bottom panel. The styles continually mediate a range of subjective/objective details; the more intense the personal drama, the more the style beckons toward early Disney comics, which minimized background. Bone’s dream enjoys a similarly multi-layered relation to the plot as a whole. Sometimes Phone Bone and Phoney Bone seem like the little angels and devils that appear in poems and cartoons to indicate moral decisions. Both are sought by the forces of darkness, whose prophecies suggest the importance of one or the other of them. Meanwhile, Bone and his cousin have a lot of baggage. They’ve grown up together, looking out for each other in myriad ways. Now their confronting a strange world,  often with their backs to the wall. Phoney, whose cartoon features are determined by greed the way Bone’s are by love, gets them into a lot of trouble. Happy Bone, whose trait is goofiness, usually goes along with his get-rich-quick schemes, leaving Bone  to confront his cousin. Their antagonism is symbolic, but also the subject of an intense, ongoing conversation.

Furthermore, dreaming is treated with great reverence; Thorn’s dreams reveal her destiny and are used to control her will.  Bone and Thorn, young lovers that they are, spend a lot of time interpreting each other’s dreams.  No one interprets Bone’s dream (when he wakes, everyone’s gone), so it’s up to us. Imagining Phoney as Ahab suggests the Bone recognizes his cousin’s mania, and also that he regards him as the Captain of their little gang. Indeed, the dream suggests that if Phoney is allowed to lead their quest for home, they will die. Bone must come to recognize that he’s the Odysseus to Phoney’s Ahab.

Smiley Bone and Rat Creature make money close upIt’s more complicated than that,  of course, because Phoney also wants to get them safely home; he’s just convinced that a large amount of loot will help them on their way.  Like Scrooge McDuck, he suffers from an intense money fetish. When Smiley and an orphan rat creature they’ve named Bartleby figure out how to coin money, Phoney weeps with joy. By contrast, Bone’s Caspar the Friendly Ghost, a frequently ignored superego that hovers near by, lamenting bad decisions when he’s not saving the day.

The climax involves a war between humans, rat creatures, and other monsters, plus an explosion that recalls Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. As the characters flee across the blighted landscape, they share a collective hallucination that causes Bone’s dream to come to life. Phoney finds himself having to traverse the boulder-strewn desolation with a wooden leg, thanks to his cousin’s Id. Their conversation’s hilarious.

Smith takes the time, panel-by-panel, page-by-page, to complicate everything. The characters are constantly commenting on their own actions and reactions; about 70% of the story involves their conversation about what’s going on. In the scene described above, Phoney yells, “It’s a VOLCANO! Can’t we just say that the mountain BLEW UP? Why’s it EVIL?” He’s never accepted the story about sorcerers and dragons everyone in this world seems to believe. He’s infuriated by Bone’s and Happy’s acceptance of this nonsense. Yet the evidence is right there–in his wooden leg, which only makes matters worse… Like Moby-Dick, Bone explores at length the numerous stated and unconscious goal(s) of the voyage. Even the love plot’s complicated. Does Thorn treat Bone’s infatuation lightly because: a) she regards him as doughy little cartoon; b) she sees him as a possible suitor, but is into hunky farm boys; c) like him, she’s shy; d) she’s got a lot of her mind as she transforms from peasant to princess-warrior. The answer’s all of the above. Their relationship, as important as that between Bone and his cousins, evolves tenderly through dozens of side-bar “check-in’s” as the epic unfolds:

Bone and Thorn conversation 1

Bone and Thorn conversation 2

Smith renews our trust in the possibilities of earnest conversation. Friendly banter–little apologies, admissions, explanations–will be the source of their survival. When it matters, they will trust each other and reason together.  This trans-species intimacy is at times facilitated and hindered by their wildly different experiences and bodies.  These bodies are “lived in” throughout the story, but also symbolic of two styles in the now-massive comic-book industry.  Bone and Thorn cross the boundaries between the adolescent slapstick of the dailies and the aesthetic priorities of the mature graphic novel.

In recent years, captivated by Hollywood, the comics industry has moved in the opposite direction. They create “universes” that are entirely monotonal, singularly textured.  When “Spiderman 14: A New Beginning” and “X-Men 36: Another Apocalypse” prove too much for you, go back to the Bone.

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