Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jeff Smith's Bone

I recently finished the monumental one-volume collection of Jeff Smith's Bone comics, weighing in at about 1300 pages, I think. Since the Bone books are being republished (in color) by Scholastic, it seems clear that they have found a market in the YA niche, and the incipient romance between the main character Fone Bone and the beautiful (and explicitly adolescent) young Thorn (all in the context of a lengthy high-fantasy plot) seems to support the audience that implies.

But one of the most striking features of Bone lies in Smith's drawing style, which treats most of the human characters in a relatively realistic mode (though one often characterized by caricature or exaggeration), while the three Bone characters are drawn with a highly stylized, simplified line. (Smith acknowledges the influence of Walt Kelly on his work; the Bone characters could almost fit right in to a Pogo strip.) The juxtaposition is somewhat disquieting, and even Thorn comments at one point that Fone Bone never wears clothing at all. Further, the Bone characters are of indeterminate age: Smiley Bone smokes cigars; Phoney Bone was a scam artist who had run for mayor of Boneville and now tends bar in Barrelhaven, and so on. The implication is that the Bone characters are adult, at least when they're at home in Boneville, making Fone Bone's transparently adolescent crush on Thorn seem especially odd. It's hard not to read Fone Bone as ambiguously depicted, adult in some ways, adolescent in others.

The Bone books first started appearing in 1991, before Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, so it's unlikely that Bone was influenced by McCloud's theories, but it's hard not to suspect that, as McCloud would argue, the simplified drawing style used for the Bone characters is intended to promote reader identification. In short, the mode of drawing Fone Bone in particular as "iconic" rather than "realistic" seems linked to the anticipation of a young-adult reader--but there's something very weird about how that works given his sometime depiction as an adult, and as his clearly-adult cousins are drawn the same way.

But it's an entertaining book, nevertheless, especially since Smith lives and works in central Ohio, and Old Man's Cave from the Hocking Hills makes an appearance in the landscape of the novel, which is a bit of a treat for readers who know that place.

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