Jeff Smith

BONE- "Fantasy Done Right"

A true revelation for the world of comic books, bringing true meaning to the words, "graphic novel", the entire collection of all BONE books was released in 2004. This book has redefined genres, but the most prominent is the genre of fantasy.

Jeff Smith said that the story of BONE was inspired by Disney and The Lord of the Rings. Disney and Lord of the Rings are both brilliant examples of the power of what can be created when imagination is allowed to run wild. Elements of both of these fantastic powerhouses and Smith's own story-telling prowess can be found within this giant tome. The story of BONE proves that in order to tell a story in the most perfect way, images are needed to create the greatest images and tell the best story. The combination of a sweeping epic fantasy and cartoon elements yield the most enjoyable read.

The Lord of the Rings influence is evident, this story spans 1332 pages. An amazing world is created filled with humans and other creatures, some as sweet as a talking bug to as menacing as a 10 foot tall rat-like monster. Smith takes full advantage of the one rule that defines a work of fantasy: There are no rules. Other genres of literature, even fiction (in the way of science-fiction) must stay within some reasonable level of believability. However, in fantasy an author creates his own world and those creatures follow whatever guidelines the author decides. An 80 year-old grandmother could race a herd of cows, and win. A witch with magical powers could seduce and steal any man in the country. Someone could be killed in their dreams, because when you dream you are connected to the Earth flowing through a river of spiritual energy, and if anyone reached their hand into that river, they could affect your spirit and life by manipulating your dreams. Fantasy can very easily become confusing. One of the major criticisms of fantasy authors is that a general population simply cannot grasp their mind around how much there is to take in. When one opens a book and reads words, they have to remember the names of places, the names of people, how the region the characters are in looks, how the characters themselves look. By the time you turn the page, you have no common ground. Everything is placed upon your brain to take in and create the image. You are responsible for everything. Now, when that story goes on for about 500 pages, it becomes an incredibly taxing experience.

Smith resolves so many of these problems in his book. With the inclusion of imagery, anyone reading the book sees the backgrounds. In BONE, the kingdom of Atheia and the Valley that surrounds it is illustrated beautifully for the reader to see. Even more helpful, every character is given a name and a drawing. The human brain works better when it can associate words with pictures. Smith has taken the backgrounds and characters and made them easy enough for any brain capacity to wrap around. With this luxury, he creates incredibly deep characters, without worrying about his words describing anything other than the character's speech and thoughts. By doing this, he has expanded the appeal of his novel to a much wider audience than a tome of black print.

His work entices people all of ages. Older fans are already drawn in by the beautiful drawings and promise of an epic fantasy, however the younger crowd may find trouble becoming involved in a story about an ancient war that reparks a new war between humans, dragons and terrifying Rat Creatures. Therefore, Smith introduced the protagonists, the Bone cousins. There is the main protagonist, Fone Bone, and he is the level-headed poetry writing hero with a heart bigger than his head. His cousin Phoney Bone is a stingy, money loving delinquent who is always sarcastic and looking for a quick way to make few bucks. The third cousin is Smiley Bone, a completely careless and clueless banjo plucking happy soul. There is a highly evident homage to not only Disney, but familiar stories in general. The three crusaders embarking on a journey (Three Musketeers) is a common theme found in story-telling. The Disney lovable-cartoon type element is found in the analyzation of the characters. Mickey is Fone Bone. Donald Duck is Phoney Bone, and Goofy is Smiley Bone. Children are delighted with the humorous schtick and gags these cousins get themselves into the beginning, and older readers are amused by the homage to earlier days of cartoon glory. In the first 200 pages, there is a lot of whimsey with a few random interjections of the fantasy war storyline. It never gets too heavy, however. Fone Bone is approached by two of the Rat Creatures, but they are the most bumbling of the creatures, failing to catch Fone Bone (for they want to eat him), and even arguing amongst themselves about how they are going to eat him (one wishes to eat him raw, the other wishes to bake him into a quiche). The lighthearted adventures help draw the audience into the world of the Valley and the lives of the Bone cousins and the villagers they meet, until it begins to be torn apart. By the third book in the collection (it is of nine books altogether), the war begins to pick up speed, and there are serious issues brought about, such as loss of family (it is hinted that one character's family was betrayed during the ancient war and was killed by the rat creatures, but she can only have short flashbacks to the time, never remembering it all), death and the destruction of war. Up until its thrilling ending, the book delves into all these elements. However, the genius in Smith's work is that his Bone characters retain their well-developed personalities that were established in the second book. They respond to these elements in their own way, some of them still being quite humorous (for instance, Phoney Bone argues that while the castle is under siege, it would be a perfect time to steal the gold for themselves, while Smiley goofily stumbles into a war zone and manages to dodge every danger thrown his way without him being aware).

Smith has now created a story to captivate all ages, and he decides to add even more, he could of course just tell a story, but he decides to enrich it even more with depth, he adds so many things that it's impossible to get it all in one read.

In one passage of the book, this is the exchange between a bartender and customer:

Customer: What's that stick-eater doin' here?
Bartender: What do you care?
Customer: Can't stand 'em. They live out in th' woods like animals! They're probably in cahoots with the dragons.
Bartender: He's a holy man.
Customer: Don't make him any less weird. Why do they wear their hoods like that?
Bartender: Somethin' botherin' you, wendell?
Customer: Yeah. First we had to get used to havin' the Bones around, now it's a stick-eater. Where's a man supposed to go to enjoy himself?
Bartender: This is my bar and I'll sell beer to whoever I want! You got a problem with that, friend?
Bartender: Well, do ya?
Customer: Nah. I don't got a problem with that.
Bartender: Good.
Customer: (Pauses)
Customer: (to himself) But i'll be getting my beer off Smiley Bone from now on...

He bolds the words to create emphasis and create a flow of real dialogue between the characters, a certain diction with tones and emotions when you look at the characters' faces. Unlike in written words, their faces can change every time they speak (in every panel) without confusing the audience. And if we analyze this passage, we find elements of stereotypes, resentment, mystery, and even racism and prejudice.

Even though he is a "holy man" the customer refers to him as a stick eater. This derogatory nickname shows that the common villagers bare ill-will to these men who mysteriously wear hoods. The customer seems rather stubborn and even intolerable with his comment saying "where's a man supposed to go to enjoy himself?" And the fact that the bartender doesn't mind the holy men in his bar gives the customer enough reason to leave and go get beer from another server. This one passage has brought so many things to light. Who are these holy men? Why do the villagers hate them? Inversely, why does the bartender defend the "stick-eaters"? And the most puzzling, the customer was talking resentfully about the holy men in cahoots with the dragons. The dragons are also perceived as an entity the villagers are not happy with. So many questions brought forth but such brilliant writing. So many passages can be analyzed, and my favorite being from a giant mountain cat who captures the Bone cousins.

"Power is the true secret to satisfaction. I see what your problem is, you believe someone truly can be happy. You see, happiness itself is just an emotion that can be induced, the only thing of substance that matters is power! There is no good and evil. What is evil to you depends on what side you are on. Do you think the sun cares if your momma and poppa were eaten? It doesn't. The sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow whether you and I are here or not. Anything either side of the war accomplishes is utterly significant, there is no good or evil, only nature, and in nature, the only thing that matters is power!"

This passage could be analyzed for diction, point of view, and social commentary. There is so much depth found in Smith's word balloons, and his illustrations draw the eye deeper into the story, allowing our brain to wrap around the words and thoughts of characters and not be boggled down by details. It is the superb method of telling a story, especially a fantasy such as BONE.

One final thing that always angers book critics is the way most fantasy novels end. There is usually a giant confrontation, and then a deus ex machina enters from the blue and solves all the problems of the characters, and the story ends happily ever after. Critics say that this has ruined the story and they are disappointed by the abrupt ending. This event, the deus ex machina, the all powerful force that solves the problems does not ruin the story. A reader needs to understand that the characters did fight through these problems before they were solved. They must overcome incredible obstacles to reach the point where the all powerful force lends it hand to the characters. In BONE, a fighter in the war, Granma Ben, must do battle with the leader of the opposing force of murderous rat creatures. That leader is her very own sister, Briar, twisted and demented by dark power. Granma Ben is at the point of being defeated when her love, Lucius, throws himself in front of her to save her life, he ends up killing Briar and himself in this attack. In that one moment, the antagonist that created both the ancient war and the war they were fighting in by the end of the book, was defeated. 1200 pages led up to one moment. Shortly after this the Bone cousins leave home for their hometown, and the book ends. Critics were disturbed by the nature of this ending, but they need to realize this is how it must end. A story cannot go on forever, it can be said that a book is much more worth the time if the characters are developed and adventures are made and feelings are established. If the ending was an incredibly elongated war, it would become painful to read, and not even a good painful. A good painful is when we learn of the love of Granma Ben and Lucius, how it transcends all the chaos around them, and then he dies. Like that Disney element with Bambi, the heartstrings are pulled, while also the reader is joyous that they had a triumphant victory. As said before, the author creates his own rules. A long, beautiful story with a quick end is a rule that fantasies can be very successful by following. The ending is justified by everything that came beforehand.
-ZS 2011

RASL- "The blend of camera and the word, the Comic Noir"

What made the detective films of the 50's so successful? It was the style of film noir, the self-referential manner that had one character switch from telling us the story to being part of it. He is responsible for what we know, and even what we don't know. That narrative style is so intoxicating, seeing a story unfold through the eyes of one individual and only his experiences define the novel, there are no outside story lines, no second plots, it's that one character with us for the long haul. Movies are very good at presenting this style of story, however it can be very difficult and confusing to achieve this with only written words. However, in the graphic novel RASL by Jeff Smith, the story of Robert (RASL) is told in a film noir style, accomplishing things that written words nor a movie could do on their own. It is only through the miraculous blend of both does this story truly shine.

The story begins with Robert walking through the desert alone by himself, battered and bloody. There are 3 pages of establishing his desperate situation, with shots to the sun, and back to his broken face. He looks at the moon, and it brings him to a flashback. Robert is an art thief, using a (science-fiction inspired) portal system known as "The Drift" to travel to alternate universes with the art work he's stolen and sell it. The Drift has time-traveling capabilities and he describes a day on the job.

"Distractions are useful. A big ballgame say, or a thunderstorm. I've learned that seven flights up, people have a false sense of security...I love it when I find the window unlocked. Saves me some trouble. These gigs used to take me months to set up, years sometimes. But it's not an issue that I've discovered The Drift. With The Drift, I have all the time in the world. Of course, The Drift is a bit unpredictable. Which tends to keep things lively. When things go wrong, which seems to happen more and more these days, I have to get back to The Drift, fast. Getting inside The Drift is easy, no problem. Just gotta stay clearheaded. Focused. Yeah, getting inside is a piece of cake. It's coming back out that does the damage..."

The Drift works through the story as a symbol of life itself. Distractions help us, life is unpredictable which is why we want to live, getting inside life and getting ourselves into problems and situations are easy, but getting out is the hard part. Robert finds the Drift reflects his own life as he struggles with his alcoholism and the loss of his lover, Annie. "Coming back out is what does the damage".

We can deduce much from the words of his monologue passage. His diction reveals someone of higher learning, not as much slurred or choppy diction. There is also a mysterious, dark, or even tired tone to the monologue. He has given away that while this is a flashback he has experience in this work, and foreshadows that things are getting worse, much worse. And the truth upholds through the rest of the book. We discover that because of his time traveling a secret compound wants him dead, and they begin killing everyone close to him. In the method that the story switches from actual dialogue and confrontation to flashback narrations, the story plays out like a film noir, but with the timing of a book. The pictures are drawn with detail and suspense. Sometimes whole pages are used up of just faces turning around to heighten suspense and make the fight scenes look like a bigger struggle. There is the learning curve that comes with a book, anyone can read it at their own pace, and let it stretch out or get through it quickly, but it has the visual appeal and storytelling mastery behind popular film noirs. While this book is targeted at an older audience (with the violence and sex not seen in BONE), it appeals to any adult, movie lover or book enthusiast. The blending of written words and pictures can span many genres, but when it can create its own genre, the comic noir, it's something more incredible. A new genre, with new rules following time hardened old literary terms.
-ZS 2011