Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bone of Discontent

Jeff Smith's all-ages comic, Bone is a perpetual seller, rising from the ruins of a broken comics market that had increasingly marketed itself to older audiences with very little in regard for younger readers who'd be more interested in alternate literature more suited to their tastes.
And a protagonist named after a reoccurring Don Martin character.
So it was somewhat of a letdown when the serial which was mentioned by the author/artist to run somewhere between 60 to 100 issues to its conclusion, only to finish at a paltry 55 issues instead.  The rigid self-imposed high production values that required further delays between releases of individual issues may have had something to do with it, as well as the need to rush towards an inevitable conclusion.  The Dragonslayer arc had plenty of buildup, which frustrated readers waiting for a payoff, which Jeff Smith rationalized as saying that even events in World War II had certain events play out before they came to fruition.

That would've been fine and all, only after finally getting a good segue into the start of the war at the 27th issue, things started derailing with Rock Jaw, the weakest of the Bone arcs, with a third party character who for all his massive strength and impressive physical presence, wound up not having much influence over the course of events.  You could cut out all the scenes Rock Jaw appeared in, and not lose anything of importance.  A scene that I'm sad never got included was where Grandma Ben got in a fight with Rock Jaw, which would've been worth the price of admission.
Why didn't this make the cut?
The first draft of Bone, Thorn: Tales from the Lantern was somewhat crude, with self-depreciating author inserts and adhering to a rigid 4-panel comic strip layout, but had several side characters that didn't make the final cut.  One of which was Voochko the Russian pig, easily the largest instance of Pogo influence, right down to the constant wordplay.
Okay, this might not be as much of a loss.
Even so, there were divergent pathways the LOTR / Looney Toons mashup could've taken that I'm disappointed weren't explored, especially since in an early interview, Jeff Smith introduced the Cow Race as a one-off joke that led to a wider expansion of the village and its residents.  That was something that Majora's Mask and multiple One Piece arcs handle quite well.
"I never anticipated doing the Cow Race.  I just thought Gradma Ben was a weird old lady, she raised cows, and maybe there was a cow race.  But I was never going to show it, it was just a joke.  But as it went, it just had to happen.  I just had to draw this cow race.  Things like that will hopefully come up all the time. (...)  The reason I did it is because it did move the story along.  I've seen a lot of fantasy stories, Lord of the Rings quest types, and oftentimes, the basic format is: A little group of friends go on a quest to defeat the big enemy.  You never see the world that's in danger.  You never meet the villagers.  Or, the big sorcerer's going to conquer the world, and make everyone his slaves.  But if you don't know who the slaves are going to be, the people that are in danger, it's hard to care.  That's part of the reason I'm using the Cow Race, even though it's just completely stupid hijinx.  It actually has a huge "Move the Story" purpose, in that once this is over with you will have seen a day in the town, you'll have met a lot of the people.  You'll actually have a memory that there is a town, and that there are people there who are in danger."  
After, that, I was expecting to see new potential avenues that would've been explored, and was let down when we were given digressions on old vendettas onto Dragons and old men offering stinky cheese that went nowhere, giving me a feeling of squandered potential.  It's not as if I was expecting seemingly inconsequential events in earlier chapters to suddenly have greater implications and meaning later on, but my fondest Bone memories are from those early funny volumes where the possibilities were unlimited.  And then, those probabilities were dashed with what we were given.

One-off characters like Bone's brief bare-shirted muscular rival at the Cow Race carnival and Ted's bigger brother who was a one-off visual gag, were and never seen or referenced again.  For the most part, that was fine, since they had their parts to play, and those roles were over and done.  As the stage saying goes, "There are no small actors, only small parts".  It was just more difficult to reconcile with the later "important" secondary characters that we felt no emotional lingering for.  Bigger sins were the Bone spin-offs Tall Tails, staring a Bone who's a cross between Popeye and Scrooge McDuck, and Rose, Grandma Ben's backstory, which should've been engaging comic stories in their own right, but hardly proved to be the compulsive re-readable tomes they could've been.

Some of the things that disappointed me (in addition to missing out of using Archie's iconic slap-face disbelief circles) were some theories that never panned out:

Fone Bone was later signified to have some kind of link to the Dreaming that Thorn and The Hooded One were connected to.  This was slightly hinted at in this pivotal scene in Rock Jaw:

Smiley Bone even said "Maybe it's not Moby Dick, maybe it's you!" If it turned out that Fone Bone had the natural ability to make anybody fall asleep just by reciting Moby Dick, that would've made him a massive status effect caster, plunging anybody within hearing distance into a dreamlike state.  Considering that was pretty much the Hooded One's ultimate goal, it's too bad this option never got explored.

Going further with the Hooded One, in the first appearance, I noticed that both T.H.O. and Smiley Bone had a somewhat similar outline.
I thought it would've been somewhat hilarious (in my mind, anyways) if Smiley Bone tried to sneak through enemy territory by disguising himself up in ratty clothing and holding his nose up high while speaking in a nasal tone to any Rat Creatures that'd dare to venture too closely.  Naturally, this plan would fall apart in 5 seconds of anybody paying attention, but it'd be fun to see him try.

I wasn't the only one let down.  I compiled some of the longer commentary from a forum that appropriately enough, had the subject title:

Jeff Smith’s massive BONE

Was anyone else really disappointed by the ending? Twelve years of suspenseful build up and they defeat the main villain by touching a wall? Some mystical hoo ha that Smith came up with in the last third of the work. Surely, he could have come up with something cleverer than that!


I’m with Allen about the climax.

The PREVIOUS death of Briar, on pages 824-831, was SOOO much better. The hilarious payoff/reveal of Phoney’s balloon, Briar’s pathetic realization that she’d failed (p827-828), the locusts gushing out of her body as she dies, and that eerie shot of her two tied-off halves on pg 831 -- now THAT’S a climax!

When I read that issue and realized the story hadn’t ended yet, I assumed it was because Smith had an even bigger and better climax in store, and was elated by the prospect. But after this lame finale, I’m thinking maybe that other climax was the REAL ending of the original story Smith wrote in college. Maybe he couldn’t wrap up all the loose ends that quickly in the comic book version, so he just kept going and improvised another, weaker death for Briar at the end?

I was also disappointed by Lucius’s death. He’s gone for ages, then he pops in for 2 pages, gets blown over by a small explosion, and while he’s off panel we’re informed he’s dead. Whaa--?

Plus, that whole winter the Bones spend with Thorn before returning to Boneville. What happened there? What transpired between Bone and Thorn that convinced him not to stick around? That pace-killing, months-long wait doesn’t appear to do anything for the story, other than give Smith a chance to work in the Christmas episode and the snowfall scene. Shades of Dave Sim’s procrustean digressions.


As a general reply to Allan,

Yes, the ending was pretty much a let down. I started collecting bone back in the mid 90s when I was yet another angsty teen into angry-man-with-guns stories. Bone was the first story that got me seeing straight through the art and into the story, and seeing the art and writing both equally defining the characters, story and world. It was almost too much for a young mind to take. It was fantastic.

I went from poor teenager to poor student, spotted issue 21 on Image and delved back in. I collected it up til almost the end of the Dragon slayer story and it stayed that way for a few years. I re-read those issues again and again and leant them to all and sundry. “Trust me! You’ll love this!” About a year ago I had the cash to catch up. Started racing through the TPB’s, first buying Dragon Slayer! And then - Rock Jaw!.. then... umm... and... ghost circles... and... there’s a giant bee... and some Jedi mind tricks people... aaah... something about a crown of horns?... and didn’t they already kill Briar?... more Jedi intrigue... and yesterday I brought Crown of Horns. And a big thing came. And then somebody Knew What They Had To Do. And then one of the greatest characters from the shorter collection for so many years appears, KingDok, and it was like he walked out of the past unannounced. And you remember how good it used to be. And then he dies. And Lucius Down, whose argument with Phoney Bone over the running of the Barrelhaven is the single best piece of characterization/tension/plot climaxing ever, climbs out of a rock, yells something macho, falls over and dies.

I have a few theories on this ending. One, is that Jeff Smith saw The Two Towers and Princess Mononoke and something with the ol’ Mystical Jedi Mind Tricks people in it. He’s been drawing the best 1 page gags and 3 page arguments and 2 page pieces of travel characterization for ten years, and he’s had it up to here with being subtle and ingenious. So before you know it, there’s a wriggling worm (dragon) covered possessed beast, a last stand against overwhelming odds on a battlement, and a sweet Secret Weapon to defeat the hordes with.

The other thought I had was that I’ve been re-reading the first 25 odd issues of bone for roughly six years, and gaining more from them each time. Then in one year I finished the two other thirds of the story and there’s so many characters you have to start dealing with. Of course he can’t flesh them all out - and in many ways there’s a redundancy about some of them. I hated the Rockjaw story (part five) the first time I read it, but even that was pretty cool compared to what else happened. I lost touch more and more with Bone as a world and a group of people. I could tell you my fifteen favourite scenarios from the first part of the trilogy, but the only thing I remember from 5 onward was Fone and Smiley telling Thorn that Phoney raised them back in Boneville - which suddenly made the three Bones relationship clear. And apart from that, everyone Knew What They Had To Do and sort of cruised along and did it. Via droughts and magical limbo lands and Jedi Mind Tricks.And they stopped talking to each other.

I don’t hate Bone at all. It kicks the ass out of many other titles on the shelves. None of them get an essay like this about them from me. It had to end, and it could’ve been extremely tragic. It just seemed like a different story. Though it’s somewhat of a letdown, Jeff Smith’s still a huge influence on my own drawing and (attempts at) comics, and Bone is still the pride of my comics collection.

Nb: This was my first post - apologies, the rest won’t be this long and painful


Not painful in the least, Matt. Those are some great observations.

Yeah, it’s sad that much of what made the book special kind of deflated after the Dragonslayer sequence. I also kind of got frustrated with the whole Bone/Thorn flirtation. About halfway through, it stopped progressing altogether right through to the end. I kept waiting for at least a kiss. Don’t they even get to smooch? Sheesh.

It really is a testament to the power of the earlier stuff that so many of us kept reading through some pretty well-trod territory. It’s kind of like, when you have static characters, there’s only so many ways you can keep restating the same personality traits. Phoney and Smiley looking for the hidden treasure in the walls of whatever that city was supposed to be sure didn’t open anything new about those characters. We’d already seen that bit three times!

I think I kept holding on for a slam-bang ending, which I figured was going to be a cleverly planned out crescendo he must’ve had in mind for years. Instead, it was the series’ biggest disappointment. Whatta letdown.


Yeah, I was interested in how he was going to resolve that one. “Bone will be heartbroken if he can’t win her love, but they’re different species, so how could it work?” It was one of the story’s two or three most central conflicts.

But then it was like he realized at some point that “waitaminute -- these two can’t get together! That would be too weird!” So instead of resolving it, he just let it fall by the wayside.

No comments:

Post a Comment