March 12, 2015
(++++) THE USES OF PICTURES
Bone, Book One: Out from Boneville—Tribute Edition. By Jeff Smith. Color by Steve Hamaker. Graphix/Scholastic. $14.99.
My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!). By Alison DeCamp. Crown. $16.99.
Although it was Will Eisner (1917-2005) who largely bridged the gap between traditional comic books and graphic novels, it is Jeff Smith (born 1960) who has really shown the power, versatility and entertainment value of the graphic-novel form. Smith’s Bone series of nine books, originally self-published, actually led Scholastic to launch an entire new publication line called Graphix that has since put out numerous notable graphic novels. Smith himself expanded the Bone universe beyond its original confines with supplements called Rose and Tall Tales, a Bone Handbook, and the three-part Quest for the Spark, which was more of an illustrated traditional novel than a graphic novel. The lines tend to blur where Smith is concerned, and the quality of his work only becomes more apparent on repeated readings and viewings – as is clear in the new Tribute Edition of the first book of the Bone saga. Introducing most of the series’ major characters, Out from Boneville also shows with exceptional clarity the debt Smith owes to cartoonists who came before him, particularly Walt Kelly of Pogo fame, whose brilliant characterizations inform the shape of the three Bone cousins themselves and also are quite clear in the creation of such subsidiary characters as the baby possums and Ted the bug. The cover of the new Tribute Edition is as clear a tribute to Pogo as anyone could want: Fone Bone, the sequence’s central character, appears all alone, dressed in top hat and tails, tipping his topper and leaning on his walking stick in as Pogo-esque a pose as you are likely to see this side of Kelly himself. Yet there is little in Bone that is actually derivative, for all that the overall plot is a typical heroic fantasy quest and many of the characters are traditional tropes of the form. Smith – abetted by the absolutely first-rate coloring of Steve Hamaker, which really makes the Bone world come alive – incorporates elements of the expected into a story filled with unexpected twists and turns, a tale that keeps readers guessing and is every bit as involving as many a traditional novel. And the illustrations are marvelous to look at, the characters’ varied appearances and positioning being as important to the tale-telling as Smith’s words. Bone is unusual in so many ways that readers really need to discover them for themselves, from the inclusion of references to Moby-Dick to the creation of evil Rat Creatures that are vicious, destructive, and somehow amusing in their stupidity and (in one case) their love of quiche. The Tribute Edition includes some extra material: an illustrated poem by the quiche-loving Rat Creature and a number of artistic interpretations of Bone-related matters by other visual artists. But these tributes are not what the Tribute Edition is really all about: what matters here is the chance to revisit a remarkably effective instance of storytelling in a just-right mixture of words and pictures, and to revel in the power that graphic novels can have when someone as skilled as Smith creates them.
Most books that rely on visuals for their effect are far from the quality of Bone, but that does not stop authors from repeatedly trying to bring illustrations to novels for young readers in an attempt to make the stories more interesting than they would otherwise be. This is what Alison DeCamp tries in My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!), a book whose main attraction is its unusual setting (a lumber camp in 1895) but whose voluminous illustrations – looking like scrapbook clippings of ads and magazine illustrations, with comments by the 11-year-old protagonist written on them – add much less to the narrative than the author clearly hopes. The basic problem with this (+++) book is Stanley Arthur Slater, its central character, who is far too silly and immature for his supposed age and whom DeCamp tries far too hard to turn into a sort of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn type. Instead, Stanley comes across as hopelessly and not very charmingly naïve, and his habit of writing the narrative as if he is thinking it, only to have another character comment on what has just happened – meaning that Stanley was speaking out loud rather than just thinking something – quickly becomes annoying and, eventually, irritating. Stanley does not understand all the many comments about his missing father, a ne’er-do-well who, Stanley imagines, must be writing him increasingly improbable letters about all his wonderful jobs and adventures. DeCamp thinks the many illustrations relieve this sort of style: “Granny looks at me. She is not amused. ‘Stan, I am not amused.’” And while the pictures are quite funny some of the time, far too often they seem forced, as well as more juvenile than need be. A little of the style here goes a long way: “Sure enough, when I wake up, I’m dead. …Unfortunately, the first thing I see is Granny. And then I know. This isn’t Heaven. …Uncle Henry is the angel Gabriel. Who would have thought? This information certainly would have come in handy when I was alive.” There is a lot of misunderstanding of death and dying in the book, as should be obvious from its title, and that too is a matter in which a little goes a long way: “I must admit, it’s a relief to hear Stinky Pete probably won’t be murdering anyone in their sleep, but I’m still watching out for that guy. You never know, he might have an evil side.” Throw writing like this together with a diagram of a coffin from which escape is possible if you are buried alive (a real 19th-century invention), a picture of President Grover Cleveland, a map of Michigan with a supposedly hand-drawn arrow and the words “we are here,” a female cousin determined to become a doctor even though everyone (especially Stan) knows that only men are doctors, and a lot of pictures related to logging, and you have a book that tries very hard indeed to be offbeat, amusing and unusual. But it comes across most of the time as simply trying too hard, just as Stan himself seems to be trying too hard – not merely to be grown-up, mature and capable, which are common attempts for 11-year-olds in books for the 8-12 age group, but to be interesting. The liberal sprinkling of illustrations here does little to make the characters, especially Stan, more appealing. Stan’s repeated assertion, “I don’t mind saying,” is a remark that, like much else in this novel, wears thin awfully quickly. “I’m a whiz at shaving, I don’t mind saying. Or at least drawing whiskers.” “I am a whiz at being a patient, I don’t mind saying.” “I myself am a whiz at whistling, I don’t mind saying.” Readers in the target age group may find that enough of this is more than enough, they won’t mind saying.