February 07, 2008


Bone, Book Seven: Ghost Circles. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99 (hardcover); $9.99 (paperback).

Ordinary Basil: Attack of the Volcano Monkeys. By Wiley Miller. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $14.99.

      There have been very few comic-book-based works that genuinely deserve to be called epic. The 10-book Bone saga is one of them, and among the very best. Although the original black-and-white comic-book version is still available, the new Graphix/Scholastic books are better, thanks in large part to the coloring of Steve Hamaker, who by Book Seven is contributing nearly as much to the atmosphere of dread and fear as does Jeff Smith’s own art. This is the darkest Bone book yet, as the story turns into a harrowing tale of war and an attempt by two groups of refugees to reach some haven of safety – however temporary it may prove to be – despite the incipient rise of the Lord of the Locusts. Ghost Circles is a story of hardship, of hairbreadth escapes, and of considerable danger, as the human characters – notably Princess Thorn, Gran’ma Ben and Lucius – are portrayed more craggily and with more deeply etched lines and expressions of weariness than ever before. The book’s title refers to mysterious pockets of nothingness that swallow up and destroy living beings and can be negotiated only with the aid of a sort of second sight that Thorn possesses. The passages in which Thorn and Fone Bone must deliberately enter a ghost circle to seek food are genuinely scary – and so are the dramatic scenes of widespread devastation, of the chaos of war, and of an attempt to cross a bridge over a forbidden dragon realm. There is very little “comic” in this book, although pockets of lightness remain, such as the temporary transformation of Fone Bone and his cousins, Phoney and Smiley, into characters from Moby-Dick, and Thorn’s amusement when Fone Bone (who harbors an unrequited love for her) inadvertently calls her “my girl” at a moment of high tension. Interestingly, the visual distinction between the solid white, puffy Bones and the carefully drawn humans with whom they interact has by now become quite irrelevant; even a sort of interspecies romance seems barely plausible. Most of what happens in Ghost Circles, though, is quite grim, with the forces of darkness visibly rising as the remnants of humanity (including the Bones, despite their not appearing human) flee powers too strong for direct confrontation. Rarely has a work born as a comic book emerged with this much power and intensity.

      The second Ordinary Basil book by Wiley Miller, creator of the wonderful Non Sequitur comic strip, functions at a far less intense level – by design. Attack of the Volcano Monkeys is intended as a children’s book, following the pattern of the kids’ books by Berkeley Breathed, whose Bloom County and subsequent strips tackle very adult issues but whose children’s books are altogether milder. But this is not to say that Attack of the Volcano Monkeys is placid – quite the opposite. It is a better book than its predecessor, The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil, to which it is a sequel. Its superiority rests in Miller’s willingness to let Basil develop some self-confidence and more of a personality than in the earlier book, in which he was barely more than insipid. Now he participates fully in a truly extraordinary adventure that involves a moving island (driven by machinery), super-intelligent monkeys split into factions, giant owls, and the reappearance of the evil Von Röttweil – who turns out to have created the island and smart monkeys as an experiment that even he admits has failed. Tranquilizer darts (“the tips are rubbed on the back of a Hallucifrog,” one character helpfully explains), a flute that can open chains, and the timely appearance of Beatrice – faithful pterodactyl mount of Basil’s super-smart friend, Louise – are but some of the elements in this fast-paced book, which also features more interesting drawings than the earlier one: monkeys escaping a cage and climbing a rope, Basil steering a strange metal ship while towing the unconscious Von Röttweil in a rowboat, monkeys helping the island’s caretaker operate machinery, and many more. There are more Basil books to come, too: Miller recently presented parts of a new one in his vertical-format Sunday comic strips, and the text of Attack of the Volcano Monkeys makes it clear that Basil, unknown to himself, is an important connection between the world of 19th-century Earth and that of the skybuilt city of Helios. There is more mystery, more wonder and more Basil ahead. Count on it – and look forward to it.

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