Bone: Quest for the Spark, Books One and Two. By Tom Sniegoski. Illustrated by Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99 each.
Pandemonium, Book One. By Chris Wooding & Cassandra Diaz. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
The Flying Beaver Brothers: #1, The Evil Penguin Plan; #2, The Fishy Business. By Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf. $6.99 each.
Graphic novels, those almost-but-not-quite-comics, continue to produce not only new stories but also new forms within or related to their genre. The line between comics and graphic novels can be a thin one: Jeff Smith’s brilliant, nine-part Bone sequence surely deserves to be called a graphic novel (or series of them) for its format, pacing and depth; but Smith himself called it a series of comics in its original incarnation. Since Scholastic reprinted the entire black-and-white Bone series with excellent color added to the illustrations by Steve Hamaker, Bone has continued to grow, spawning a prequel called Rose and several other ancillary volumes. And now there is an out-and-out adventure sequence, in the form of three illustrated novels under the umbrella title Bone: Quest for the Spark. Here the graphic novel, driven by Smith’s art, has returned to one of its roots: the illustrated novel, in which the pictures convey important information but are only subsidiaries of the words, where the real story is told. That story, written by Tom Sniegoski, is a fairly standard quest tale, taking place after the original Bone sequence and featuring some new members of the Bone family as well as some characters held over from the original series. Sniegoski’s plot is in some ways identical to Smith’s original: Smith had an evil creature, the Lord of Locusts, seeking to spread darkness over the Valley forever; Sniegoksi has a different evil creature, the Nacht (German for “night”), with the same aim. Gran’ma Ben and Thorn reappear in Quest for the Spark, although they are not significant characters here; also returning are Roderick the raccoon and the two bumbling but dangerous Rat Creatures, and they are major characters (the Rat Creatures even get names: Stinky and Smelly). The Bones here are explorer Percival Bone and his niece and nephew, Abbey and Barclay, who journey to the Valley aboard Percival’s airship, Queen of the Sky. Sniegoski draws on Jules Verne as well as on Smith’s work, and the whole Quest for the Spark has a comfortably old-fashioned air about it. The quest leader is not a Bone but a 12-year-old boy named Tom Elm, who has helped his family farm turnips even while believing, as all true adventurers do, that he is destined for bigger things. Sniegoski also brings former Veni Yan warrior Randolph Clearmeadow into the mix, plus a fascinating shapeshifter named Lorimar of the First Folk, “the last, I fear, of my kind,” who tells the tale of how the Valley came to be and of the way the Lord of Locusts possessed the dragon queen Mim, leading to all the troubles chronicled in the original Bone series. It is Lorimar who reveals that the Nacht is a turncoat dragon who supported the Lord of Locusts and is now determined “to strike at both the Dreaming and the Waking World.” It is in the mystical Dreaming that sensitives such as Thorn, Gran’ma Ben and Randolph become aware that something is going seriously wrong, but there is little most can do, for the Nacht is poisoning the Dreaming itself, pulling people into nightmares and keeping them there. Tom proves to be a sensitive of a different kind, attuned to the Dreaming in a different way: “It’s guiding me with visions. …Trying to help me get everything in place so we can stop the Nacht from carrying out its plans.” But the visions are not always clear or certain. One suggests that the Rat Creatures must become part of the quest; another involves giant bees and huge bears. What everyone is looking for is an object called the Spark, which can be used to defeat the Nacht but which has been shattered, its pieces scattered throughout the Valley. The seekers’ paths, on the ground and in the air, take them all over the place, and Sniegoski chronicles their adventures in prose that is well-paced and easy to read. Quest for the Spark is not, in truth, as effective at storytelling as Smith’s original Bone sequence, but it is a more-than-passable adventure series. And it does contain quite a few full-page Smith illustrations, colored by Hamaker, which can be quite marvelous: the first appearance of Lorimar is fascinatingly creepy, for example, and a scene of huge bears towering over the trembling Rat Creatures retains the mixture of amusement and fright that was a hallmark of Bone. The third book of Quest for the Spark is sure to bring the seeking to a successful conclusion, while establishing that the Bone story is rich enough to continue to spawn sidelights and sequels in a variety of formats.
Although the new Bone books are not graphic novels, there are plenty of other attractive works in graphic-novel format being created. The first book of Pandemonium is a particularly good example, combining the experience of writer Chris Wooding with the fresh and interesting graphic style of debut illustrator Cassandra Diaz. The basic story is The Prince and the Pauper updated, darkened and turned into fantasy: teenager with uncanny resemblance to mysteriously missing prince of the realm is kidnapped and forced to take prince’s place so great affairs of state are not upended; but the substitute prince proves to have unexpected talents and abilities of his own, and is soon accomplishing surprising things. This being a graphic novel for teenagers, it is filled with action, adventure and romance, but what sets it apart from other books in the genre is the amount of humor it contains. The hero is named Seifer Tombchewer, and he is an expert skullball player. The game is explained in a panel called “skullball for idiots.” Seifer will of course prove to be anything but a cypher. His last name comes from his grandfather, who actually chews on graves and keeps trying to eat his pet cat. The name Pandemonium belongs to the ruling clan of the land, whose prince (named Talon) Seifer impersonates. The ruler is named Queen Euthanasia. Prince Talon’s sisters are Sarcoma and Hypoxia; their deceased mother was named Aphasia; Talon’s fiancée is named Asphyxia – and her mother is named Baroness Crustacea Effluvia. And it is not only the names that are amusing here. The three “velvet spies,” who capture Seifer and occasionally disguise themselves as “psycho carnage beasts,” debate what sort of plan to use in one of their tricky maneuvers, and vote for Plan C. “‘You always vote for Plan C.’ ‘That’s because it always works.’ ‘Just once, just once I’d like to try Plan B.’ ‘You know, it’s been so long since we used Plan B, I can’t even remember what it is.’ ‘It’s the one with the thing. Where we use the whatchamacallit.’ ‘Oh, yes. I never liked that one.’” Also in Pandemonium is a huge cat that has a tendency to try to swallow Seifer, knowing that he is not Talon; a helpful and cute love interest named Lady Carcassa Malefica, whom Seifer never quite manages to kiss before something goes wrong; plus the usual mysterious helper, unknown traitor in the midst, unstoppable giant warrior defeated by Seifer, and more. The almost uniformly dark backgrounds of the panels and the serious matters of war and statesmanship are well balanced against the frequently amusing sidelights and well-paced tale-telling in general. And there are enough complexities in the story – including hints that both Seifer and Crustacea are more than they appear to be and more than they themselves know – to guarantee reader interest in the next Pandemonium book.
Much more straightforward graphic novels, intended for readers as young as age six (up to about age nine), the first two tales of The Flying Beaver Brothers are silly, easy to read and utterly meaningless except to the extent that they provide a touch of amusement for a little while. These small-format (+++) books are about Ace (the more dedicated and adventurous beaver brother) and Bub (the lazier one, who nevertheless manages to save the day when the day needs saving). They live on an island and have a happy-go-lucky life except when they cross paths with a large beaver bully named Bruce or with various nefarious characters, including penguins who intend to turn the balmy island into a winter wonderland (but will reconsider if someone teaches them how to surf) and fish who live on land (using water-filled helmets) and are manufacturing useless stick toys (“Fish Stix”) that are allegedly environmentally sensitive but in fact are being created by destroying the island’s trees. The mild eco-awareness of the books is their only slightly serious element; pretty much everything else is slapstick, whether Ace and Bub are arguing “penguins or puffins” or Maxwell Eaton III is making it a point to have a fish say that there is no “off” switch for the Fish Stix manufacturing apparatus (just to be sure readers know that that fact will turn out to be the ultimate downfall of the evil fishy plan). Eaton’s highly simplified drawing style works well with his highly simplified writing style (although kids are likely to wonder why the penguins [not puffins] do not have visible eyes). The Flying Beaver Brothers won’t win any awards for profundity, but it is the sort of series that can be spun into an ever-lengthening graphic-novel sequence, since the plots are so minimalist that new ones can easily be pulled out of a hat – probably the hat that Bruce wears almost all the time.