Monday, October 29, 2007

A bunch of comics which remind me of Bone, and which I like about as much as Bone

-Well, I'm taking this as very good news. More the crime volume than the horror one--a cover illustration by Jose Munoz suggests that this is something I want to buy when it comes out. (Or sometime shortly after--next summer is going to be really chaotic, I'm thinking). Unfortunately, I can't read the fine print with the contributors' names, so I can only hope that the interior matches the exterior. The horror volume seems to be treading in areas I appreciate but don't love--Wrightson, Kaluta, old Marvel monster comics. The inclusion of Thomas Ott is promising, however, as it suggests a very broad approach to horror comics. I'll definitely flip through it in the store.

-Via Tom Spurgeon, Kevin Huizenga draws two characters from Powr Mastrs. There's no stopping the momentum of this book!

I've been thinking--there have been an awful lot of alternative/underground-type fantasy comics in the last year or two. I've commented on this before, but I'd never really considered that these books are, in many ways, following a path similar to Bone. I mean, these new fantasy comics differ from Bone in a lot of ways--very few of them combine Jeff Smith's supreme craft skills with his largely straightforward take on the fantasy genre. But there are similar themes at work--naive characters inserted into conflicts which they don't understand, great mysteries gradually revealed through exploration and adventure, generous dollops of humor. An overview:

The oldest of all these comics is Dungeon, an import from France. Probably operating more in the tradition of European comics I've never read than Bone, Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, and their collaborators craft a world filled with bizarre creatures and funny animals wielding medieval weapons. The series is divided into several categories. The main narrative (such as it is) is basically a trilogy: The Early Years, Zenith, and Twilight. Each part of this trilogy is a multivolume work; all have had two volumes released in the US, except The Early Years (which, tragically, only has one volume out--what are you waiting for, NBM?) There are additional works, however, that are basically excuses to use Zenith-era characters without disrupting the larger narrative. All volumes are either drawn by Trondheim or by artists with similar styles--though I should note that Christophe Blain is a bit more inclined toward crosshatching, and Kerascoet's sketchy lines are almost closer to Sfar than Trondheim. But, generally speaking, you have rather "cartoony" line art with mostly flat coloring. It's a pretty significant departure from Smith's elegant brushwork. What's more, his style is more dramatic--Smith uses heavy pools of ink to create greater contrast, and he relies more on his characters' ability to convey subtle emotions. Smith will remain focused on one basic "shot" for longer than Trondheim, who frequently changes perspective and scene from panel to panel.

Page from Jeff Smith's Bone: Ghost Circles

Compare it to this page from Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Dungeon Zenith, volume 2 (art by Trondheim)

Furthermore, as is generally typical in European comics, Trondheim is more reliant on color as an aspect of composition; he uses it to pop his characters, which tend to be smaller on the page. (I can't really comment on Smith's use of color, since I've only read the b&w Bone.)

These different approaches to art tend to underscore the very different aims of each comic. Smith is committed to an overarching narrative, a struggle between good and evil. The humor in Bone tends to work as comic relief or as a way to establish characters (so we have expectations to draw upon in the more dramatic scenes involving the Bone cousins or the Red Dragon). In Dungeon, the larger narrative is generally subservient to Trondheim and Sfar's main ambition--to produce a work of comedy. At least that's the case in the early volumes--by the time we reach Twilight, the story is much darker and the mood more melancholy. The characters are in a more reflective mood, and Trondheim and Sfar mostly use the fantasy setting to give them the chance to consider their lives and rethink the decisions they have made.

There's a little of this in Bone; the older characters advise the younger ones, hoping to convince them to make better decisions than they made. But that's mostly a plot device for Smith; for Trondheim and Sfar, it's the main point of Dungeon: Twilight. The first volume hints that the planet is about to undergo some massive ecological catastrophe. This happens off-panel in the second volume; the authors would rather have their characters contemplate the past than go on a quest to save the world. In fact, by the end of the second volume, these characters are not on any sort of epic quest--their quest is trying to make amends for the past while finding their place in the present.

So Dungeon, then, lacks the epic feel of Bone. Which certainly isn't a bad thing--I don't think of the epic as the ultimate form of comic storytelling, or any other type, for that matter. But what do these books have in common? There's the humor, which I've already noted. It's not the same kind of humor, exactly--I always felt that Smith's was rooted in Peanuts (how many comic interludes ended with an exasperated or dejected Fone Bone shouting at another, off-panel character? how many Peanuts strips ended with Charlie Brown doing the same?), while Trondheim and Sfar's humor usually comes from putting their characters in absurd situations (Herbert, one of the main protagonists, relies on his foes' attempts to steal his enchanted sword as his main form of defense--whenever anyone touches the sword, the ghost of one of its previous owners appears to massacre practically everyone in sight). Smith and Trondheim/Sfar are equally fond of emphasizing environment. Smith's are fairly conventional--caves, mountains, and forests--but he emphasizes the visceral qualities of these environments. Characters are drenched by rain, buffeted by wind, blinded by darkness, and chilled by snow. Trondheim and Sfar, however, are more likely to put their characters in bizarre, exotic environments. Much of this is due to Trondheim's art; even something as quotidian as a forest becomes a strange, alien landscape via Trondheim's pen.

Not every fan of Bone will be as enamored with Dungeon. Smith draws in a style which might be more familiar/appealing to fans of American adventure comics. Likewise, his epic scale might be more appealing to the American comic reader than Trondheim and Sfar's more character-oriented story. I don't want to overemphasize the differences--Dungeon is still an adventure series with strong fantasy elements. There's something fantastic on every page; one of the main characters is a dragon, for chrissakes. But he's a vegetarian dragon, and that alone should give you some indication of the difference between the two series. That's not to say that Smith is slavishly converting the archetypical fantasy into comics form--the Bone cousins are hardly hobbit stand-ins, and a young girl is the primary hero. But he does tend to play things straight; his mysteries serve to invest the reader in his narrative. The mysteries in Dungeon are mostly there to confound the characters, putting them into comical situations. Even Twilight, which takes place many years after Zenith and puts its characters in very different roles, doesn't seem especially concerned with revealing what happened between trilogies.

Fans of Bone who dislike Dungeon's irreverent tone might be happier with Nick Bertozzi's online comic Persimmon Cup. Bertozzi's art isn't going to be mistaken for Smith's anytime soon--it lacks Smith's weighty brushstrokes and high-contrast composition. Like Trondheim, Bertozzi relies on color; however, he sticks to a much more limited palette than Trondheim. Bertozzi almost color-codes his characters--the protagonists and those from their society are green (as is their world when portrayed in flashbacks), while the pirates are red. The water separating the pirates' domain from the rests of the world is, of course, blue, while the rest of the landscape is gray.

Again, art follows story; Persimmon Cup is a very different comic than Bone. The latter is full of mystery, but based on fairly familiar conceits; a dark, nebulous force wishes to take over the humans' world, and strikes a deal with horrible monsters in order to do so. The unified forces which had repelled a similar invasion in the past are now divided. The royal family hides its most important member in a humble woodland cabin. Various factions debate whether to serve their own interests or work together to eliminate the greater evil. Smith's juggling of these various plot elements is masterful, and his character designs make the mystery all the more intriguing. But I never really felt completely in the dark when reading Bone.

Compare that to Persimmon Cup. It's still early in the narrative, but this world is still a mystery to me. How much of his fictional world is Bertozzi showing us? What do the pirates want? Who or what are the weavers producing tapestries for? What does it mean for Persimmon to be "seeded?" Despite this confusion, there are enough archetypical characters for us to make some sense of what's going on. Garo is the classic hero who violates the rigid rules of his society in the name of forbidden love. Persimmon, the object of his affection, is unwilling to step beyond the boundaries of her society, but has been forced to do so against her will. Muncle betrays the two, revealing that the ties of the individual to the society (expressed via adherence to its norms) are stronger than those between individuals within the society. Olidg is from an antagonistic group, but is bound to the hero through extenuating circumstances.

Again, it's fairly early (I hope) in the narrative, but the nature of Persimmon Cup is still up in the air. Will this primarily be a love story? Will the protagonists eventually escape to a place where they can defy the strictures of their society? Will they revolutionize their society, changing it into a more open world? Any of these possibilities assumes that the real antagonists are the authority figures of the loom world, but the real antagonists might remain hidden. Garo's yellow cube seems to behave as a virus, suggesting that an unseen force might be at work. Bertozzi probably has many cards left to show. At this point in Bone, we pretty much knew who the bad guys were.

Furthermore, Bertozzi is clearly more concerned with systems of labor and ecology than Smith. Both are interested in political systems, though. Smith mostly limits this analysis to the ways which members of a society might be pulled in opposite directions--towards defending and maintaining one's home on the one hand, and eliminating a greater (but not immediate) threat on the other. Bertozzi is mining themes of conformity and individuality--somewhat more personal themes, but it's quite possible that he'll move towards the broader focus of Bone. Right now, the bizarre world of Persimmon Cup may frustrate some readers, but it's dealing in pretty classic, universal themes.

That brings us to Christopher Forgues' Powr Mastrs, which is probably the most outre of the group. If there's a master narrative, it isn't apparent yet. New China, the fictional world in which Powr Mastrs is set, is organic, full of interdependencies and unrevealed relationships, but there really isn't a single character you could point to as the protagonist yet. I mean, maybe Subra Ptareo is the hero, but if so he's not a traditional fantasy hero. He appears in the first and last chapters of the first volume, making him the most prominent character, but the story is clearly not being told from his perspective. He's not especially heroic either--with the possible exception of Laz, he comes the closest to providing comic relief. He's been duped, and the other characters are constantly snickering at him.

In fact, New China and its denizens generally defy the conventions of fantasy comics. There seems to be a fairly rigid society (or several rigid societies) operating in the background, but there's no real sense of how well it treats its members, or how just its laws are. Some characters make gestures towards heroism or villainy--various witches for the former, Ajax Lacewing for the latter--but the complete lack of context puts that all into doubt. There's no overarching struggle or quest at work. This confusion is intentional, according to the Picture Box website--it describes Powr Mastrs as "the story of a tribe of mystical warriors whose power relations are constantly in flux. As power shifts, so do physical and psychological identities." That's what makes Powr Mastrs so intriuging--typical relationships between hero and villain, or even protagonist and antagonist, are not in effect. I find this highly appealing. Fans of Bone may or may not. If one's main attraction to Bone was the cast of colorful characters, competing factions, and general sense of wonder, then one probably should check out Powr Mastrs. But what if the hypothetical reader was mostly attracted to Bone's linear narrative depicting an epic struggle between the overwhelmed forces of good versus the overwhelming forces of evil? In that case, you might be happier saving your $18.

Those readers wanting that epic struggle between powerful villains and not-so-powerful heroes might instead want to check out Kazmir Strzepek's Mourning Star. Strzepek makes it pretty clear from the outset who the bad guys are--the Rule, a ruthless band of murderers who (from what we've seen) appear to be trying to take over what's left of this post-apocalyptic world. The protagonists are pretty obvious too--Klavir, a young man searching for his missing girlfriend; Futch, a ghost who feeds on dreams (by flying into the mouths of sleeping people); Wilm, a world-weary middle-aged man; and an unnamed amnesiac, apparently an assassin who uses scissors as his primary weapon.

Another similarity to Bone in its early stages: we have a pretty good idea of what's at stake, but we don't know much about the people at the top of the power structure. The leader of the Rule hasn't appeared on-panel yet, but there's a misshapen girl with wooden arms who might be pulling his strings. The amnesiac assassin is headed toward a city, but we don't know what lies there, or how they protect themselves against the Rule. Likewise, Klavir and his companions have arrived at Northern Cross, a entrepot of some type under the control of the Rule. We don't know what's in store for them there. And hey: the first volume ends in a cliffhanger. Mystery abounds!

Out of all these successors to Bone, Mourning Star is the most concerned with plot. And it's similar to Bone in that it takes well-worn tropes from various genres and works them into something fresh and exciting. We've seen all this stuff before; some of it's so ingrained in our literary traditions, it's downright Jungian. The quest for a loved one in a post-apocalyptic world should be immediately familiar to any Brian K. Vaughan fans. The arrival in a seedy entrepot reminds me of the first Star Wars movie. The talkative, semi-bungling band of killers is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's various work (which, in turn, means they're especially well-worn tropes). The amnesiac killer reminds me of something, but I can't seem to recall what it is. In any event, Strzepek puts all these cliches together with such skill and charm that you can't help but be entertained.

The other major similarity between Smith and Strzepek is that they both embrace cuteness as a device for gaining the reader's sympathy. Like Smith's Bone cousins, Strzepek's characters are vaguely anthropoidal, but clearly not human. And yet they're all pretty cute, flailing away at giant monsters and threatening each other with torture and death. It's this blend of humor, suspense, and adventure that made Bone such a great success, and Strzepek is using a similar formula.

Cuteness and violence (albeit implied violence) in Kazmir Strzepek's Mourning Star

Of all these Bone-like comics, Mourning Star is the closest to Smith's original vision. It's not derivative; it's actually a fair bit darker, closer to Mad Max than Lord of the Rings. Hell, I don't even know if Strzepek has even read Bone. But those who bemoan the lack of quality Bone-ish material in today's comics* should save further complaints until they've read Mourning Star.

*And by that I mean less Heidi MacDonald and more the people who leave angry comments on her blog.

Oh, and as long as I'm editing this, let me add that I intended to include more scans, but my scanner seems to have died. Sorry.


Alicia said...

I've had basically no interest in the Heidi McDonald controversy (her original comments were too vague to be interesting, and the objections to her vagueness too obvious to result in interesting commentary), but thank you for writing this post.

Bone happens to be the reason why I love comics; I picked up the first issue when I was fourteen or so, and followed it faithfully to its conclusion. It is more or less my idea of what a good comic book should be, a complete story told evocatively through pictures. (I appreciate other types of material, but inevitably find them less appealing on just as a matter of taste.)

When Bone ended I lost interest in comics for awhile, since I couldn't find anything to hold my interest over the long term in quite the same way. All of these recommendations look immediately appealing to me, though, and I plan on reading all of them. The fact that you could specify "this is what the book is doing that is not Bone" for all of them just made them more interesting to me. I am interested in people telling complex fantastic narratives in comics in various ways, but not in clones of a story I've already read.

MarkAndrew said...

Powr Mastrs looks cool. I will order it tomorrow, and then my shop will fail to get it.

I was hoping for some Dave Sim in this article, 'cause we need more Dave in the Blogsphere. But I guess it got long enough.

And very solid take on Dungeon - Which is a weird work. I totally recognize it's quality, and it's absolutely the kind of thing I like. All epic in scope and funny but not really obviously three-act-structurey in terms of plot progression and funny and a little sad...

But it just doesn't gell for me. I probably am more a fan of the American Adventure style of art, maybe. Or maybe I just don't dig Trondheim, barring the autobiographical sequence in Mome a while back.

I dunno. But make mine Bone, for sure.

Dan Coyle said...

Thanks for the link to Persimmon Cup; it's a wonderful comic.

LurkerWithout said...

Wait Trondheim and Sfar are French? Huh, I always figured they were Swedish or from that area. Either way Dungeon IS great, if difficult to find consistently in stores. Also, while not really Bone-like, Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert's The Professor's Daughter is another great indy book to hunt down...

Dick Hyacinth said...

Sadly, I haven't read very much Cerebus. I suspect that's why you don't see much discussion of Sim in general--bloggers just haven't read it. I've always meant to. Maybe I should set that as a goal for 2008.

One other recent comic that reminds me of Bone is, strangely enough, Zak Sally's Sammy the Mouse. There's a similar Disney cognate thing going on, plus there's something resembling a rat creature at the end. Tonally, it's totally different than Bone--it's much, much bleaker. But it's probably my favorite comic of the year, bar none.

João Gouveia said...

Being an european currently living in the US I'm more familiar with the european side of this question.

To understand Dungeon (from which I have the 30 volumes currently out) you must understand that instead of mainstream superhero comics, the comics scene in Europe has large numbers of Fantasy and SF titles, which are sometimes looked down in the same way superheroes are looked down in the US.

Dungeon is a parody to the entire genre fantasy, as well as a hommage of sorts and a huge project of world building. Because of that, it reads in a completely different way then Bone, which is a honest fantasy work, although an unusual one.

As of the drawing style is mainly people on the orbit of Sfar and Trondheim. Blain, Larcenet, Yoann, and so on. For people that apreciate the type (like I do) the entire "poisson pilote" collection of Dargaud is composed of works from this school of drawing.

My big drawback for the american editions is that the enormously reduced drawings completely loose their magic...

Dick Hyacinth said...

Thanks for the clarification. I had assumed that the point of reference was more like, I don't know, Herge or Peyo, but I think I can see the simultaneous parody and homage going on. Kind of like, I don't know, Jeff Brown's Transformers parody/homage?

I personally don't mind the reduction, but that's probably because I haven't seen the originals. Trondheim and Sfar are both among my favorite cartoonists, and I'm mostly just happy that there's a market for their comics in the United States. My brother actually buys and attempts to translate their original French volumes, despite not having studied said language for the last 10 years or so.

joão gouveia said...

I guess it's my problem from being used to the album format. The drawing just seems a little cluttered to me. But I guess is a good thing to see Trondheim and Sfar published here. Trondheim specially is one of my favorite BD writers ever (is early l'Association and Lezard stuff is unbelievable).

It was quite a surprise to see how relatively popular they are here. They are quite popular in Europe of course, but less than many other artists that are impossible to find here (the absence of Enki Bilal and Hugo Pratt from american shelves both seem puzzling to me). Not that there is not a lot of great stuff hapenning here too.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I think a lot of people are baffled by the relative lack of Pratt in America. I managed to snag one of NBM's Corto Maltese albums about 8 or 9 years ago, but those things are pretty scarce these days. I wish European comics would take off like manga in the US, but I suppose I should be happy that NBM, First Second, D&Q, and Fantagraphics are ensuring that there's a lot more quality Euro stuff than there has been in years. Now if only Dark Horse would get back to publishing Tardi....

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