Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review - Rose

Written by Jeff Smith; Art by Charles Vess
2002 Eisner Winner for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist

"Does Bone really need a prequel?" I asked myself when I first encountered Rose. I liked Bone a lot but it did start to drag toward the end. And rather than focusing on the comical misadventures of the Bones this was about the rulers of the fantasy kingdom that Bone is set in. It would make a radical departure in style to something that I thought that I probably wouldn't really care for. Still the place I first saw the book was at a convention booth for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and I thought that getting some pleasant Charles Vess artwork, an autographed copy of the book, and supporting a good cause at the same time wouldn't hurt and I picked it up. I'm glad I did because what I found was Rose wasn't Bone Part 2 or even Pre-Bone; it's a pretty good story that stands well on its own.

In a fantasy kingdom the heir is decided by which of the king's children has the greatest mystical abilities. Princess Rose is very strong, can sense danger, communicates with some intelligent animals, and has prophetic dreams but lacks the discipline to do well with her studies. Her sister Briar has the discipline but no mystical abilities. Together they are summoned to a remote cavern for the final test to determine who will be heir. An evil power is stirring and Rose accidently unleashes a tiny portion of it as a dragon. The dragon is just a fragment of a larger scheme and there is a high price to pay for its defeat.

I'm underselling the plot quite a bit in that brief description. Smith crafted a dense story where new subtleties and twists keeps pushing it in new directions. I'm sure that the broad strokes of the plotting will be obvious to anyone (even without the advantage of reading the previous comics); it's the texture that he gives it that makes Rose interesting.

Part of that is in the characterization. Rose is one of those characters who finds that being the hero of the story doesn't mean that things are easy. Her youthful follies out of love and innocence cause most of her problems. This may be the story of a fairy tale dragon slayer but its heroine is not the simple white knight of legends.

Vess artwork is magnificent. The actual layouts are traditional inked lines but all of the coloring is done with watercolors which compliment his swirling line work. It's a technique that he's used many times and I find that his painted colors give the book a gentler tone than more traditional coloring techniques would. In addition he mimics Smith's style of character design in Rose. Usually Vess's figures are are very elaborate and here they seem like a compromise between his extreme and Smith's simple animation based style.

In an interesting spin on things Rose works just as well if you read it before Bone as it does if you read it afterward. On the one hand there's plot developments from half way through Bone that will be given away by reading Rose, but on the other there's bits in Rose that turn some minor conversations in Bone to shocking revelations. The two play off each other amazingly well despite being dramatically different.

If you liked Bone then you really should read Rose. And if you haven't read Bone then I still recommend Rose because it's a charmingly told fairy tale style fable. Though Rose might be overshadowed by Smith's more popular book (I doubt I'm going to find this on shelves at Wal-Mart any time soon, for example) I think it's deserving of equal praise as a companion to it.