Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review - Bone

by Jeff Smith

1993 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication

1994 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story: "The Great Cow Race"
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

1994 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist - Humor
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint

How's that for a list of awards? There's only a handful of series that rack up this many wins in the major categories.

This also looks to be the only time that I will review an entire series in one go. There's two reasons for this. First, all but two of the awards were for the first eighteen issues of the series. That actually confine my review a bit. Second, the collection of the entire series in one volume won in 2005. Since I gave away my other trade paperbacks of Bone when I got the monster tome I can go over it as one book. It also doesn't hurt that the series, for the most part, works well as one single story.

Bone is not a series that I would have expected to set the world on fire. It's a light fantasy epic (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) and that kind of psuedo-medieval, Tolkien inspired fantasy has rarely done well in comics. What Smith does to make Bone effective and elevate it above the crowd is tell his epic fantasy story from the viewpoint of comedic characters. He doesn't make the epic fantasy parts of the story funny; instead he puts his funny characters around the epic parts. And it makes the whole thing work.

Bone is the story of three brothers who when lost in the wilderness find their way to an enchanted valley. Initially they're determined to leave as quickly as possible but they find themselves swept up in the doings of rat creatures, dragons, lost princesses, and a demonic force out to use them all for its own purpose.

The Bone brothers are drawn in an extremely simple cartoonish style; so simple that their heads are only two lines. All other characters are rendered in a much richer style but none of them loose that animated look; it comes as no surprise that Smith worked at an animator for Disney before starting his comic.

The brothers are also drawn from broad comedic archtypes. You have to have the troublemaker and that's Phoney Bone whose greedy ways got the brother run out of town. He has to constantly scheme on how to squeeze money out of their situation. Smiley Bone is the fool lost in his own world and goes along with whatever seems the easiest at the moment. And since there has to be a straight man for those two comedians there is Fone Bone who acts as the viewpoint character for most of the series.

The best thing about Smith's writing in Bone is his sense of comedic timing.

Case in point. Early on the series is packed with moments like this. Unfortunately as time goes by Smith starts putting more and more focus on the epic fantasy portion of the story and consequently the series doesn't end nearly as well as it starts. Still he continues to pepper the story with great moments that leave me laughing.

A perfect example of his humor at its best is the "Great Cow Race" story from early in the series. One of the highlights of the yearly fair for the town where the Bones find themselves is the cow race. That is exactly what it sounds like with one exception: the world's toughest octogenarian also races with the cows and wins every year. Phoney smelling an oportunity to run a betting scam announces the entry of the Mystery Cow which he claims is the fiercest cow in the world (actually Smiley in a cow costume) in order to get people to bet against the usual winner. Needless to say chaos ensues.

Somehow Smith is able to manage it so that when the gears suddenly switch from a zany scheme to defraud peasants using a fake racing cow to the threat of a monster invasion it's hard to know where things changed.

Bone is not without its problems. Most of the characters are little more than their broad stereotypes. Comedic figures are rarely allowed to grow or change but even the other characters don't really move a bit in the course of the story. If you pulled the humor out then you're left with a fairly bland fantasy story; since that story grows in prominence as the book continues I found myself waiting to get back to the fun toward the end. It also doesn't help that Smith takes a strange detour midbook for a plot line that didn't add anything to the story.

If you want to get Bone there's more options to you than I can count. Besides the original issues you've got every almost variation of binding, color, size, and page count. The one volume edition is a cinder block of book with more than 1300 pages. It is impressive and I can understand the Eisner award for it since at the time oversized omnibuses were almost unheard of. It is a bit unwieldy to read since it's a regular glued binding and spine can give too much. Mine hasn't cracked yet but I would not be surprised to see a well handled copy dropping pages.

Obviously I highly recommend Bone just as a humor book. And even though it drags toward the end the early parts are so good that you'll find yourself pulled along for the whole ride. I've actually been thinking about buying the series a fourth time (after the comics and original trade paper backs) to replace the one volume edition with colorized hardcovers. It's that good.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review - Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile

Fables volume 1: Legends in Exile
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Lan Medina and Steve Leialoha
Lettered by Todd Klein
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story
2003 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Lettering

I suppose I should be up front about this: I'm about to say some nasty things about this book. Not Fables in general, mind you; I've come to love the series. It's just that my appreciation of the series is in spite of this first volume rather than because of it. This first volume spends far too much time hitting the reader over the head with the concept for the series and fails to tell an interesting story. My dislike for the first book was the reason I avoided reading the series for a long time.

The premise of Fables is that characters from folk lore and nursery rhymes are real people who are refugees from their own stories. They were chased out by a dark lord type known as "the Adversary" and have been living in the real world. The story in question, "Legends in Exile" introduces the reader to their community hiding in Manhattan where Rose Red has disappeared. Her apartment is covered in blood and it is up to her sister Snow White and the fable community's only detective Bigby Wolf to find if she is alive and who did it.

Fairy tales being "real" is an old plot that takes a deft touch to pull off well. To use my previous review as an example Linda Medley brought a unique storytelling style to "Sleeping Beauty". Willingham eventually finds a niche in this with an interesting take on the integration of old world stories and the modern world along with their conflict with the Adversary. Unfortunately in this volume that isn't present. Instead Willingham relies on name dropping and dirtying up the characters.

A perfect example is Prince Charming who is charming but also a womanizing sleazeball. The reader is intended to go, "Oh my! A fairy tale character who is a jerk! My childhood illusions are shattered!" Since I've seen this kind of thing over and over before my reaction was, "That's it?" He might be the most extreme example of this but there's a certain amount of it in all the characters. How about Pinocchio as a real boy who never grows up? Or Beauty and the Beast having marital troubles? Or Jack the Giant Killer as a scuzzy con artist? There's nothing particularly clever or interesting about the portrayal of the traditional characters here and yet Willingham keeps dropping them in shooting the references past the reader as fast as he can go.

The mystery at the center of this book isn't a particularly compelling one either. Since the reader never gets to know Rose Red the question of if she's dead or alive that occupies much of plot doesn't matter beyond the folk lore connection. When the solution is revealed Bigby Wolf mentions that he worked out the bulk of the mystery immediately which meant that most of his investigation was essentially there to jerk the reader around for two-thirds of the book's length. He mentions doing this to arrange a solution where nothing bad happens but since it hinges on a wildly improbable turn of luck that he didn't foresee it comes across as an after the fact justification by Willingham. The mystery plods along to a weak, overlong conclusion.

There are good moments in the story but they're just fleeting moments where Willingham forgets about the plot or throwing another version of a fairy tale character at us. These are usually the quiet character moments for Snow and Bigby as the only characters to really get some texture in Legends in Exile. It's glimpses of what Fables would become but they're few and far between.

Lan Medina does a respectable but not brilliant job with the artwork. The design is never muddled and the storytelling is straightforward; the layouts are never spectacular however. The facial expressions are good that you can almost read the story just in those but at the same time I'm a bit put off by how he draws some of his figures. Characters often come across as very stocky and some of the exotic shapes (like when Bigby Wolf reverts to a more natural state for him) are strangely formed.

For a person who has never read Fables I'd recommend skipping this volume and go straight to the second one. The one paragraph summary is all you really need to know to enjoy the book so there's no harm in skipping straight to the second book where instead of just name dropping Willingham starts developing his versions of the characters. The fact that they have much better stories doesn't hurt either. The series has won many Eisners and I'll get to what I like in the series eventually but I can't recommend reading Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review - Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting
by Linda Medley
Lettered by Todd Klein
1998 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Lettering

Castle Waiting is a great example of the Best New Series award. It starts off brilliantly, loses focus and starts to wander, and ends up someplace weaker than it started off without dealing with the story it started telling. The promise it showed in the first few issues doesn't get fulfilled as Linda Medley wanders off the topic that she started with.

The series starts with a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”. The first three issues is consumed with the story setting up a cast of witches, a princess, and a curse that isolates a castle for a hundred years until a prince arrives. So from this one might think that Castle Waiting stakes out a position of unique takes on fairy tales, perhaps continuing “Sleeping Beauty” out beyond the “happily ever after”.

And that would be completely wrong. Almost all of the characters that were developed for those first three issues vanish entirely from the series. Fairy tales are reduced to just a few art references in the next issue. The plot threads that had been established in that first storyline initially look like they may dovetail with the new story but are never mentioned again. The book takes a sharp turn abandoning just about everything except the storybook style and essentially starts over.

So the story is now about a noble girl fleeing her abusive home after she becomes pregnant. After a brief adventure on the road she winds up at Castle Waiting. The castle has become a home for those who have had to flee society and she joins the quirky cast who are united in having secrets. So obviously the book is about the complications that ensue with these secrets as the reader slowly discovers the true nature of the cast.

Wrong again. After playing with that theme for about six issues Medley turns the book into the story of a convent of bearded women.

This kind of inability to stick to any particular structure or theme is common in situations where an artistic project both takes a very long time to complete and has no one keeping the creator on track. Comics are where I most often see it (you could make a real study of it by examining webcomics that have run for more than two years) though it crops up in other mediums. It's a real problem for Castle Waiting since if Medley could have picked one concept and run with it the quality would have improved dramatically. I liked all three major stories she told but they do not connect together: I liked the quirky take on a fairy tale at the beginning, the odd cast of characters in the middle, and the unique theme in the third. Sticking them all under one header just left me frustrated when nothing ever finishes.

A real problem with the plotting is the lack of conflict. In the opening storyline there's a wicked witch and that keep the tension high. With the second story line there's a brief opening about how everyone in the world isn't nice but you'd never know that once the story gets to the castle. There are no personality conflicts; everyone is cheerful, kind, helpful, sweet and get along with everyone else. The closest it comes is one of the characters is an introvert with a heart of gold. All of the conflict occurs off stage at arm's length and is only referenced broadly in what the reader sees. Even outside of that section any conflict is fleeting and kept as far away from the characters as possible.

On the positive side for the writing Medley has a distinctive view for her fantasy world. It exists almost as a world of an adult telling a story to a child; it's has the traditional elements and at the same time bits of the modern slip in at the edges. I think the closest I can compare it to are the Disney takes on folklore as she maintains a lighthearted tone even in the rare dark moments. When the story changes I was interested in the quirky cast; they were odd but Medley seemed to be building to reasons for them being so odd rather than it just having strange characters for their own sake. Unfortunately only one of their backgrounds is ever properly explored.

Medley's art has a very clean look to it that fits the fairy tales by way of Disney story that she is telling. She definitely has a way with forming distinctive looking characters and her choice of filling out some of the characters with anthropomorphic animals (another Disney connection there) helps diversify the large cast. She does tend toward some broad distortions in expression which pushes Castle Waiting to having a designed by an animator feel to it. In the first arc she used a few unique stylistic flourishes that made some of the pages look more medieval but those are lost quickly and I thought that was a shame since it was a clever design for expository pages.

Those typophiles who are waiting for something on the Eisner winning lettering of Todd Klein are going to have to wait; he didn't show off his skills in Castle Waiting and it was listed along side many other books he lettered that year. I've some something in mind for dealing with his award but that will have to keep for a few weeks.

Castle Waiting was a disappointment for me. If Medley had chosen one concept and went forward with it I would have been much more interested. Instead it feels like she became distracted and started over multiple times. She has apparently continued the series after this book but I have no desire to read further since I'm dubious that there will be any kind of resolution to any plot that she starts. I can see why it was have received an award for best new series since it started out great; I just wish that Castle Waiting's creator had lost her way after that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review - "Bronte's Egg" and "Creature"

The theme of this year's Nebula winners is genetically-engineered, human-intelligent lizards as main characters. I know that's an oddly specific theme and yet there it is. Admittedly I don't remember a genetically-engineered, human-intelligent lizard as a main character in "Hell is the Absence of God" but I'm sure that's just an oversight on Ted Chiang's part.

"Bronte's Egg"
by Richard Chwedyk
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the not too distant future a company creates talking dinosaur pets. They're supposed to live short lives and be as intelligent as parrots but since it does involve a company genetically engineering dinosaurs something goes wrong. The dinosaurs are sentient and live full life cycles. Rescue organizations form to take in the pets and protect them. Since the dinosaurs can't reproduce humanity is content to just let them live out their days in remote homes. A complication ensues when some of the dinosaurs start laying eggs and word leaks out.

That's the bulk of the story there and it's dabbled with the inhumane treatment of pets, what to do when sentience can be created, and the extended family of dinosaurs. Oh, and there's alien communications. That doesn't really have an impact on the story, it's just there. Since the house that they live in is essentially a rescue shelter most of the dinosaurs have very good reason for being distrustful of people; Chwedyk lets that theme simmer below the surface before finally letting it come up at the end.

The whole story is disjointed. The biggest plot is the laying of a viable egg and what people will do when they find out about it. But there's also another intelligent animal that turns up, a robot superhero, the old wounds and aging, and more. The narrative jumps around from topic to topic like a three year old high on pixie sticks. And that's oddly appropriate since the primary viewpoint character is essentially just that.

"Bronte's Egg" would have been a perfectly average story except for one thing: Chwedyk has created an incredibly endearing cast of characters. It takes the common themes and elevates it to a really enjoyable story. The hyperactive, mentally three-year-old dinosaur dashes about causing trouble and demanding attention which the rest of his large adopted family deals with in their unique ways. The story has a huge cast and they're all very distinctive.

So obviously I liked the story quite a bit. It has a bit too much of a kitchen sink plot but I was left wanting to read more about these dinosaurs. I want a full novel about them and that's definitely a recommendation for "Bronte's Egg".

by Carol Emshwiller
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

A man has abandoned civilization after his wife and child die in a military strike. He has moved to a shack in the mountains far removed from the war. His lonely existence is interrupted when one of the genetically engineered lizard warriors for one of the sides turns up wounded near his home. He takes in the soldier who is still being hunted.

This could have been a straightforward "Enemy Mine" style story but Emshwiller goes in a completely different direction with the themes. Instead of this being a story about two hated enemies coming together to survive it's a story of a lonely man finding someone to love. The mountain man projects onto the lizard warrior a gentle feminine personality and tries to shield it. It's unclear in the story how much of this is reciprocated by the soldier which gives it an ambiguous tone. Is the soldier male or female? Is it trying to be friendly or romantic? Is it compassionate or just passive? Do the answers to any of those questions really matter in the end?

It's that ambiguous treatment of the situation that elevates the story to being pretty good. I'm not sure what I thought about the situation but I know that I'll be thinking about it for a while.