By Jeff Smith
I have to be honest with you, gentle reader. Ghost Circles was disappointing. At the opening of this volume, the Lord of the Locusts and his minions have effectively destroyed the valley. Now, the three Bone cousins, Gran’ma Ben and Thorn have to cross the devastated valley as they try to make their way to allies in the city of Aletheia. Complicating the journey, the valley was destroyed mystically and there are still trans-dimensional pockets called Ghost Circles that the travelers have to avoid. In another book, that might make for an interesting journey. In Bone, it’s kind of depressing. And with all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo that Thorn spouts as she explains the situation, it’s actually kind of boring.
That isn’t to say that Ghost Circles is all bad. In the very first chapter, there are some pretty good bits as Fone Bone’s dreams become reality turning both himself and Phony Bone into characters from Moby Dick. I have to admit that I enjoyed that. And in the next two chapters, Jeff Smith does a good job of using the banter between the Bone cousins as comic relief. But that’s just it. In the previous volumes, the banter between the Bone cousins was the highlight. Phony’s schemes, Smiley’s foolishness, Fone’s infatuations- these were the heart of the series. But in Ghost Circles, these seem like secondary concerns, kept around as comic relief to keep us entertained while the real business is going on elsewhere. And, as I noted earlier, it left me somewhat bored and depressed.
The good news is that Ghost Circles appears to have been an aberration. By the time we get to the next volume, Treasure Hunters, the story is back in full swing. In Treasure Hunters, the travelers have arrived at the city of Aletheia. This is the city where Gran’ma Ben was once a queen and where Thorn is destined to rule someday. And there are all kinds of interesting developments and complications for our heroes. Dragon worship has been outlawed. Gran’ma Ben’s supporters are in hiding. And there’s plenty of opportunity for Phony and Smiley to get into trouble.
In fact, Treasure Hunters may just be one of my favorite volumes of Bone. It seems like everybody is in exactly the right role. Gran’ma Ben and Thorn are working on the big, important things like rallying an underground, overthrowing a tyrant and preparing a city to defend itself against an invasion of rat creatures. And Fone Bone tags along due to his infatuation with Thorn and his loyalty to Gran’ma Ben. Fone is definitely out of his depth, but he also gives the readers somebody to identify with. Plus, Gran’ma Ben’s loyal supporters provide a few surprises of their own, especially a wise old wizard who is fairly amusing.
Meanwhile, the other two Bones are getting into trouble but intentionally and unintentionally. Smiley is still complicating things by bringing the baby rat creature Bartleby along (although Bartleby is more of an adolescent by this point). Phony is back to his old scheming ways, offering to defend the market from some bullying bees as a pretense to finding the treasure that Phony is convinced must be hidden somewhere. And once again, Fone is caught in the middle, running back and forth between Thorn and his cousins, trying to help with the big, important things while simultaneously trying to keep his cousins out of trouble. It’s great stuff. There’s a great pace, a lot of humor and always something else going on. Treasure Hunters reminds me of The Great Cow Race and the bar bet, a couple of other occasions in which we saw a combination of frantic energy and wit.
That’s one disappointing volume and another outstanding one. Not a bad score for Bone, especially when you consider that the seventh volume was the only disappointing volume so far.
Little Nemo in Slumberland
Volume 2: 1907-1908
By Winsor McCay
We go from a recent all-ages hit to one of the first ones. The newspaper cartoon strip was still in its infancy when Winsor McCay created Little Nemo in Slumberland. The cartoon ran for ten years from 1905-1914 and this volume collects the third and fourth years of 1907 and 1908.
There are a number of things that make Little Nemo in Slumberland unique. It was always a full-page and full-color cartoon. But what makes Little Nemo stand the test of time is Winsor McCay’s incredible imagination.
The concept of the cartoon is fairly simple. There’s a little boy named Nemo. When he sleeps, he dreams. Each page details one of his dreams. And each page ends with him waking up. But while the concept may be simple, the execution is astounding. McCay crafts continuing stories. Each dream picks up where the last one left off with the result that Little Nemo in Slumberland reads more like one long-form cartoon than a collection of separate entries. The way that Nemo wakes up always ties into his dream. If he falls down in his dream, he falls out of his bed in real life. When somebody is calling him from afar, it usually means that one of his parents is yelling at him that it’s time to get up. The result is a wonderful blend of imagination and humor that makes you feel good- especially as each page ends with a waking up joke of some sort or another.
McCay also proves to be a visual visionary. He stretches his panels from the top of the page to the bottom or from one side to another. I’ve read art books that compliment George Perez for doing similar things with page design in Crisis on Infinite Earths but Winsor McCay was doing this eighty years earlier! I love how McCay plays with borders. In one sequence, Nemo and his companions climb a seemingly endless series of skyscrapers. I love how McCay plays with cartoon conventions, such as by breaking the fourth wall that separates the characters from the reader. In one sequence, Nemo and his companions complain that the cartoonist hasn’t been feeding them and they tear down the logo for sustenance. In another sequence, Nemo’s friend Mary complains that they’ve been sitting in the same spot for eight weeks watching a parade go by.
There’s only one thing that holds me back from whole-heartedly recommending Little Nemo. Like William Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice, like Mickey Rooney’s Chinese neighbor in A Breakfast at Tiffany’s, like Will Eisner’s inclusion of Ebony White in The Spirit, Winsor McCay is not immune to the prejudices of his times. Nemo and his companions travel to Africa
and the depiction of the natives there might be offensive to some people today. One of the natives even comes along for other adventures and while “the imp” proves to be charmingly mischievous, his look and his nonsensical speech are more Amos ‘n’ Andy than National Geographic. It’s understandable, given the time in which this cartoon was written, but unfortunate.
Other than that, Little Nemo is a delightful read. It may be difficult to find. Fantagraphics collected the series in 5 volumes from 1988 to 1991 but they’re mostly out of print and they go for several hundred dollars a piece. Happily, Checker Books appears to be planning to start a new collection this April. But if you can get your hands on a copy, Little Nemo is well-worth checking out.
Originally Published on the16 February 2007 at CaptainComics.us