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Graphic Novels

Fractured fairy tales (and folk ballads), a Bovary update, and politics not quite as usual.

By Douglas Wolk
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page BW08

Connected to the Funny Bone

In the book world, self-publishing is often a mark of dubiousness. In comics, though, it's just a sign of ambition. Jeff Smith's company Cartoon Books published his grand, delightful 1,300-page fantasy epic Bone for well over a decade. An instantly likeable and intermittently hilarious adventure for children with a subtler, grimmer story about power and corruption at its core, it developed an enthusiastic cult following in its original black-and-white incarnation. The first (and funniest) volume, Bone: Out From Boneville (Scholastic/Graphix; paperback, $9.99), has just been reprinted; in an attempt by its new publisher to reach a broader audience, it's been "colorized," with a simple, muted palette.

Out From Boneville introduces Smith's protagonist Thorn, a simple but spunky peasant girl who doesn't yet know that she's a princess in exile. There's also a dragon, and a formidably grizzled old lady, and some monsters with huge fangs, and a mysterious force that's evil as all get out, and some adorable anthropomorphic baby animals, and if you're noticing that Smith prefers his plot devices as well-tested as possible, you're right. But the title characters of Bone throw a goofy twist into the magical-good-versus-evil-in-a-dynastic-agrarian-society formula: They're rubbery creatures named Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, whose eyebrows hover in space inches away from their heads. (Their names recall the late Mad magazine cartoonist Don Martin's favorite last name, "Fonebone"; they look like Li'l Abner's Shmoos is in their family tree, too.)

As his clean, fluid drawing style makes clear, Smith was an animator before he began Bone -- his images always suggest how his characters move in space -- and a lot of his best tricks are animators' tricks. (The imperturbable matriarch Gran'ma Ben has exactly two, nearly identical facial expressions, a sour grimace and a sour grin.) He has also picked up his knack for comedy from old animated cartoons. A pair of hairy, slavering "rat creatures" arguing about whether to stew their victim or bake him into a "light, fluffy quiche" (while he gets away) is pure Daffy Duck; that the creatures still seem terrifyingly menacing a few pages later says a lot about Smith's dramatic range.

A Folktale Folio

Charles Vess worked with Jeff Smith on the Bone-related graphic novel Rose a few years ago, and Smith also contributed a short script to Vess's The Book of Ballads (Tor, $24.95) -- short comics adaptations of traditional ballads from the British Isles, drawn by Vess in the various gorgeous archaic pen-and-ink styles that are his specialty. Vess's style owes less to other cartoonists than to the illustrative tradition -- he sometimes channels Aubrey Beardsley's bookplates or Edward Burne-Jones's illustrations for Chaucer, and he especially loves to indulge in a sort of ultra-fine-lined, symmetry-heavy quasi-Pre-Raphaelite symbolism. One drawing is a full-page image of a pagan sacrifice beneath an immense willow tree in front of a pool, in which is reflected a woman's open mouth and hands with weeping eyes drawn on their palms; to top it off, the leaves of four different trees appear in silhouette around the border. Vess's delight in this sort of hyperromantic excess is palpable, and it fits the tone of these ancient lyrics beautifully.

But Vess's source, in most of these cases, isn't quite a traditional ballad's text: It's a writer's riff on a particular ballad. Lee Smith's version of "The Three Lovers" adapts it, rather neatly, into a stage melodrama, with props and backdrops, and Vess's imitation of Winsor McCay's line art magnifies the script's whimsy. Most of the others lose more than they gain in the adaptation, unfortunately. Charles de Lint sucks out the dark bluntness of "Twa Corbies" (a song about ravens eating a fallen knight's corpse) by turning it into an incoherent story about a homeless ex-businessman and magical "crow girls"; Elaine Lee ditches most of the sublime images within the original version of "Tam-Lin" in favor of a peculiar play-script format and a subplot about reincarnation; and Vess himself, adapting the horror ballad "Alison Gross," tacks on a wholly inappropriate happy ending. As illustration, almost all of The Book of Ballads is exquisite -- Vess is too much of an aesthete to publish a less-than-beautiful panel. As comics, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Kramer vs. Nostalgia

Will Eisner, the legendary cartoonist who died in early January at the age of 87, had been doing remarkable work since the '40s -- among other things, he more or less invented the graphic novel, and popularized the term. But he was also among the first people to write about how comics actually work: how exactly disconnected drawings in sequence turn into a narrative. Defining comics' parameters, of course, made it possible for artists to mess with them. Still, most members of the early generations of art cartoonists -- Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Chris Ware and others -- are reacting, on some level, to the Mad and Uncle $crooge comics of their youth.

Ware's fanatically controlled recent strips and Panter's spasmodic sketchbook drawings both appear in the massive fifth volume of Sammy Harkham's comics anthology Kramer's Ergot (Gingko, $29.95), but most of its young contributors' work has little or nothing to do with pop-culture nostalgia: They've started out with art-school training and ended up doing comics as a way to experiment with narrative. Besides pen-and-ink cartoons, KE5 incorporates painting, abstract collage and stoner doodling, and at worst the results are ugly or inchoate. But Harkham, the creator of a comics short story, "Poor Sailor," which has been anthologized several times, seems to have encouraged cartoonists to stretch out -- he particularly favors artists with a strong, distinctive color sense -- and most of them come up with pieces unlike anything they've done before, some to splendid effect.

Souther Salazar's "Fervler & Razzle" reads like a piece of personal mythology that's been fluttering around in his mind since childhood: Two cartoon animals (Razzle is "either a squirrel or a mouse or a cat," Salazar offers, semi-helpfully) appear in a dizzying procession of collaged and drawn forms, sometimes in dashed-off gag strips, sometimes in obsessively ornate tableaux. Kevin Huizenga, the cartoonist behind the excellent "Or Else" series, contributes "Jeepers Jacobs," which starts out as a low-key slice-of-life story about a theological discussion, and unleashes an enormous flash of visual daring midway through. And the highlight of the book is David Heatley's "My Sexual History (Slightly Abridged Version)," the confessional comic to end all confessional comics: 15 pages of mortifying, unsparing, whoopingly funny reminiscence, with 48 tiny, scribbly panels on every page.

Flaubertian Farce

The character at the center of Posy Simmonds's Gemma Bovery (Pantheon, $19.95) is not quite Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary; her husband, Charlie, isn't exactly Charles Bovary; and her boy-toy lover, Hervé de Bressigny, is definitely not Rodolphe Boulanger -- although Raymond Joubert, the voyeuristic busybody who narrates the story, is a boulanger, a French baker. And the book, which begins as a contemporary version of Madame Bovary, gradually becomes a very different, cruelly amusing riff on the original novel's themes of genteel class warfare.

Charles and Gemma are a struggling middle-class British couple who move to a decaying house in Normandy for "rustic bliss"; she writes in her diary that living in France is "the only possible existence." They're obsessed with putting up the proper front, and with trying to avoid vulgar Brits who've crossed the Channel in search of the good life -- like themselves. Gemma was originally published in the U.K. in 1999, and the way it milks farce from the idea of poseurs besotted with the idea of the simple life is very British. An American book about social climbers would be more likely to be a success story than a satire or a tragedy.

Gemma is a hybrid of prose and comics -- both appear on every page. It's a smart trick: The text is Joubert's not-all-that-reliable narration, and the comics let Simmonds show other characters' perspectives and thoughts as well as incidents even Joubert's prying eyes can't have seen. Her drawing is understated and gently cartoony, but she's got a sharp eye for the details of clothing and decor that suggest what someone is, or is trying to be. When Gemma first meets Charlie, her apartment is full of gloomy junkshop-chic bric-a-brac; in Normandy, she decorates the house first with vintage lambing chairs and gelding irons, then (after she's hooked up with her lover) in a "sort of Swedish Dangerous Liaisons" look. Gemma's fondness for adulterous passion, Simmonds suggests, comes from the same source as her profligate spending: Her lover is just another charming Continental lifestyle accessory.

A Machine Politician

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days (Wildstorm/DC Comics; paperback, $9.95) has the drive and complexity of a terrific cable-TV drama, except that its special effects would break the bank of any network. This, the collected first five issues of a comic book by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artists Tony Harris and Tom Feister, is nominally a superhero series, but it's really less about superhuman powers than political powers.

In an accident, civil engineer Mitchell Hundred gains the ability to mentally control mechanical devices. Having grown up on a steady diet of comic books, he decides to try to be a real live hero, makes himself a costume out of old aviator gear, and calls himself the Great Machine (after Thomas Jefferson's quote about the function of government -- one of many little political-history jokes scattered throughout the book).

Hundred's career in costume doesn't go too well, we gather from context, but he becomes popular enough that he's elected mayor of New York City in late 2001; having saved the second tower of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks doesn't hurt. Of course, a jet pack, a helmet and the power to make subways stop on command don't help much against the dilemmas he immediately faces in office, like political extortion, a serial killer attacking snowplow drivers during a blizzard, and very bad "controversial" art at the Brooklyn Museum.

The look of Ex Machina is straightforward contemporary action comics, with a few tweaks. Harris draws almost entirely from photos of live models, as he did with the "Starman" series a few years ago, which gives his characters a grounded, real-world look -- in this context, a flying man looks like a genuine aberration. And JD Mettler's computer-enhanced colors (which involve lots of blurring effects) are sensitive to the way natural light can tint a scene.

Vaughan ingeniously sets up the entire series as overlapping flashbacks to the beginning of Hundred's term and earlier. As the series opens, it's 2005 and something awful has happened, but we don't know what. The book goes on to suggest that the disaster has something to do with the folly of dressing up in a costume and trying to improve the world as a vigilante, or perhaps the folly of dressing up in a suit and trying to improve the world through politics. •

Douglas Wolk writes about comic books for Publishers Weekly and the Believer. He is the author of "Live at the Apollo."

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