Friday, May 20, 2011

Hey, Look! It's Almost a Review!

Kind of a scatter shot review post today, featuring a film I've watched and a book that I'm currently in the middle of re-reading. But it's Friday morning before 9:00, so I figure that scatter shot is completely acceptable.

Plus, it's been one of the Longest Weeks Ever, so just bear with me, 'kay?

So. Last weekend, I sat down and watched the excellent DVD documentary, The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE, and the Changing Face of Comics. As far as on-the-nose titles go, this one is king.

It's an hour-long doc about Jeff Smith, the creator of one of comics' most cherished works, Bone, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. For those unfamiliar with the title, think of Bone as the Harry Potter of graphic novels.

Bone has won a pile of awards, has garnered the praise of Time Magazine, the American Library Association, and Publisher's Weekly, as well as some the greatest creators to ever work in comics.

The entire series, which clocks in at 75 issues and over 1,300 pages, is written, drawn, and lettered by Smith. And that is staggering.

In a comics landscape where it becomes reason for celebration when a book ships on time, or if a title goes 25 issues, Jeff Smith--all by himself--managed to produce the highest quality story imaginable over the course of 75 issues.

It took him 13 years to complete (which averages out to about 6 issues a year), and boy, does that dedication show in its pages.

If you've never read Bone, you really should. It's an unparalleled achievement in comics, and it's recently been collected by Scholastic in a giant, one-volume edition.
After watching The Cartoonist doc, I dove back into my copy of Bone, and I'm about three-quarters of the way through.

Told in the tradition of Walt Kelly's Pogo, and classic Disney stories featuring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, Bone is both a familiar looking story and something completely different.

These characters are archetypes, and as such, when reading Bone for the first time, I felt as though I had always known them.

As Smith himself has described, Bone is sort of a mash-up of Bugs Bunny and The Lord of the Rings.

It's a story that is epic in scale, and like Lord of the Rings, a small group of good guys must go up against impossible odds and impossible evil. But at the same time, Bone is peppered with these wonderful, small moments.

Smith is a true master of the form, and he's able to convey his story using minimal dialogue and, maybe more impressively, minimal line work. Think Peanuts. An economy of ink is used when constructing his characters, and you can tell that Smith knows exactly what he wants them to be doing in every single panel.

Add to that an incredible use of light and shadow, and, well. You have quite possibly the best comic book of all time.

But I could go on about the book itself all day. What I want to talk about, even briefly, is the documentary, The Cartoonist. This is a real gem of a DVD, loaded with special features--the highlight is a nearly two-hour interview with Smith conducted by Scott McCloud, whose Understanding Comics is required reading for fans of the medium.

But the main feature itself is a wonderful look into the creative drive that produced this long form graphic novel and its incredible effect on comics, and on publishing.

Smith was in the first wave of indie creators in the early 1990s who decided to buck the trend of comics at the time and do something completely different. Because of the success of Bone, doors were opened for other creators, like Terry Moore (who also appears on the doc), to follow this self publishing revolution.

Bone led the way, and it's because of that book's almost-immediate success and soon to follow acclaim that we have works like Strangers in Paradise.

The DVD gives a good glimpse into what it was like for Smith and the pack of indie creators he ran with in the early nineties; huge lines at conventions, and parents telling him that their kids learned to read because of Bone.

We also get to see just how much work Smith had to put into creating and distributing the series. Eventually, Smith's wife quit her Silicon Valley job to turn her attention to running the business end of Bone full-time.

If you have any interest in the creative process, or even more importantly, if you want to learn a bit about what it takes to carry out a creative vision, I'd absolutely suggest checking this flick out.

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