Monday, May 21, 2012

Put on Your Adventuring Shoes

In Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, he talks about a number of reasons why the comic is such a powerful medium.  For example, he looks at the space in between different panels--the space called "the gutter"--and argues that since the reader is forced to fill in the action that happens in the gutter, he or she becomes more invested and involved in the action of the comic.

McCloud also talks about the way in which figures are represented in comics, and one of his points that I find particularly intriguing is his claim about the difference between realistic and iconic styles of representation.  He writes:

..the face you see in your mind is not the same as others see!  When two people interact , they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner's features in vivid detail.  Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy arrangement...a sense of shape...a sense of general placement.  

Something as simple and as basic--as a cartoon.

Thus, when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face--you see it as the face of another.  But when you enter the world of the cartoon--you see yourself.

In other words, a style of drawing that is less realistic, more iconic makes it easier for the reader to imagine herself as that character, and thus, it becomes easier to become immersed in the story.

This, I think, is the real strength of Jeff Smith's Bone comic series, originally released from 1991 to 2004 and now available as a single volume, published by Cartoon Books.  The hero of the series is Fone Bone, who is drawn in about as abstract of a way as you could possibly imagine.  He is little more than a simple black outline--no distinguishing facial features, no clothing, nothing.  His two cousins--Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone--are drawn in a similar way, but even they have markings that distinguish them: Phoney Bone wears a shirt with a star, and Smiley Bone is tall and thin.  With Fone Bone, however, it seems that Jeff Smith went to great lengths to make him as featureless and iconic as possible.

Many critics talk about the story of Bone as what makes it most appealing--Andrew D. Arnold at Time, for example, writes, "Cute little guys yearning for home, lost royalty, evil entities, magical creatures and massive armies battling it out for the future of humanity. Sounds familiar, right? Yes, the central plot seems lifted directly from Tolkein's fantasy masterpiece, but Smith has enough talent and imagination to remake it into something entirely his own."

Yes, Smith makes the story his own, but his art allows readers to make it their own, putting themselves in the shoes of Fone Bone and going on adventures that are filled with friends, danger, love, and just a little silliness.  For a comic that is aimed at readers of all ages, this is a masterful achievement, and one that has the potential to introduce many new, young readers to the amazing power of comics.