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September 25, 2014

Don't Ban Our Comics #4: John Maher reflects on BONE

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“Comics are for kids.”

The refrain is a familiar one --- recited over the past hundred years like a litany by parents, educators, politicians and the like, a curt dismissal of an entire art form in five syllables. I’ve heard it from university professors scoffing at the term “graphic novel,” claiming that bildungsromans by the likes of Craig Thompson and Alison Bechdel could never sit beside those of Bellow or Salinger. I’ve heard it from book critics, who have often belabored the death of literature at the hands of “cartoons” --- though today YA seems their favored target. I’ve heard it from family, tossed casually over the shoulder, without irony, while watching the latest sequel to the sequel to the sequel to X-Men. The list goes on. It’s an age-old argument rooted in a number of assumptions: that comics are a limited and unsophisticated form, that they’re no more than picture books under another name, that they tell only immature fantasies of costumed vigilantes. We’ve all heard the outdated refrains.

How gut-bustingly absurd, then, is the argument for banning Jeff Smith’s all-ages epic fantasy masterpiece, BONE, for being unsuited for children due to “political viewpoint, racism and violence.”

 "'But wait,' you say. 'This seems imaginative, ambitious and ethically sound --- perhaps even wholesome? Where’s the "political viewpoint, racism and violence"?' Good question, reader!"

I discovered comics late in the game, a sixteen-year-old utterly fascinated by fiction and its ability to entrance and affect. For a long time, Vertigo was my publishing crush; I inhaled SANDMAN and PREACHER and the like, sneaking them into my conservative all-boys Catholic high school for the sheer thrill of getting away with reading them. By the time I finished college, I had hooked both my younger brothers, and soon enough, they were recommending things to me. The tables always turn.

BONE was one of those. Believe it or not, I didn’t get around to reading it until after RASL, Smith’s latest. But when I told my youngest brother I’d loved the latter but hadn’t read BONE, he looked at me as if disgusted, turned on his heel, and returned within the minute with the entire collection.

I finished the thing in two nights. On the third, I read it again.

The story follows three short, bald, big-nosed cartoony creatures called Bones --- the sweet-hearted everyman hero, Fone Bone, and his cousins, the avaricious schemer Phoney Bone and the loveable simpleton Smiley Bone --- as they travel in exile to a beautiful valley, filled with talking animals, vicious rat creatures, dragons and indigenous humans living humbly off the land. Seen only with a cursory glance, BONE would seem easy to dismiss as a child-friendly Tolkien knockoff.

But the sheer scope and ambition of the story pays off. With incredible patience, Smith laid out this story over 13 years and 55 black-and-white issues. Bone's primary charm lies in its ability to imbue that dark and serious form, the fantasy epic, with significant humor and warmth. Fans of the film adaptations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS occasionally argue that the movies improved on the books, in that friendships between major characters felt truer and more important, and that a lightness was instilled in an otherwise incredibly gloomy tale thanks to the rapport between the actors. Here, a film adaptation isn't necessary to showcase the power of friendship in an evil time. Fone Bone's empathy, his deep-seated care for his fellow Bones, and his budding love for Thorn --- a lovely adolescent farm girl who, as expected, is more than she seems --- and her gumptious Gran'ma Ben are the cornerstone of this work.

“But wait,” you say. “This seems imaginative, ambitious and ethically sound --- perhaps even wholesome? Where’s the ‘political viewpoint, racism and violence’?” Good question, reader! Let’s ask Jeff Smith:

“I have no idea what book these people read,” said Smith after learning that BONE was the tenth most frequently banned book of 2013. “After fielding these and other charges for a while now, I’m starting to think such outrageous accusations (really, racism?) say more about the people who make them than about the books themselves.”

Smith has been quite busy defending banned graphic novels this month, and for good reason. The focus on graphic novels this Banned Book Week has been excellent for the maligned form that is comics, and Smith is one of its great writers, artists and defenders. The sad thing is that in 2014, this defense is still necessary.

“Comics are for kids.” In the case of BONE, perhaps that’s true. Yet why did I, at nearly 25 years old, feel as impressed and moved by this work as by Toni Morrison’s SULA, which I read concurrently? Because, like that book, BONE is a masterpiece of its form. Because it is sweeping and vast in its scope, and yet intimate and moving in its smallest moments. Because its deceptively simple visuals are so gorgeously executed and iconic, carefully straddling the line between painterly and cartoonish. Because comics --- that form we deride with such nonchalance --- aren’t just for kids, even if they seem to be.

Because comics can be works of art. I offer BONE as proof.