(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)
By Jeff Smith
It was through CCLaP critic Oriana Leckert's write-up for her Jugs & Capes essay series last year (book version finally coming next week!) that first brought Jeff Smith's epic comic Bone to my attention, plus of course the fevered recommendations I'd sometimes hear from the edges of the comics-loving crowd around me; so when the Chicago Public Library recently acquired a copy of the full 1,500-page omnibus edition, I thought it was finally time for me to sit down and check it out myself. And oh, am I glad I did, for all the passionate fanboy things you hear about it is true; done by a guy who grew up with dual obsessions for Walt Kelly's Pogo and JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, it's a massive saga that combines both, the tale of three silly cartoon characters from "the next universe over" who stumble one day into the middle of a realistically drawn fantasy epic among the neighbors they never knew they had. So as such, then, there are a whole number of things going on here to admire, that don't sound like they'd go together in one book but somehow do -- the surrealistic expressive perfection of such 1930s cartoons as Krazy Kat and early Disney, the sweeping landscapes of representational drawing, a contemporary sensibility when it comes to dramatic highlights, all married to a story complex enough for a 1,500 page narrative -- and while I'm not a particularly obsessive fan of either Pogo or Lord of the Rings, I sure found myself becoming one of Smith's attempt to bring them together, a project that can be equally loved in a subtle, knowing way by adults (think of the difference between watching Chuck Jones at ten versus thirty) and in a straightforward, surface-level way by the actual ten-year-olds. (And indeed, in what has come as a shock to the indie-zinester creator, one of Bone's largest audiences has turned out to be actual kids, so much so that Scholastic recently paid a hefty sum for the reprint rights, and are spending the next decade re-publishing the entire run now in full color and marketed directly to pre-teens.)
So then flush with heady excitement over this new find, I also pulled up on Netflix a documentary that's been made about Smith and the Bone phenomenon, 2009's The Cartoonist; although I'm happy to report that it turns out to be about a lot more than just that, in reality a great overlook at the entire indie-comics explosion that happened in the 1990s, everything from confessional art-school kids to a new superhero publisher, all the way to such hard-to-classify projects as Bone or Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. It turns out that Smith was part of a little clique of self-publishing cartoonists back then, who banded together in various smart ways in order to help each other stay afloat -- sharing expenses at conventions, promoting each other's work -- making this not just a narrow film about the comic itself and how it came about (although there's plenty of that too, including the revelation that Smith has been casually doodling the "Bone" characters since literally a child, and that in high school and college he really did put them through a series of adventures in their own world that are only briefly referenced in this newest epic), but also a bigger documentary about the DIY spirit, the changing face of small business, the trials and tribulations of self-publishing, and a lot more. Granted, the production values are not high -- it features lots of talking head shots, lots of personal offices being used as set backgrounds, and all the other things one associates with cheap quickie docs found in many DVD extras -- but the content more than makes up for it, especially when coming right on the heels of reading the book for the first time like I did. Both come very strongly recommended.