Saturday, April 06, 2024

A Month of Wednesdays: March 2024


Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986 and Other Early Drawings (Cartoon Books) My sole comic book purchase for the month of March came not from a comics specialty shop or from an online bookseller like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but rather from a Kickstarter campaign: The complete collection of Jeff Smith's mid-eighties comic strip from Ohio State University's student paper The Lantern, a strip that would eventually evolve into the comic book series Bone, the impact of which on the direction of the comics industry—or should that be "graphic novel industry"?—is hard to overstate.

When the book was last mentioned here on EDILW, it was in the context of wondering if there was some failure in the traditional comics publishing industry of the moment that Jeff Smith (and Matt Wagner and Kelley Jones) would have to turn to crowd-funding to get a project off the ground. Having now seen the final product, it's a little more clear why Smith might have gone this route. Not only has he been self-publishing his work for a long while now, but this is a very personal, somewhat niche project, and one imagines Smith relished the complete control over what it included, beyond what's in the title—the entirety of his Thorn strip.  Also, it looks like Cartoon Books is following the Kickstarter campagin release with a wider release...?

Not merely a curio for fans of Bone and where exactly the cartoon-character-in-an-epic-fantasy-world came from—and given how early Smith drew Fone Bone, it's safe to say it was a story he had spent his whole life building up towards—this edition of Thorn contains pretty much everything you could possibly want from such a collection, and it therefore serves as an important artifact in Smith's career as a cartoonist and storyteller...and also one of note in the areas of Lantern history and Columbus comics history. It is, in other words, essential reading for someone like me...and, I assume, like many of you.

The thing that is most immediately noteworthy about Thorn is just how sophisticated it is. It's a student strip in a college paper—although, thanks to taking a few years off after high school, Smith was a little older and thus, we can assume, a bit more accomplished than your average freshman cartoonist—but it's remarkably well-made. 

The artwork is head-and-shoulders above what you might see from a typical college strip (and there are examples here-in, as when Smith's Thorn crosses over with its comics-page neighbor, Steve Spencer's 50% More Absorbent Comix, or the final strips, in which Thorn hosts a goodbye party that the other Lantern comic strip characters all attend). Its visuals seem inspired by Walt Kelly's Pogo (a few characters of which make an off-panel cameo in one strip) and even, I hazard, the not-that-visually-dynamic Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau (I see it in the way the dragon's cigarette dangles, I think). 

As far as a comic strip goes, it's rather remarkable to see the early, first draft version of the Bone epic play out, with characters Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, Thorn, Gran'ma Ben, Ted the bug, the dragon, The Hooded One, the Rat Creatures, Roque Ja and, quite belatedly, Smiley Bone all appearing as part of the cast, and many of the same story beats playing out, but in the context of a daily comic strip that seems to vacillate between a continuity-strip adventure and a daily gag strip tackling politics and culture in a way that evokes the aforementioned Pogo and Doonesbury, not to mention Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County, with which Thorn seemed to share a bit of its DNA. 

So between the drama of the Rat Creatures and the Hooded One's interest in the Bone cousins and what we might now think of as "the Bone stuff," there are storylines  in which Thorn falls in with her world's version of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Cold War politics as played out at a picnic knife-fight with a socialist pig with a Russian accent, and, in the most curious section, a satire of the 1986 election, in which a clownish dwarf king named "Ronnie Doody, The Talking Puppet" tries to make Thorn his running mate. 

Smith himself also enters the strip at various points, after it is established early on that the characters could visit him at his drawing board. And so he kinda sorta helps save the day when the Rat Creatures have Thorn and Fone Bone surrounded at one point and, later, he hires Fone and Phoney to work at the ice cream factory where he has a summer job. Then there's the aforementioned crossover with 50% More Absorbent Comics, where Smith basically pals around with the strip's star for a couple of weeks, wandering around campus...and even meeting Brutus Buckeye, or at least having a vision of Brutus Buckeye.

If all the book contained was a four-year run of Jeff Smith's college comic strip, the laboratory where he would eventually work out his seminal graphic novel saga Bone, the book would be well worthwhile. But there's a lot more to it than that. What else, is there...? Well...

•A foreword by Lucy Shelton Caswell, the founding curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University and co-founder of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (as well as one of Smith's teachers and, to a degree, a mentor).

•An introduction by Smith.

•The final, post-Lantern strip from the pages of The Sundial (Think of it, as Smith did, as a Thorn Sunday strip).

•Five installments of a strip called Mickey & Rudy, about a young woman and her talking cat.

•An interview with Guido WeiBhahn, whose name I can't reproduce correctly here as it has a non-English character I don't know how to make in it (I just used a capital "B", which is wrong).

•A two-page remembrance by Smith's fellow Lantern cartoonist Derf, now better known as Derf Backderf, about the time a young Smith tried to call out racism...and ended up getting accused of racism himself. The particularly controversial strip prompted a guest column by Smith apologizing for the offensive content (the column is also reproduced herein).

•A "Tales From The Inkwell" section showing the evolution of Smith as an artist...and Fone Bone and other Bones' evolution right alongside him. This section includes plenty of art, including from Smith's childhood—he first drew Fone Bone at age 5, after all—plus some barbarian stuff, some superhero stuff, and the extremely intriguing possibility of another alternate version of Bone, one inspired by Smith's love of Frank Frazetta and Heavy Metal. The period, Smith writes, didn't last long, and "I never got it organized enough to send anything to the magazine Heavy Metal (thank goodness!)"

•An afterword by Smith's best-friend and one-time business partner, Jim Kammerud.

•A section comparing scenes from Thorn with scenes from Bone, many of which are beat for beat the same, but quite differently drawn (as polished as Thorn seemed for a college strip, Smith's later work on Bone looks almost like the work of an entirely different artist). 

It's an awful lot, really.

The book is currently on Amazon and in Previews for a July release, so apparently it will be more widely available then to those who didn't jump on the Kickstarter. (I don't understand how publishing works, I think it's safe to say.) This being a Kickstarter release, however, there were several "stretch goal" prizes that came along with the book, including three versions of a cast portrait (in blue pencil, inks and full color), "evolution" of Fone Bone and Thorn drawings, showing the two key characters at different points in their visual development, a Ted the bug drawing and, most weirdly, a trio of "mini-comics", publishing Bone adventures that Smith created between the ages of 9 and 14. 

I have no idea what to do with any of these things.  

Whether or not you're a particular fan of Bone or even Smith, I'd still recommend Thorn as a good place to start exploring both. Hell, it's where Smith himself started.


Superman: Action Comics Vol. 1: The Rise of Metallo (DC Comics) I came for the jackets. Dan Mora's collection cover, featuring a now expansive Superman "family", all rocking a new uniform of sort in jackets rather than capes, intrigued me enough to check out what's going on in Superman comics at the moment.

That Superman family includes Supergirl, Superboy Conner Kent/Kon-El, former Superboy Jonathan Kent, Chinese "New Superman" Kong Kenan, Steel John Henry Irons, Steel Natasha Irons and the "Super Twins," newly acquired Kent adoptees from War World. 

It's a huge cast, and somewhat unwieldly, although writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson does a pretty good job of juggling them all to the extent possible, coming up with a threat in this volume that requires a large number of super-people.

 It turns out the jackets aren't really the best idea visually, though, as the characters can be hard to tell apart, given how similar so many of them look; their original, caped costumes popped more than the subtle differences in jacket style or "S" font do here.

As the sub-title indicates, much of this volume is devoted to the return of villain Metallo. The Steels are about to open a new Steelworks facility in Metropolis, and not everyone is happy, particularly the new "Blue Earth" protest movement that is opposed to the infiltration of aliens into Earth society (I guess the fact that Superman has his own little army of super-people now doesn't help them feel any better about his presence on Earth). 

Metallo tries to sabotage the grand opening, at the behest of a holographic Luthor...although it will be revealed that it's actually another Superman archfoe pulling Metallo's strings. As to why Metallo is so eager to help, it turns out his little sister has been kidnapped by the villain, and he won't release her until Metallo succeeds in killing off the whole Super-family...a rather tall order. 

Raffa Sandoval and Max Raynor handle the art, and they do a pretty good job, especially considering how many similar-looking characters they have to draw, in and out of costume (the Super-family all reconvene at the Kent household a few times for plainclothes hang-out sessions; it wasn't entirely clear from the proceedings, but I think Superman may have his secret identity back after Brian Michael Bendis outted him, although I have no idea how that was achieved.)

I'm not sure for how long a super-family focused book like this will be tenable, as with so many characters few of them get a chance to make much of an impression other than fill in crowd scenes, but it's still nice to see DC attempt to use all of these characters, and, given the nature of the threat here—with Metallo building a small army of drone cyborgs—it works pretty well. 

Maybe this will eventually lead to a Wayne Family Adventures style Superman book. 

Speaking of which...

Wayne Family Adventures Vol. 3 (DC) CRC Payne, Starbite and company's Web Toon series returns for another collection. This volume's highlights include Oracle discovering Jason Todd's Tinder profile (which says Jason's only 19? That can't be right; is he really only a year older than Tim?), Damian trying to avoid messing up his hair on picture day, Nightwing and Huntress trading weapons for a night, a long discussion between Tim Drake and Damian about their differences, Duke teaching Jason and Cass that sometimes entering through the door is the best tactic and Stephanie and Damian practicing fighting in high heels. Guest-stars include Zatanna, Poison Ivy and Harley, and, somewhat surprisingly, the version of Vixen that appears in another Web Toon series (and who works with Grace Choi, for some reason...?) 

The series remains one of my favorite super-books, in large part because of how well Payne is able to balance silly, humorous vignettes with serious explorations of the characters, as well as ensuring a spotlight for

Batman's wide and deep supporting cast. Wayne Family Adventures remains, as far as I am concerned, the most essential Batman comic. 

Zom-100: Bucket List of the Dead: Vols 12-13 (Viz Media) I apparently missed volume 12 when it originally came out, as when I picked up volume 13, I had no idea what was going on. I rectified that immediately, however, and so this month got a double dose of Haro Aso and Kotaro Takata's zombie survivalist comedy. 

Volume 12 opens with Akira and Shizuka washing up on a desert island after falling overboard during the zombie outbreak on the pleasure yacht at the climax of volume 11. This is a dream come true for Akira, of course, who had "Live on a deserted island" on his bucket list of things to do before becoming a zombie, a list he and his friends have made quite a bit of progress on over the course of the series. Shizuka, still mad at him for his almost-dalliance with another girl, has to come to grips with her feelings for Akira, and eventually makes a confession....just not to Akira. Zombies start washing ashore, proving that not even a deserted island is a safe harbor during the zombie apocalypse.

The characters do make some surprising headway in their efforts to save the world, however, finally catching up with the doctor working on a vaccine and his traveling companion, a girl who seems immune to zombie infection. Unfortunately, they do so just before Shizuka is herself finally bitten, which would have made for a hell of a cliffhanger to volume 12, if it would have simply ended with Akira weeping over her body, and weren't for the final three panels holding out hope for a cure.

The thirteenth volume is something of an extended Resident Evil riff, coming rather late in the game considering how long the series has lived in the zombie genre, with our heroes finding an "Umbriel" Corporation facility and setting up shop there, where the doctor can work on the cure. They find that Umbriel was up to some spectacularly shady stuff, though, including the manufacture of monsters derived from the zombie virus, long-tongued frog monsters that will need to be faced by our heroes, who pick up the heavy weaponry left by an elite squad of private soldiers who are all slaughtered when caught unawares by the monsters. 

As the bucket list gets shorter, I begin to wonder—and to worry—that this series' lifespan may be reaching its limits. 


Unicorn Boy (First Second) Dave Roman of Astronaut Academy launches a new series—based on the big number one on the spine, not to mention the unresolved plot points—featuring the superhero-like title character, who is a little boy that, via transformation sequence, turns into a magically-powered, unicorn-themed hero of the title and must journey to the underworld to save his non-binary best friend, who was taken by the forces of darkness. A grandmotherly grim reaper, a talking cat and a talking muffin are all involved. It's fairly silly, but quite well-drawn and rather charming. More here