Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
June 2008

And Now: The Dirty Secret of Smurf Reproduction!

Tellos: Colossal Edition, Bone: Complete Edition Part One

Fantasy comics seem to be an undernourished genre. While superheroes lend themselves to alien invasions, genetic engineering, and bumpy foreheads in the science fiction tradition, fantasy gets less screen time, with only the occasional foray into Thor's Norse myths, or Wonder Woman's Amazonian world.

Perhaps it's because fantasy is always longer than science fiction or just about any other genre, and doesn't lend itself well to episodes adventures so much as epics. The comics I review today, gentle reader, could break your back if you lifted both. Don't try it without a brace. However, both deliver a king-size dose of adventure rendered in gorgeous art, and are stories that could only exist in a comic.

Tellos is the pet project of Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo, who previously worked together on The Sensational Spider-Man, a comic famous mostly for being the fourth Spider-Man title, and therefore not famous at all. I'm a big Wieringo fan. He drew my favorite run of Fantastic Four (reviewed in Miracle Pictographs issue 7, true believer) and a few excellent issues of Peter David's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. After his sad death in 2007, Wieringo's art deserves celebration.

Which leads me to the point that Tellos is the prettiest comic you will ever see. Wieringo's clean, shiny art, rollicking back and forth across the page in bright, animated detail, pairs perfectly with Paul Mounts' vivid colors, bigger and brighter than life. The comic is epic as the Narnia films, with all the details of The Dark Crystal. Wieringo's characters, despite their cartoony brilliance, have power, striking and running and leaping off the page like the Incredibles.

The story is standard epic fantasy fare. A young adventurer named Jarek is being hunted by a pack of hilarious frog soldiers who, due to their tongues permanently hanging out, say all their threatening lines in lisps. He is sought for an unspecified crime by a figure called Malesur, who commands warriors who rise from the shadows, and fulfills all the job requirements for a Dark Lord, except that he talks a lot like a contemporary teenager. Jarek runs into Serra, a fellow adventurer who has a certain green amulet that turns out to contain a powerful djinn -- and through pirate ships, a pothead dragon, and a mysterious amphibian mentor, they find out that Jarek is -- naturally -- the Chosen One, and the djinn is meant to battle a cancerous Darkness with a capital D. Malesur represents that Darkness, and also has a personal vendetta against Jarek that Jarek doesn't understand.

Todd Dezago's writing doesn't reach beyond standard fantasy fare for the most part, though there is a touching twist ending, revealing the secret behind the world of Tellos, and why the Dark Lord, Malesur, keeps referring to his minions as "dumbass."

The characters are probably the biggest disappointment, all a little too paint-by-the-numbers. There's the rogueish adventurer, his gorgeous and battle-worthy girlfriend, the talking animal sidekick and the silent but powerful guardian whose death motivates the hero to reach deep within himself and find his inner butt-kicking warrior. Likeable archetypes, but nothing you haven't seen before. Some of it is pulled straight from other fantasy stories -- as in The Dark Crystal, there's a moment of "Wings? You have wings?"

It is worth reading the comic for the art, though, and while I'm jaded by fantasy clichés, Dezago manages to slip in some funny moments even if they are usually relegated to the animal sidekick, a talking fox, who explains each situation in which soldiers chase them across the fantasy realm with, "It's not as bad as it looks" and whose most flustered moment comes after falling through the bottom of a floating city. "That was almost the worst thing that ever happened to me."

Get Tellos for the amazing art and for the lisping frogs, and you won't be disappointed. Just don't expect too much from the story.

I recently heard the editor of Scholastic's new line of Bone reprints speak on how she found the comic. After discussing with her editor the need for a "spectacular, best-of-the-best" graphic novel to launch their new line, she stopped by a comic store and asked a tattooed, pierced employee if he knew of a great graphic novel for kids. The employee yelled, "BONE!" Somehow she didn't run out then and there, and writer-artist Jeff Smith's epic comic is now available in the black-and-white Complete Edition from Cartoon Books and the beautiful watercolor editions from Scholastic.

I found Bone before either the Complete Edition or the Scholastic color editions were out, in the original Cartoon Books reprints. I was tutoring an eleven-year-old in reading and, at a loss for activities once he finished Harry Potter, I took him to the library and checked out the first volume, Out From Boneville. He came in the next week and shouted, "BONE!" When the Complete Edition came out, he and his mother waited outside Borders until it opened.

This is a comic that inspires slavish devotion, which somehow extends to yelling the name as loud as possible.

Bone, like Tellos, treats in some cartoon fantasy clichés -- dragons, an enchanted valley and talking animals. But rather than going through the motions like Tellos, it pulls endless originality out of its pages until it is seemingly exhausted. Then it pulls more. The Complete Edition weighs in at thirteen hundred pages. I will only tackle the first third at the moment, lest my poor brain spill all over the page and make this column unfit for children.

(If you're buying the colored Scholastic editions available in children's sections, this review comprises Out From Boneville, The Great Cow Race and Eyes of the Storm.)

In the first part of Bone, the Bones, three little cartoon characters who visually cross Carl Barks' and Walt Kelly's sketches, have been run out of town into an enchanted valley. Early on in the story they separated from each other, with our hero Fone Bone wandering through the valley searching for his cousins Phoney and Smiley, but instead meeting and becoming smitten with the beautiful Thorn Harvestar.

Meanwhile Phoney Bone, the scheming loan shark of the cousins, meets up with an old lady named Granma Ben who races cows. "You look like such a nice young man," she says. "Would you like to ride one of my racing cows?"

"No," Phoney characteristically answers. "I don't want to ride one of your stupid cows!"

"Stand back," Granma Ben says to the nearby characters. "I'm gonna tear this little fella apart from the inside out."

Cut to Fone Bone, whose new crush Thorn happens to be Granma Ben's granddaughter. They are waiting at the farmhouse for Granma to return when they hear a noise. Thorn and Fone Bone turn to the window. Jeff Smith tells the entire scene through their facial cues, going from shock to greater shock. "Who's that?"

"It's Phoney Bone! But what is he riding?"

"He's tied to one of Granma Ben's racing cows!"

"He's not stopping!"

There is a screech and Phoney goes flying through the window, crashing through the plates and glasses. Granma Ben comes in and sees the two Bones together, Phoney dazed from flying through the window, Fone awkwardly smiling. She sniffs. "What did I tell you about pets, Thorn?"

"Granma!" Thorn protests. "They're not pets!"

"Can you milk 'em? If you can't milk 'em, they're pets."

Phoney, having recovered, grabs Fone's arm and yanks on it. "Quick! While they're distracted, let's get out of here!"

Fone protests, saying, "They might know how to get us back to Boneville--"

Phoney screams "Help! They've destroyed my cousin's brain! Oh my God! They've already milked you, haven't they?"

It gets better. No moment in comics could ever trump the glorious, anarchic humor of the Great Cow Race, which Phoney characteristically tries to fix by dressing the third Bone, Smiley, up as a Mystery Cow that moos ferociously. There's also Ted the Bug and his much bigger brother, and the villains, the "stupid stupid rat creatures," who call each other "comrade" in bad Cold War villain style, and who take The Hobbit's tactic of arguing about how to cook their prey to a totally different, hilarious level. "Comrade! Start the fire and we shall eat the succulent Bone creature." "No. You called me fat."

I remember when I was a kid watching shows like Gummi Bears and Ducktales which, between the typical half-hour plots, would hint at grander tapestries and more intricate plots, ones that I wished I could have seen in full, epic glory but which were constrained by their format.

Bone is that story, liberated from episodic cramps. Jeff Smith never gets away from the beautifully animated look of his artwork -- even the people have exaggerated facial features and back humps, and Granma Ben has a stocky, muscular body ready to kick some rat creature tush -- but the art takes on a more epic style as it the story gets bigger, from armies of creepy, glowing-eyed rat creatures in the night to huge dragons rising from the sea. Still he keeps hilarious little touches, like the dragon clutching a cigarette in his teeth, or the rat creatures' puzzled facial expressions with only mouths and eyes.

Of course a lot of expected fantasy ideas make it into the story, but Jeff Smith isn't afraid to make fun of his own cliché-play. In the third chapter, "Eyes of the Storm," the grander plot is revealed. Of course, the evil Lord of the Locust and the rat creatures are chasing Thorn and her grandmother for their secret royal lineage. The dull-witted Smiley Bone says the obvious. "Our little Thorn is a princess? A beautiful girl living out in the woods, on a farm with her grandmother? Who would have guessed?"

So find your local comics retailer and yell: "BONE! And Tellos!" Treat yourself to some four-color fantasy, and keep an eye out for Chosen Ones, Dark Lords, lisping frogs and racing cows.

Next ish: Two giants stride the earth, crushing all in their way. That's right, it's summer crossover time for Marvel and DC, and only this column is brave enough to look both Final Crisis and Secret Invasion right in the eyes. Strong men, resolute women, stern-faced children -- be there with tights on!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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