Bob's Comics Reviews August 1997 Arrows


Dave Sim: Jaka's Story
This is Sim's attempt to tell a "more human" story-- influenced, he says, by Love & Rockets. The influence is hard to detect; when Sim turns from satire to drama his native grimness only intensifies. His storytelling only continues to improve; however; it's a spellbinding work.

The story is as intense and focussed as an Ibsen play. Cerebus, down and out after getting kicked out as pope, moves in with his old love Jaka-- and her husband Rick. Cerebus's sense of drama-- he talks about not leaving without Jaka-- is defused by Rick's childlike friendliness. Jaka is working as a dancer for a little inn, her only audience the owner, whose mute obsession with Jaka parallels Cerebus's. And then Oscar Wilde shows up, to add a little life to the proceedings.

Later on a little death is added as well. We get a little closer to the craziness here: Sim's totalitarian feminists, the Cirinists, show their gloved but iron hand. As science fiction, it's chilling and effective. But it seems that Sim at some level believes in this; indeed, his inclusion of "Mrs Thatcher" can only be an attempt to relate his bogeywomen to the real world. The failure of analysis is staggering. Maggie Thatcher is not a feminist; she's a right-winger whose enemies are not Men or Sex but Socialism and Weak-Mindedness. It's as if Sim's reactions to women's complaints about skewed pay scales, rape, closed professions, and male regulation of their bodies, is "Hey, that can't be true-- I know some very controlling women." Well, there are some very controlling women; but women as a whole still get the short end of the stick in this world.

As usual, Sim makes most comics writers look like putterers. The relationship of coldly responsible Jaka to her layabout husband (as well as to her repressed, seething patron) is reported with a merciless psychological accuracy. He plays with panel layouts and pacing, in ways that other artists wouldn't even dream about; and he comes up with wonderful new ways of making the word balloon speak. I particularly liked one panel in which a hard-of-hearing character is cupping a word balloon close to his ear like an ear trumpet.

And I'm almost forgetting Gerhard (and there is surely no more modest an artist to be found; have you ever seen an interview with Gerhard?). Though Sim is no slouch as an artist, Gerhard's obsessively detailed backgrounds bring the panels to their peak of Gothic perfection.

Interleaved with all this is the story of Jaka's childhood, told in illustrated prose. Having heard that many readers elect to skip the text sections, I deliberately read them as I came to them, as Sim intended us to (but expects us not to). I don't see anything wrong with the technique, and indeed using comics for the present and prose for the past works pretty well on the whole. The prose is a bit overblown, but we learn that (in the context of the story) it's Oscar Wilde's, so the effect may be intentional. It evokes many of the aspirations, obsessions, and lonelinesses of childhood very well, but does suffer from melodrama-- the years of silence, the birthday party, are de trop.

Oscar is a breath of air in what is otherwise a rather oppressive work, but the impersonation doesn't quite convince me-- I don't feel that we've really met Oscar Wilde. Sim has got the languor down, and the aristophilia, and the general air of being made for a better, artier world; but he doesn't quite achieve the wit, nor the skewering social analysis that lies behind it. Curious that Sim can do a good Groucho Marx but not a convincing Oscar Wilde.

Jeff Smith: Bone
Bone tends to be compared to Pogo, and with reason. It has the same mild fantasy and gentle humor, the same simple characters mixed with impressively rendered backgrounds (Smith, like Kelly, was once an animator); it has a small and good-humored hero set against con men and rogues; and of course there's the occasional "Oog!" or conversations with bugs. But Bone has a strong flavor of its own, ranging from slapstick (the cow race is a classic), to the scary yet hilarious rat creatures, to intimations of high fantasy.

The early issues of a comic are sometimes the weakest; but Bone shows its adroitness even from #1, in which the three Bones are run out of town-- the irrepressibly slimy Phoney Bone, the stupidly cheerful Smiley Bone, and the gentle Fone Bone. (The name is a tribute to Don Martin, but in personality he's closer to Pogo-- well, except for the fascination with Moby-Dick.) We also meet the infinitely cool Red Dragon in this issue; and it isn't long before we meet Gran'ma Ben, the toughest old lady in comics.

Of all his techniques, what I think I admire most is Smiths' sense of timing. Few comics will take the time to pause. Smith is a master of the use of a silent panel, or a repeated scene with variations of movement or perspective. (In this he's undoubtedly learned from Sim.)

Bone reads fast-- you can eat up a whole paperback in no time-- so it's good that there are now four of them (and there's some hope for the future of comics in the fact that the title now outsells quite a few Marvel and DC mags). The later issues are more Tolkienesque, as the hints of seriousness coalesce into something resembling an epic.

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