Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book Review: Bone 5: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border

Rock Jaw (Bone)by Jeff Smith. Color by Steve Hamaker. Scholastic, Singapore: 2007. ISBN 0-439-70636-X.

It's out, and it's even out a little early: Bone volume 5: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border, in full color. We've decided to produce the review separately from the upcoming essay.

This is the fifth installment (of nine) in the Bone epic. The story so far has followed the three cartoonish Bone cousins: brave and kind Fone Bone, silly and happy Smiley Bone, and greedy and conniving Phoney Bone--who could be replaced with Mickey, Goofy, and Donald without anyone noticing--as they've been run out of Boneville and maneuvered into a mysterious, forested valley populated with talking animals, dragons, carnivorous rat creatures, and more-or-less realistically drawn humans.

At this point in the story, Fone Bone and Smiley have separated from the humans and their cousin Phoney in order to return a small rat creature cub to his home in the Eastern Mountains. After the heavy politico-religious content that weighed down the humorous antics in volume 4, Rock Jaw is a refreshing break. The human characters and their politics are absent, replaced with a cast of cute young talking animals who show up, along with the two stupid rat creatures and a giant mountain lion (the title character) to complicate the Bones' mission of charity.

In a sense, this is probably the poorest volume of the series. It's not as funny as Bone Volume 2: The Great Cow Race, arguably Smith's finest tour de force, and it lacks the thrills of Bone Volume 3: Eyes of the Stormor the drama of Bone Volume 4: The Dragonslayer.

The characters spend most of their time running, hiding, and yelling. It's action-packed and funny, but Smith does take time to develop the plot and deliver, in digestible doses, some of the Bone universe's mythic cosmogony. Arguably, this volume is a risk. In the last installment, we left the young woman Thorn, who recently came of age and received her magic powers, standing dramatically back-lit on the Dragon's Stair, calling the citizens of the Valley to arms as the rat creatures rampage, yet now we have moved for an entire volume into a minor subplot with Bones and baby animals. Of course, Bone is about delivering myth in an unconventional way, and this is hardly the first time Smith has broken rules of storytelling with surprising success.

Even with the adventures and revelations, and a sort of nostalgic return to the series's beginnings, a reader may be unable to shake the feeling that this volume is weak compared to the others. Thorn, who is both Fone Bone's love interest and the story's true central character, is absent, and she's left just after becoming particularly interesting. Besides that, it isn't the myth or the jokes or the action that makes Bone so enjoyable, or at least, it isn't mainly those: It's the quirkly love story between Bone and Thorn. Don't ask me why, but there's something grotesquely charming about drawings of an attractive twenty-year-old woman holding hands with a sexless, three-foot cartoon character. Bone is enjoyable by himself, but he really seems in Rock Jaw to be missing his better half.

The text and drawings don't appear to have been altered from the black-and-white version. Hamaker's color remains crisp, bright, and attractive, continuing the traditions of The Great Cow Race, Eyes of the Storm, and The Dragonslayer. The shadows seem less creative than in earlier volumes, though there's less dramatic lighting for Hamaker to play with. Nonetheless, the subtle shading does make the Bones' flat, white bodies more interesting.

But once again, Hamaker has gotten the two stupid rat creatures mixed up. In the black-and-white, these two look identical but are easily distinguishable by their personalities. Hamaker has decided to color-code them (one's brown and the other can't decide if he's gray or purple). In the first volume, their colors switched back and forth, a problem Hamaker corrected in the second volume. Now, during an action sequence, they've pulled yet another switcheroo--a baby racoon magically transfers from one rat's hand to the other's mouth. I understand that which rat is which is sometimes left to Hamaker's discretion, but I wish he'd read a little more carefully before making his decision.
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