Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures

Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures

The panels above mark the exact moment at which I fell in love with Bone, the epic comic book series by Jeff Smith. I could provide story context, but really, none is needed. Stupid, stupid rat creatures.

As an artistic medium, comics face unique challenges, such as depicting action and movement in a limited number of small, silent, static panels. I’m sometimes amazed by the ingenious ways artists bring their comic panels to life, and have noticed a number of visual tricks and techniques used to tell stories in comics.

Absurd sound effects are one way, of course. Others include filter effects, blurred backgrounds, and squashing or stretching to represent movement. In Japanese comics (and animation), symbolic shorthand is common: for example, an oversized bead of sweat to represent anxiety or a throbbing vein to represent anger.

Manga iconography

Manga iconography is a visual shorthand for character emotion.

A thing that delights me in the Bone panels above is how economically the artist tells the story. Several actions must occur between the first and second panels, yet the artist doesn’t bore the reader with them. He sets up the joke and then immediately provides the punchline, assuming the reader is clever enough to infer what occurred between panels without having to be shown. It’s quick, efficient storytelling, and I really dig it.

Bone is an incredible comic series. There’s nothing else quite like it: an unlikely blend of The Lord of the Rings with the Pogo comic strip. It’s at once dark and lighthearted, serious and cartoony, and above all, quirky. There are bloodthirsty rat-monsters in one scene, and jokes about Moby-Dick in the next. Heck, one scene even pits the rat creatures against Melville’s novel. (The rat creatures lose.)

Moby Dick Vs. the Rat Creatures

I adore the rat creatures’ expressions in the third panel.

Jeff Smith self-published the first issues of Bone in the early nineties, helping kick start the indie comics movement, and eventually winning boatloads of awards. I was introduced to the series by the same kindly relative who occasionally sends me random books and comics. (I aspire to be that kind of person.)

I began reading Bone a year or so ago—at this point, I own the entire series—but had to set it aside halfway through due to busyness. At the moment, my reading list is dominated by background reading for my book project, but someday I’ll revisit Bone and read it from start to finish, stupid rat creatures and all.

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