It’s Funny: Jeff Smith, Bill Watterson and Cartoons in the Real World

I know I promised to write a story after my comic review, but I guess I lied: if only to articulate something else that’s been on my mind for a while.

It is an observation that relates to, well, my last article on characters that someone can relate to and it also brings together some thoughts I’ve had since my own reading and the Toronto Comics Arts Festival where I got to listen to a panel with Jeff Smith: the creator of the comics series Bone. Aside from the fact that Smith is hilarious–and he would have to be in order to write something with enough pacing as he would Bone‘s plot–hearing him talk reminded me of the Bone characters and the world that he made for them.

The Bones are these small blunt-shaped white cartoon beings with beady but expressive black eyes that somehow manage to convey a lot of different emotions. There are three of them: Fone Bone who is a dreamer and likes to read Moby Dick, Phoney Bone who is greedy and always scheming, and Smiley Bone who is tall, silly, and really crazy but has this almost serene “just so” tiger Hobbes demeanour to him. The entire story arc actually takes place in the Valley: a place far from their own home of Boneville filled with talking animals, dragons, rat creatures and humans. Basically, the Bones are not human at all or even animals and we watch them interact with a world with some humans, but not our world.

And somehow, readers relate to the Bones and I never really wondered why. You would think that we would relate to the humans in that world, though they aren’t the primary characters. What is also interesting is how the Bones are so simply–yet deceptively–drawn cartoons, yet the world around them is very dark, detailed, naturalistic and realistic: and–again– it somehow works.

This is also something that Bill Watterson has employed in Calvin and Hobbes: creating the basic exaggerated shape of a spiky haired six year old boy and a cartoon tiger while using the rest of his brush work to depict a very natural world, but also very detailed ones of fancy and imagination. The seemingly simple cartoon character as an icon manages to unify the reader with that world through its own interactions with it.

I’m obviously not the only one to have noticed this, and they are not the only ones to have used this strategy: Tezuka Osamu also does this to great effect in his work in Phoenix, Buddha, Astro Boy and other works as well. In my own studies–both in University and outside of it–I read up on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and he states something to the effect of how we as viewers tend to find some kind of sympathy or empathy with a simplistic, more essential depiction of a person or an animal than we would a more realistic one. It is a matter of being able to somehow identify with “the cartoon” and by doing so being able to follow that cartoon’s journey into a stranger world: sometimes like, and sometimes not like our own.

In my Images of Animals course, our teacher explained to our class that humans seem to identify with, and be more comfortable around neotony: with animals that are more child-like. In fact, we actively breed them to be this way. This mentality fits well with why “animal stories” exist. I wrote a paper explaining that talking animals in these kinds of stories are “animal-teachers” that serve as a bridge between the natural or unconscious world and ourselves. They somehow manage to shield us from the harsher elements of the world through their appearance–giving us the illusion of distance (because nothing like them can be “real”)–but they also expose us to that world as well. It can be very subversive. Art Spiegelman, in his graphic novel Maus, gives us animal characters to look at his family’s experiences in the Holocaust yet he also makes it clear that these humanoid animals are masks: which he lets slip from time-to-time and even shows how meaningless they are as human labels.

The cartoon is a lens or a focus of reality. It can serve as a protective barrier–a kind of irony–against the dangers of that world, but they all slip occasionally and purposefully to expose us not only to the threats created in those worlds, but the mysteries and joys that lie in them and ourselves. I can just come out and saw that cartoons are archetypes or essential basic shapes that we can identify with to guide us through the alien or the Other that is the world.

You know, when the panel with Jeff Smith was opened for questions I was almost tempted to ask him one in particular. I always wondered that if Bone takes place in a series of worlds–bounded by the Dreaming–and the Bones themselves come from a place that is not Earth or the Valley, then how does Fone Bone even know about Moby Dick, never mind read the thing? I was tempted to ask Smith this question and a part of me regrets not taking that opportunity, but at the same time I also recognize that I would have been somewhat of an asshole if I had put him on the spot like that and I didn’t have the heart to.

I have my own theory: that the Bones and Boneville are another part of the Dreaming or are more Dream creatures than even the ones in the Valley: which would explain a lot about why they are so important. But then I realize that of course they are part of the Dreaming. Everything is. So is Watterson’s Hobbes. So are all cartoon characters. Alan Moore would call the Dreaming “Idea Space”: a psychic space where all ideas and concepts come from, while Carl Jung would call it the “collective unconscious.” So would it be that inconceivable that Moby Dick could exist in that area and be found by a race of Bone-creatures? Or that Hobbes could be a more livelier version of Schrodinger’s cat in–or not in–Calvin’s transmogrifier box?

I just find it remarkable that we can sometimes relate so much more to basic shapes on a piece of paper configured to look like an exaggerated being than to something that we see everyday: that this being can guide us–like a comic psycho-pomp–through so many levels of our own underworld. I also find it intriguing that the very term “comics” refers to the old “funny-pages” of newspaper strips–and comedy–and how comedy has always in some ways been used to recognize the sublime within the ridiculousness. Someone should really examine Romanticism and its influence within the world of cartooning, or with regards to Jungian psychology and mysticism but I’m not going to be the one to do that.

I’ve gone on longer than I thought but like any joke, I do want to end with a kind of punch-line. In ancient Greece, there were nine Muses and nine Arts associated with those muses. Thalia was the Muse of Comedy: of the Comical. The Belgian cartoonist Morris referred to comics as–or at least a part of–the Ninth Art.

And honestly, I think that is just… funny.

One thought on “It’s Funny: Jeff Smith, Bill Watterson and Cartoons in the Real World

  1. Matthew – I have tried many times to create my own cartoon character. i would love to be able to do this. I certainly have no trouble creating dialogue and plot, but my drawing is crude, to be generous in my own assessment. I thought Calvin and Hobbes was great and miss it so much.

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