For Christmas, I received the one-volume edition of Jeff Smith's comedy-fantasy epic comic Bone. In the last couple of weeks, the Finnish girl and I have been taking turns in reading through the 1,000+ page long tale. She'd read some of it before, being from a country that celebrates comic art and graphic fiction (including, well, Bone itself). I was a newbie, having only read about it online.
One thing that immediately struck me when I started reading Bone was Jeff Smith's simple, yet expressive and distinctive approach to character design. Even though his style has obvious touchstones and influences, he manages to strike upon original character models that look instantly familiar and memorable.
I have read that Smith's chief inspiration when he started Bone was Walt Kelly's newspaper comic strip Pogo, a series I have never encountered before. However, I believe that his approach to the characters created for the series, Smith traverses the whole span of comic art. One is able to trace his simple, time-honoured design choices back to other enduring characters in the history of international comics. Fone Bone himself, especially in the original black and white version of the comic, is all well-placed lines and curved edges. Details are sparse, but effective, such as his eyebrows. In a way, it is a shame to see Bone coloured, as the (admittedly spiffy) makeover sometimes masks the simple design at its core. The shading and blending of tones adds atmosphere to the emotion, but can make the eye forget that the character's expression and gesture is essentially a handful of lines and blank paper.
It brings to my mind two other masterfully-minimal character designs, one classic and probably an inspiration on Bone, another from a different medium entirely. Snoopy, from Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts strip and Nintendo game creation Kirby. These characters, like Bone, are expressive and distinctive while exhibiting a surprisingly simple approach.
Both Snoopy and Kirby are straightforward designs rooted in curved lines (or basic shapes in the latter's case). In fact, in the intro to Kirby's debut console video-game from 1993, Kirby's Adventure, the designers emphasise how simple it is to draw a Kirby. Like with Fone Bone, however, these characters are extremely flexible, able to display a range of emotions with the use of simple lines, accessories and shading. In Bone's case, Smith uses his eyebrows and the shape of his eyes and mouth to great effect.
And that is just Fone Bone. One of the real strengths of the series as a whole is that each 'species', be they human, dragon, rat-creature or bone, comply to wholly different, yet familiar and distinctive design ethics. For example, the Bone family are united by their curved, minimal forms, especially in relation to the detailed, more realistic approach to the human characters. I could easily write further mini-essays on the designs of the other characters, and probably will in the future. In this regard, Bone is a masterpiece from the very beginning, inviting readers big and small into its world of imagination and adventure.