On Having A Bone to Pick

January 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

bonepicjacobladderBone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume (Smith, Jeff)

Jacob’s Ladder (Oppenheim, E Phillips)

It was time again for the Great Family Book Swap. Since the books I had to take on this time were much quicker reads than the ones I normally read – I finished both in the course of a single work week – I decided to combine my reviews into a single post. A single post, however, implies a single theme, and on the face of it, the two books have nothing in common, apart from the fact that they’re both novels. One was written in 1921, the other in 2004. The older book was a straightforward piece of genre fiction that would have barely made it past novella length, and I read it on my Kindle; the newer one was a hefty 1300-page graphic novel, and I read the paperback edition. Figuring out what to write about took longer than reading the books themselves. But I did manage to get my thoughts together at last, and my theme is Time.

I mean the concept, not the magazine – but I’ll start with the magazine. Time magazine put E Phillips Oppenheim on their cover in September 1927, at the zenith of his commercial success. Nearly 80 years later, Time was effusive in their review of Jeff Smith’s Bone, calling it ‘one of the ten greatest graphic novels of all time’. Not ‘one of the most original graphic novels we’ve come across in a while’, or ‘one of the funnier novels we read this year’, but …One of the Greatest. Of. All. Time. And the author’s own blurb calls it, not a graphic novel, but a Cartoon Epic.

Time, you old gypsy man, will you not stay, / Put up your caravan just for one day?

Time, you old gypsy man, will you not stay, / Put up your caravan just for one day?

Now these are big statements and need to be substantiated. How do we measure the greatness of novels? When does a novel become an epic? We may each have our answers – to paraphrase Protagoras, man is the measure of all great novels, of the ones that are, that they are; of the ones that aren’t, that they aren’t. The weapon of my own choice is time. For a novel to be great in my dictionary, the book must capture – or have the potential to capture – the imagination of at least two generations. Any marketing man will tell you that sustained brand equity comes from being both sufficiently different, and significantly difficult to copy. The former ensures that you do not get lost in the crowd that already exists, the latter that you do not get indistinguishable from the crowd that will come, because 20 years later, it will not matter whether you were the first or the fifteenth of a fad that failed.

In the context of a novel, unreplicable differentiation, a. k. a., literary merit, is everything. It is what puts the novelty in the novel. The originality can be derived from anything at all: language and imagery, depth of characterization, the interweaving of plots and subplots, narrative techniques, literary and other allusions, a fresh perspective on some aspect of life, or something else. The larger and more striking the differentiation is, the better the novel’s chances are of being well-regarded for a long time. Some books may sell a million copies on day one, because of a clever finger on the popular pulse and some judicious marketing expenditure, but you can tell from a cursory breeze-through on that same day that the excitement is unlikely to last for two decades or longer.

Now let’s examine Oppenheim’s Jacob’s Ladder in light of all this.

No matter how obscure it is now, Oppenheim’s was probably a household name in the Western world, in the 1920’s. The man was a writing machine. In a career spanning 56 years, he churned out 150 novels, many of them great commercial successes. He wrote suspense, international intrigue, romance, comedies, adventures – you name it. The New York Times, in a contemporary review, had this to say:

“He is past master of the art of telling a story. He has humor, a keen sense of the dramatic, and a knack of turning out a happy ending…”

This knack enabled him to purchase a villa in France, a yacht and a house in Guernsey: I will not knock the knack. He knew he had it – apparently, he styled himself ‘the prince of storytellers’ – and he milked it for what it was worth. Jacob’s Ladder is pleasant enough, with its strong, young hero who was equally adept at tempestuous love, magnanimous friendship, financial wizardry, golfing, philanthropy and boxing. I can imagine the eager between-wars populations of London and New York clamouring for the latest Oppenheim outside bookshops with the fervour of a modern mob queuing up for the latest E. L. James. But where is the Prince of Story-tellers today? Who reads him (besides me and the wife?) Who discusses his oeuvre in hushed reverent whispers in university coffee shops, or indeed on the blogosphere? There is something Ozymandian in that Prince of Storytellers boast and Time was who done it – Oppenheim’s novels, with their straightforward, linear narrative, and their eagerness to tell a simple tale without undue fuss, have lost their novelty, and could easily be copied with minor changes and a more liberal dollop of sex or violence. They were – and the hordes went thundering off in a different direction. Alas, the Prince had pandered to a fickle populace. But if you had a few hours to kill in an airport and didn’t feel like exerting your mind, you could do worse than to download a dozen of Oppenheim’s formula pieces onto your Kindle and skim through them on your way to work.

Now let’s return to Bone. It hasn’t been around in novel form for even one decade, but in this time, it has received many accolades besides those conferred on it by Time – 10 Eisner and 11 Harvey awards, to be precise. Of course, these awards are given to comic book series, not necessarily graphic novels – Bone appeared as 55 comic issues between 1991 and 2004, and has been packaged into a novel subsequently. That fact by itself doesn’t mean much – Charles Dickens made a career out of writing serialized and immortal novels – and so I will evaluate Bone as a novel, rather than as a comic book.

Will Bone’s popularity continue unabated for another decade? The only way to hazard a guess is to look for originality. Don’t look for it in the artwork, which is pretty ordinary – the lead characters, the Bone cousins, look straight out of Charlie Brown, and the dragons and the scenery are strangely reminiscent of Dr. Seuss art. The use of humor has been specially called out  in the Time review – but while it is unquestionably funny, it isn’t funnier than the average B-flick bromance. Out of a large cast of characters, only two had personalities that rose above the ordinary – Phoncible Bone and Rocque Ja – but they aren’t nearly enough to save the novel. Above all else, do not seek originality in the story line – I can’t say too much without resorting to spoilers, but vivid flashes of Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and even of Star Wars are inescapable even if you aren’t actively looking for them. The first-named was too contemporaneous to have been a direct influence (and besides, it would have led to a lawsuit or two), but the commonalities are too many to be entirely coincidental. I suspect they both exploit the same old well-worn memes. I would not look for lasting popularity in either.

Oppenheim and Jeff Smith are not as odd a couple as they look at first sight. They both had a very canny instinct for what their public was craving for, and in their own separate ways, they were very successful in supplying it. Jacob’s Ladder was a good read, but it wouldn’t rank too highly in anyone’s list of all-time great novels. That a similar claim (‘top ten greatest graphic novels’) has been made about Bone, in my opinion, doesn’t say as much about the book as it does about the reviewer, or about the genre. Still, does the claim hold water? Unlikely, but only time can truly tell.


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