Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Thorn by Jeff Smith

It's always complicated looking at the early stuff. Especially when "the early stuff" hasn't been publicly available for a few decades, and was very much a trial run for the later stuff, which used a lot of the same elements and ideas in a more coherent, consistent way.

That's why it took until 2024 for Thorn: The Complete Proto-Bone College Strips 1982-1986 to be published; Jeff Smith knew that as well as anyone, and Bone, even now, is his major work, the core of his resume, and probably still his largest source of income. Add that to any creator's standard disinterest at looking back at juvenilia, and this is work that could easily have stayed moldering in a vault indefinitely, only to roll out in some posthumous Complete Works or similar exercise.

But, for whatever reason, Smith decided to look back, to clean up, and to publish a comprehensive collection of his earliest major work: it shipped to his Kickstarter backers recently and is scheduled to hit regular retail channels this summer.

It's a big book: over three hundred pages, on good paper, in a wider-than-tall format suitable for printing strip comics two-up on each page, in a large, clean presentation. And the material is equally comprehensive, with all of the strips Smith did in college - the full run of Thorn from his college paper The Sundial, a short try-out called Mickey & Rudy that ran very briefly during a Thorn hiatus, and a book-formatted one-pager from another campus publication - surrounded by notes, introductions, and other material to put it into context and explain how it all came to be.

So, physically and technically, this is impressive. It's the best possible presentation for this material, treating it all seriously and presenting it all well and clearly. The material itself if a bit more of a mixed bag, which is what we all assumed.

Thorn was a daily strip - five days a week, during the four quarters of the Ohio State academic calendar - and it has the rhythms of a daily. It wanders, it digresses, it has one-off silliness and gags. Dailies, especially by college students, tend to be "about" everything in their creator's worlds, almost equally, and that's the case here. The first two years of Thorn feature a shorter, substantially different version of the main plot from Bone, alongside other material and including topical elements that dropped out of the later comic-book version.

Most obviously, Thorn was a Reagan-era strip. There's a Reagan caricature that shows up late in the run, and other digs earlier on. Smith has a whole quirky subplot about Thorn's religious mania, which loosely ties into a storyline about a con-man evangelist - it was the 1980s, and shady evangelists were big in both pop-culture and the real world. There's also plenty of Cold War material, including a major antagonist - a Russian-accented pig who denies he's a pig - that dropped out between this version and Bone.

It's not all successful, or artfully done, but it's all authentic. Smith was young, working on deadlines, and getting his stuff down on paper to tell stories. Some of the threads don't go much of anywhere, or are phrased weirdly - the Thorn religious material, and her subsequent feminism, have particularly stilted phrasing a lot of the time, either because that's how those topics were discussed in Ohio in the '80s or because that's how Smith could phrase them for a general newspaper.

The art runs through the same variations, too: some of it is as crisp and clear as early Bone, and some is a lot sketchier, or with half-formed ideas left in the drawing or half-erased. Thorn herself in particular isn't as pretty as I think Smith wanted her to be: her face is usually an only-slightly-younger version of Grand'ma Ben's. Or maybe what I mean is that she's treated as an adult here, and turns into an ingenue for Bone. She clearly does seem to be somewhat surer of herself, and possibly older, here than in Bone.

All of that is reading Thorn with one eye on the future. It's more difficult to think of it as a thing complete in itself, to imagine how we would look at it if Smith had never reworked this material into Bone, if he'd, for example, done something like RASL or Tuki first in the comics field. That's also partially because a few years of a daily, even one with a clearly defined central story (at least for those first two years) like Thorn, isn't generally one thing: it's a conglomeration of dozens or hundreds of things, one per day, for as long as the strip runs. Dailies generally stop rather than end - even this one, with that clear plotline, kept going almost as long again after the big climax.

Thorn is a fun '80s-era college strip, and a fascinating signpost on the way to Bone. Smith was a solid artist even this far back, and does at least workmanlike art all of the time, and quite nice art fairly regularly. It's a quirky, interesting precursor to a major work, and it's great to see it get published in this definitive edition.

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