By Jeff Smith, Charles Vess, Steve Hamaker
I've started to re-read my Bone collection, which is composed of various original pamphlets and pre-Scholastic trade paperbacks. It's been many years since I first examined the series as a whole. But I decided to begin at the middle, and read Rose. This comic stands out for a number of reasons. Although it's often labeled as a prequel, it wasn't originally released after the completion of the series, but in the midst of its serialization. Creator Jeff Smith took a break from Bone to initiate Rose and Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails. Both projects were collaborations between Smith and other creators. Both were set in the distant past of the Bone universe. Since the series had begun to roll out a few significant revelations, such as the identities of the hidden main antagonists, this was as good a time as any for Smith to fill in some of the backstory for the readers. As such, Rose and SSRT serve as a kind of interlude, as well as a glorified flashback sequence, before Bone would move inexorably towards a climactic showdown.
Of course Rose contains no real surprises, since it requires that the reader be already familiar with the fantasy world revealed in the series at that point. Without the Bone cousins as reader identification characters, the story's fairy tale elements come to the foreground. This also means that much of the characterization that makes Bone so appealing is missing here. In the series, the eponymous hero Rose Harvestar is known as Gran'ma Ben - a no-nonsense, tough as nails farmer who races against cows because, well why the hell not? However in Rose, both she and her sister older Briar become archetypal feuding siblings: The latter's a power-hungry schemer, while the former is completely oblivious to the latter's open hatred towards her. Individual motives for their behavior don't extend far beyond one being pure and good, and the other being pure evil. Supporting character Lucius Down, a gruff but noble barkeep in Bone, has zero personality here except as an easily manipulated bodyguard. And the cigarette smoking Great Red Dragon in transformed into a stern, judgmental, and stubbornly impassive observer. The absence of the Bone cousins is usually brought up to explain the lack of humor. But my guess is that Smith was more concerned with producing a straight fantasy than injecting even a bit of levity into the story.
This makes Charles Vess an appropriate choice as the book's artist. As someone influenced by Arthur Rackham, his art is charming enough to please adults while still appearing creepy enough to scare younger readers. But it's a different school of illustration from the Disney animation style that informs the rest of Bone. With each chapter, Vess becomes more capable with translating Smith's characters into his own idiom. But a few, most noticeably the Great Red Dragon, betray and uneasy balance between Smith and Vess' divergent artistic approaches. Rose is also the only book with interior art that was originally published in color. This contributed to its initial impact among fans who were accustomed to seeing the characters in black and white. Even today, his application of light color washes contrasts significantly with the more heavily textured styles found in most digitally painted comics. Vess is very adept at using color to enhance the story. As the mood becomes darker, the warmer reds, oranges, and yellows are gradually replaced by cooler greens and blues. White snow that initially appears in the background suddenly falls more heavily as the situation grows more dire, until it envelops the landscape. It's a traditional narrative device. But it's gorgeously executed by Vess.
When set against the events of the rest of the Bone series, Rose is a small scale work. The overall tone of the book is sinister and foreboding. And the ending is left unsettled not only to remain consistent with concurrent issues within the series, but also to foreshadow upcoming events. In retrospect, the battles depicted in Rose were probably a dry run for the even grander armed confrontations that would take place in future chapters of Bone. But since Rose is collected as a separate work to be read after the Bone story-line, most readers will find it redundant. The Bone series repeats most of the pertinent information found in Rose anyway. But when Rose first came out, it only added more intriguing layers, helped along with a dash of color, to the then unfolding Bone saga.