Bone Up on Shakespeare, With a Skeleton and His Ankle-Nibbling Nemesis

Bone Up on Shakespeare, With a Skeleton and His Ankle-Nibbling Nemesis

This charming spoof purports to be a long-lost work for younger readers by the Bard of Avon himself. But the reality of YORICK AND BONES: The Last Graphic Novel by William Shakespeare (HarperAlley, 144 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), and its own secret origin, is even more charming.

The father-daughter team of Jeremy and Hermione Tankard based the book on a doodle (included at the end) of a dog threatening to gobble the leg bones of an upset skeleton: something Jeremy had been drawing, in one form or another, since he was 7 years old. After years of trying and failing to get the sketches to work as a picture book, Jeremy passed the manuscript off to his daughter, 15 at the time, who rewrote it in Shakespearean verse and produced the script for what would become this fun, endearing graphic novel.

The comic stars Yorick, Hamlet’s old friend and “fellow of infinite jest,” here roused from eternal sleep when a hot dog vendor and a harried witch collide, causing a potion she’s carrying to spill from her hands and seep into Yorick’s earthen grave. He awakens underground, unaware he died, and wonders — nay, soliloquizes! — how he slept so long he lost his memory, until a passing canine digs him up.

“Poor Yorick” wants just two things: a sausage and a friend to share it with. The food is easily obtained (from said graveside hot dog vendor), but friendship is hard to find. Especially since Yorick — earnest, enthusiastic, goofy, oblivious — doesn’t understand that he is the terrifying talking skeleton from whom everyone is running. When he finally sees his reflection, he utters a variation of Shylock’s famous line from “The Merchant of Venice,” deftly changed to suit his “sorry bones”: “’Tis sure that if you prick me, I’ll bleed not.”

Which brings us to Yorick’s second impediment to 21st-century friendship: Did I mention he speaks in poetry? Iambic pentameter poetry?

Not to worry. Kids will enjoy the rhythm — like a heart that pumps “ba DUM” five times a line. And while some of Yorick’s words may sound foreign, “forsooth” and “alack” are the hardest ones you’ll find. In the final act, when Yorick realizes the friend for whom he’s been looking ever since he awoke is the dog who’s been nipping at his heels all along, his exclamation, “Verily, the air doth cool mine face!” — shouted as he throws his own skull for his new pal to fetch — is hilarious.

Hermione’s droll text is slyly matched with Jeremy’s fast-paced, emotive art, often with an inside-comics flair adults will love. Witness the Tankards’ mocking of their hero’s self-puffery, as if he were aspiring to be an action hero, with laughable results. Sound effects, instead of “POWs” and “BAMs,” are stiffly literal, per a skeleton’s range of motion: “STAND!” “FALL!”

Once Yorick decides the dog needs a name (since he “lov’d me / No matter what horrific thing was I!”), he ponders: Puck? Caliban? Rosencrantz? Romeo? Then it comes to him: “I’ll name thee BONES, for ’tis thy favorite food!”

While Jeremy Tankard is well known for his “Grumpy Bird” picture book series, this is his first book of sequential art, an adjacent but very different medium. Thankfully, both Tankards show an instinctual eye for the more complicated pacing of a comics page, knowing which moments of action to show and when to give characters’ feelings space to breathe.

One standout example of the latter is that moment when Yorick sees his skull’s reflection and has his heartbreaking epiphany: He stands, stares across the tranquil lake and, viewed small in a large panel from some distance above, laments, “I am the reason why I have no friends.”

It’s tragedy and comedy combined, and that — plus flashes of merriment — captures the spirit of Yorick and his adorable companion. “Oh, what a fitting end, if end it be!” Yorick exclaims, petting his friend as he wonders what their shared future holds. “I cannot wait to see what it will bring — This age of joy, experienc’d with thee!”

Hermione and Jeremy Tankard conceived this book as the start of a new series, to which I say — as I’m pretty sure my buddy Bill once wrote — “If comics be the food of life … draw on.”

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