We all have gaps in our pop culture knowledge, those omissions that elicit gasps from our fellow funnybook connoisseurs. For me, those gaps are vast and constitute anything outside of DC Comics proper. I’m on a mission to rectify my comics knowledge shortcomings and to provide a fresh take on classic stories that others have known for years. The comics may be old but my mind is still pure, wrapped in plastic and sitting on the shelf, waiting to be opened. Welcome to Mint Condition!
This time: I’ve been hearing about Bone for over two decades now, and my curiosity has gotten the best of me. Let’s see what the Jeff Smith creation is all about.
The skinny: A group of cartoon characters wanders out of their realm and onto the set of an epic fantasy. The self-published Bone is unlike anything else on the shelves.
Issues read: I consumed the entire 55-issue series via the “Complete Cartoon Epic” omnibus, which presents the story in black and white as originally published.
Published by: Cartoon Books, a company that Jeff Smith created in order to self-publish this story. Image Comics had a brief involvement near the middle of the series as well, and reprints (with colorization) have been put out by Scholastic and HarperCollins.
Publication dates: The first issue of Bone was published in the summer of 1991, with subsequent issues coming out roughly every two months until the final issue (#55) in 2004.
Creators: This is as close to a one-man show as you’re likely to find. Jeff Smith wrote it, drew it, lettered it, published it. This truly is Jeff Smith’s Bone.
My previous experience: The only work by Jeff Smith I had read before this was the fantastic Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil miniseries for DC Comics. I’d seen issues of Bone on the comics shop racks, but it looked to me like a kids’ series with those cartoon characters on the cover. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it.
Significance: When a book wins as many awards as Bone has, it’s wise to pay attention. As I was ignoring this as just another children’s cartoon book, a large and adoring fan base emerged and a litany of Eisners and Harveys trailed in its wake. Best Cartoonist, Best Continuing Series, Best Writer/Artist, Best Humor Publication. You don’t rack up awards by doing the same thing everyone else is doing. This book is something special.
It’s difficult to categorize Jeff Smith’s Bone in a particular genre or type. It almost feels like two books in one, and not just because of the juxtaposition of divergent art styles. Some pages act as one-page gags, in the style of a newspaper’s Sunday comic strips. Alongside these quick hits are long-simmering dramas that build for chapters and chapters before exploding into scenes of deep, tragic emotional resonance. It’s a “come for the laughs, stay for the tears” kind of deal. Bone is as lighthearted and cute as you’d expect, and simultaneously riveting and epic. The natural rhythm of the story reads quite briskly, but Jeff Smith’s art offers plentiful reasons to linger over a page or panel.
Story: The three cartoony characters are the cousins Bone, who have left the familiar confines of Boneville and unwittingly found themselves at the center of a centuries-long war that is about to erupt in the unfamiliar Valley. As they attempt to acclimate and stay out of trouble (sort of), they become embroiled in a world of monsters and princesses, curses and magic. It’s a bit Three Stooges, a bit Lord of the Rings, and a large helping of Star Wars.
Thorn, the main non-cartoony protagonist, is a cross between Disney princess, Madame Xanadu, and Luke Skywalker. She’s learning about the true, hidden history of the valley from her Gran’ma Ben as she’s trying to help Fone Bone get his bearings. She’s young and pure and headstrong, finding her place in this world just as much as the Bones are. Thorn is more important than she realizes and she’s either going to save the kingdom or tell them all to get lost. Part of the fun is that it’s difficult to predict what’s coming next.
The magic of Bone is that it leverages the strengths of several genres at once. The Boneville trio are overly simplistic in character, as cartoons often are, with Phoney Bone portrayed as a conniving scam artist who cares only about money and Smiley Bone embodying the role of large simpleton. Smith plops these sketchy archetypal outlines right into the larger setting of fully-realized characters with complex goals and emotions, and the contrast is mesmerizing. Sometimes it feels like I’m chuckling at a clever Ziggy cartoon and then a few pages later I’m absolutely heartbroken by the ruthless sacking of the village as it is overrun by enemies. How Bone pulls off such sharp pivots in tone without giving the reader emotional whiplash can only be explained as magic.
The story in Jeff Smith’s Bone is given plenty of room to breathe. Sequences that could easily have been told in one or two panels are instead given six or ten. This expansive, leisurely pacing sets a definitive mood throughout and enables a sort of emotional resonance in the form of ratcheting intensity or building to a tender moment. The setting of The Valley, with all of its history and peoples and artifacts and treaties, feels like a deep well of mythic reverberation. This is genius-level storytelling.
Art: Jeff Smith’s Bone features super-cartoony art from someone who is clearly capable of realism. Seeing a panel or two of this book is misleading — the art is subtly deeper. Sneakier. Like the story, the visual aspects of this work play with your expectations of what the story should or could be. One one hand, Fone Bone is a typical children’s animation. Little cartoon hearts flutter out of his body when Thorn is near, and beads of sweat fly from his reddening brow when she discovers his love poetry. The Lord of Locusts is the opposite; appearing alternately as a menacing cloud of insects or a twisted old necromancer whose word bubbles emanate creepily from deep within a hooded cloak. The rat creatures who plague the kingdom are at the same time cuddly and terrifying, the Pokémon of your nightmares.
The shots and camera angles that Smith chooses make the whole work come alive, even when the characters are taking a rest. Instead of panel after panel of talking heads, Bone will offer an image of the back of the speaker’s head seen through a picket fence or a close-up of a bystander’s hands striking a flint into a pile of kindling. It’s an all-inclusive view of the world around them, to immerse the reader seamlessly into the unique setting.
It’s an action-packed story, with lots of chase scenes and fights. Walking around in The Valley isn’t safe, and Gran’ma Ben often has to spend a few pages punching her way through creatures in the forest. There’s a scene with Gran’ma, Fone Bone, and Thorn running from rat creatures in the middle of a thunderstorm and it is INTENSE. Just as the characters appear to be safe, huddled against a tree in the dark wet woods, a jagged KEERAAKOW! lightning strike erupts and the black inks briefly resolve into a field of white monsters before settling back into even deeper darkness than before. My heart was racing the entire time.
I can’t get over the fucking range of this thing. Jeff Smith, using still images and only one color of ink, has completely captured my attention.
New reader accessibility: Jump right in. The story starts off silly and simplistic, and then layer after layer of depth is added until you can’t put it down.
Desire to read more: Bone is one of the most engaging settings in comics and we want more. There are still a few spin-offs and one-shots out there I’ll have to track down (and the upcoming Netflix show is an automatic must-watch), but probably I’ll just start back at page one and take the journey all over again.
Final Thoughts: What I assumed was a slapstick children’s story has turned out to be a fully-formed fantasy realm wrapped in an engrossing spiritual metaphor that kept me on the edge of my seat. So really the joke’s on me.
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