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Bone! December 4, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Comics, Reviews.
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I vaguely recall hearing about Jeff Smith’s Bone when I was heavily interested in comics back in the ’90s. If memory serves, I knew of it but could never quite muster the interest to see what all the fuss was about. Looking at the art, it’s easy to see why: it’s of the cartoony sort clearly meant for younger audiences (or so I thought at the time). In spite of this, however, both Bone and its author have consistently garnered acclaim from fans and luminaries in the comics industry alike, a sure reminder of that adage not to judge a book by its cover.

And rightly so: as simple (that is to say, childish) as Bone might seem, it turns out that Jeff Smith’s series is a finely crafted work of fantasy.

In broad strokes, the premise is simple: three Bone cousins — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone — are run out of Boneville, finding themselves lost and separated in an unfamiliar valley. Stranded because of a long winter, it’s not long before they eventually find one another with the assistance of the many new friends that they make along the way. Yet all is not well in the valley: there is a mysterious dragon running about, as well as “rat creatures” wreaking havoc amongst the local townspeople after years of leaving them well alone. The plot thickens, however, as the secret history of the valley unfolds. Soon enough the battle lines are drawn between townspeople and rat creatures, with the dragons ever in the background, culminating in a clash for the valley’s very survival.

Fans of the series are quick to point out parallels between Bone and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. While might seem a tad generous, in truth it is a very appropriate comparison to make. Both tales progress in a similar fashion, from innocent beginnings that quickly snowball into a story of epic proportions, and have plenty of the shared iconography — kingdoms, creatures, characters — practically native to the fantasy genre. Yet this is not to say that Bone is simply derivative of Tolkien’s work in the same way that Christopher Paolini’s Eldest series is outright derivative of George Lucas’s Star Wars (as some critics have been wont to say). Rather, Bone achieves that unique blend of offering something familiar together with something unique, paying homage to the great works that have clearly built up the genre while at the same time presenting a mythology that is ingeniously its own.

The credit for this, naturally, must go to Jeff Smith. Bone is truly Smith’s magnum opus, an uncompromising series spanning thirteen years of his professional life and — a rarity in the comics industry — one where he gets to tell the tale he wants from start to finish. For this reason, reading Bone is as much about seeing the story unfold as it is having a front-row seat to Smith’s maturing as a storyteller, from the rather aimless first few chapters that introduce readers to the the series (not to mention the occasional panel whose contents are less than clear) to its climactic moments and poignant scenes, which at their best are truly a wonder to behold.

Bone was originally printed in black and white, and readers can have access to this original presentation in the complete collected one-volume edition (also known as “the brick”), without a doubt the most cost-efficient way to experience the series firsthand. More recently, Scholastic has begun the process of re-releasing Bone in full-color format across several shorter volumes, certainly a more expensive alternative for the curious but well worth the vibrant hues to accompany the experience.

Ultimately, Bone is not only that kind of series that parents would want to read together with their children, but also the sort that even seasoned comic book collectors will find entertaining. The reason for this is simple: it is fundamentally a story well told that manages (thankfully) not to take itself too seriously. At the end of the day, isn’t that really what comics should be about?

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