Joey Manley's Reviews > Bone

Bone by Jeff Smith
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's review
May 03, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: comics, fantasy
Read in September, 2004

Note: I wrote this review in 2004.

The Bigness of Bone

Over the course of its serialization, Jeff Smith's Bone has been almost unanimously praised, picking up every major cartooning award for which it qualified and serving as a rare example of sales success for creator-owned, non-superhero work in the Direct Market.

Bone as a property has even started to step outside the limited comic book subculture, appearing in the supermarket digest Disney Adventures, and soon serving as a linchpin for Scholastic's new graphic novel line, aimed at schoolchildren, in the form of a full-color reprint edition announced for next year.

The book's serialization has been two-tiered: standard-sized comic books being collected into standard-length (100-200 pp) trade paperbacks every few years. The release of Bone: One Volume Edition, which roughly coincided with the appearance of the final standard-sized comic book in the series, represents our first opportunity to read and evaluate the story as a whole, without the distractions and the exaggerated suspense imposed by serialization.

By virtue of heft alone, Bone: One Volume Edition stands apart from the crowd. Casual graphic novel readers have often remarked on the slimness of graphic novels, especially compared to their price. Any reader accustomed to lengthy prose novels, which can take days or weeks to complete, will be disappointed with the depth and weight of the typical graphic novel, often consumable in one sitting. So Bone: One Volume Edition will catch the eye of the reader in a Big Box bookstore who is looking for a good, long read.

That, in and of itself, is quite an accomplishment. This reviewer can think of no graphic novel that matches the spine width of this collection (and, indeed, owns no other book of any kind that takes up so much shelf space all by itself — including thick technical manuals). One has the impulse, on the basis of its physical weight alone, to recommend this book to the graphic novel newbie. But that's not reason enough, of course, unless the work itself can stand up to its own physical weight.

The Setup

Bone starts out with a "funny animal" flavor, featuring cutesy cartoon art stylings, and broad, silly characterizations, but transforms itself into a vast Tolkienesque epic fairly quickly. It dutifully incorporates, by its end, most of the requisite features of the High Fantasy genre: political intrigue, awakened memories of a forgotten, magical past, walled cities under siege by evil armies, and thousands and thousands and thousands of dragons. Unlike the shift in tone one finds in, say, Dave Sim's Cerebus, Bone's shift to heavier subject matter feels carefully planned, and is handled with perfect assurance.

The first few pages introduce the book's three central characters, all members of a species known, for whatever reason, as "Bones," (in generic design terms, they resemble a cross between Walt Kelly's Pogo and Casper the Friendly Ghost). The opening pages have an old-fashioned, stage-like, almost Vaudevillian aspect to them: in the very first panel, as the characters trundle into view, one of them peeks around a rock behind him, stage left: "Still no sign of the townspeople." The banter that follows establishes the personalities and relationship dynamics of the three main characters: cousins Fone Bone (the level-headed hero), Smiley Bone (the goofy follower) and Phoney Bone (the greedy but loveable schemer). They have just been run out of their hometown, Boneville, because of one of Phoney's scams, it seems. Shortly after this necessary but enjoyable bit of exposition, the characters get separated by circumstance, ultimately ending up lost in a strange new world, known as "The Valley," with no easy way to retrace their steps back home, or even to find one another.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. They are like Dorothy in Oz, the hobbits outside the Shire, Alice in Wonderland, Elvis in Vegas: confused, mildly heroic, and determined, in a childlike way, to get through whatever adventure faces them, to find home and comfort on the other side of the story.

Smith works through this familiar fantasy setup with easy grace, never pretending that it is original, and (at least during the story's opening moments) never playing up the melodrama. Fone Bone's calm assumption that he'll end up finding his cousins, and that they'll all get home safely, someday, mirrors the reader's own understanding of how these stories always work out. In many genre works, the interest lies not necessarily in any fundamental originality of the creator's vision, but in how cleverly a familiar tune is played. That Smith acknowledges this from the start is to his credit. In lesser hands, the derivative opening setup would have turned off the very critics and readers who have showered it with raves. Only a master musician can breathe life into a tune we have all heard so many times before.

But let's concentrate on the less generic, more unusual details for a moment. Smith's primary suspense-building strategy — deliberate, sometimes meaningless, indirection — is at play from the beginning, in microscopic ways. That the species name of these characters is homonymous with an English word, signifier for an item that does not share any characteristics (save color) with these cute little fellows (they are neither skeletal nor rigid — they almost seem, in fact, to be boneless, given the contortions they go through in the course of the story) means, on its face, nothing. But it does cause a bit of distraction for the first-time reader, possibly at a subconscious level, especially since the title of the book itself is this same English word. The reader cannot help but wonder, if even for a half second: How are these guys bonelike? Real bones (as opposed to Bones) are grim items in Western literature, usually metaphorically standing in for death, decay, and the vanity of ambition in life. "Alas, poor Yorick," etc. None of that metaphorical baggage applies to these lively and optimistic characters, to say the least.

This tiny indirection strikes us, at first, as a minor point; Smith could have named his mythical species anything he wanted, including this particular set of consonants and vowels, so what? By the end of the first several pages we have put it out of our minds altogether. But it does stand, ultimately, as an early hint of further and trickier indirections to come. Likewise, the fact that two of the cousins (Fone and Phoney) have been given names that are almost phonetically identical, which seems at first to be nothing more than a bit of traditional funny animal genre nonsensicality, foreshadows Smith's coyness with all of his major characters' "true" identities later on, a major (maybe even the only) plot-mover throughout the bulk of this very bulky book.

A Lack of Trust

The soft, cuddly-looking, nonviolent Bones have only one weapon to help them survive in their strange new environment: their wits. Generally, in stories with small, relatively powerless protagonists (Oliver Twist, for example, or The Lord of the Rings) much narrative hay can be made of the trustworthiness (or the untrustworthiness) of new characters who fall into the storyline. That enemies can appear to be friends, or that friends can become enemies, is a survival message embedded deep into our tiny pre-mammalian brain-parts. Smith goes to great lengths to show that the Bones are dependent on their friends to an extreme degree. The scheming Phoney, for example, is always under threat of being angrily mobbed by minor characters, and would be, except for the constant intervention of the more heroic humans in the story. Even in the early, relatively calm parts of the book, before any of the heroic fantasy elements come into play, the protagonist, Fone Bone, depends on his woodland neighbor Mizz Possum to make it through the winter.

The Bone cousins' rediscovery of one another, as well as their involvement in the larger epic storyline, both occur through their dependence on others, particularly the relationships they build early on with the (mostly) human supporting cast, who at first seem to be nothing more than random bumpkins willing to provide food, shelter, and drink to the odd newcomers. Fone Bone finds himself under the protection of a naive farmgirl, Thorn, and her crotchety Gran'Ma Ben, while, a few miles down the road, in the nearest town, Phoney and Smiley end up living with and working for the hunky but aged Lucius Down, owner of the local tavern.

Smith's strategy for shifting the story from funny animal mode into High Fantasy is to precisely and slowly provide for each of these three innocent-seeming, harmless human characters a past existence (or future incarnation) as a heroic, mythical, powerful persona. These transformations (or, rather, unveilings) follow the same pattern as, but are handled much more slowly and delicately than, Obi Wan Kenobi's transformation from crazy old hermit to Jedi Knight in the first Star Wars movie. He was, of course, always what he was — and so were Gran'Ma Ben, Thorn, and Lucius Down. Like Obi-Wan (and like a million other characters in a million other fantasies and myths), these characters have been driven into their bumpkin disguises in order to hide from a large, distant, dormant evil, an evil that is (you guessed it) starting to become unavoidably active out there in the world, forcing the characters to step out of their (conscious or unconscious) disguises and face it head-on.

Unlike the unveiling of Obi-Wan's heroic identity, though, these characters do not necessarily inspire wonder and awe in the main characters once their true natures are revealed: they inspire, instead, various levels of distrust. If they are not who they said they were then — how can we be sure that they are who they say they are now?

Most of the suspense in Bone, in fact, is generated by causing the reader to doubt the trustworthiness of some random character or another at various points along the way. The trick gets cheap the sixth, seventh, or eighth time it is used, especially because it is so often used without any justification, except to create a little bit of friction during a slow part of the story. Most of these plot threads (or beginnings of plot threads) go nowhere. The effect is to lessen the work as a whole. Any other attempts Smith makes to build legitimate suspense get washed out in all the false manipulation. The reader thinks to him- or herself: I worried about this plot thread over here and nothing came of it — so why should I worry about that other thread over there, or any of it at all?

To pick one especially trivial and unnecessary example: late in the book, on the last page of one of the chapters, a powerful "high priest" character is introduced. He comes recommended by Gran'Ma, one of the main characters, so we assume that we should be able to trust him. But he is also brutally ugly, tends to hide in the shadows, and forcefully attempts to feed the main characters some foul-tasting concoction ("Tastes like poison," one of the characters complains). Worst of all, he speaks the letter "s" with a strong hiss, a speech impediment shared by at least one of the primary villains. The chapter closes with the unspoken understanding that this guy is about to poison our cast, and that, even if his poisoning turns out to be unsuccessful (which, given the genre convention of "constant and unlikely survival of the main cast of heroes," we're all fairly certain will be the case), he is not, under any circumstances, to be trusted. But when the next chapter opens, our cast is doing just fine, chatting amiably with the high priest, whose trustworthiness is never again questioned. The doubts about his character that Smith had planted in the reader's mind are never revisited. They're just left in the ground, cold and lifeless, as though they had never been there in the first place. The reader can only guess that that last page of the previous chapter, those dark hints of evil, were put in place solely to create a false cliffhanger, to reel the reader back in for the next installment, which, in this book's original publication format, would have been a month or two or three down the road.

It's not just the minor characters who are abused for the purpose of building false suspense and meaningless cliffhangers. Except for Thorn, and two of the three Bones, every primary character's trustworthiness is called into question, usually needlessly, at some key moment or another during the course of the story. Smith himself doesn't trust us to stay interested without yanking our chains every now and again with the potential for some big, never-materializing Plot Twist involving Betrayal.

Serialized and spread out over the course of months and years, these quick about-faces in the apparent trustworthiness of the various characters probably worked just fine, since the publication schedule enforced a slow boil on the situations, spacing out revelation and counter-revelation (followed by revelation and counter-revelation, and revelation and counter-revelation, etc., etc., etc.) over a nice long period of time, and allowing the reader to forget the dangling plot threads. Over the course of the several hours it takes to read the collected edition, these flip-flops look like exactly that, flip-flops, randomly oscillating binary states (trustworthiness = 1 or trustworthiness = 0): bits of noise in the data stream, obscuring the intended signal.

Overall, the High Fantasy storyline is the weakest part of the work, propped up as it is by false suspense, and breaking no ground that hasn't been covered, better, elsewhere (see George R. R. Martin's series of prose novels A Song of Ice and Fire for an example of what can really be done with a fantasy adventure about political machinations).

On the other hand, the High Fantasy storyline isn't why one should read Bone, by a long shot. And one should definitely read Bone.

The Master Cartoonist

From the moment his characters step onto the stage, they are absolutely engaging: we would have followed them into any story, just for the right to hang out with them a while, to get to know them even better. This is due in no small part to Smith's slick but expressive cartooning. In terms of character posing and "acting," scene pacing, panel transitions and page layouts, the creation, appearance, and use of a believable, consistent visual "world," and the sheer beauty of the line itself, Jeff Smith has no equal in "funny animal" cartooning alive today, and few peers in the long history of the genre.

When a couple of "rat-creatures" chasing Fone Bone follow him onto a skinny tree limb overhanging a Niagara-sized waterfall ("Those rat-creatures would have to be pretty stupid to follow me on to this frail, little branch!"), it is the visual effect — the pinned-back ears and bulging eyes of the rat-creatures, as well as their relative enormity (relative to the tree limb, to Fone Bone, and to anything else on the panel), the desperation of their grasp, their determination to hang on despite the relentless plummet of every line in the panel downward, downward, downward — as much as the shouted punchline ("Stupid, stupid rat creatures!"), that earns the laugh. Well, that and the fact that Fone Bone doesn't look scared, or even angry. He looks cross. Cross, that Elementary School naptime approximation of anger, is always funny. Chuck Jones himself could not have come up with a better delayed-falling gag.

It is these moments that one remembers after putting the book away, not the High Fantasy storyline. These character-driven little bits, scattered throughout the book, are enough to carry a nearly 1400-page book all by themselves, despite the clunkiness of its larger storyline. That is a testament to Smith's powerful abilities as a cartoonist.

Final Analysis: Bone is a delightful, essential book, flawed by the presumed necessity of constant, badgering, low-level, ultimately meaningless suspense inherent in serialized comics, and the false manipulations that Smith had to perform in order to maintain that suspense. Ignore the larger storyline, the workmanlike High Fantasy backdrop Smith chose to use as an excuse to make us spend time with these characters (we didn't need an excuse). Focus instead on the individual moments, the characters themselves, the joyous, masterful cartooning, and you'll have a blast.

Note on this edition: the paper used in printing this edition is sort of thin, so that black areas on the reverse side of the page will show through sometimes. For the most pleasant reading experience, you might be better off buying the original "second-tier serialization" trade paperbacks — though the price will be much higher in the end, if you decide to go that route. Scholastic's forthcoming color edition may be worth waiting for.
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