An Epic of Cartoon Proportions: “Bone” by Jeff Smith

Published by Scholastic

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how to begin this review. There’s so much I want to tell you about Bone, the grand comic book from Jeff Smith, but finding just what to start with is an epic quest in itself. I’ve also found it difficult to write reviews lately; my thoughts are a jumble and it’s difficult to find a strong hook to build on. I often don’t have time to start until a few days after I’ve read a book, by which time I’m well into the next one and have a hard time remembering what I wanted to write about.

Why don’t I start…with the cover just to the left?

I love this image. I think it perfectly describes Bone at a glance, or at least something of its atmosphere and tone. We see a cute little big-nosed guy much like the kinds we see in the funny papers happily walking along, obviously on a journey of some sort. Behind him looms something dark and shadowy, vaguely sinister and seemingly out of place next to such a cartoony character.

And that, really, is the essence of Bone: a blend of the four-panel-gag comic strips like Calvin And Hobbes or Peanuts within a setting and narrative as epic and dramatic as Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings. But in a way such a shorthand description, relying on familiar titles to convey ideas, steals from the book its true originality. Bone is Bone, and nothing else.

The hero is Fone Bone (the guy on the cover) who, with his two cousins Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone, is driven out of their hometown of Boneville. We meet them lost in the desert before they are separated and each finds their way into a land called The Valley. Fone Bone meets a beautiful girl named Thorn (whom he promptly falls in love with, pink hearts around his head and all) and her Gran’ma Ben. Eventually he also reconnects with his cousins and meets more of the people who live in the nearby village. But before too long, the Bone cousins find themselves drawn into danger as a supernatural evil from the past once more rears its head — and an epic quest to stop it from taking over the world is underway.

Like I said before, Bone is at once more comic than serious fantasy and more serious than the funny papers. In this world a giant and fearsome mountain lion who presents philosophical arguments on amorality coexists with horrible monsters who stop to argue over whether they should eat Fone Bone raw or bake him in a nice fluffy quiche. Without parodying the typical tropes of the genre, writer and artist Jeff Smith deftly juxtaposes hilarity with drama; instead of inserting humour, it just seems to spring up naturally. But the stakes are high in the story, and even death is inescapable for certain characters. Violence exists, and blood is shed, though never enough to call it gore. For very laugh, there’s a moment of real fear for people’s safety. And of course such fear comes about because Smith really makes us care for these characters, for their dreams, for their success, for their redemption.

Originally self-published in 55 single issues, Bone now exists in a couple of different versions. There is the single volume black-and-white edition and then there’s the only one I’ve ever read: the nine-volume colour version published by Scholastic. Though it’s not the original intention, the colourization was done entirely with Smith’s approval and consultation, so the creator’s wishes aren’t being trampled on. And personally, I couldn’t imagine reading Bone in black-and-white, though I’d like to try it one day.

It’s original. It’s unique. It’s funny and it’s moving, often in the same panel. Bone is a book I don’t hesitate to recommend for anyone, no matter their taste in fiction.

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