Created by: Jeff Smith
Published by: Cartoon Books
ISBN: 188896314X (Amazon)
I wasn’t sure I’d ever review Jeff Smith’s Bone. After all, is there much that can be said that hasn’t already been said? Bone's so long been part of the canon of comics literature (such as one exists) that reviewing it at this point is like reviewing Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns or Maus. Or for the non-comics-literate, a bit like if someone penned a review today for Huckleberry Finn. I mean, what’s the point, really?
Still, I tell myself, there are those who haven’t read the book yet. There are those who have read comics for years who haven’t read Bone and ought to be ashamed of themselves. These are aficionados of the medium who need to be cajoled into reading something that will make them better participants in the medium. And there are those still new to the medium who might not be familiar with the canon and might not be aware of Good Places To Start. This review is probably mostly for them. And for people who might google the question, What’s the first graphic novel I should read? (You hear that Google?)
Additionally spurring my interest in reviewing the book, I have a daughter. She’s three and likes me to read to her in the evenings. I had read her The Little Prince and Just So Stories when she was two, but I thought she might get a kick out of comics before bed. She had previously seen book one of Gene Yang’s Avatar: The Promise, which she loved because she was already familiar with the show. A father can only read so many times about Sokka and Toph getting the oogly-booglies from watching Aang and Katara getting frisky before that father just snaps—so I needed something fresh. Something new. Something I could stand to read repetitiously. So I pulled down Bone. She was almost instantly excited. And after she became interested and comfortable with the characters, she was wholly invested. Now Smith’s characters thoroughly infest her imaginative play. She insists that she is Bartleby and her one-year-old brother is Ted the bug. I have become Jackal Bone, some fell hybrid between Phoncible P. Bone and, well, your common jackal. Though sometimes I am Kingdok and sometimes I am Roque Ja and sometimes I’m the Big Red Dragon. In any case, she and other kids love this book and rereading it several times to her over the last months has given me new appreciation for Smith’s creation.
Also, there’s the whole colour thing to consider. More later. Promise! First, a bit of history.
There’s always time for locusts.
Bone was one of that first crop of creator-owned books that constituted a burgeoning movement away from the malaise of the corporation-directed folderol of the ‘80s. Smith spent thirteen years (from 1991 to 2004) publishing chapters of what would eventually be a 1300-page epic fantasy story. I hopped on in somewhere around the year 2000, when Smith was nearly 65% through. Waiting each month for the release of a new chapter was tortuous. I needed to see the conclusion and I needed to see it now. And then, as Smith approached his finale, several months would pass between chapters. It was grueling. Readers first approaching the book today are blessed with the option of purchasing the entire series in a handy, single-volume paperback version.11My impatience for the final unveiling of a story is the primary reason I no longer buy single issues of any series and will even push off acquiring the collected volumes until a series wraps. If a series is good, I always regret reading it in fits and starts while it waits to complete. Bone, Y: The Last Man, Cross Game, 20th Century Boys, and Twin Spica.
Note within a note: The tough thing about my newly acquired methodology is that it’s inhibiting to smaller publishers. For instance, Twin Spica's publisher Vertical saw such poor sales on the series that even in the month the twelfth and final volume was released, older volumes were out of print with no plans to bring the series back. Beyond merely being a shame because it’s such a good series, this makes it bad news for those who would wait until a series concludes to begin collecting.
But rather than just talk about the book, let’s start with looking at some of Smith’s art. Because while, yes, his characters and dialogue and verbal storytelling are wonderful, one of the foremost joys of the book is how he conveys his narrative through artistic choices.
This is a simple chase sequence, but it’s composed masterfully. Fone Bone jumps from a snowbank onto a lower bank and makes a little progress while fleeing furiously from the rat creature who dives into the snow at his heels. (Excitement!) In the next panel, we see another rat creature face-first in the snow at Bone’s heels a second time. (Hot pursuit!) Fone Bone comes to an impassable river and waterfall but looks down to find an escape. We and he think he’s found a respite but are surprised to find rat creatures to be more driven by instinct than by reason. While the page ends with some humour, the real punchline is on the next page as the branch fails to support their weight and the three tumble into the falls below. The second panel on this page is majestic as we see silouetted the three small figures against a mere portion of the formidable falls. If we hadn’t taken in the awesome danger Fone Bone is in by panel two, Smith drives it home by completely obscuring the three characters in the tumult of the falls’ base. The volatile energy in that scene is terrific. Panel four brings us relief again as Fone Bone breaks the surface with a gasp. We know how lucky he was to make it but are almost instantly dismayed in the next panel to see the heads of the rat creatures breaking the surface as well, and the pursuit is begun anew. Unfortunately, wet Fone Bone slips on the icy rocks and the tension crescendoes on the final panel of that second page.
Here’s another one:
While the prior example was fraught with action, this shows Smith using entirely different techniques to build tension. Across these three panels, there is essentially no movement save for Thorn’s eyes and from Fone Bone as he struggles then reacts to what he’s seen. Otherwise, Fone Bone, Granma Ben, and Thorn retain the same position across the panels. The source of drama comes from a bright lightning flash in the second panel. We (and Fone Bone) see the scene unveiled for what it is, for what was wholly obscured by the dark and stormy nighttime. Fone Bone moves from being annoyed at Granma Ben to startled by the lightning to terror at what he’s just seen.
It’s a beautiful scene and the book is full of this stuff. Over the years since I first finished the story in 2004 I had remembered the characters and their plot points, but I had forgotten this. I had forgotten what a master craftsman Jeff Smith is when he chooses how to visually tell his story. Bone employs a lot of dialogue and Smith is not shy about using words. Still, he shows over and again that he knows when to shut up and let his art speak for him and his characters. Even if Bone was entirely wordless and plotless, it would be worth your time for the art alone.
So then, what about words? Another thing I had forgotten was just how funny these characters can be even while in the midst of terrible, LOTR-level, world-collapsing events. People are dying left and right and there’s a tremendous war on and Smiley Bone is still a silly bastion of joy and laughter. And to Smith’s credit, that never feels trite or abusive. That the book is riddled with funny moments even in the midst of dark doings and ill tidings may be exactly what saves it from being as grim and dour and thematically grey as some of its fantasy-genre cousins. The reader never feels that lives aren’t at stake but simultaneously never feels overwhelmed by that threat.
It’s true. There is.
As well, Smith populates his story with expressive, unique, and noteworthy characters. That my daughter would adopt so many for her waking dreams is impressive and is evidence of the good job Smith does. All of the protagonists are well-rounded and individuated (save perhaps for Smiley Bone, who remains a bastion of zany aloofness throughout). Even the supporting characters are given personalities and motivations. We spend the most time with Fone Bone and his opposite lead, Thorn, and by story’s close we see them grow through the challenges they’ve had to overcome. They are full-fledged fictional beings. Smith’s villains are worthy as well. Though he doesn’t so much follow after the footsteps of Miyazaki, making his antagonists sympathetic figures, he does at least make them interesting.
Bone's story is as full-orbed and ranging as its characters. What begins as light adventure soon turns to dark mystery. And then back to adventure. And then to epic journey and battle against cataclysmic evil. And all woven throughout with a sense of myth and spirit. There are forces at work in Fone Bone’s world that are beyond the seeing eye and tap into energies outside the realm of the sciences. And I don’t mean wizards and dragons. Even though those are there too. These things work to make Bone's world and mythos feel substantial, solid. And it helps that his story is exciting.
Which you already knew because why else would I describe the wait for new chapters as tortuous?
At the end of the day, if you haven’t read Bone yet, you really ought to. If you like comics at all, you owe it to yourself. If you like adventure or fantasy, you owe it to yourself. If you want to read your kids something a little dangerous and a little exciting and a little funny and quite possibly the best thing your kids will have yet experienced, you owe it to yourself and to them. And if you’ve already read Bone but it’s been a couple years, you owe it to yourself.
Thorn’s such a flirt.
The Colour Edition
Several years ago, Smith worked with Scholastic to bring the book to a wider youth audience. Part of the marketing was to colour the book. (As originally published, Bone was a strictly black-and-white endeavor.) I’m not sure whether having the book in colour was one of Smith’s abiding desires or if Scholastic believed they could better sell it to kids if it were in colour—but whatever the case, when you go onto Amazon or wherever to order your copy, you’ll have a variety of formats to choose from. One of those is the colour edition.
I won’t say that Bone in colour is an abomination, but only because I can’t really justify that critique because I haven’t read the entire thing in colour. Because what I did read was awful. Or maybe not awful. Maybe it was just uninspired. But when you lay uninspired on top of majesty, you’ve done something terrible. This colouring job is that. You may not think it’s possible to suck the life out of a black-and-white comic by adding colour but you can. You really and truly can.
So please, for your sake and for your children’s sake: buy and read Bone in black and white. It’s beautiful and stunning and you won’t feel embarrassed for the book while reading it.
The One Thing I Didn’t Like Really at All
So this is weird and in a way pretty major, but I hated the ending. Now is the time for those who haven’t read the book to stop reading. You already know I adore the book and think you should absolutely read this thing. It’s canon and it deserves to be so. Everything hereafter is SPOILER.
Okay, so I was completely and entirely sold on Smith’s world until the last chapter. The climax and even most of the denouement were stellar and right along with what Smith was doing with his story and characters. It all fit. Then, in the last pages, we see his principal characters make a decision that kind of goes wholly against who Smith developed them to be. I’m not sure why he chose that ending for his book.
In the story in my head, fifteen years earlier when Smith first thought of the story, he came up with an ending. Over the intervening years, his narrative grew and new ideas insinuated themselves. His characters grew in ways he hadn’t originally charted out. They became something more than what he had proposed to himself in the beginning. And over the years he added plot points and dialogues and maybe even new arcs. So when he comes to his conclusion, it obviously needs to be different in at least nuance from what he had originally planned. And yet, for reasons foreign to my imagination, Smith decided to stick with his original ending, even though it clearly did not fit with the characters he’d created and the circumstance they find themselves in.
That’s how it happened in my imaginary version of what went down to make this ending the ending that got published. I recall being disappointed when I first read that last chapter seven years ago. But whatever my reaction was, in my memory, I was merely annoyed. Reading it again now with my daughter, I was actually angry. I wasn’t angry that these characters made the choices they did. I was angry that they did so inexplicably—that there was no justification for their final decision. It didn’t fit with Fone Bone’s character arc. It didn’t fit with Phoney Bone’s character motivations. It felt entirely foreign to everything Smith had done prior to that moment. And that just makes me sad for the project, that perfection could be so easily evaporated in a book’s final pages.
And now I’m sad.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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