This review is my 50th column for Fanlit, so I want to mark this personal milestone by writing about the most important epic fantasy comic in existence. I know a few people might argue with me, but only a few. There’s a general consensus that Bone by Jeff Smith is not only the best epic fantasy comic, but possibly the ONLY epic fantasy comic depending on how you define “epic fantasy.” All arguments are minor quibbles as far as I’m concerned because none of them would call into question the high quality and staggering brilliance of Bone. Personally, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating at all when I say that Bone is The Lord of the Rings of comic books, and if you like epic fantasy, you should feel that Bone is as much required reading in the genre as is The Lord of the Rings.
What is Bone? Well, first, it’s an impressive feat of endurance: It’s an independently-published 1300-page black-and-white story, conceived, written, and drawn by a single person from 1991 to 2004 (by the author’s estimate, he was distracted by a few other projects for about 12 months of the 13 years, so his actual working time fits best this estimation: 12 years, 7 days a week, with 8- to 20-hour work days!).
Bone is the story of three cousins, The Bones, who look like lovable creatures out of an old comic strip or animated cartoon: However, they are very much human in personality: Smiley Bone is tall, smokes a cigar, and wears a ridiculously small hat. He is optimistic no matter how terrible the situation. He’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which means he doesn’t always catch on to the schemes of his cousin Phoney Bone, who is the person responsible for the cousins getting kicked out of Boneville in the first place. All Phoney can think about is money. He’s also the only Bone who wears clothes: A shirt with a star on the front (a key part of the story). Finally, our hero is Fone Bone (pronounced “phone”): A lovable, endearing, kind-hearted young man. He gets separated from his cousins early in the story and runs into Thorn, the heroine of the story, who lives with her grandmother, Gran’ma Ben, a tough woman who even races cows, on her own feet and not by riding them or racing them against each other!
Fone falls in love with Thorn, but it’s the sweet and innocent crush of a child. Thorn and her grandmother, and most of the other “people” in the book, are human. One of the best parts of Bone is how Smith places these three Bone creatures into a story with human beings without anybody’s commenting on their differences. They are all just people, and the humans treat the Bones normally (except for the first time Gran’ma Ben meets the Bone cousins and refers to them as “pets!”). There are other inhabitants of this world, however: the evil Rat Creatures, who actually are usually funny because we meet the same two over and over again and get to know their personalities, which are quite ridiculous. Smith uses them as comedic relief throughout the series. His doing so makes even the darker elements feel light enough for a ten-year-old to enjoy on his own (though it took him six months, my eight-year-old son read through the entire series on his own, rarely asking for my help clarifying terms or situations).
There are other darker characters. For example, Kingdok, the ruler of the rat creatures, works with the The Hooded One, who in in turn serves the Lord of the Locusts, the ultimate villain of the story, but these mysterious, threatening elements are shown only for brief moments to keep us in suspense as Fone and Thorn find their way together on their double-journey typical of epic fantasy: Both Fone and Thorn share an outward quest to save their land from the Lord of the Locusts, while at the same time following their individual inward quests to come of age by finding out what it means to be a responsible grown-up: For Fone that has to do with some choices involving his cousins, and for Thorn that involves some choices that involve others as well (though I must be vague on this point to avoid spoilers).
The rest of the story is filled out with a number of excellent characters: Lucius Down, the local bar owner and bartender who despises Phoney Bone and has had a life-long crush on Gran’ma Ben, a crush that makes this gruff man quite endearing. There is a host of locals who spend a good amount of time at the local bar, but Smith makes sure they are uniquely individual characters. There are other creatures in the valley and the mountains, all of whom talk. As with the unusual appearance of the Bones, their ability to talk is taken as normal: Miss Possum and her kids, a little plant hopper named Ted, who serves as messenger throughout the novel, a racoon, and other creatures Fone meets on his journey.
Other creatures, good and bad, are introduced throughout this epic tale, but the most important other creatures in the entire book are dragons. Dragons are not seen in the book for the most part, and the reason, which I won’t give here, is explained clearly in the course of the narrative. However, there is one dragon we do see, and he appears almost from the very start of the story: The Red Dragon. When he does appear, it’s usually a surprise, and he usually reveals himself only to Fone. The Red Dragon is often used by Smith as visual humor, which can be best understood by those who remember Doonesbury: Smith has confessed that The Red Dragon’s expressions, particularly his eyes, are based on Zonker. And like Zonker, The Red Dragon usually is smoking a cigarette!
Other than mentioning the characters, I hesitate to say much about the plot: It’s an adventure story; it’s a quest. There are lives at stake. The valley is in danger, and our hero and heroine must go on their journey to save everyone, of course. And they also must overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, much as the knights of old did, both to physically be able to continue on their journey and to personally prove themselves morally worthy of continuing on the journey.
If all this sounds too serious, the story has momentum for two reasons other than the suspense built through the plot: The characters are engaging, and the humor is excellent. When I asked my son what he remembers most from Bone, he immediately listed Smiley Bone, Phoney Bone, The Red Dragon, and the two Rat Creatures. But he said he loved them because of the humor: Smiley always made him laugh because “he tried to be funny,” but Phoney made him laugh “because he was always so serious trying to get money even though there was no money or gold to find.” The Rat Creatures are funny because of the line, “Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures,” a line that means nothing to you now, but is a famous line that nobody can get out of their heads once they read Bone. Finally, he said he loved the expressions of The Red Dragon and the way he looked smoking a cigarette.
I quote my son for an important reason: I want to show that Smith knows how to use visual humor in a way to appeal to adults and kids. He had much practice before writing Bone. In fact, the Bone creatures were actually based on figures he started drawing before the age of ten! And for a few years he ran a comic strip in a college newspaper based on these characters in Bone. He then spent several years trying to get Bone syndicated as a comic strip in major newspapers. Writing all those comic strips for the newspaper and to send out as samples of his mature work in comic strips allowed Smith to hone his skills as a visual humorist. Smith often talks of how freeing it was to go from a four-panel gag-a-day comic strip to a comic book that allowed him to expand the pace of a joke and be more strategic in delivering his punch lines, verbal and visual.
As an artist, Smith also started, worked for, and ran a successful animation studio. In other words, his work from childhood on all seems in retrospect to be the perfect educational prologue to a work of genius. And it was. In other words, I hope I’ve made it clear that Bone did not just come out of nowhere by an unknown, inexperienced artist. Smith was fully prepared to deliver a near-flawless masterpiece when he decided to start Bone the comic book series. He even had the idea of the enormous scope of his project from the beginning, but he knew nobody would want to start reading a comic if he were told it would be over 1000 pages long. Therefore, Smith says he tried to hide from his readers that he was luring them into an epic fantasy. But he was doing so slowly, chapter by chapter, with each issue being good enough a read on its own that at the time we was publishing it, nobody would care what was coming after it. And of course, we now know that Smith pulled off his secret epic project!
If you are considering buying it, you need to know about the two available formats: Though it’s a beautiful story in black-and-white (available in one, huge volume), Scholastic approached Smith and convinced him to have it colored, published in nine volumes, and targeted towards kids (Smith intended it to be aimed at 25-year-old guys!). Steve Hamaker, who was already working with Smith, colored the entire book under Smith’s direction.
In case you’re curious, Smith was initially very much against coloring his masterpiece, particularly since it would ruin some of the specific visual effects he worked so hard to create in black-and-white. However, the great Art Spiegelman, of MAUS fame, convinced Smith to let Bone be issued in color format. MAUS is the famous and much praised black-and-white comic book dealing with the Holocaust. It is considered one of the greatest comic books of all time, and Smith felt that if even Spiegelman felt there were good reasons to color Bone, then those reasons were good enough for him (those reasons, by the way, have to do with the harshness of the subject matter that color would lighten too much in MAUS, which is not a concern for Bone because it’s much lighter in tone).
So, thanks to Spiegelman and his reasonable argument, you can buy Bone in both black-and-white and color versions: I’ve read both versions, and there are benefits to reading each one. Just pick the version that most appeals to you. What IS important is that you read it!