25 Years of Jeff Smith’s “Bone” Comic Book

bone-25th-anniversaryJuly 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of writer and artist Jeff Smith’s Bone comic book series, which ran from July 1991 through June 2004 across 55 irregularly-released issues. A work of thrilling fantasy adventure for all ages, Smith’s comic garnered numerous accolades including 10 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards. With Smith revisiting the world of Bone with “Bone: Coda” debuting to mark the 25th anniversary, there is no better time to look back on the success and influence of Bone.

Bone is revolves around the kind-hearted Fone Bone and his two cousins, the greedy Phonciple P. “Phoney” Bone and the goofy Smiley Bone. Kicked out of Boneville, where the rest of their hard-to-describe kind live, due to Phoney’s disastrous campaign to be mayor, they soon happen upon a mystical valley filled with humans, animals, and vicious rat creatures. Outsiders, the Bone Cousins learn more and more about the mystical kingdom they have found and the brewing war that is set to sweep across it. At the center of this war is Thorn, a mysterious girl who has ties to the origins of the war and who is the object of Fone’s affections.

Smith has made it clear that Bone was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Walt Kelly’s Pogo comics, Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck comic books, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. That’s quite the eclectic list of inspirations, but their influences are quite clear in both the major and minor aspects of Bone. An outsider character with a good heart being swept up into a mystical war strongly echoes the character arc of Frodo Baggins in LOTR while the clean-lined, rounded, colorful, and highly animated artwork recalls the well-loved works of Barks. The fantasy wilderness setting that mixes lush art with physical comedy strongly ties Bone to Kelly’s Pogo. Moby Dick itself is referenced multiple times throughout the narrative (Boneville is seemingly a modern town despite never being seen, but The Valley is far more medieval), while Phoney has certain Ahab qualities to him in his obsessive nature.

Does Bone ever quite reach the scope and sweep of its major influence The Lord of the Rings? No, but how could it? After all, 55 issues of a comic book can’t quite replicate a trilogy of books or the film series adaptation. But Bone has more on its mind that being the most massive fantasy adventure ever seen. In fact, there’s a certain sense of smallness and close focus that it intentionally maintains throughout. While the series most certainly hits greater heights and bigger stakes by its final chapters, Smith decides to keep his cast of characters on the smaller side, even when broadening the scope of the world in Bone. And it’s in those characters that the series finds its greatest strengths.

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The Bone Cousins represent the common protagonist archetypes of everyman do-gooder in Fone, begrudging antihero in Phoney, and comedic relief in Smiley. But they work so well off one another and have such innate charm as to dismiss any assumptions that these well-worn character types would be boring. Having these three more cartoonish heroes thrown into a dark and mystical adventure creates a great juxtaposition of tone and pathos, with each protagonist becoming a deeper character due to the stakes at hand. Fone in particular is an inspiring central figure who wears his heart on his sleeve and dives headfirst into adventure due to the goodness of his heart. The line between good and evil remains clear for the sake of young readers, just like the stylized yet straightforward dialogue used throughout Bone, but it feels authentic to the type of classic fantasy that informs the series.

bone-jeff-smith-thornOn the human side of heroism stand Thorn, Gran’ma Ben, and Lucius, with Smith paying special attention to femininity in his lead characters. Thorn is quickly shown to be a smart and capable young woman whose slowly-revealed tragic past leads to a series of escalating adventures that put a greater burden upon her shoulders. By Bone’s midway point it becomes clear that Thorn is the ultimate hero of the story, with Fone being a pivotal deuteragonist while still being the primary viewpoint for the story. Just as crucial as Thorn is her Gran’ma Ben, a wizened old woman whose down-home nature, massive physical strength, hidden past, and high intelligence blend to create yet another powerful female protagonist. Her tragic past with the heroic yet flawed Lucius gives a layer of sadness that helps make Bone stand out among the more commonly seen non-stop happiness in all-ages comic books.

In terms of villains, the mysterious Hooded One is quite the terrifying vision of evil who becomes far more interesting once the shroud of unknown agent of evil is lifted. The villain’s ties to the past and gruesome true nature add quite a few scares and some real teeth to the narrative of Bone. Like The Lord of the Rings, Smith’s story is also informed by the presence of a very vague and little-seen ultimate evil in the form of The Lord of Locusts. While there is little to it beyond potentially world-consuming demonic villainy, the presence of The Hooded One makes for a far more palpable and personal threat for our heroes. Along with Kingdok, the rat creature leader who seems to only grow more terrifying with the more limbs he loses, and a legion of corrupt human forces, there are plenty of villains to play off the often more developed heroes.

bone-smith-25-anniversaryThe three-act structure of Bone as a series is obvious to anyone paying attention to the narrative progression at play. The first act, known as “Vernal Equinox” or “The Valley,” runs from issues #1-20 and largely deals with the Bone Cousins making a home in The Valley, contending with the vicious rat creatures that stalk the night, and having generally lighthearted adventures. It’s these early issues that make Bone a perfect comic book for young readers, as its simple themes, relatable characters, and understandable stakes are likely to connect quickly with kids. Admittedly, it’s also the toughest part for older readers as there is far less to be enthralled by save for the lovable characters and charming art. But it’s also clear that Smith is creating a lengthy story here and, rest assured, it pays off.

The second act, known as “Solstice” or “Phoney Strikes Back,” spans issues #21 – 39 beginning with a vicious nighttime attack by the rat creatures on Barrelhaven and the homes of Thorn, Ben, Lucius, and the Bone Cousins. The intrusion of darkness and even some violence becomes palatable within this arc, but it’s also the point at which the larger adventure begins and a bigger world starts to be explored. The deeper dive into the mythology at play is greatly appreciated; giving a greater weight to the story and making any lighthearted moments feel more like a welcome reprieve instead of the main focus. It’s also the point when fan favorite characters like the deadly mountain lion Roque Ja and the friendly young rat creature Bartleby arrive, both of whom add much more to the story.

grandma-ben-roseCome the third act, titled “Harvest” or “Friends and Enemies,” Smith has worked to set up the world and propel major investment into his characters in order to provide greater gravitas to the more bombastic events at hand. With The Hooded One enacting the final steps of a plan to bring about world conquest, it’s clear that Bone has reached its most grandiose stage. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made, and the story reaches its resolution through both major moments and small character choices. The lead-up to these far more action heavy story beats thankfully feels natural, with the progression being an example of escalation rather than a sudden gear shift. Much like J.K. Rowling’s maturation of the Harry Potter series, Smith pushes Bone into a more serious place as the narrative goes one. This makes sense given the 13-year span of the series creation, growing more adult, complex, and darker as readers age. While this doesn’t quite have the same effect now that the series is collected for convenient binging, it still adds more layers and a broader appeal in the long run. Just be forewarned that the scares and violence may increase a little too quickly for fast reading with children.

That being said, Smith really masters tone throughout Bone, with high stakes and heartbreaking moments given levity from the more comedic elements without ruining the seriousness of the narrative. It’s clear that Smith loves his characters and even when some meet sad fates it is never done with a sense of cruelty. Rather, death and loss are the natural outcomes of a story that is meant to enthrall and thrill. Should no one die, the story would end up feeling flat and unrewarding. Kill too many and you get a type of wanton cruelty that echoes of Rowling’s fatal decisions in the final Harry Potter book. However, there is a degree to which Bone wraps up almost a little too fast given the amount of buildup that came before the climax. Massive battles are waged, the fate of the world hinges on Bone and Thorn fighting against all odds, and emotions run high with every turn of the page. But the very sudden finish to the climactic fight feels almost too simple and the big reveal of a final threat is resolved almost too quickly to feel anything but anticlimactic in its own right.

bone-w-mapWhile Smith gives readers a little more time with his characters during Bone’s denouement, it too seems too short. Readers are forced to say goodbye to characters too soon given how grand of an adventure they have experienced. And while this may be better than experiencing a never-ending coda that sours the ending, you can’t help but wish for a little more time or the promise of a story that continues beyond the bounds of the page. Smith’s definitive ending feels too resolute for the sprawling myth he has created.

Following the end of the series, Bone was collected into nine volumes that reproduced the original black and white artwork of the original publications, but subsequent editions that began to be published in 2005 were completely colored. Smith’s lush art works well in both black and white and full color, with the added element of color providing a vibrancy to the fully alive fantasy world he created. As evidenced by Smith’s return to the world with “Bone: Coda,” love for the series hasn’t died down after more than a decade. Spinoff stories like Rose, Bone: Tall Tales, the prose trilogy Bone: Quest for the Spark, and more have kept the world alive in the time since. But there’s something singular and indefinably wonderful about the original series.

It’s high adventure. It’s classic comic strip antics. It’s characters who hold a special place in the hearts of readers. No matter the age of the reader, Bone is something special. Read it. Love it. Share it. Repeat.

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