When Jeff Smith, an unknown with some experience in television animation and no mainstream backing, founded Cartoon Books in 1991 and began work on a self-published all-ages fantasy comic series, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The story follows three short, bald, big-nosed cartoony creatures called Bones --- the sweet-hearted everyman hero, Fone Bone, and his cousins, the avaricious schemer Phoney Bone and the loveable simpleton Smiley Bone --- as they travel in exile through a desert to a beautiful valley, filled with talking animals, bizarre carnivorous "rat creatures," dragons and indigenous humans. In short BONE seems --- initially, at least --- easy to dismiss as a child-friendly Tolkien knockoff.
But the sheer scope and ambition of the story pays off. With incredible patience, Smith lays out the story over 13 years and 55 black-and-white issues, now compiled in this monster 1300-page collection, which should be considered indispensible for graphic novel readers, regardless of age.
"The sheer scope and ambition of the story pays off. ... Read as a whole, Smith's masterful vision is impossible to ignore."
Bone's primary charm lies in its ability to imbue that dark and serious form, the fantasy epic, with humor and warmth. Fans of the film adaptations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS occasionally argue that the films improved on the books, in that friendships between major characters felt truer and more important, and that a lightness was instilled in an otherwise incredibly gloomy tale thanks to the rapport of the actors. Here, a film adaptation isn't necessary to showcase the power of relationships in an evil time. Fone Bone's empathy, his deep-seated care for his fellow Bones, and his budding love for Thorn --- a lovely adolescent farm girl who, as expected, is more than she seems --- and her Gran'ma Ben, served almost as the cornerstone of the tale.
And what a tale it is. The valley, long ago, was ravaged by war between the humans --- along with their allies, the dragons --- and the ravenous rat creatures, led by an ancient evil known only as the Lord of the Locusts. For centuries, the valley remained peaceful, even as the monarchy that had ruled for years from the mighty city of Atheia crumbled. But shortly after the Bones arrive in the valley, an army of rat creatures led by the mighty Kingdok and his master, the Hooded One, became bolder. After a series of attacks, the valley is plunged into chaos. Now, accompanied by Phoney, Smiley, Gran'ma Ben and a coterie of companions, Fone and Thorn must traverse the war-torn valley and attempt stop the Hooded One and its master, the Lord of the Locusts, in order to restore peace.
Sure, the work has its fantasy clichés --- and, as is expected with a work that was written over 13 years, its slight inconsistencies. But read as a whole, Smith's masterful vision is impossible to ignore. Despite beginning and ending in a lighter tone, the bulk of BONE is filled with a deep and serious darkness. Yet Smith eschews Tolkien's simplified concept of morality, and each character's actions are imbued with great weight while managing to still feel wholly their own, even when it appears that fate has dictated the choice.
In BONE, as in our world, sometimes the necessary choice is the hardest, and feels "wrong." It is difficult, as the reader witnesses Fone Bone or Thorn wrestle with these choices, not to ache, to pity, to identify. It's even harder not to want to come back for more.
Reviewed by John Maher on August 15, 2014
Bone: One-Volume Edition