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Bone: One Volume Edition
posted February 25, 2005
 

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Creator: Jeff Smith
Publishing Information: Cartoon Books, 1300 pages, 2004, $49.95
Ordering Numbers: 188896314X (ISBN)

Fantasy literature can appeal to its readers on a number of levels. Some may hold onto a romantic idealization of the past that fantasy often enables. Others may enjoy the freedom that comes with the use of language and the exploration of situations that don't have to correspond with the ordinary, the enormous pleasure of "living through," if only psychologically, something well outside one's own experiences. The basic heroic impulse at the heart of many such works might also appeal, particularly to someone who feels similar opportunities lacking in their own lives. Still others may respond to an idealization of place, perhaps as a retreat into a world that is less horrifying or dull, or, as G.K. Chesterton suggested, as a way of recognizing the majesty in our own surroundings by imagining its perfect state elsewhere. There are those who enjoy stories of moral certainty, others that may find them socially or culturally appealing, and eventually, if enough are devoured, fantasy may hold the same attraction that most other genres offer their devoted readers: comfort, a shared language, the play of expectation and result in something familiar and dear.

An obvious entrance point that resonates with me because it was certainly my own as a youngster is the notion that smart children are drawn to fantasy because, as the author Joy Chant points out, many of the genre's books offer a combination of sophisticated language and uncomplicated themes. As I've become older, and less enamored but still respectful of such works, I realize the opposite can be true as well. Fantasy is a malleable thing, and can facilitate the presentation of relatively complicated ideas through straightforward literary constructs. The combination may be what works so well on readers like myself, people that are so soaked in escapism it's hard to parse some things out otherwise. None of this is to say the genre lacks difficult or darkly ambiguous works, or the potential for same. But the thrust of fantasy's appeal, its great works and gateway drugs, seems to me whole worlds cut from big shapes or complicated panoramae painted in bold colors. In his Lord of the Rings trilogy, JRR Tolkien imparted much of his thinking on heroism and responsibility in a series of straightforward comparisons between various pairs of characters. The author Frank Herbert used barely disguised, slightly gonzo versions of modern philosophies and set them to trying to knife and poison each other in his science fantasy Dune. CS Lewis infused his broad, cartoony figures with the blood-soaked vibrancy of a war-era Christian's take on the meaning of life, where the act of make-believe and the ability to hold faith become co-mingled.

Jeff Smith's Bone is a fantasy work of this type, one that exhibits simple elegance and massive intricacies with equal aplomb. The three Bone cousins that instigate the story are simply designed, but how characters that look like they do can work and interact with other characters and come to life has much to do with the subtleties of the comics art form. Bone is very much a comic book fantasy, incidentally one from a self-publisher. The massive, single volume Bone represents the culmination of Smith's grand fantasy story, yet also serves notice how rare this kind of effort is these days, the kind of world-building and one-creator-one-project investment that practically defined the comics industry 20 years ago. If it weren't for Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo and, to a much lesser extent, a number of properties recently called off oblivion's bench to see if a bookstore version will be profitable, Bone might easily be designated "the last of the independents." It's hard to look at Bone and not see Smith's virtues as a publisher: his ability to research outside of expectations held by and avenues pursued by the industry (he used a printer normally geared for bible manufacture to make this staggering volume), his natural and seeming genuinely grateful rapport with his readers, and his canny ability to negotiate the troubled waters of the 1990s American direct market without losing sales momentum by forging important alliances with whomever provided the safest harbor. A great thing about Bone: One-Volume Edition is that it places our focus back squarely on the work. That attention is duly rewarded. Bone is an excellent comic: strongly crafted, well intentioned and lovingly realized. It bustles with an energy that comes in part from being made up of components that don't fit together all that smoothly, a roughness that should serve it well as it seeks a greater audience in years to come. Bone impresses in panels, thrills in pages, charms in segments, and impresses as a whole.

Reading Bone as one book improves the experience of consuming it in serial form a thousand-fold. As a periodical, the scene work overwhelmed the general story. Taking in something over several months makes for a different experience than living through a moment for a long afternoon and evening. Perhaps the happiest surprise that comes out of a complete reading is how well the story is paced. Smith obviously knew his way around the page, which is something he nails pretty early in the book's run. He works with silent panels like Garry Trudeau and uses dialogue to stop the reader cold, make them reconsider what just passed and either laugh or gasp at the whole of it. But appreciation of Smith's bigger movements must wait for the story to catch up. Some readers may have stopped reading Bone altogether when the focus shifted more towards the fantasy elements, not simply out of a rejection of that kind of story but because it hit like a drastic about-face in atmosphere and mood. All in one place, the story pieces fit together much more effectively. The comedy of the book's first sixth is there to establish character and the peculiar joys of the way of life that becomes threatened in the book's main narrative. You can read chapters where little happens except movement and action much more quickly now, as they were intended. The final confrontation seems more decisive and inevitable than rushed and tacked on; the arrival of armies seems less arbitrary, a statement on how the characters have certain decisions taken out of their hands. Smith ends up such a confident storyteller he tells the final chapter in a way that seems to carry twice the impact its number of pages should allow. He concentrates on leftover business rather than expository summaries, and thus the Bones feel ready to leave the Valley just as the reader is ready to depart as well. Smith even plays this great trick of dropping an earlier stand-alone story in the midst of his long conclusion, which ties the book together on an artistic level more sensed than understood. Like the natural world in which it takes place, Smith's story communicates many of its larger issues through rhythm and feel.

If one element impresses about Smith's fantasy from a technical standpoint, it's how thoroughly the cartoonist exhausts the conceit of blending two storytelling traditions. People glibly describe Bone -- and Smith does this, too -- as characters from Charles Barks' Duck Stories marched through a very traditional Tolkien fantasy. But when the story is put together you learn how thoroughly elements of each tradition are put into play. Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone are like Barks characters in that their nature never changes; they pull get-rich stunts until the very end. Gran'Ma Ben and the heroic ex-soldier bartender Lucius remain traditional fantasy characters throughout in that they stay captives of their troubled pasts. The traditions are mixed to good effect through stop-and-look story moments. A scene that feels classically dramatic in a fantasy sense quickly conflates with a Barks-style joke hinted at a few times in the story's first half about some shenanigans the characters were involved in back in Boneville; the collision of the profound and inane gives the scene a giddy sense of disorientation and wonder I can't imagine any other cartoonist pulling off without disappointing half of his readership. Smith even allows for the characters of Fone Bone and Thorn a chance to understand each other through one of the few traditions shared by those two different storytelling traditions: the fact that each is an orphan. The action scenes become special partly because of this mix. The Bones generally run away from danger; the fantasy characters often stay and fight. This gives the action scenes a chaotic stop-and-start energy. When the expectations are thwarted, as when Phoney Bone fights near story's end, it's a story point to remember. At Bone's conclusion, each set of characters returns to their respective world according to the basic tenets of their tradition: the Bones go home after having visited another place and attempting to bring something back; the fantasy characters go home to deal with how home has changed.

Bone can be enjoyed solely as a solidly constructed comic. When comics readers say something is well-crafted, it generally means that an element of the production is so superior that it stands out in the work itself or against that from other, more pedestrian peers. Little is usually determined about what that craft means for the work in question. In Jeff Smith's case, his cartooning skill gives him several distinct advantages in driving home points of emphasis and reinforcing character. Smith is a very strong designer. The Bones look odd and smooth and out of place without being jarringly so. He woodland animals are cute; his humans are distinct and exhibit body language according to their relative position in the world, from the way the townspeople grow into a more physically active and certain role, to the puffed-up, tough-guy guards of the capital city. The design of Gran'ma Ben is exemplary. Smith smartly gives her an all black outfit, which makes her pop out on the page and give her a kind of additional vitality that is reflected in her character's physical prowess. He gives the character a kind of cartoon verve through exaggeration of facial feature hat makes her transformation into a royal figure as hard to believe for the reader as it is for the characters in the story. This is quite the achievement given the awareness that we're in a fantasy story and such revelations are to be expected; once these visual elements are scaled back, we believe in her new identity as well. The rat creatures look hideously off-kilter in terms of the animal/human balance yet not so monstrous they can't be played for humor. His design of rat creature leader Kingdok is particularly inspired, threatening and odd in its movements yet not so overwhelmingly daunting that thwarting it seems like a cheat. Even those characters who gain a bunch of their impact because of size, notably the Red Dragon and the cat-like Roque-Ja, contain visual elements that slightly humanize them -- the dragon's cartoonish features and popeye arms, Roque-Ja's super-slick, clean line. That Smith is able to balance all of these drawing approaches in one comic book is akin to an orchestra playing different genres of music in the service of a single symphony.

The key is that Smith's characters have weight, and they conform to make space for one another on the page; therefore none feels less real than any other. Smith also knows how to shift gears in the way he defines space on the page. He effectively uses panel size for points of dramatic emphasis early on, as well as the contrast between blacks and whites to drive the reader's eye. More remarkably, Smith finds a way to use foreground and background levels in a way that perhaps betrays his one-time intention to work in strip comics. There's a wonderful sequence where Kingdok attacks Gran'Ma Ben and tosses her several times through the forest. Because Smith so rarely lets his scenes move in those directions, preferring the comics proscenium except for brief hints during the early chase scenes, this sudden violation of depth holds extra power. All of the best action scenes in Bone involve movement in this fashion, narrative jumps from place to place that break with the sometimes talk-heavy and comedy scene nature of the comic. Smith also makes excellent use of the smaller, silent tableaux. The cartoonist presses his characters' personalities at every opportunity, particularly at first. In one throwaway two-panel sequence from early in the saga, as the Bone characters split up for a time, Smith gives every character a line or a way of sitting or an action that further establishes each character's basic nature and is funny, besides. Bone doesn't just look good; it makes use of many strengths of the medium to entertain and move.

While many readers may only see in Bone those sorts of pleasurable visuals, Smith does some interesting work in terms of developing a few, key themes. In classic fantasy story tradition, the introduction of free agent Roque Ja about midway through the book shakes Bone out of its basic good versus evil dichotomy by making clear there's another way of looking at things. Roque Ja at once represents nature at its most impassive (his not caring) and people at their most base (his reduction of everything to power). Here Smith suggests that the upcoming conflict between the Lord of the Locusts and the People of the Valley is at best only a minor matter in the history of the world. This is something that Smith reinforces throughout his book by showing how little even the most heroic characters are able to deal with and understand the timeless and epic worlds of dreaming, something Smith touches on in the late chapters when the main actors are left out of the godly confrontation between the poisoned Queen dragon and her subjects. Smith is also smart enough to undercut even Roque Ja's certainty -- his chapter also features a group of young animals orphaned by the attacks, which certainly indicates that there are environmental factors at play in taking one side or the other. Where I think Smith is going with this is not just adding some uncertainty and heft, but to emphasize the choice made by Fone Bone and other characters to help their friends by pointing out it may indeed be an arbitrary choice -- not, in the long term, an easy capitulation to something of obvious great or lasting consequence. Smith thus avoids giving his fight between good and evil a cheat of certainty that comes with aligning one's self properly and automatically with the Gods.

Another great thematic principle developed in Smith's work is that of loyalty as an expression of love. In a memorable scene, Fone Bone and Thorn "consummate" their physical relationship fairly early on, as far as it will go, at least in terms of intimacy. This makes the love story in Smith's comic less about romance and discovery than about devotion and understanding. The only characters that really change in Bone are Fone Bone and Thorn, largely because of their relationship with the other. Fone Bone remains devoted to Thorn no matter how difficult it is for her to deal with her new responsibilities and growth into herself. His love for her is such that the status of his relationship while she experiences such drastic change is never in question. His complete belief in her is what allows him to share her burden and at book's climax even lets Fone Bone become a physical extension of Thorn. Unlike other characters with their own agendas, Fone Bone never lies or thinks he automatically knows better for Thorn. He becomes a better person for having loved her through those difficult times -- more prone to look at other people's troubles and more willing to speak up on their behalf: it's the transition from being a decent person to being a good one. At story's end, when Fone Bone briefly looks back, it's a smart and subtle sign of how much an effect the whole experience has had on him.

What makes Bone a great work is that Smith pushes none of his ideas to the forefront, preferring instead to immerse the reader in the pleasures of story, the joys of farcical comedy and the thrills of action-adventure. If in the coming years Bone becomes a wider sensation through its book deals and related licensing, it's good to know that Smith will achieve this without having pandered to his audience or even sneaking them in through the back door of a related creative act. As much as some of us may have enjoyed Jeff Smith's story to comics prominence, everything truly important about Bone is in this remarkable single volume. Smith has created something larger than himself, and that's so rare these days we can't let it pass without our noticing.