Bone is one of the rare treats in comics, a bona fide masterpiece worthy of being called literary. While it’s size and scope has often been compared to The Lord of the Rings, often by the author and illustrator Jeff Smith, it’s most closest to The Hobbit, another masterpiece in its own right.
The Hobbit-like character of the epic of Fone Bone, a nude white creature who has no genitals.
As the tale opens, Fone Bone, flanked by his cousin Phoney and Smiley, have been exiled out of their appropriately title town Boneville. The blame is squarely on Phoney, a scrooge stand-in who, while running for mayor, terrorized the town with a giant balloon of himself. Now lost in the desert, the Bone cousins end up lost from each other because, with Fone left to fend for himself.
The novel starts off with a humorous and light tone. Quite like The Hobbit. Fone meets some forest animals who can talk and who lead him to the cheesecake Thorn, an orphaned woman who lives with her Gran’ma Ben. The characters have some whimsical adventures, one involving a hilarious cow race, and reconnect with Fone’s cousins.
A large chunk of the novel is devoted to these early shenanigans, and have the habit of losing readers who were expecting an epic fantasy. Indeed, this is one of my biggest complaints about the novel. Bone was a monthly publication, years in the making, and was only released as a complete graphic novel after its run was over. If read with a more episodic manner, the story slowly morphs and evolves from humble beginnings into a complex tale of politics and magic. After finishing the book I was struck by how tonally different it was from beginning and end. I’m not sure if Smith knew going into this comic that it was going to turn in a fantasy epic, but if he did, he sure was subtle and sly in how he proceeded.
Eventually, and I mean close to 300 pages in, we meet the villain, a hooded figure whose identity I dare not reveal. The hooded one takes orders from a cave dwelling creature made up of blobs, collectively called locusts, who commands the hooded one to bring back Thorn so that it can be freed from its entrapment in the mountain. The story gets more convoluted, as we learn more and more of the history of the characters via exposition dumps. I mostly tuned out these details as I do most fantasy tales, instead focusing on the character arc and story structure.
Character wise, Smith wisely transforms Thorn from a damsel in distress into a powerful warrior, her journey being the emotional core of the novel. Fone also changes, albeit far more slightly, as he becomes more courageous and willing to fight for that which he cherishes. Smiley and Phoney, on the other hand, are more consistent, filling the Merry and Pippin roles from The Lord of the Rings. Smith’s biggest strength is his cartoonish humor, using the two characters as comic relief. Much is derived from Phoney’s greed as side-plot after side-plot involves his get rich schemes.
Another of Smith’s strengths is his artwork, a bare knuckled black and white (there are colored volumes but the originals were mono). Among the distinctions of his illustrations are the facial expressions and body language.
You’ll note the cartoonish style. At first I was thrown off by this. The artwork seemed at odds with the serious tone of the narrative, but by page 500 (the novel is a whopping 1300+ pages) I looked forward to being drawn into the characters that are fish out of water.
Another characteristic of the art is the use of repeated panels, often with slight changes, that create a sense of movement and atmosphere .
The technique is reminiscent of a silent film, injecting the novel with a dreamlike quality. It also adds an emotional punch.
The novel is not with its flaws. Again, like The Hobbit, it often relies on deus ex machina to get the protagonists out of their sticky situations. The ending also loses focus of the villains, and at one point had me asking where the hell were the dragons. It felt a little rushed, but this can be attributed to how fast comics read in the first place. But all these things hardly matter because the novel is less interested in war and more interested in the emotional journey.
It’s not often I read a graphic novel really feels weighty and good. Really, that biggest problem with the form is the dearth of good material. Either the art work sucks or the story is amateurish. Bone, however, finds just the right balance between comic and literature, comedy and drama, and has since its final publication been hailed as an instant classic. I gladly would like to add to that praise.