In a previous entry, I’ve mentioned Bone, the excellent comicbook series by Jeff Smith. This time, I want to focus on that series.
Bone concerns three cousins, Fone Bone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone, who have exciting and harrowing adventures far from home. Prior to the story’s opening, the scheming Phoney Bone (Phoncible T. Bone, to give his full name) had been driven out of Boneville by the angry townspeople. The level-headed Fone Bone and the child-like Smiley Bone went with him of their own free will. A decision they’d have occasion to regret.
When we meet the cousins, they’ve become lost in a desert. Before long, they’re separated and find themselves in a huge valley filled with both wonders and terrors.
Smith published Bone as a 55-issue black and white comicbook series from 1991 to 2004. It was subsequently collected in nine volumes and a 1,300 page omnibus edition.
Later, Scholastic Press published the volumes in color.
Smith also wrote a prequel, Rose, in collaboration with artist Charles Vess, as well as other ancillary stories.
Bone didn’t begin in 1991, however. Smith invented the Bone cousins in Kindergarten; and in the early 1980s, he drew a strip called Thorn, featuring nascent versions of several Bone characters, for Ohio State University’s student newspaper, The Lantern.
Smith is the subject of an excellent 2009 documentary called The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone and the Changing Face of Comics, available on DVD. I got it from the library this past weekend. The DVD also contains a 90 minute conversation (including audience participation) between Smith and Scott McCloud, writer of Understanding Comics.
In the documentary, Smith speaks of his love of Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics— a series centered around Donald Duck’s rich uncle— and how he wished Scrooge McDuck had gone on an extended adventure across several issues. Bone was in some respects Smith’s “answer” to the lack of any ongoing “Uncle Scrooge” adventures.
Other influences Smith cites include Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and fairy tales.
Fone Bone is a fan of Moby Dick, but everyone falls asleep when he starts talking about it, let alone reading from it.
In the Valley, Fone Bone meets Thorn, a young woman who lives with her Gran’ma Ben on an isolated farm. On page 15 of The Bone Reader: The Making of the First Trilogy (1996), Smith wrote that the relationship between Fone Bone and Thorn is the centerpiece of Bone.
“It’s the most important part of Bone, and it’s probably my favorite part.”
As we later learn— and in the tradition of many fairy tales— Thorn and Gran’Ma Ben are more than just a girl and her grandmother.
Gran’Ma Ben’s first name is Rose and her sister’s name was Briar. Smith revealed in the conversation with McCloud that Rose and Briar are named for Briar Rose, AKA Sleeping Beauty.
In the desert, the cousins found a crude map that appeared to have been drawn by a child. Thorn later recognizes it. As Smith writes in The Bone Reader (page 21), “seeing the map triggers hidden memories in Thorn and begins a series of events that will alter the lives of all the characters.”
Other characters include two “stupid, stupid” rat creatures; the Red Dragon; Ted the Bug; Lucius Down, proprietor of the Barrelhaven Tavern; Kingdok, ruler of the rat creatures; the mountain lion Roque Ja (mispronounced as “Rock Jaw”, much to his annoyance); Bartleby, a baby rat creature; and The Hooded One, servant of the Lord of the Locusts. Even though the Bones had never been to the Valley before, much less heard of it, the Hooded One declared Phoney Bone an enemy almost from the start. Why? It has to do with one of his schemes.
Not one to learn his lesson after having been run out of Boneville, Phoney tried various schemes in the Valley, often butting heads with Lucius in the process.
The people of the Valley use a barter system, with the economy based on poultry products. In one conversation with Fone Bone, Thorn says the avaricious Phoney seems to have adjusted well to the lack of money.
Or maybe not. Seems Phoney has hatched a plan to pay off his obligations to Gran’Ma Ben and Lucius:
A chicken and a rooster are sitting at a small candle-lit table while Smiley serenades them. Phoney, hands clasped together, says, “gimme gimme gimme! Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! I’ll be rich!”
“Oh yeah, he’s adjusted well,” Fone Bone observes as he and Thorn walk away.
“I could be wrong,” Thorn admits.
The two rat creatures are also a source of humor. They first display their stupidity when chasing Fone Bone across the snow. He leaps onto a small branch protruding from the rock face alongside a waterfall and observes that the rat creatures would have to be pretty stupid to follow him onto the frail branch.
“Stupid, stupid rat creatures!!” Fone Bone shouts just before the branch breaks.
In the early issues, Bone appeared to be a humor book, but as the story unfolded, events and situations became more serious. The Bone cousins and the people of the Valley eventually find themselves embroiled in a war.
Bone is divided into three trilogies. The first consists of Out From Boneville, The Great Cow Race and Eyes of the Storm. The second Trilogy is The Dragonslayer, Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border and Old Man’s Cave. The third trilogy consists of Ghost Circles, Treasure Hunters and Crown of Horns.
Bone has been embraced by the American Library Association, which in 2010 asked Smith to contribute a “Read” poster. Smith had previously been invited to the organization’s annual meeting, along with three other artists, in 2002.
More information about Bone can be found at Boneville.com
You can also watch interviews with Smith at Scholastic.com/Bone
I highly recommend that you read (or re-read) Bone. It’s a great story.
Copyright 2013 Patrick Keating