Jeff Smith, writer/artist
Cartoon Books, 2004
Rarely have I gone less far out on a limb than by calling Jeff Smith’s “cartoon epic” Bone universally beloved. One need look no further than the acknowledgments page, which offers sincere thanks to supportive comics-industry players ranging from Marv Wolfman to Art Spiegelman, Harlan Ellison to Craig Thompson, Wizard to The Comics Journal. Frankly it’s not tough to see why everyone’s wild about the thing. A lushly drawn and ostentatiously cartooned fantasy epic starring funny animals self-published over the course of 12 years? There’s really something for everybody in there.
Let’s start with the part that wasn’t for me: The cutesy comic business left me flat for the entirety of the saga. Simply put, this book didn’t make me laugh out loud a single time, and given how much of it is dedicated to supposed-to-be-funny schtick involving the titular Bone cousins, rustic villagers, cowardly rat creatures and so on–especially in the early going–I think that’s a real problem. To be honest, if this wasn’t BONE, if I hadn’t been hearing about it for as long as I’ve read comics, I wouldn’t have gone much further than the opening chapter or two. I think there was one gag that kinda made me snort, but now I have no idea what that was, which is revealing in its own way. (It certainly wasn’t the recurring bit about quiche.)
Obviously, what draws you in and keeps you involved even when the “Tolkien as Saturday morning cartoon on Nick Jr.” humor drags on is Smith’s cartooning. I know I tend to tout character design a lot on this blog, but the effortlessly classic looks Smith comes up with for his major players are almost in a class by themselves. I’m not saying they’re necessarily all brilliant or innovative–there’s a certain slick Disneyness to a lot of it–but in a way that’s the selling point right there: These characters and creatures look like you’ve been seeing them all your life. The droopy-eyed, floppy-eared Great Red Dragon; Mammy Yokum-esque Gran’ma Ben; giant, dead-eyed, rictus-grinned Kingdok (he’s like a huge furry Jaws!) and his rat-creature minions; the eerily faceless Hooded One and the solemnly robed stick-eaters; gorgeous, shaggy-haired Thorn, especially early on; and the part-Pogo, part-Snoopy, part-Smurf, all-Bone Fone, Phoney, and Smiley…that’s a helluva batting average. Having characters that unimpeachably solid running around makes the narrative all the more seductive–a must when you’re dealing with something this long and sprawling.
But you know, sprawling might not be the right word. It is a massive, massive story, and God only knows what it felt like to read it parceled out in individual issues over the course of a decade rather than in single volume that’s heavier than my laptop computer. Even still, each chapter moves rather smoothly and inexorably into the next, like a prose fantasy epic would. This is a very different reading experience than a 1300-page collection of even the most cohesive superhero-comic run, where individual stand-alone issues and even storyarcs would diverge from the main narrative. And again, I think this linearity is a necessity for what Smith is trying to accomplish. Over the course of the story there is a pretty massive tonal drift, but looking back, I couldn’t pinpoint precisely when it happened; all of a sudden you look around and the line is thinner and harsher, the pages look speckled with dust and debris versus the clean black and white of earlier chapters, and the story has gone from cow-racing and meet-cutes to internecine warfare between religious orders and attempts to thwart the beast of the apocalypse. This is accomplished with such a lack of herky-jerky shifts and seams that you hardly even notice it happening until it’s already happened.
Does Smith fall back on standard fantasy archetypes and narrative tropes to do some of this work for him? Of course. The whole set-up–cute, diminutive, innately noble little guy and his cousins do the fish-out-of-water thing to save the tunic-wearing folk and secret, hidden royalty of a fallen kingdom against a resurgent and vengeful dark lord–is lifted directly from The Lord of the Rings. And as the common complaint against that work goes (a complaint I’ve never shared, but then I have the White Tree of Gondor tattooed on my arm, so I probably wouldn’t), Bone‘s early, comparatively inconsequential chapters feel drawn out while the conclusion seems rushed. As I said, lingering on the unfunny comic business of the hapless Bones learning the rules of the road in the fantasyland they’ve stumbled across is a real obstacle to enjoying the book; by the end that stuff is mostly gone and replaced with what is to me a much more fun fantasy war/adventure story, but not even a geek like me is blind to how many key plot points there at the end are revealed through dreams and visions rather than earned, for want of a better word, and how rapidly key enemies and obstacles are overcome.
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s fantastical worldbuilding and storytelling shine brightest at their most idiosyncratic, from both a narrative and artistic standpoint. We’ve all seen hooded, faceless villains before–again, see Tolkien–but when Smith’s Hooded One speaks, the word balloons seem to ooze directly from the cavernous folds of the hood. I wasn’t 100% sold on doing cartoony dragons instead of dragons who are actually scary and intimidating, but then you get a look at the whole dragon bestiary, and seeing every possible variation of cartoony dragon gives the concept a dizzying, zany punch. The creation myth and cultural hierarchy Smith devises are personal enough to somewhat transcend the elements they share with countless other such mythoi. I’m still trying to figure out why the giant mountain lion Rockjaw comes to dominate the middle third of the book and then reappears later to do…nothing; he’s like the book’s somewhat sinister version of Tom Bombadil. And there’s one really chilling, batshit crazy sequence where the theocratic tyrant ruling over the abandoned kingdom confronts the Hooded One, only to be completely one-upped and outclassed in the insane and hideous and violent departments–that one will stick with me for a long time. The final fate of the big adversary was also quite memorably done–I saw the basic contours of that confrontation coming, but their final shape was not one I predicted at all.
I found reading Bone in a short timespan over these years to be a pretty engrossing experience, all told. Particularly toward the end, I’d anxiously look forward to my next train ride or pre-bedtime read to find out what happens next. But it never knocked my socks off, which seems to be what this kind of story is meant to do. I’m glad I read it, but had I never done so I think my life would have gone on just fine. There’s no tattoo of the Crown of Horns in my future.