Bone: A Masterpiece of Comics


Bone / Jeff Smith / Fair Use

Brigham Larson, Reporter

The debate over whether graphic novels are genuine literature has been long, controversial, and is still far from over. However, in recent years, several graphic novels have convinced many of the legitimacy of the medium as art. These include thought-provoking superhero stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, haunting allegories like Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and autobiographical stories like Hey, Kiddo and Smile. And then there’s Bone.

Bone is a comedy-fantasy comic series by American cartoonist Jeff Smith, originally published from 1991 to 2004. The series’ short issues have been collected into multiple volumes, as well as a hulking 1,344-page complete collection.

The series follows the Bone cousins: Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. After being chased out of their hometown of Boneville by a mob angry over Phoney’s corrupt business dealings, they stumble into a quaint medieval valley and get caught up in the lives of the townsfolk, particularly a farmer named Thorn and her tough-as-nails Gran’ma Ben. Things begin growing sinister, as Phoney and Thorn become targets of a mysterious hooded figure and an army of giant rats.

This series is especially set apart by its humor and storytelling. Many critics and readers have noted the series’s unusual combination of Carl Barks Scrooge-like humor with rich lore and intricate storytelling evocative of J.R.R. Tolkien. This combination would have felt like water and oil in less skilled hands. However, Smith knows exactly when something needs to be comedic and when something needs to be serious.

Smith perfectly emphasizes these elements with his art, which works gorgeously on a number of levels. The series was originally published in black and white (with Scholastic’s 2005-2009 Graphix run adding color), and Smith’s use of black does heavy lifting to establish the tone of each scene. Humorous scenes are bright and have thin outlines, while dramatic scenes are darkened and thickened. This comes through especially well in sequences in which the character Thorn is dreaming. Thick black panels are added and few things are visually discernible, creating an aura of mystery. Smith’s experience as an animator shines through as well, successfully creating the illusion of movement within the still frames.

Following the completion of the main series, Smith has continued to tell stories in this universe. Two prequels, Rose and Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails have been made, as well as a series of sequel prose novels and a short epilogue chapter released in 2016, Bone: Coda.

Another thing that allowed Jeff Smith to make his masterpiece the best it could be was the complete and utter creative control he had over it. The series was published by Cartoon Books, entirely owned and operated by Smith and his wife Vijaya. As Smith was not at the mercy of a publishing executive, he didn’t have to compromise his vision for his sweeping fantasy epic.

However, the series’ success has not come without controversy. The books have been challenged by parents and teachers in multiple school districts for varying reasons, usually related to the series’ frequent depictions of smoking, drinking, and gambling. In 2013, the series came in 10th place on ALA’s 2013 most frequently banned books list, along with list mainstays like Captain Underpants and The Hunger Games, claiming that it contains “political viewpoint, racism, [and] violence.” While violence is depicted in the series (particularly in its more intense final 3 books), both Smith and fans of the series find the former two accusations confusing, with Smith stating “I’m starting to think such outrageous accusations (really, racism?) say more about the people who make them than about the books themselves.” Bone has not appeared on the list since.

After Bone, Smith has created multiple other works, such as the more adult-oriented RASL, a sci-fi tribute to classic film noir, the webcomic Tüki: Save the Humans, and authored the DC comic Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil. However, Bone is indisputably his masterpiece. As of 2021, Smith is currently working on the upcoming Bone Netflix series, as well as a recently crowdfunded follow-up to Tüki, Fight for Fire. Smith also served as a board member on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization “dedicated to the protection of the First Amendment rights of the comics art form and its community of retailers, creators, publishers, librarians, and readers” from 2013 to 2018.

If you’re thinking about reading this excellent series, the good news is that Scholastic’s nine-book run can be found in school and public libraries worldwide. Additionally, the complete series in one volume is available for purchase on Amazon, and at 1,344 pages, you’re looking at plenty of time spent in this series’ strange and beautiful world.

Bone is a widely acclaimed series. Common Sense Media perfectly summarized the series in its review of the first book, Out from Boneville. Calling it “a rousing start,” especially praising Smith’s “masterly drawing style” and complimenting how “Smith fills the plot with adventure, danger, word play, and complicated slapstick, hitting each mark with grace.”