Bone: One Volume by Jeff Smith

Bone: One Volume Edition by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books, 2004).

Bone has been getting a lot of praise and attention for a number of years now. I started reading it back in the beginning and then stopped, as I realized I might as well just wait for the collected books. Years later there is one book for the whole series. It is massive, over 1300 pages, possibly the largest single comic ever published. Currently it is also being republished in a colorized version by Scholastic Books (which tells you it’s being directed at children).

Some literature for children can certainly be seen as for the adult reader too (for instance Alice in Wonderland) though in many cases only on a simple entertainment level (those books about the kid wizard perhaps). Bone is a fantasy adventure story about three “Bones”–odd, big-nosed creatures that look like a Disney character shorn of any recognizable animal identity, a kind of base-level cartoon model. The Bone cousins are run out of their home and end up in a valley where humans, rat creatures (having very little similarities to actual rats), dragons, and various talking animals live. A pretty basic fantasy scenario follows with hidden princesses, talkative bad guys, dark menacing forces, wars, secret powers, hidden dungeons, etc. And of course the happy ending.

Is it for adults? Hard to say. It’s an enjoyable read. I plowed through the 1300 pages wanting to know what happens next, but in the end I felt let down by a lot of it. Like much children’s literature everything resolved too easily without any real consequences, and far too many fantasy tropes were used, unaltered and uninterestingly. For instance much is made by way of the character’s talk of dreams and a mysterious dream power, yet, in the end nothing really comes of it.

The main “bad guys” seem intelligent (they talk) and some of them are even given some personality and even friendliness, yet for the most part they remain faceless voiceless hordes to kill and be killed. While there is evidence that they are not inherently evil (courtesy of the differentiated ones), the implication is never investigated and they remain one dimensional.

Smith’s art is cartoony and obviously influenced by Disney style, which he does extremely well. The drawings are dynamic, well laid-out, and surprisingly consistent over the course of many years’ work. Interestingly I found the drawings most powerful in the night scenes. Larger areas of black and shadow added a power and weight to the work that was otherwise missing (perhaps not so evident if the work were in color). Maybe my whole complaint rests in the lack of these darker areas, visually and thematically.

No question, Bone is an important comics work, but in my mind, it is one for the children, or for adults who want a world where love is simple and chaste, death is rare, and problems are easily solved with a little tenacity and the help of mysterious powers. I don’t have many comics I’d recommend for a child (I don’t know many children anyway), but I’d pass this on to one (though the new color editions would probably delight a bit more as people seem to balk at old black and white).