Bone (1991 – 2004, 55 issues)
Written and Illustrated by Jeff Smith
It might not look like it, but Jeff Smith’s magnum opus, Bone is a contemporary Lord of the Rings in comic book form. For years, I saw the images from the series: The funny looking cartoonish protagonist, the menacing rat creatures, the great red dragon. It wasn’t until 2005 that the complete collection was released that I purchased it and began the series. And its taken me five years to finish the series, with many starts and stops along the way. The complete collected edition is designed perfectly for that with about ten “books” within it, and the story grows denser and more history rich as you progress. The end result is a work of high fantasy that is one of the best of the late 20th century/early 21st.
The story centers around three beings from the unseen town of Boneville: The scheming Phoney Bone, the happy go lucky Smiley Bone, and the hero of the story Fone Bone. The series opens on them journeying out of Boneville as a result of one of Phoney’s schemes. To avoid being lynched they have gone into a mysterious forest, in which they encounter the rat creatures, a talking flea, and the Great Red Dragon. Eventually they emerge in the town of Barrelhaven where the story really kicks into gear. Fone meets and develops a crush on farm girl Rose, and Phoney draws the ire of Rose’s guardian, Gran’ma Ben. The early parts are much lighter and mix elements of fantasy and silly cartoon plots. By the the time you reach the second third of the story the fantasy has been amped up and the true plot has been revealed.
Bone draws a lot of its style from the Carl Barks Disney comics of the 1940s and 50s. These were serialized adventure stories that feature cartoon beings. While the slapstick style jokes were there, the emphasis was much more on the mystery and action surrounding the plots of pirate treasure and haunted castles. Here the high fantasy novels of the 1970s and 80s are merged with the “funny book” characters to produce a very original work. Smith is a comic creator who truly has an independent mindset, the entire premise behind Bone is one that could never really sell at one of the big companies. For a short time, Bone was published as part of Image Comics, but Smith pulled the title and brought it back to his own publishing house, Cartoon Books.
I could easily see people passing the series over who would actually really enjoy it if they gave it a chance. The universe created by Jeff Smith is very rich and immersive. By the end of the story you truly feel like you’ve made this epic journey across the land, from a small town in the forest to the great city-fortress to the south. There’s an intricate history that mirrors the story of Aragorn and the broken lineage of royalty in the land. Fone Bone ends up playing a major role in the restoration of this royal line. The artwork in the book is amazingly intricate as well. The series experienced numerous delays, but when you sit down with the whole story before you it is worth it. Not a single issue’s art if below par, and it still stands as one of the most beautiful looking comics I’ve ever read.