Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Book Review: BONE

Jeff Smith is one of those people you love to hate. His life sounds like one of those Scandinavian tales of the Ashlad; success just sort of came to him. In kindergarten, he produced a doodle of a character who looks like a cross between Snoopy and a Smurf and gave him the name Fone Bone. He continued to draw stories about him through grade school and high school until a whole world developed. With no formal training, but with a preternatural artistic talent, he produced a comic for his college student paper called Thorn, now a significant collector's item. Smith left college without a degree and co-founded the Character Builders Animation Studio before he left that as well and, without any experience in the medium, began self-publishing Bone as an underground black-and-white monthly comic.

Though it got off to a slow start, it became a hit. Smith spent twelve years on the series, putting it on hiatus to write the scripts for the movie for Nickelodeon, a deal that unfortunately fell through. When it was complete, Smith gathered Bone into nine volumes and shortly thereafter released it with emendations as a one-volume trade paperback. The comic won over 38 awards internationally.

Because of Bone's popularity, Scholastic picked it up to flagship its new Graphix imprint. Scholastic is releasing one volume of the nine-volume series (with the emendations of the one-volume edition) every six months with new color by Steve Hamaker. Understandably, when Scholastic bought the title, Smith's own Cartoon Books editions went out of print.

For those of us who have a relationship with Bone similar to the relationship that slightly more normal people have with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, it's good to hear that the Scholastic titles are selling exceptionally well, and so the black-and-white One Volume Edition has been re-released. Though the colored editions are lush and beautiful, the black-and-white better displays Smith's virtuoso line art.

Time Magazine named Bone as one of the top-ten graphic novels of all time, and at least one reviewer at Amazon.com called it the most important fantasy epic since The Lord of the Rings. This is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Bone breaks the mould of traditional story-telling. It shuns the unfortunate sensational elements like nudity or graphic violence that characterize many underground comics and keeps the story-telling at a child-friendly level. It is simultaneously high fantasy, slapstick cartoon, coming-of-age story, and love story. I have seen a few reviewers tear out their hair (not literally) trying to discern how Smith balanced such incompatible elements so effortlessly. He breaks a fundamental rule of storytelling--that you should start the story where the action begins--and instead draws the reader slowly into the tale. So lovable are the characters and so engrossing is their world that the funny stories become a full-scale cosmic myth without losing the reader along the way.

So, should you read Bone? Should you let your children read Bone? My own answer is yes, but be aware that the images include what in a film would be called "mild epic violence" and "stylized action violence," though there's very little blood and none of the horrific artwork of grotesque comics like Hellblazer. The early chapters contain mild swearing; Smith apparently didn't figure out that a comic like this should be child-friendly until the fourth issue (which is the fourth chapter of the first volume). The first volume, Out from Boneville, contains two scenes that could conceivably be termed sexual, though that would be an exaggeration. There is no implicit or explicit approval of immoral activity.

Volume five of the color editions, Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border, will be available in February. The video game adaptations of the first two volumes, Out from Boneville and The Great Cow Race, are available from Telltale Games. The prequels, Rose and Stupid, Stupid Rat-tails, are still available from Cartoon Books.
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