Jeff Smith’s Bone series has often been described as a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Disney Duck comics artist Carl Barks. That is an incredibly accurate description. What starts off as a fairly silly, cartoon-y series about a trio of cousins, “Bones” from Boneville, gradually turns more serious and more mystical as it goes along, keeping the light-hearted characterization, but really going somewhere as the mythology of the series is gradually revealed. What seems mostly comical often had a more serious undercoating, and Smith layers it in very well with his vivid characters and drawings that went from the cartoonishly simple to the detailed landscape.
That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Check out this panel of his main character, Fone Bone, looking over the valley where the action will take place for the first time:
That’s some fine draftsmanship.
This series also holds the distinction of being one of the very few my non-geek wife has read and enjoyed.
But what about the story?
Volume 1: Out From Boneville
The story begins with three cousins–Fone Bone, Phoncible B. “Phoney” Bone, and Smiley Bone–lost in the desert. Phoney is the richest Bone in Boneville (a place that never appears in the course of the series), and he’s been run out of town again. Being a miserable, money-grubbing greed-bag tends to get him into trouble, and his two cousins often get drafted to help him out until its safe to go home again. Smiley is taller than the others, and mostly a smiling idiot, though he tends to trick Phoney out of dollars from time-to-time. Fone is the protagonist, a decent guy who likes reading, specifically Moby Dick.
That’s something to keep in mind: this setting is a little crazy. Though it looks like a standard medieval fantasy land, Fone Bone carries a copy of Melville’s magnum opus. He also has comic books for Smiley and financial magazines for Phoney. Furthermore, Phoney seems to be carrying something like modern American currency.
But then a swarm of locusts shows up and separates the three Bones. Fone gets lost in a valley where he runs afoul of a pair of “stupid, stupid rat creatures,” large carnivorous monsters who want to eat him but aren’t very bright and tend to mostly get hurt in their various attempts. One is fond of quiche. They have a leader, a giant monster called Kingdok, and take orders from a hooded individual.
The rat creatures and the hooded person are looking for Phoney, who they know as the one with the star, representing the star he has on the shirt he wears at all times.
Fone, meanwhile, runs into a girl named Thorn that he is instantly smitten with. She lives with her Gran’ma Ben, a really tough old lady that races cows once a year.
Smiley largely sits the volume out. He found his way to a town in the valley and works as a bartender for the local innkeeper Lucius.
Phoney keeps running into problems. He rubs people the wrong way. He also deserves every bad thing that happens to him with his poor attitude. He’s outright shocked to find out that the whole valley works off the barter system and soon finds himself working next to Smiley.
There’s also a dragon that people have a hard time believing in, though the creature has a history of some kind with Gran’ma Ben.
This first volume leans hardest on slapstick, cartoon silliness. Characters are established and relationships set-up for later. Running gags are put in place, such as how Fone’s descriptions of Moby Dick tends to put people to sleep.
The second volume features the annual Great Cow Race. Gran’ma Ben wins it every year, and she seemingly fought off a horde of rat creatures by herself. Between that and the dragon, it is obvious there is more to her, and by extension to Thorn who has a weird dream of rat creature attacks from her childhood, than meets the eye.