“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.
Writer and Artist: Jeff Smith
Letterer: Jeff Smith
Editor: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Cartoon Books and Image Comics
Publication Date: 1991-2004
No. of Issues: 55
Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy, Bone, begins as a pebble dropped in a puddle and becomes a tsunami cascading through an ocean. What, at first, feels like a Sunday morning cartoon strip for children with funny creatures, talking animals, hapless monsters, and a world with silly rules, transforms into a tale of dark forces, epic battles, locust creatures, dragons, dream worlds, and underestimated heroes and takes on some hefty themes which we’ll get into later. But first, what is Bone?
Three of those underestimated heroes are the Bones, a trio of two brothers and one cousin. Even if comic book readers haven’t read the award-winning series, they are bound to recognize these cartoonish-looking characters shown in the image above. They stand only a few feet high, and like the Mona Lisa, their bodies contain no straight lines. They are mostly naked and featureless, their noses are bulbous fixtures that are practically the size of their heads, and their skin is the color of the card stock they’re printed on. There’s our humble and hopeless romantic (Fone Bone), his cousin who wears a sheriff’s star on his shirt and never disliked a scheme he could or couldn’t pull off (Phoncible “Phoney” Bone), and Phoney’s simple, yet jovial, brother (Smiley Bone). If it wasn’t for Fone Bone being a grounding force among the three, I’d immediately see them as a sort of Marx Brothers squad.
We first meet them hopelessly lost in the desert, having been chased out of Boneville over one of Phoney’s failed schemes. After finding a worn-out map, a cloud of locusts descends upon them, separating Fone from the other two. On his own, Fone Bone makes his way through a mountain pass, he comes into brief contact with two fearsome – if not dim – rat creatures, a surly and violent species of monster (though the first two we meet are hilariously bumbling), and also the noble orange dragon who reminds me of Eeyore, but is often there to help Fone out of a tough spot. We immediately see the dragon as a friend and the rat creatures as foes. This characterization structure fits perfectly with the simple beginnings of this tale: good and evil and black and white. When winter causes the mountain pass to become impassible, Fone Bone is stuck in this new world until spring.
Soon thereafter, he meets Thorn Harvestar, an unassuming farm girl who is finding her way into adulthood. Fone Bone is immediately smitten. Thorn takes him back to her farm to take care of him during the winter and to introduce him to her grandmother, Gran’ma Rose, as Thorn believes she can help Fone Bone find his cousins. Gran’ma Rose returns from town; she is a weathered, intense older woman, eyes always shut tight, and her mouth curled inward like her dentures are in a highball glass on the cabinet. She is hesitant to trust Fone Bone, and when they find his brothers working at a local tavern in town under the employ of Lucius (a big and burly older gentleman whom Rose calls friend), she trusts them even less.
While always plagued with dreams, with the arrival of the Bones, Thorn’s dreams become more intense, to the point that Thorn and Fone Bone begin having the same dreams of a hooded figure reaching out to her and a child who lives with the dragons. When Fone shows Thorn the map he found in the desert, Thorn recognizes that she drew it as a child and takes it to Gran’ma Rose. Gran’ma Rose reveals that all of the dreams Thorn had were real. When she was a child, Gran’ma Rose gave Thorn to the dragons on the same night her parents were killed, and that she is Queen of the Valley born to a family of royalty. Thorn feels betrayed, confused, and hurt that Gran’ma Rose has lied to her all of these years. Gran’ma Rose only meant to protect her.
Soon after, Lucius and Gran’ma Rose receive word that the Lord of the Locusts is gathering an army of rat creatures to come for Thorn and the Bones. Thorn isn’t just a hidden Princess; she’s a Ven-Yan-Cari, someone who can walk between the real world and the dream world.
Lucius discovers that the hooded figure is Gran’ma Rose’s once thought to be dead sister, Briar, who betrayed Thorn’s family when Thorn was a child. The characters weave in and out of each other’s paths, separating and finding each other, nearly avoiding death with every step forward.
Finally, Gran’ma Rose, Thorn, and the Bones journey to the capital of the Kingdom, Atheia, where they hope to place Thorn on the throne and gather the people together to fight against the Lord of Locusts, but are met with fierce opposition from a high-ranking officer, Lord Tarsil, who has placed himself in charge. Gran’ma Rose manages to call a secret meeting of those still loyal to the crown.
As the forces of the Lord of Locusts descend on the capital, Thorn and Fone set out to find the Crown of Horns, which Thorn’s dead mother told her about in the world of the dreaming, while Gran’ma Rose and the others fight to protect the city. There are heroic sacrifices, there are valiant heroics from those willing to die, and as the Lord of Locusts calls upon the great dragon Mim, who created the dreaming and kept the balance for so long before the Lord of Locusts corrupted her, we are shown a jaw dropping spectacle as the rest of the dragons rise from the bowels of the earth to pull her back down with them.
Thorn is crowned, but before taking on her duties, she travels back to the farm to see the Bones off. After a tearful goodbye, Fone is left speechless, pondering the weight of everything that happened over the past year, as they make their way back through the desert and towards Boneville.
Reception at Time of Release
A little history before we dig into the themes of this epic tapestry of storytelling. This is the twenty-eighth anniversary of Bone, the first issue having been released in 1991. It was released at a time when indie comics had not seen a true hit since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Bone was critically successful and after only six issues. Tom Palmer, Jr. wrote, “”The series has only recently begun, yet it has been met with enormous amounts of critical praise from people ranging from Will Eisner to Peter David.” If at first critics found the series to be too childish, those opinions soon changed, as Jeff Smith’s vision began to truly unfold, and his artwork became more cinematic and complex. In 2004 upon the release of the 1,300-page collection, Time magazine wrote, “Combining the instant gratification strong cartooning with the deep engagement of epic storytelling and the universal appeal of humor, Jeff Smith’s Bone has becomes the best all-ages graphic novel yet published.”
Issues 20-28 were published through Image Comics to help expand readership, but the rest of the issues were published through Smith’s own company, Cartoon Books.
Bone has won a litany of awards and was nominated for many more. From 1993-2005, it won 11 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards, many were for Jeff Smith winning Best Cartoonist (Writer/Artist), Best Continuing Series, Best Humor Publication and many more. All in all, there were 55 issues published mostly on a bi-monthly schedule.
Upon first glance, Bone is an epic battle between good and evil. Much like Tolkien’s The Hobbit, you follow the journey of a main character that’s easy for everyone to underestimate, but as the stakes elevate, these characters rise to the occasion and become the heroes of the story. Bone follows the common archetypes but twists them in order to create unique characters. In a time of Disney Princesses vying and yearning for the love of men, Thorn steps up to the plate, not needing a Prince Charming, not needing to fall in love to become a hero and a Princess. We could talk about sacrifice, what Gran’ma Rose and Lucius gave up to protect the future of their kingdom and all life on the planet. We could talk about lies versus truth, and what lies can protect and what truths can harm. There are so many levels and layers to this fantastical journey, but for me a major theme that continued to pop up was this idea of blind fanaticism. Fear is always the kernel of fanaticism. Fear allows us to overlook rationale thought and simple wisdom looking for any way to end that fear, which can have potentially deadly effects.
We see this tactic used time and again in the subplots of the story between Phoncible Bone and the townspeople who are generally represented by Wendell, Jonathan, and Euclid – three superstitious and gullible farmers. First with the great cow race, which is a yearly race between the cows and Gran’ma Rose. Rose has been the winner for years, but Phoncible sets up a betting booth and spreads the rumor, with the help of Smiley, that Gran’ma Rose is getting old and tired, this mixed with talk of a mystery cow gets the rumor mill churning. When Lucius calls the townsfolk on their foolishness, they demand Phoney show them the mystery cow. Gathering them outside a barn, Phoncible has Smiley make a violent racket inside scaring the townsfolk away.
As the big race approaches and the townsfolk bet their lives away to Phoney and Smiley, the rat creatures under the order of Kingdok, the rat creature King, and Briar set their sights on the Bones. These series of events culminate in a raucous race with cows, rat creatures, the Bones, and Gran’ma Rose all running for their lives and towards the finish line.
Of course, once they find out that the mystery cow is simply Phoney and Smiley in a cow suit, the townsfolk want to tear Phoney and Smiley limb from limb.
The second instance is prompted by Lucius accepting a bet from Phoney that he can make more money at the bar than Lucius can; if Phoney wins, he gets to keep the bar. With the townspeople against Phoney after the cow race, he has an uphill battle, but Phoney quickly finds a way to prey on their fear again, attempting to swindle townsfolk into believing he’s a dragon slayer and that dragons are evil. Phoney gets everyone riled up. But that’s not enough, Phoney then turns everyone against Lucius who continues to claim dragons don’t exist, even after evidence to the contrary is presented. Everyone not only begins to buy alcohol from Phoney, but they turn their back on Lucius, which becomes a plot beat later in the story. Phoney essentially commandeers the town by putting walls up at the entrances. Of course, Phoney’s scheme backfires when the townspeople force him into a position where he has to kill the orange dragon, the friendly one, but is thankfully stopped.
What’s interesting to note is that in both instances, when Wendell, Euclid, and Jonathan try and blame this on Phoney, in the first case Lucius and in the second case Thorn, make a very specific point of saying that it was their fault for buying into the lies when they should have had enough sense to trust Lucius.
Even after such a scolding, this isn’t the last time that the townspeople leave themselves open to their fear being preyed upon. After Lucius is surprised to find Gran’ma Rose’s sister, Briar, alive and that she is the hooded figure, he becomes distracted and allows a group of rat creatures to get past him and attack where the townspeople and the Ven-Yan-Cari are hiding. This has dire consequences. The Ven-Yan-Cari have become fanatical over the years, hidden away for so long, that they no longer trust anyone other than each other. It takes a lot of convincing to get them to go to the capital to help Gran’ma Rose and Thorn with the fight. The head Ven-Yan-Cari spreads the suspicion that Lucius is working for the Lord of the Locusts, because Lucius let the rat creatures pass. With their trust eroded in Lucius because of Phoney’s dragon slayer scheme, the townspeople are once again tempted toward blind fanaticism, this time of a religious sort.
We face the same fanaticism in Atheia, when Gran’ma Rose, Thorn, and the Bones find that Lord Talis has taken control of the city and won’t allow talk of the dragons. This is a very militant type of fanaticism. Upon hearing that royalty is within the walls of the city, his only desire is to capture them, which puts the plan to save the city in dire straits. A man who lives by fear dies by fear, so when Talis is faced with a reflection of the man he used to be, before being marred by a dragon, he freezes and is immediately killed on the battlefield.
Briar is equally as fanatical towards the Lord of the Locusts and her fear of the Bones is based on the flimsiest of “signs”, that of a giant blow up balloon of “Phoney” that just happened to drift to them. Of course, one of the biggest signs of religious fanaticism is to base your opinions and beliefs on nonsense like this.
Time and again, our heroes are met with fanatical groups and actions, whether they are well meaning or not, and every time the consequences range from the embarrassing to the tragic.
Every day we hop online, we listen to politicians and podcasts, read tweets, spread memes, and are told what to think and how to feel about every topic; we regurgitate sound bytes, echo opinions, and embrace the zeitgeist. Many times, we ignore the simple common-sense explanation or what we already know to be true about a person or situation. We don’t take the time or have the patience to really look to the facts of a situation, we are too quick to pass judgment or have a counter opinion. The horde steers our thoughts this way and that, playing on our fear, our empathy. This has become an everyday battle, a constant onslaught, and like the townspeople, we are not prepared, and like the townspeople… we fall for it far too often. There’s a reason why the only reference to other material in the series is to Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, Fone Bone’s favorite book; we all have our whale. We all have that hill we’re willing to die on whether we’re right or not. This also might explain why Fone isn’t drawn into the hysteria like other characters in the story. He’s sensible and that sensibility makes him heroic.
Phoney, Lord Talis, Briar spin peoples’ fears until the people are fighting against their own self-interest. We see the townfolks almost lose all their belongings, almost lose their town, we see Atheia almost fall, we see the Kingdok, king of the rat creatures, realize far too late what he has become, just a cog with no real power.
When a deer enters a car’s headlight, they freeze, they cannot move, they cannot look left nor right. Much in the same way, when people stare into the face of something they are told to fear, they cannot be swayed otherwise until they see the consequences of their actions. Many times, such as with the townspeople, they look for others to blame rather than accepting the consequences of their choices themselves, and the loop begins again.
These sorts of fears when concentrated, when given credibility create in people something dangerous. When blind fanaticism is embraced the very moral and ethical fabric of a person dissolves and is replaced by the same fear. To quote another short cartoonish character, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the dark side.” (Yoda, Star Wars)
Further Points of Interest
Aside from Moby Dick, Jeff Smith has cited these influences: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the original Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and wanting to see Scrooge McDuck going on a longer adventure:
“I always wanted Uncle Scrooge to go on a longer adventure. I thought, ‘Man, if you could just get a comic book of that quality, the length of say, War and Peace, or The Odyssey or something, that would be something I would love to read, and even as a kid I looked everywhere for that book, that Uncle Scrooge story that was 1,100 pages long.”
Smith drew his first Bone character when he was five and started writing comic strips for them when he was ten.