Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review - Bone

by Jeff Smith

1993 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication

1994 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story: "The Great Cow Race"
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

1994 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist - Humor
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint

How's that for a list of awards? There's only a handful of series that rack up this many wins in the major categories.

This also looks to be the only time that I will review an entire series in one go. There's two reasons for this. First, all but two of the awards were for the first eighteen issues of the series. That actually confine my review a bit. Second, the collection of the entire series in one volume won in 2005. Since I gave away my other trade paperbacks of Bone when I got the monster tome I can go over it as one book. It also doesn't hurt that the series, for the most part, works well as one single story.

Bone is not a series that I would have expected to set the world on fire. It's a light fantasy epic (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) and that kind of psuedo-medieval, Tolkien inspired fantasy has rarely done well in comics. What Smith does to make Bone effective and elevate it above the crowd is tell his epic fantasy story from the viewpoint of comedic characters. He doesn't make the epic fantasy parts of the story funny; instead he puts his funny characters around the epic parts. And it makes the whole thing work.

Bone is the story of three brothers who when lost in the wilderness find their way to an enchanted valley. Initially they're determined to leave as quickly as possible but they find themselves swept up in the doings of rat creatures, dragons, lost princesses, and a demonic force out to use them all for its own purpose.

The Bone brothers are drawn in an extremely simple cartoonish style; so simple that their heads are only two lines. All other characters are rendered in a much richer style but none of them loose that animated look; it comes as no surprise that Smith worked at an animator for Disney before starting his comic.

The brothers are also drawn from broad comedic archtypes. You have to have the troublemaker and that's Phoney Bone whose greedy ways got the brother run out of town. He has to constantly scheme on how to squeeze money out of their situation. Smiley Bone is the fool lost in his own world and goes along with whatever seems the easiest at the moment. And since there has to be a straight man for those two comedians there is Fone Bone who acts as the viewpoint character for most of the series.

The best thing about Smith's writing in Bone is his sense of comedic timing.

Case in point. Early on the series is packed with moments like this. Unfortunately as time goes by Smith starts putting more and more focus on the epic fantasy portion of the story and consequently the series doesn't end nearly as well as it starts. Still he continues to pepper the story with great moments that leave me laughing.

A perfect example of his humor at its best is the "Great Cow Race" story from early in the series. One of the highlights of the yearly fair for the town where the Bones find themselves is the cow race. That is exactly what it sounds like with one exception: the world's toughest octogenarian also races with the cows and wins every year. Phoney smelling an oportunity to run a betting scam announces the entry of the Mystery Cow which he claims is the fiercest cow in the world (actually Smiley in a cow costume) in order to get people to bet against the usual winner. Needless to say chaos ensues.

Somehow Smith is able to manage it so that when the gears suddenly switch from a zany scheme to defraud peasants using a fake racing cow to the threat of a monster invasion it's hard to know where things changed.

Bone is not without its problems. Most of the characters are little more than their broad stereotypes. Comedic figures are rarely allowed to grow or change but even the other characters don't really move a bit in the course of the story. If you pulled the humor out then you're left with a fairly bland fantasy story; since that story grows in prominence as the book continues I found myself waiting to get back to the fun toward the end. It also doesn't help that Smith takes a strange detour midbook for a plot line that didn't add anything to the story.

If you want to get Bone there's more options to you than I can count. Besides the original issues you've got every almost variation of binding, color, size, and page count. The one volume edition is a cinder block of book with more than 1300 pages. It is impressive and I can understand the Eisner award for it since at the time oversized omnibuses were almost unheard of. It is a bit unwieldy to read since it's a regular glued binding and spine can give too much. Mine hasn't cracked yet but I would not be surprised to see a well handled copy dropping pages.

Obviously I highly recommend Bone just as a humor book. And even though it drags toward the end the early parts are so good that you'll find yourself pulled along for the whole ride. I've actually been thinking about buying the series a fourth time (after the comics and original trade paper backs) to replace the one volume edition with colorized hardcovers. It's that good.