Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BONE by Jeff Smith

Bone (2004) collects all 55 issues of Jeff Smith’s comic book Bone, which was independently published from 1991 to 2004. Three Bones – pantsless hybrids of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – are run out of their town. They cross the desert and arrive at a Valley, where the series takes place, just in time for an epic conflict to erupt there.

Bone is often humorous and at times very funny. Smith constructs his situation comedy with the best of them, but he has also created a couple of characters who are innately funny, which is rare: the rogue pair of quiche-loving rat creatures is always funny, no matter what they’re doing. Toward the beginning of its arc, Bone has something of a leisurely pace, which allows for more humor and frequent appearances of these “stupid, stupid” rat creatures. Some of Smith’s gags are pretty thin (as is Fone Bone’s crush on Thorn), but on the whole this is a fun book.

Smith’s humor works a lot better than his drama. Broadly, Bone features a fairly generic, been-there-done-that “epic” plot centered on a peasant girl who, unbeknownst to her, is both the long-lost heir to the throne and the hero of destiny. In fact, all the trusty, worn-out fantasy tropes are here: quests, a dark lord, the unwitting royal hero, magic, the pseudo-medieval setting. And the Bones are noticeably like Tolkien’s hobbits in that they are outsiders caught up in a grand struggle they don’t fully understand. Smith handles the story adequately, although as the story progresses, a great deal of the humor is lost, replaced by unpleasant amounts of bickering and expositional monologues.

Bone has two main climaxes – one two-thirds of the way through and one at the end. The first feels sufficiently weighty, the second, less so. There’s plenty of build-up, but the book’s ultimate resolution is underwhelming, and a bit rushed. It also suffers because some of the book’s most interesting characters have limited or no presence – Lucius is an obvious example, as is Kingdok, the best villain in the book by far.

Smith’s artwork is excellent. He does a great job of blending the cartoony style of the Bones with the more realistic style of the Valley and its inhabitants. Bone was originally published in black and white (as it appears here), and Smith’s style suits it. His use of varying line thicknesses, his simpler (but no less immersive) backgrounds, his use of black and white to create ambience – Smith uses the medium to full advantage.

This one-volume edition is monstrous, and horribly unwieldy. Over thirteen hundred pages long, it’s two-and-a-half inches thick and weighs about four hundred pounds. One feels like it should be read at a lectern. Smith’s many spelling errors remain.

Despite its flaws, Bone is certainly worth reading. After all, any book that makes fun of Moby-Dick as regularly as this one does can’t be all bad.