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BONEWriter/Artist: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Jeff Smith
Synopsis: Exiled from their hometown of Boneville, the Bone cousins (Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone) find their way into a strange valley filled with unusual inhabitants.
How Is It?: Bone is the work of Canadian animator Jeff Smith, and I think what appealled to me was the nostalgic flavour; Smith obviously loves Carl Barks' work too. There's also bits of other classic comic strips here, from Walt Kelly's Pogo to Al Capp's Li'l Abner. But as the story goes on this melds into an entirely different sensibility, something closer to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Bones are cartoon characters in a more "realistic" and serious world, like Barks' creations. Moment by moment, the book is a light-hearted, episodic romp, but woven throughout in the background is an increasingly dark and mysterious continuing story of high fantasy. This is like what Disney used to be: great for kids but fun for adults as well, hilarious yet with darker depths lurking below the surface.
Volume 1, Part 1: Out From BonevilleSynopsis: The first Bone collection introduces the characters as Fone Bone, lost and seperated from his cousins, meets a mysterious red dragon, a beautiful girl and a pair of stupid, stupid rat creatures.
How Is It?: The lighthearted tone of the series is set in this fun adventure. It's basically a rambling intro to the valley and the Bone cousins. It's also focused on the lighter, cartoonier escapades of Fone Bone as he avoids the Rat Creatures and tries to convince everyone that the Red Dragon is real. When Phoney reappears, his schemes provide a comic highlight. The darker mythos that provides the ongoing plot is only hinted at, making for a mostly humourous romp. It might seem slight, but what the heck is wrong with that?
Volume 1, Part 2: The Great Cow RaceSynopsis: Phoney's scheme to cash in on the annual cow race kicks into high gear as he starts a rumour of a "mystery cow" that has the race sewn up. Meanwhile, the Rat Creatures are gathering under the Hooded One and their monstrous leader, Kingdok.
How Is It?: This is easily the funniest Bone collection, as Phoney's plotting goes spiralling out of control and leads to an eye-wateringly hilarious climax that's reminiscent of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World. But with Cows. Even the newly-ominous army of Rat Creatures ends up getting mixed up in the comedic procedings. A terrific payoff for anyone who's been reading since the first collection.
Volume 1, Part 3: Eyes of the StormSynopsis: Thorn's mysterious dream begins to have consequences, when Gran'ma Ben is finally confronted with the map and the Red Dragon (who she seems to know). Fone Bone and Thorn must escape an attack on the valley by the Rat Creatures, prompted by the Hooded One's mysterious god, the Lord of Locusts.
How Is It?: The end of the first Bone "trilogy" begins to introduce the more somber and mythic tone that will inform the next series. Comedy comes in the form of Phoney's bet with Lucius to see who can sell more beer (with the stakes being the tavern itself), and a humourous interlude wherein Fone Bone dreams that he's Ishmael in Moby Dick. The highlight, though, is learning more about Gran'mas past and exactly what it is that the Dragon is up to. A fine end to "Part one" of what is becoming a real saga.
Volume 2, Part 1: The DragonslayerSynopsis: Phoney manages to rise to prominence once again by stirring up anti-dragon sentiment amongst the Valley's populace. Sounds like a dragonslayer is required, doesn't it? And guess who gets the job... Meanwhile, Thorn has an enigmatic encounter with a religious group and comes face-to-face with Kingdok.
How Is It?: For some reason, this is the Bone arc that everyone reads the most into. I've heard a bizarre number of theories about the Dragon as Christ figure and so on. I don't know about that, but what I can tell you is that this is by far the darkest and scariest Bone compendium, thrusting the ominous fantasy goings-on into the foreground and temporarily leaving the gentle humour of the series (except for Phoney's exploits). In particular, Kingdok becomes even creepier than he was before--there's a nighttime battle between him, Fone Bone and Thorn that's the definition of "eerie". The dragon also shows, as ever, that he's on top of things, and we get still more clues into Thorn's background and destiny. Nearing the halfway point, the saga is gathering steam in a serious way, though I did feel the plot was getting a bit sedentary (for all the exposition in this segment, there's no new characters or places introduced). But this is mere nitpick. It also needs be said that, for some reason, the art in this collection struck me as particularly impressive...not sure why, it's not too notably different from Smith's other efforts. This one resonates on a primal level, without as much surface polish as we usually get from Bone.
Volume 2, Part 2: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern BorderSynopsis: Smiley and Fone Bone travel to the far-flung wilderness of the East in a kindhearted but slightly desperate attempt to restore a baby Rat Creature to its family. There they encounter the domineering Mountain Lion King Roque Ja, and begin to learn a bit about the mythic history of the Rat Creatures and the Valley...
How Is It?: A nice return to the more humourous side of Bone, though there are still moments of horror (Kingdok remains extremely creepy). The self-important "Roque Ja" is an amusing character, and much as I love Phoney it was probably a good idea to take him out of the picture for a while. On the informational side, we get a few glimmerings of what The Lord of Locusts is. Those who are plot-focused might be frustrated at this major detour from the ongoing story, but Bone has always been a laid-back, meandering tale, and I congratulate Smith for not sprinting for the finish line now that the story is getting more involved. If you REALLY want to, you can skip ahead to the next collection, ya big scrooge.
Volume 2, Part 3: The Old Man's CaveSynopsis: Returning to the Valley, Fone Bone finds everything in an uproar. Granma Ben has moved the populace out to the Old Man's Cave to prepare for the coming war; there, Thorn will learn more about her destiny, and the Bone cousins will face down the hooded one (and find out what he wants with Phoney).
How Is It?: This is it: the big clash that we've been leading up to for some time. Much will be revealed, including the Hooded One's true identity and the Dragon's past. But as exciting as all this is, the portentiousness here gets a little disappointing; Smith seems to be leaving the humour and charm of the early stories by the wayside a little too often, going so far as to turn the Bones into supporting characters. Still, the resolution to a major mystery turns out to be a hilarious gag that almost makes up for this. The second trilogy ends with surprisingly few loose ends, and we're left wondering where's next to go...
Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails: The Adventures of Big Johnson Bone, Frontier HeroSynopsis: Big Johnson Bone was a famed explorer, discoverer of the Rolling Bone river, and founder of Boneville. And long before his descendants stumbled into it, he rode a tornado into the Valley and taught the Rat Creatures a lesson they never forgot...
How Is It?: Those who miss the humour of the early Bone books will love this book. A lot. In fact, it's worthy of The Great Cow Race, it's that good. A classic tall tale with an airbag hero in the tradition of Paul Revere and Pecos Bill. The rat creatures are at their funniest here, and Big Johnson's sidekick Mr. Pip is a classic in his own right. Even though this book is unrelated to the main story of "Bone" (unless you were dying to know why the rat creatures don't have tails) fans should consider this one just as essential.
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