No Bones About It

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It seemed like folly. Twelve years ago Jeff Smith decided to write, draw and self-publish "Bone," an all-ages, black and white humor/adventure series. Not only did he have no experience at producing a regular comic book, the popularity of such titles had long since bottomed out with the end of the Mutant Turtles. In spite of these challenges, "Bone" proved to be so polished and enjoyable the series grew into a beloved, multiple-award winning favorite of kids and adults. Earlier this year, after 55 issues, Smith concluded the epic story. Newly collected into one volume, "Bone" is now a mammoth 1300-page, economically priced ($40; Cartoon Books) graphic novel combining the mythical scope of the "Lord of the Rings" cycle with the visual delights of the early Disney movies.

Though the title sounds grim it actually refers to the stars of the series, cousins Fone Bone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone, who couldn't be less threatening. Like the Hobbits, the Bones are a peculiar-looking, diminutive race. They are pure cartoon — cute and pantsless, with four fingers on each hand and smooth, rounded, sexless bodies. At first their personalities are similarly simple. Fone, the dreamy one, must constantly get out of the scrapes created by Phoney, the avaricious schemer, and Smiley, a goofball comic foil whose tongue hangs out like a friendly dog's. Over the book's course the characters change in subtle ways. Fone goes from the book's main character to being its Hero, just as Smiley's foolishness has an almost saintly quality to it and even Phoney's plots are revealed as more complex than simple greed.

The book begins with the three of them exiled from their home, Boneville, thanks to one of Phoney's ill-advised ruses. Lost and yearning to return home, they find themselves trapped in a secret valley full of dragons, talking animals and scary rat creatures. Humans live here too, including Thorn, a pretty farm girl whose parents have died, leaving her in the care of her apple-cheeked yet oddly strong Gran'ma Ben. As the Bone's lives become more entwined with Thorn's it becomes clear that she has a secret past that her Gran'ma has been keeping from her. Meanwhile an evil, unseen entity known as the Lord of the Locusts has been gathering armies, including the rat creatures, with plans to take over the world. Smith artfully teases out the tangled relationship between Thorn, the Bones and the Lord of Locusts, eventually ending the book in a long climactic battle where destinies are chosen and lives changed forever.

Smiley and Fone Bone make an escape in Jeff Smith's "Bone"

Cute little guys yearning for home, lost royalty, evil entities, magical creatures and massive armies battling it out for the future of humanity. Sounds familiar, right? Yes, the central plot seems lifted directly from Tolkein's fantasy masterpiece, but Smith has enough talent and imagination to remake it into something entirely his own. For one thing, it's funny. Nearly every page has some bit of business, like when Fone's hat spontaneously combusts upon catching Thorn preparing for a bath. Smith also puts together clever set pieces, such as the Great Cow Race, where Phoney introduces a "mystery cow" — actually Smiley in a costume — convincing the locals to go for this sucker bet over the favorite: Gran'ma Ben(!). The final race turns into a raucously funny slapstick worthy of a classic Chuck Jones cartoon. "Bone" keeps the comic in comix, without being juvenile, in a smart but universally funny way that has become all too rare in the form.

The stupid rat creatures don't quit

Smith achieves this principally through his near-prodigal cartooning talents. As attested by his numerous Harvey and Eisner awards for "Best Cartoonist" and "Best Writer/Artist," Smith draws panels that put more energy into a single line than many comics put into entire books. The action sequences, like the one where two dim-witted rat creatures chase the Bones through a precarious rock face, leave you near breathless with their dynamism. Even simple dialogue sequences stay visually interesting thanks to the expressiveness that Smith, a former animator, puts into his work. This key aspect of Smith's work makes "Bone" much more accessible to kids at a beginning reading level. One can easily see it as a conduit to reading comprehension.

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. While older readers will tune into such themes as the folly of blind fanaticism and the corrupting nature of power, the younger set will simply thrill to the adventure and delight at the huge cast of characters. Hardly a folly anymore, "Bone" now deserves to go from hipster cult item to mainstream literary success.