Monday, December 3, 2012

Bone - Jeff Smith (Graphic Novel)

First, a note on comic book terminology, because I know it can get a little confusing.

Comic Book - A publication in sequential comic form that is not comic strips.  If it is a collection of comic strips, i.e. "Calvin and Hobbes" then it's just called a collection of strips.  (Interesting side note: some of the things we refer to as comics actually aren't since they are not sequential.  Anything that's just one panel isn't technically a comic, it's just a cartoon.  Sorry, "Far Side!"  Not really that sorry, "Family Circus!") 

Issue - One "chapter" of an ongoing or multi-issue story, such as "The Amazing Spider-Man" #586.  This is the most common form of comic book.  Unlike novels, the number of pages is not a factor for definition.  However, a typical issue is between 15 and 30 pages.

Trade Paperback - A collection of issues that have already been published.  This might include the republication of the first four "Batman" comics or issues #200-250 of "Iron Man" all in one book. 

Mini-Series - A mini-series is made up of issues.  The difference between a normal comic book series and a mini-series is that the number of issues is decided before the first issue is published.  "Watchmen" is one example of a mini-series.  There are only twelve issues and they tell a complete story.  Most comic book series are not mini-series'; like many TV shows, they will continue to produce them until they stop making money.

Graphic Novel - Many things which we refer to as graphic novels are actually mini-series', since they were published in a number of issues.  A true graphic novel is a one volume comic where the beginning and the end are included in the same book in the first printing.  "Goodbye, Chunky Rice" is a graphic novel.  That being said, language and terminology is constantly changing, and over the past decade or so the term "graphic novel" has been used more and more to describe collected trade paperback's of a completed mini-series.

Look, over there, it's a review blog!  Let's share it with our friends!

So it is with "Bone."  Yes, yes, it is not technically a graphic novel, it is a mini-series.  But now-a-days it is not common to see anything but the massive 1300 pg trade paperback for sale.  So I'm just going to cave and refer to it as a graphic novel along with everybody else.

From 1991 to 2004 Jeff Smith released 55 issues of "Bone".  Taken together, these issues are a stand-alone, complete story.  I was thinking about listing all the awards this book has won, but I decided against it for the simple reason that I knew about it long before I knew of its fame, and it would be on this blog regardless of its success. 

You might be thinking, "1300 pages?  Yeash!  No thanks, I don't have that kind of time."*  But it is actually a very short read.  This is partly because Jeff Smith was an accomplished animator before he wrote and drew "Bone", so the book reads wonderfully like a storyboard with dialog.  The art is beautiful, neat, thoughtful.  At times scarce, at times intricately detailed.  If you're not blown away by the locust swarm in the first issue there is something wrong with you.

The story is a delicate balance of Disney/Chuck Jones cartoon humor and style, and Tolkien-esque epic.  If you don't like dragons and swords, don't read "Bone."  But if you don't mind a little fantasy, and if you love a great story, "Bone" is the book for you.  As is the case with many of the story-based artworks showcased here, the story of "Bone" is one that will stay with you long after you read it.  It is pretty PG, but it's about as dark as something that's supposed family friendly can get, and I love that.

The basic premise--obviously, skip this paragraph if you don't want to know--is that three cartoony beings (The "Bones") get evicted from their hometown of Boneville because one of them made a greedy mistake.  We never actually see Boneville, but we are to assume it is full of other creatures that are just like our heroes.  Boneville is not a magical place; as near as we can tell it is basically identical to our modern world, except instead of humans there are bones.  They then stumble around in the desert for a while until they are bombarded by a huge swarm of locusts, through which they can see nothing.  When the locusts finally disappear they realize they are in unfamiliar territory.  Not only are they no longer in the desert, they are now in a verdant forest.  They run across little talking bugs, naughty squirrels, monsters called rat creatures, and of course--humans. A beautiful young girl named Thorn takes them in and from there...well, let's just say things get complicated.

It is imaginative, epic, exciting, and consistently funny.  Yes, it has some faults: Smith seems to think we are all as interested as he is in "Moby Dick" and it gets old pretty fast, some of the jokes may be a little too High School Cheese** for mature tastes, and not everyone is happy with the ending.  But we forgive these minor infractions because we love the characters, the story, and not least, the art.  

The biggest hindrance of Bone is probably its price.  A lot of work and time went into this massive work, and since graphic novel sales are never as high as top-selling novels they are always more expensive.  Try $40 for the collected work.  Maybe a friend has a copy, or perhaps you could find it for cheap online. Also, many libraries have the smaller trade paperbacks, just make sure you are reading them in order (there's 9 books when it's divided this way).  There is also a full-color version that's a bit more expensive, but honestly the b/w art is so beautiful as it is that I'm not sold on the color idea.

Okay well, assuming you find a copy sometime, happy reading!  Enjoy the quiche!

-MA 12.3.2012

*You also might be thinking, "Where does my stuff go when I lose it?  Honestly!  It's like one minute it's there, the next, *poof*, gone.  It might as well be in another dimension.  It would be cool to be able to see exactly where everything I ever lost is RIGHT NOW."  Really, you could be thinking any number of things; I have no way of knowing.

**The sense of humor the kids in your high school had who thought the peak of comedy was randomness, and then labored under the delusion that words like "cheese" are somehow exorbitantly random.


  1. When I was teaching at an elementary school, I saw a couple of kids reading Bone. They seemed absolutely enthralled. I love the idea of a story so universal that age is not a barrier to enjoyment. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Yeah, it's definitely "all ages" in the truest sense. People of all ages can enjoy it, assuming they can read!