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Reading through Jeff Smith’s Bone: Volumes 1 & 2

Bone promises to be an epic fantasy comic in the veins of Lord of the Rings. So does the blurb say. Whether the comparison holds or not, I can only justify when I have gone through all the nine volumes.

I will be commenting on the first two volumes in this post. The rest shall be procured and commented upon in due time.

Plot covered in the first two volumes

Bone-1-cover [1]

The first book, known as Out From the Boneville, starts off in media res. The protagonist, Fone Bone, is stranded in a barren space with his two cousins, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone. They do not have a map of the territory and do not know where go from there. We get a glimpse of Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone’s character. The former is some sort of a con guy while the latter is an idiot. Not much about the protagonist is revealed though.

Jeff Smith, the author, throws them into a dangerous scenario right at the beginning. They find a tattered map and are attacked by a swarm of locusts, which causes them to lose track of each other. Post this point, the author focuses on the individual’s journey for most part of the first book.

The author introduces many important characters. Namely, Thorn, a village lass on whom Fone Bone develops a crush; her grandmother, Rose Ben, who is a strong but old farm lady; Lucius, who is Ben’s old friend and runs a watering hole in a place called Barrelhaven, a friendly Dragon that seemed like a hallucinatory apparition; Ted, a leaf insect, who knows many things; rat creatures, who are enemies of human beings and are led by a giant rat creature called, Kingdok. I cannot comment on the degree of their importance, but by the looks of it, they seemed pretty important. Jeff Smith also introduces a hooded antagonist, who commands Kingdok. Again, I am not sure what level of boss is this hooded guy. Somewhere about halfway it is revealed that he is after one with a star on his chest, which turns out to be Phoney Bone. It is not yet clear why does he want to capture Phoney Bone.

Towards the end of the book all these characters come together at Barrelhaven, which is teeming with excitement in the anticipation of an upcoming cow race.

Bone-2-cover [2]

The second volume, The Great Cow Race, jumps right into the action. What a ridiculous action it is!

Phoney Bone, driven by his sense of greed, opens up a betting shop. His trump card is none other than Smiley Bone, who dresses up like a cow and poses as the mad, unidentified competitor that would definitely win that season. Or at least that’s what he wants the poor villagers to believe. He prompts the villagers to bet on the mad cow. That way if Smiley Bone loses, he makes a lot of money. He sets the whole thing up but his tables are overturned when Lucius places a huge bet on grandma Ben’s cows. Now, the only way to earn a profit is to let Smiley Bone, the disguised cow, win the race.

Things do not go as planned. En route, Smiley and Phoney Bone fall off the race and are chased by rat creatures, who in turn ruin the entire race.

Jeff Smith makes most of the chase sequences fun. This is one extreme end of it. [3]

Jeff Smith makes most of the chase sequences fun. This is one extreme end of it.

There are two things that Jeff Smith intertwines in this crazy narrative. The first is Bone’s growing affection for Thorn. He even ends up writing love poems when he is not busy reading Moby Dick or helping out grandma Ben and Thorn with their chores. This feeling is not yet reciprocated by Thorn. The second thing is merely hinted at – the importance of dreams. There is one segment where Thorn has a weird dream about taking shelter in a cave full Dragons. She concludes that the events must have been from her childhood and the tattered map that the Bones had found was drawn by her. It was a map of the Dragon’s Den.

The books do well to incite questions in the reader’s mind

Both the books serve as the foundation of something epic. Even if there are no epic battles or elaborate plots, the lack of backstories of any of these characters makes it even more interesting. I was constantly forced to think – “Who are these guys? What do they want?”

While the first volume introduces many characters, they aren’t properly explained even till the end of volume two. As a reader, I had hardly known anything about anybody. I had a fair idea about the kind of people the Bone cousins were. The same is not true for any of the other characters. Jeff Smith kept the story together and, at the very least, kept the introduction of new characters in a well paced, linear fashion.

I had a faint sensation that both grandma Ben and Lucius know more than most people. What is this knowledge, why is it hidden – these are the kind of answers I would expect from the subsequent volumes.

Artwork and Presentation

The artwork is not consistent in the first volume. Taking into consideration that Jeff Smith wrote the series in a span of 14 years, the level of consistency he brought to the books was well beyond my expectation. The depiction of the characters becomes more structured and matured as the series progresses into volume 2. Also, the lines are more articulated and thinner.

Bone-1-beginning [4]

Bone-1-end [5] The quality of illustration improves as we move from beginning towards the end of volume 1.

Allow me to also comment on the brilliant panelling and pacing of the story. I know it is too early to judge from the first two volumes. Yet, there are sections involving chase sequences and visual gags that was depicted masterfully.

Bone-2-gag [6]

Visual gags like this are scattered throughout the books. They ease the otherwise heavy plot.

The original release was in Black and White. The volumes I own are colour editions published by Scholastic. The colouring was done by Steve Hamaker. I haven’t seen the B&W edition but as of today, it is competitively priced if you want to get it in India. The production of this B&W edition, published by Cartoon Books, suffer from ink bleed through thin pages, as evident from the image below as well as the reviews on Amazon.

I would have to disagree with Seth T. Hahne of GoodOkBad regarding the colour edition [7]. I liked the colour edition a lot. I am not challenging his opinion either. I know that B&W artwork can have a different level of impact altogether. It all boils down to which version you have read first. The first impression of a work creates a positive bias towards itself.

A page from the Black & White edition of Bone. [8]

A page from the Black & White edition of Bone.

Same page in the coloured edition. [9]

Same page in the coloured edition.

I loved the fact that the lettering was done by hand – possibly by Jeff Smith himself. The variation of line thickness and font allowed me to reenact the vocalisations in my head pretty easily.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the series.

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