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Jeff Smith's Bone: An Exhausting Self-Indulgent Retrospective

What’s your earliest memory of Bone?

Mine actually has nothing to do with an actual reading experience.

The first job I ever had was at a comic shop where they chained me up to my station at the register. Well, metaphorically chained me up - point is I had to sit there for long periods of time, responsibly handling money until the boss unleashed me to play Magic: The Gathering with loitering regulars or just paid me in merchandise like the pathetically unskilled, desperate young teenager I was.

Anyway, my shift was during the only three hours the shop got busy, so I spent most of the time between helping customers staring into space or, more often than not, at the Bone poster on the opposite wall (though I will admit that, at the time, my raging hormones would’ve preferred the Gen-13 poster in the stock room).

The picture showed a refreshingly not-sickening, cuddly cartoon character sitting in a meadow, reading a book as the sun shone through the trees and played about the blades of grass around him. It felt like something out of a dream or one of those perfect mornings where you’re up in time for the sunrise. There were no guns, mutants, or women who looked like they modeled for truckflap silhouettes (which, again, might not have been such a bad thing, at the time); just a sweet, innocent image that called out to the not-quite-dead child in me.

But my boss stopped ordering Bone and dozens of other comics as Magic: The Gathering filled the void left by comic and baseball card collecting when their markets crashed. Eventually, my favorite (again, possibly second favorite) image came down to make way for a Star Wars Collectable Card Game promo. The boss rolled the poster up and took it home for his nephew. I never got a Bone comic while working at the store.

But that picture haunted me until I finally gave in and hunted Bone down like a fiend, feeding my desire and leaving me constantly thirsting for more of the wonderful world the comic opened up to me.

And, now that the saga has come to an end in recent weeks, (with creator Jeff Smith moving onto Shazam! for DC -- ed.), I think it’s time to encourage that same hunger in you, dear readers…

The Story

Bone is the tale of the Bone cousins, three cartoony characters who get run out of Boneville when Phoney Bone’s (the greedy one with the star shirt) latest crazy scheme goes horribly wrong.

After drinking the last of their water, Smiley Bone (the lanky, cigar-smoking, happy-go-lucky ne’er do well) finds a map in the harsh desert terrain that indicates a valley not too far off. Then a swarm of locusts descends up on the cousins, scattering and separating them.

Fone Bone (the nice one who’s kinda… well, naked) follows the map toward the valley, hoping to meet up with his cousins, but instead discovers a sylvan paradise populated by talking animals, medieval villagers, ferocious monsters, a cigarette-smoking dragon, the mystery of a fallen kingdom, and the girl of his dreams.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Bone such a genius piece of work because so many things work so well.

At a time when vicious cross-hatching and jagged edges were the norm in the industry, Jeff Smith came onto the scene with an art style in such complete opposition to the status quo it seemed brilliantly unique.

The clean, smooth lines of the Bone cousins juxtaposed against the gorgeous and often intricate backgrounds of the valley combined traditions too long lost to American comics and, indeed, brought Bone to the attention of European audiences. They compared it to The Sandman and Watchmen and readily translated the work into numerous languages.

The dialogue itself is often cited as one of the great joys of reading the series. Clear and flowing, every character’s speech is unique, rich, and enjoyable. Even minor ones who round out the cast; ESPECIALLY so in the case of bit parts and villains.

Bone’s comedic timing and joke set-ups have become the stuff of legend in the comic community. Insertion of morals and philosophy is logical and rarely heavy handed, leaving many readers blissfully ignorant that they just got a life-lesson.

However, Smith’s handling of dialogue was certainly a process that evolved over the years. When the book started, almost every character spoke in the same colloquial American style, contracting one syllable words and generally talking in a manner reminiscent of old Popeye or Krazy Kat strips (though never as indecipherable as some of Krazy Kat creator George Herriman’s speech has become to modern eyes).

As the series continued, that dialect was dropped by all characters except Ted the Bug. More serious characters adopted a classical mode of speech while casual ones, like the Bones, slowly got closer to the vernacular. The result makes for a bit of a hiccup if you read the series all at once, since the book is otherwise remarkably consistent for a project spanning 12 years, but it’s easy to forgive when you consider how the scope of the book evolves.

Bone’s great claim to fame, however, is the flow of the scenes. Influenced by Smith’s years as an animator, sequences move with a clarity rarely seen in graphic narrative. In fact, many comic creators would insist that such exercises are better suited to motion pictures.

Jeff Smith’s mastery of chase scenes, races, battles, reveals, and dream sequences proves not only that there’s a place for extended “action” sequences in comics but that they can harness the reader’s imagination to create visuals equal and superior to those seen in the best movies and television have to offer.

The History

Bone started out as the simple scribblings of a boy in kindergarten. A few crudely drawn characters engaging in childish, silly stories. Nothing to get excited about. Just the musings of a kid in love with the magic of cartoons.

But, as that boy grew older, the characters stayed with him, morphing and evolving around his adolescence, staying true to their Warner Bros./Disney cartoon origins while absorbing elements of Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge, Walt Kelly’s Pogo Possum, and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Sure, the humor was now on a teenage level, but the strong foundation remained true.

By puberty’s end, the characters coalesced into the Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone we know today.

When Jeff Smith went off to college in 1982, he took his creations with him and started a comic strip called Thorn in the Ohio State University student paper, The Lantern. The endeavor moved him even further away from the “joke-a-day” stylings of most strips as he delved into an ongoing story where threads continued for months and a prototype version of Bone was tested out. Needless to say, the formula worked. In fact, a lot of scenes and gags from Thorn were re-used and refined in Bone.

Unfortunately, Smith’s plan to syndicate Thorn as a daily newspaper strip fell apart when offers came in for a humor comic rather than the adventure story he wanted to tell. His interest in the series faded, and he and some college friends founded the Character Builders animation studio in 1986 (after training themselves from Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson’s book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation).

The studio work consisted of making local ads and eventually gave way to work on big Hollywood productions like Bebe’s Kids and Rover Dangerfield (neither of which Smith and company take responsibility for). Doug and other TV series farming out work started looking to Character Builders, and business was looking pretty good.

But the Bone cousins were far from dead.

Despite the huge animation boom in the early ‘90’s, Smith started work on the Bone series in 1991 and founded Cartoon Books. When directing commercials and doing animation at Character Builders didn’t leave enough free time to work on the comic, he and his wife Vijaya decided they could get by on her income alone, so Smith sold off his interest in Character Builders to produce the bi-monthly Bone full time.

Early sales weren’t stellar, to say the least, but Smith kept with the book, despite falling monthly orders. However, support from Will Eisner and Neil Gaiman got word of mouth started, and previews run in Comic Buyer’s Guide and by Dave Sim in Cerebus started the exponential climb in sales that put Bone on the map.

Independent books now had a 17% share of the marketplace and the ‘90’s comic boom was reaching its peak. Smith convinced his wife to quit her high paying job in Silicon Valley to help him run the comic.

In 1993, Bone won its first Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication and, as internet communications got going, word of Bone spread around the globe, and it became one of the first comics to benefit from online chatting (which also helped the book spread into so many foreign markets).

Then the bubble burst.

Next week: The Image Years...


Jason Schachat

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