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Jeff Smith's Bone: An Exhausting Self-Indulgent Retrospective
Part Two: Image, Animation and Awards

Last week, Jason Schachat explained his fascination for cartoonist Jeff Smith's recently ended masterpiece, Bone. In the process he began retelling the history of the artist and his book in an article that threatens to become a book. When we left off, Bone's success was threatened by the great boom and bust of the comics market in the early nineties...

When the bottom fell out of the speculator’s market, indie titles were the first to suffer. Following the comic stores’ attempts to play it safe by sticking with big companies, Smith signed a deal with Image Comics in 1995 (which included the re-printing of prior issues in addition to the first runs of #’s 21-27). Readers were both lost and gained as some felt this was a betrayal by one of the poster boys of the self-publishing movement and still others were being introduced to Bone for the first time.

The book didn’t really fit with the Image line, though, and Smith released the first collected volume of Bone through Cartoon Books in 1996 before returning to complete autonomy in 1997. (Editor's Note: Now that it's finished, Bone will be reprinted again as the flagship title in Scholastic Press' new foray into Graphic Novels -- this time in color.)

Sadly, the next few years would find a book already notorious for an irregular schedule hampered by more delays than ever before. Though Smith took time away from the regular book to re-edit and re-draw Bone for the collected volumes, do art for the prequel Stupid, Stupid Rat Tales and script the second prequel, Rose, there can be no doubt that the amount of time wasted on the doomed Bone movie adaptation was largely to blame.

What began as a dream project re-uniting Smith with Character Builders rapidly descended into a power struggle with Nickelodeon and its parent companies. Beginning with an attempted renegotiation on the network’s part, Smith soon found execs trying to saddle the film with a Britney Spears song. This was followed by suggestions that the Bone cousins should be youthened and voiced by children, and, finally, a board meeting note to give Fone Bone “magic gloves that make things grow."

So, no, it didn’t end very well.

From 1998’s nearly bi-monthly schedule, Bone went down to three issues in 1999, and only two in 2000. However, Smith made this up to fans by offering alternate covers by Frank Miller and Alex Ross as well as an indie artist pinup gallery in the double-sized Bone #38.

Following the movie debacle, Smith vowed to finish the book in 3-5 years and hit the drawing board full time.

And, lo and behold, he did it.

Awards won by Bone:

Eisner Award -Best Humor Publication
Russ Manning Award -Most Promising Newcomer

Harvey Award -Best Cartoonist
Harvey Award -Best Graphic Album
Harvey Award -Special Award for Humor
Eisner Award -Best Cartoonist
Eisner Award -Best Humor Publication
Eisner Award -Best Continuing Series
Eisner Award -Best Serialized Story- The Great Cow Race
Diamond Distributor's Gem Award -Vanguard Product of the Year
Genie Award -Best Continuing Series

Harvey Award -Best Cartoonist
Eisner Award -Best Writer/Artist, Humor
Eisner Award -Best Humor Publication
Eisner Award -Best Continuing Series
Comic Speedline (Germany) -Best Newcomer
Comic Speedline (Germany) -Best Graphic Novel
Prix Vienne (Germany) -Book of the Year

Harvey Award -Best Cartoonist
Adamson (Sweden) -Best Comic Book
Premio Fumo Di China (Italy) -Best Cartoon Character
National Cartoonist Society -Best Comic Book
Angouleme Alph-Art (France) -Best Foreign Comic Book

Harvey Award -Best Cartoonist
National Cartoonist Society -Best Comic Book
Lucca (Italy) -Best Foreign Cartoonist
Georgia -Inducted into Cartoonist Walk Of Fame

Spain's Premios Expocomic-Best Foreign Comic
Eisner Award-Best Writer/Artist, Humor
Lempi International (Finland)-Best International Cartoonist

Harvey Award-Best Cartoonist
Sproing Award (Norway)-Best Book
Yellow Kid (Italy) -Best Author

Harvey Award-Best Cartoonist

Inkpot Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comic Arts
Sproing Award (Norway)-Best Book

YALSA/ALA Popular Paperbacks for young adults

The Canon

After 12 years, 55 main series issues, 7 prequel issues, and miscellaneous short stories, there’s a lot more making up Bone than a simple collection of sight gags. It would probably take too long to retroactively review all the issues (and it doesn’t really make sense to review The Bone Flip-book), but, since Smith’s plan is to phase out reprints and use trade paperbacks (which re-edit the order of issues and include new art and stories) as the sole format of distribution, let’s take a look at the major storylines.

Oh, and for anyone new to Bone, please don’t read this if you want everything to be a complete surprise. These won’t totally summarize the volumes or reveal too many details, but it’s kind of hard to analyze a series without discussing major plot points, so…

Out From Boneville

Yessir, here is where it all starts.

This opening volume is probably the cartooniest chapter of the story, as nearly all of it focuses on the Bone cousins and their wacky early escapades in the valley. More importantly, though, there are no deaths, no lasting injuries, no immediate concerns over property damage, and few consequences for mistakes made. To put it quite simply, this book is just brimming over with innocence.

Thorn is a naïve, round-faced little girl, for the most part, and the Bones are blissfully ignorant of the peril they are in. Gran’ma Ben seems to be a kooky old hermit obsessed with cows, and Lucius, tavern master of The Barrel Haven, is little more than a Bluto-type, there to threaten Phoney Bone. The Great Red Dragon mostly comes off like Mr. Snufflupagus on Sesame Street (before everyone found out he wasn’t imaginary) rather than a heroic deity setting up pieces on the chess board.

But even the bad guys are harmless. The villainous Rat Creatures are represented by the two most incompetent, cowardly characters in the entire series who deliver most of the book’s physical comedy as they chase Fone Bone around like Tom and Jerry. It isn’t even two issues in before they give rise to the classic “STUPID, STUPID RAT CREATURES!” catch phrase. The power of The Hooded One is mysterious and remote and the Lord of the Locusts isn’t even whispered about at this point.

What makes this chapter so brilliant (aside from the introduction to Smith’s gorgeous artwork) is the way characters are meticulously placed into threads that, in some cases, won’t end for another 12 years.

Much has been made of how Smith was basing his story off the style of Lord of the Rings (before it was cool again, no less) and it’s easy to recognize the device of beginning a story with lovable little creatures who find themselves in an adventure greater than their wildest dreams. The Great Red Dragon acts as a Gandalf of sorts, occasionally peeking in on those who ignorantly keep his greatest secret hidden for him. Even Gran’ma Ben, as the character once burned by the dragon’s meddling, could compare to Bilbo Baggins without much trouble.

However, the story even more easily reflects elements of Star Wars. We begin with the weakest characters, lost and bickering in the desert. They get separated and wander alone, encountering strange creatures, in one case, before they’re reunited at the homestead of a rural farmer who just happens to watch over a dead relative’s orphaned child who has nearly grown to maturity.

It’s not long after the wanderers have been welcomed into the neighborhood that one of them starts talking about a powerful old being, one of the last practicing a forgotten art of manipulating reality, who lives nearby. The farmer, of course, claims no such person exists, but the child’s curiosity is piqued…

The story is that universal human myth proposed by Joseph Campbell and repeated by more writers around the world than any other (until Hollywood got up and running, that is). Though Smith tells his own tale, these solid foundations give Bone the starting point it needed to become a multi-national, multi-lingual favorite.

Next week: Barring Jason's mental breakdown, further delving into the Canon of Bone...


Jason Schachat

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