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Jeff Smith's Bone: An Exhausting Self-Indulgent Retrospective
Part Three: Of Cows And Storms

In Part One, 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.

Last week, Jason discussed the comics boom and bust, and how the plucky Bone and the book of the same name triumphed over forces seemingly bent on his destruction. He also began a look at each individual arc, which we continue this week...

The Great Cow Race

More than anything else, The Great Cow Race has become the sequence/issue/story Jeff Smith is most famous for. Of course, it’s also the story he never intended to tell.

Long time Bone fans already know this, but, essentially, it was a case of the characters talking about something a couple of times. Then excited fans inundated Cartoon Books with letters expressing their delight and desire to see such a thing. Eventually, Smith didn’t have much choice but to do it, and the result of all that pressure is one of the purest examples of graphic narrative and visual comedy committed to the page.

This volume focuses strongly on Phoney’s scheme to swindle the villagers but also further develops Fone Bone’s relationship with Thorn and the importance her dreams of dragons and hooded figures play in the greater story. The hints in Out From Boneville that Thorn was more than met the eye give way to glimpses of her true identity and the dragons’ mystery that would carry through to the end of the series.

At the same time, we see Thorn begin to grow as she learns the importance of true friendship and less physically motivated forms of love. Fone Bone remains the lovesick fool he’s been since the second issue, but losing Thorn’s attention drives him to demonstrate his feelings for her and write love poetry, introducing what would be a running joke for many years to come.

But the big stars here are Phoney and Smiley Bone. Comparisons have been made to Duffy Duck and Porky Pig or Donald Duck and Goofy, yet these two somehow strike even closer to their archetypes than the others usually do. Must have something to do with the watering-down of Warner Bros. and Disney characters that’s occurred since the 1950’s…

In any case, they make for an amazingly endearing pair of scoundrels and it’ll be a shock if their antics in The Great Cow Race don’t inspire future generations to continue the tradition once these days of bland popular cartoon characters has ended (No, even Duck Dodgers doesn’t go far enough).

It’s been said that, if you were going to read just one Bone story, this is the one to go for. I can agree with that, for the most part, but, of course, I’d much more strongly recommend reading the books in order to get the full effect. One of the gravest errors I’ve seen people make when approaching Bone is trying to dive into the story without knowing what’s going on.

The Great Cow Race makes for a great read, but not understanding what Rat Creatures are or why Thorn’s dreams are important could leave newcomers yawning, at times.

Eyes of the Storm

Whereas the first volume focused on the Bone cousins’ separation and reunion and the second told the story surrounding the Great Cow Race, Eyes of the Storm plays more as a series of episodes than a definitive chapter. In the center of these stories, we learn of Thorn and Gran’ma Ben’s royal heritage, the links between Fone Bone and Thorn’s dreams and the conflict in the real world, and the existence of the ultimate enemy: The Lord of the Locusts.

However, much of the trade paperback ties up loose ends from the last two volumes and sets up Phoney’s big scheme in The Dragonslayer. Further repairs are made to Gran’ma Ben’s cottage (still full of holes from the Rat Creature attack in Out From Boneville), Phoney and Smiley return to work for Lucius following their loss at the Cow Race, Fone Bone keeps trying to find a way to tell Thorn he loves her, and the Rat Creatures recuperate from their last debacle.

But this is the volume where everything changes. From here on in, the cartoony cavorting takes a backseat to epic storyline, fantasy adventures, and even a bit of allegory. The Dreaming, merely a curiosity before, now serves as the first battleground in a new war with Fone Bone and Thorn placed at the forefront. And, for the first time, we see Gran’ma Ben forced to kill an enemy.

The Lord of the Rings comparison holds true when we meet the Lord of the Locusts’ displaced consciousness merely issuing orders until he can once again take form. The revelation of Thorn’s lineage smacks of both Aragorn’s secret identity and Gandalf’s explanation to Frodo of the ring’s power.

Yet, again, the similarity to Star Wars feels even stronger. The Hooded One’s meeting with The Lord of the Locusts is a slightly role-reversed adaptation of Darth Vader’s meeting with the holographic Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. Gran’ma Ben’s discussion with Thorn plays like an amalgam of Obi Wan Kenobi’s talks with Luke about his father in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

And, when she learns of trouble in Alderaa- er, Atheia, Gran’ma grabs her old sword and trappings from The Big War and leads her young charge and their diminutive new friend to the local tavern of the nearby town.

The most significant developments, both external and internal, revolve around Thorn. Smith has claimed she’s the hardest member of the cast to draw, and one might be tempted to chalk the evolution of her appearance up to his discomfort with the character, but I’d say there’s too much story motivation to the changes to consider them mistakes.

As Thorn learns to distrust Gran’ma Ben, her face becomes more angular, losing that baby fat with her innocence. Her hair remains childish and unruly, but she trades in her simple country dresses for a pair of pants and a rather military-looking jacket.

The work Smith puts into her close-ups (the most extreme close-ups of the entire series, up to this point) is grueling, and you can almost see her growing up as tears flow over cheeks and her face contorts in anguish.

Eyes of the Storm is labeled as the final chapter of Part One (“The Vernal Equinox”). It really does feel that way. Doors have been opened that can never be closed and the story moves along in a strange new direction.

But, oh, to remember the innocence of youth…

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


Jason Schachat

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