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Bone: One Volume

One of the little annoyances of reviewing graphic novels arises from the serial format of comics in general: namely that they keep being published and keep getting collected. Graphic novels usually cover only one story arc at a time, with multiple volumes following afterward to cover subsequent chapters of the comic.

When I review a graphic novel, I try very hard to not review the second or third volume in a series, because not only do I have less of an idea of what the author and artist of the work are trying for without having read the first volume, but there are few people willing to jump head first into the middle of a long running series. Sandman tops out at ten volumes, Lone Wolf & Cub around twenty-six or so, and they are the kind of series that one really needs to begin with volume one (Preludes & Nocturnes and Assassin’s Road respectively). You rarely get the chance to review more than the first or maybe the second volume of a series before you just end up spouting the same lines of praising dialogue or vengeful scorn as you go through each volume, and you almost never get to review the entire collection; never get to comment an entire story, outside of the singular Original Graphic Novel.

If only someone could collect an exhaustive collection into one volume that could be read cover-to-cover and evaluated as one story…

And lo, did there come Jeff Smith’s insane idea to collect the entire 55-issue run of his independent comic-fantasy series Bone, originally split into nine graphic novels, into one single volume. And even more insane was offering it for $39.95.

I have actually reviewed the first volume of Bone, so the basic breakdown of the initial plot is the same:

Drawn and written by Smith the first volume, Out From Boneville, is the introduction to the Bone Brothers: Fone Bone, Phoncible “Phoney” P. Bone, and Smiley Bone. The Bone Brothers have been recently kicked out of their hometown (shockingly named Boneville) thanks to a get-richer-quick scheme on the part of Phoney. As they travel, lost in the desert, the boys get attacked and separated, all ending up in a rather pleasant forested valley, where kindly possums, freak snow storms, and “stupid, stupid rat creatures!” roam. Their arrival in the valley brings with it some dangers: Fone is being constantly tracked by the rat creatures, Phoney is being marked for assassination by some unknown dark power, and Smiley finds that it’s hard to pay a bar tab in a culture built on the barter system…

In re-reading this first volume as I thumbed my way through 1300 pages of Bone and following the story all the way to its close, I find myself noticing how much the book managed to change and expand on what began as a more comedic book about a fantasy setting with cartoonish characters mixed in.

Over the course of the nine books contained within, the story grows in concentric circles to encompass not only the valley, but the entire fantasy world that Smith creates. The rat creatures, at first appearing to be foppish goons, become a real and valid threat when a true war between them and the humans of the valley and the Old Kingdom begins, spawned by the Lord of Locusts by the proxy of his servant known as The Hooded One.

Smith writes the war into the story early, by the third book showing small incursions of rat creatures breaking the treaties they’d established, and eventually building until an army has been amassed and dispatched to destroy any humans they come across, invoking war on a Lord of the Rings scale. The war becomes an overhanging threat to the safety of the characters, and even in more solemn moments or points where the funny finds its way into the text, the menace of being in a war zone never leaves the background of the story, and the characters are always aware of it. Smith manages to keep the war in the background, but always a part of the story and motivations of his characters, which gives the text a feeling of always-moving forward, striving toward the culmination of the conflict.

You wouldn’t think so, but there are points where the act of reading the book is lightning quick; where battle scene flows into battle scene, jumping quickly back and forth from characters not in combat and those (Grandma Ben specifically) that are in the thick of the carnage. Smith is always focused on the story he’s telling, giving equal time to quieter moments, but remembering that the action is guiding the story near the end of the volume.

One thing I truly love about this story, and what makes this an all-ages book, is that while the characters of Bone, Thorn, Phoney, etc. all have experiences that change them to an extent, making them maybe a little harder in response to their world, they stay true to the core of their characters. Bone is still the self-sacrificing and valiant hero he was at the beginning of the story, and he is still possessed of his desire to take care of those he loves. Thorn, despite discovering her ties to the Old Kingdom, and the lies that Grandma Ben told her to keep her protected from her destiny, Thorn retains her innocence while paradoxically becoming more mature.

It’s not that the characters change so much as the reader simply learns more about them. The qualities of heroism and friendship and loyalty were always a part of Bone and they become more pronounced as the situation became direr, but it feels organic. Thorn becomes stronger and more rough-and-tumble as the story and the war progresses, but she still has a tender vulnerability that she needs Bone to bolster when she begins to question herself and her mission. We learn about the characters as they learn about themselves, and the way the characters preserve their identities and their more juvenile aspects throughout the story make the characters accessible to kids and adult readers.

The story is really quite epic in its scope, which may be the reason that many reviewers have likened it to LOTR. Bone is intricate, and extremely well plotted and paced. Smith spent years pouring himself into his book (the better part of a decade and a half writing and drawing), through years of independent publishing under his company Cartoon Books and some dalliances with other companies like Image. It shows in every panel, every inked line and word balloon. Independent publishers often spend years just getting shelf space for their work and trying to build a fan base, and Jeff Smith has managed to build and maintain that fan base, spanning years and attracting more fans as the years went on (you’re reading the barely educated opinion of one right now). That alone is a testament to how good Bone really is.

It’s a ridiculous deal at $39.95 for all nine volumes in one, a possible cost of $120 if bought part and parcel. It’s a rare opportunity for comic readers to get to read one artist’s entire vision, presented in total and without interruption and The One Volume offers just that for a ridiculously good price, and I recommend you go get your copy now, as demand for this collection is high. But you’d really have to be crazy not to want this graphic novel. At 1300 pages, it is the ultimate spider-killing instrument…and you could probably get rid of any pesky wildebeests that wandered by with a good wind up too.

Bone: One Volume Edition

Robert Sparling

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