|When the Bone cousins – Fone, Phoney, and Smiley – are cast out of Boneville, the trio find themselves in a fantastical valley. Desperately trying to get back home, the cousins are soon embroiled in a conflict between a centuries-old evil and a shattered kingdom, befriending whimsical characters and facing monumental foes as they figure out what they’re fighting for.
|Cartoon Books, Image Comics
|144 pages per volume
|July 1991-June 2004
Welp. He did it again.
Phoney Bone’s latest get-rich-quick-scheme just took a nosedive, like a penguin falling out of an airplane without a parachute. People used to call him the “richest Bone in Boneville.” Now, after a failed mayoral campaign that saw a giant Phoney-shaped balloon tear itself from its moorings and terrorize what was supposed to be a lovely picnic, people call him a menace… and that was before the unintentional food poisoning.
Run out of Boneville on a rail, Phoney and his cousins, Fone Bone and Smiley Bone, find themselves adrift on an ocean of consequence. What they don’t know is their forced vacation is heading for strange new lands. A lush valley threatened by a hooded villain. A fallen kingdom longing to be rebuilt. An old cow woman and her granddaughter who possess secrets maybe even they are unaware of. And a Great Red Dragon.
Published between 1991 and 2004, Jeff Smith’s Eisner Award-winning Bone saga was initially produced in 55 single-issue installments. In the years since, the series has been collected in various volumes both in its original black-and-white style as well as colorized editions. Together, the series represents a blend of comedic slapstick and dark fantasy, Looney Tunes meets Lord of the Rings. Bone has, in recent years, been met with criticism and, in some cases, faced censure from well-meaning authority figures. But how much of Smith’s sprawling narrative is worth critiquing? What redeeming qualities exist beyond the seeming detrimental parts of his story?
Violence: Most of the violence is cartoony in nature – people tumble, get whacked, are bonked on the head. Bruises and bumps heal quickly, especially for the Bones. Think “Tom and Jerry.” As the series progresses, the violence becomes heavier. Soldiers and monsters are stabbed with swords and shot with arrows. A few people are bitten. A character loses an arm. Most of the blood and potentially traumatic visuals are obscured or rendered with little detail. Smith’s most violent death sees a man sliced in two. A town is decimated, and later, a massive swath of land is seemingly destroyed in an explosion. Some characters are electrocuted or burned. A monster is stabbed in the head. Other deaths and fights are implied or relayed to characters.
Sexual Content: Fone develops a crush on a female character, his interest largely kept to flirtatious dialogue and love poems. It’s implied two characters bathe together, though this is done for comedic purposes. A male character watches a female character start undressing for a bath, though again, nothing inappropriate is shown.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Smiley Bone smokes throughout the series, and a few other characters puff cigars or pipes. Multiple scenes take place at a tavern where men drink liberally.
Spiritual Content: Bone’s overarching plot features conflicts between three different religious sects – the Hooded One’s master the Lord of the Locusts and their followers, the disciples of Venu, and the disciples of Vedu. Smith laces his saga with references to mystical powers and beliefs, focusing on worlds of dreams tethered to reality. Characters discuss the importance of souls, the realm of spirits, prayer, and fate. Shrines are erected to dragons, which have a connection to the spirit realm. Some consider dragon worship heresy and dragons themselves imaginary. A character claims to be among the living dead. A creation story is told, depicting creatures which look like dinosaurs and characters taken to be Adam and Eve analogues. Someone undergoes a near death experience where they approach a shimmering light. A character frequently experiences “the glitchy,” an ill feeling which portends negative circumstances. People discuss prayer stones and other good luck charms intended to ward off evil. Characters stumble upon a temple.
Language/Crude Humor: A few instances of God’s name in vain and one h***. A few characters utilize fictional curses such as “By St. Geo!” and “Bloody stars!” We’re told one character starts “cussin’ a blue streak.”
Other Negative Content: A character consistently schemes to cheat people out of their belongings and finances. Some people insult and yell at each other. Several characters keep secrets or lie to disguise grim truths. A few people steal.
Positive Content: Characters help each other in a myriad of ways. Animal characters help Fone Bone survive a harsh winter. Gran’ma Ben and Thorn open their home. Characters willingly head into perilous situations. People save each other’s lives and protect one another, not just from necessity, but from want. Fone Bone continually puts others’ needs before his own, standing up to his louder cousin Phoney on several occasions where service and sacrifice are required. One character embraces a role destined for her with no little amount of uncertainty but with bravery nonetheless. Someone comforts a friend in their last moments. We’re told a man made another character make up for past wrongdoing. Someone is honored with a funeral.
Smith’s narrative feels like a blend of Looney Tunes and Peanuts at first – a cross between the madcap hijinks of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck rendered in a Charles Shulz-esque style. Several pages even end with panels containing punchlines, heightening the comparison to a comic strip. From the beginning, Smith deftly controls his narrative, offering tidbits of his grander adventure sandwiched between these panels of pratfalls and low-stakes hijinks. Character-driven pages introduce our primary actors – the affable yet oblivious Smiley Bone; arrogant, money-grubbing Phoney Bone; winsome, dedicated Fone Bone; and the people of the Valley they stumble upon. It takes a little while for Smith’s primary story to take over, but even in his opening chapters, seeds for the future are sown. A Great Red Dragon befriends Fone Bone, arguably Smith’s primary, “everyman” protagonist. Sinister Rat Creatures hunt the family. A cloaked villain drifts in and out of dreams.
The pacing involved in constructing a gigantic story over 13 years is a remarkable achievement when you consider how complete Bone is. Whether you choose to read the story in individual “Books” (the series consists of nine “Books,” each with several chapters) or in collected editions covering the whole saga, the experience is relatively the same. Each “Book” progresses Smith’s primary narrative, never losing sight of the endgame. Yet, the writer finds time to weave in ancillary plots and details – two imbecilic Rat Creatures who argue over quiche while they unsuccessfully try capturing the Bones, Phoney’s constant money-making plots, hints of ages-past romance between tavern owner Lucius Down and a female character.
These subplots and details enrich a world already fully realized when you first step into it. Smith’s narrative occurs within the Valley or in the surrounding landscape. In some ways, the Valley feels like our world. Daily occurrences happen which may be familiar to us, especially if you’ve visited a farm, traipsed through the woods, or chatted with friends at a local eatery or taproom. Yet as Smith unfolds the Valley around the Bones, he transforms their perceptions about this familiar yet different realm. The land and life they’re used to are not the only lands and lives out there. They must grow and adapt with the changes they encounter.
Smith’s “slice of life” elements in the first chapters give way to larger arcs and stories as the world is explored and its lore deepened. He gains your trust, proves he can artfully maneuver his characters in and out of wonky situations, before gently pushing you into more rapid waters. Again, his pacing is brilliant, his plot always building. Amusing chase scenes give way to larger skirmishes, interactions pack larger punches as the plot moves forward, dreams are deepened, questions answered. The depth hinted at in earlier chapters is explored more fully.
Characters are not necessarily always given equal billing, but Smith takes time to explore and grow each of his protagonists. Though Fone Bone begins as the epic’s main character, Smith artfully and carefully maneuvers Thorn into position as a primary protagonist. Almost subtly, he builds her confidence and character as she interacts with the Bones and the world outside her grandmother’s farm. She, too, must grow accustomed to realms strange and unfamiliar. A dramatic reveal early in the saga is predicated on the character work Smith has already imbued Thorn with; hinted at in dreams, the twist wrenches Thorn into an entirely new role, a debacle she wrestles with earnestly. The twist itself may appear sudden, with additional readings providing further hints, but it is by no means unwelcome. You never feel as if Smith is forcing Thorn into the spotlight by turning her world inside out. Her proceeding arc further validates Smith’s direction for her. Who she is at the end of the series is a far cry from the girl we meet in the first Book.
The same can be said, largely, of other characters… with perhaps one exception. This is more a personal indictment than anything else, but I would argue Smith’s ending stifles the growth of one of his main protagonists. Through the whole saga, we watch the Bones change in different ways. Phoney becomes, perhaps, a little less selfish, Smiley more mature, Fone more adamant. Yet Smith’s ending upends some of this characterization, negating a bit of the growth he’s woven into the arc. I’m sure fans could argue the opposite, and I’m aware that Smith has stated he drew the ending first and built his narrative to that point. I understand the outcome is what he strove for while crafting the entire saga, but on a personal level, I have never been a fan. A character reverts, in my mind, to a state similar to his existence before Smith’s grand adventure. It’s a step backwards for the character, a slight degradation or devolution in personality and wisdom.
A Bone to Pick With Bone
I am not, as the internet indicates, the only person to find fault with Smith’s narrative. However, the vitriol lobbed at the series primarily stems from issues with content rather than plot or characterization. Bone has been called “one of the most challenged books in American libraries”. In 2013, it sat alongside Fifty Shades of Grey as a Top 10 challenged book, as reported by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Anecdotes indicate parents have reported the series on the grounds of drinking, smoking, and violence; at least one complaint cited racial or political offenses within the book.
Smith has decried these criticisms, saying, “I have no idea what book these people read. After fielding these and other charges for a while now, I’m starting to think such outrageous accusations (really, racism?) say more about the people who make them than about the books themselves.”
From a factual standpoint, characters do smoke and drink. Smiley Bone prominently sports a lit cigar throughout the series; several scenes take place in a tavern, where townsfolk meet and drink. A contest is created between two characters to see who can sell the most beer. And while Smith’s violence begins humorously, it ramps up as the series progresses. Various folks are indeed stabbed, and one man is cut in half.
On the other hand, Smith’s intentions are never degrading or intentionally influential. His point is not for you to want to imitate Smiley Bone by taking up smoking. His bar scenes simply add atmosphere to the story; none of his characters become drunk or disorderly. Smith never, at the very least, promotes such activity through his characters.
The racism argument seems sketchy as well. Again, Smith does not use his series to speak out against any one group of people. Most of his characters are human, and while his non-human characters are treated a little differently (the Bones, the Dragons, the Rat Creatures), Smith isn’t advocating racism or even focusing on racial tension. If anything, he promotes the benefit of understanding different people. The Bones come to appreciate the Valley and how differently its people live, the Valley people learn to appreciate them in turn, and the Rat Creature cub proves not all of the hairy monsters are “evil”. Even this is more subtly woven through the series. There’s nothing blatantly racist in Bone.
But what about Smith’s religious angle? Elements of his narrative’s theology seem biblical – an image depicts first humans analogous to Adam and Eve, a good being is corrupted by an evil spirit, people access a spiritual realm beyond their world. But Smith’s religious aspects – a world of dragons, where disciples of one religion battle the followers of a different religion with swords and magic – don’t otherwise gel with Christianity. Similar to the drinking/smoking elements, religion is primarily used to bring Smith’s world to life, offering a philosophical dimension to his society. Smith doesn’t speak out against any real religion or even have characters purposefully crusade against or hate the followers of a different sect. Readers can, and should, be careful when comparing Smith’s religious system with real belief, accurately dividing truth from fiction. But like his use of smoking and drinking, Smith is not attempting to persuade anyone to start a cult.
The various viewpoints of readers are understandable, and I believe the issue warrants discussion. I first read Bone several years ago, and while I wasn’t impacted by the drinking, smoking, or religious/racial angles, the sight of a man cloven in two remained with me. The image is tame in comparison to other graphic deaths in comic book literature and even film (Suicide Squad, anyone?) yet is still violent and potentially bothersome to younger readers. I would not necessarily argue that parents should outright discard the book on the grounds of violence or the smoking/drinking issue, but Smith’s work could still be policed before allowing a younger reader to peruse the narrative.
I recall my own father’s practice when it came to reading material. In certain comics, he crossed out foul language or covered up inappropriate images. He decided to remove a couple pages of one issue. In a few instances, he decided I wasn’t allowed to read certain stories at a younger age. But he acted lovingly, with the intent to protect my eyes, mind, and heart. I wonder how many parents truly examined Bone before banning the book or just decried it due to hearsay. A parent definitely has a role to play in their children’s literary choices, but I find it hard to argue that outright eliminating a series like Bone is the correct option. It’s certainly nowhere near as explicit as Fifty Shades of Gray or even Saga, another challenged comic series. Even Scripture contains flashes of violence and stories of drunken revelry, but like Bone, it doesn’t glorify these behaviors. Instead, it promotes a distinction between proper and improper behavior, allowing for discussion. Bone should be viewed through the same lens. What is Smith saying through his violence? What discussions can come from observing and examining his religious angle?
A MetalSmith who Forges Character
If anything, I am personally more perturbed by Smith’s ending than by scenes where Smiley Bone puffs a cigar. Smith’s characterization is impactful. I’m far more interested in Smiley’s development than I am in his smoking; I’m much more invested in Lucius Down’s staunch protectiveness of his friends than I am in how he runs his tavern. Our protagonists’ decisions say a lot about their character. Gran’ma Ben, hiding secrets from her granddaughter for years, eventually shares those secrets and propels Thorn’s narrative forward. Thorn, seemingly a simple farm girl, becomes embroiled in a quest and grows in strength and wisdom. Many of Smith’s characters either initially smother their true selves or are unaware of who they were intended to become. Over the course of the series, this changes. They all discover the truth, either through revelations or actions which alter their old selves.
At one moment in the series, a character slips away from a battle, appearing to play the coward. Several pages later, he triumphantly returns with assembled troops, helping turn the tide of warfare. This same character, a few chapters earlier, remarked on the bravery of another man. He’s astonished by the man’s ability to drop everything to risk his life for his friends. The scene marks a change in his personality, introducing growth. Moments like these make Smith’s narrative stand out. As annoying as the ending might be for upending some of that growth, the rest of the story is focused on development.
The Hobbit ends with Bilbo Baggins returning to the Shire yet coming back a changed hobbit. Likewise, The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe see characters physically return home but with wisdom and maturity they previously lacked. Bone works similarly. Some of the Valley’s physical state returns to normal; some of our characters come home. But for the most part, like any good fantasy epic, they don’t come home the same people they were when they left. Perhaps Smith’s ending isn’t perfect, but it indicates transformation. For many of his characters, the status quo of the heart is shifted from an old person to a new person, evidenced in bravery, compassion, and selflessness. The change is radical and permanent, passing through the flesh, slipping into the bloodstream, and digging deep into the bone.
+ An immersive world filled with lore and background
+ Highly memorable characters with wonderful arcs
+ A complete, coherent narrative that balances comedy with characterization
+ Engaging visuals
- A small reversal of characterization near the story's end
- Some fans may be turned away from the violence, smoking, and drinking
The Bottom Line
Jeff Smith's world is worth visiting and revisiting--a strong story, deep characters, and a fully-realized world await anyone willing to dive in