Review: Jeff Smith’s “Bone”—Book 1: “Out from Boneville” is a Great Start to an Epic Fantasy in Comic Form

by Nathan on September 12, 2019 (ComicsBone)

I don’t remember when I first read Jeff Smith’s “Bone.” That isn’t to say I don’t remember the act of reading the story; I just don’t remember what year, what age I was, pieces like that. I know I was young. I know one of my sisters was involved in soccer at the time, because I have a clear memory of sitting in a lawn chair on a hot summer Saturday, gaze glued to the pages of the massive complete collection my dad found at the library. My sister Anna read it, too, and though we only perused it once, it’s a story that has remained stuck in our brains over the years. We talk about it, we reference it. “Bone” became one of those nostalgic pop culture events for me, not necessarily a cornerstone I constructed my memories of childhood upon, but a story I could reflect upon fondly as a remembrance of an age gone by.

I also don’t remember specific impressions of “Bone.” I know I enjoyed the story, watching the titular characters (cousins Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone) getting into scrapes, making friends, and eventually getting sucked into an epic fantasy adventure the scope of something you’d find in “The Lord of the Rings.” Specific scenes here and there became cemented into my mind, but on the whole, “Bone” left an overall feeling in my brain. The entire story as a single unit was great, but the individual pieces? I couldn’t quite say.

I’ve wanted to reread “Bone” for years. This desire led me to first Google it and see what others had to say and to look into a bit of the history surrounding the story’s publication. I found a variety of thoughts and ideas from readers who chowed down on the complete collection like I had to readers who followed the series as Smith developed it from the late 90s to the early 00s. Reading reviews and blogs stirred those old impressions inside me, which eventually convinced me to buy a copy of Smith’s “One Volume Edition” of “Bone” from Amazon and give the story a second whirl. This sucker is over 1300 pages long. I’m excited to dive in.

The hope, for this series, is to examine “Bone” book by book, covering all nine chapters in the epic storyline. I want to look at each piece, see what they contribute, see what I notice now that I might have missed during my first reading all those years ago, hope that maybe it’ll hold up to the same fantastic story I read as a kid. Even if it doesn’t, what I’ve read so far has certainly been entertaining.

Obviously, a SPOILER warning will be in effect. Since I’m delving into these tales, I do plan on revealing several details and plot points that may ruin parts of the book for anyone who has yet to read “Bone.” Still, the last chapter was published 15 years ago, so you’ve got no one to blame but yourself for anything spoiled.

“Out from Boneville”

“Bone” hides its complexity very well. That was one of my first thoughts when I started this reread. I’m not saying Smith dumbs down anything or writes anything poorly for his audience, but from the onset, you don’t feel like you’re heading into anything particularly magical or weighty. Knowing how the story pans out, I can’t say I was surprised that Smith starts out giving us a seemingly simpler tale than what “Bone” eventually develops into.

It’s actually a wonderful trick on Smith’s part, not tipping his hand too early. As you work your way through this first book, much of the story you read centers on main character Fone Bone and his attempts to reunite with his cousins and leave a Valley he’s stumbled into. He wants to go home. This focus means Smith gets to let other subplots and his larger narrative bubble and simmer in the background, almost hidden at moments. The “inciting incident” which leads the Bone cousins to being separated may almost appear as a simple gag in the eyes of a new reader—from out of nowhere, a massive swarm of locusts mobs the trio and leads them in different directions from each other. More experienced readers may understand the importance of this swarm and how Smith will get back to it in future installments. Even more wonderfully, a giant swarm of locusts isn’t out of place in a world populated by talking animals, giant bugs, snow that falls in literal giant sheets from the sky, or a group of small, white Bone creatures who mingle freely with human beings. Through something as simple as a joke, Smith sews the seeds of his larger narrative, hiding it in plain sight.

Elements like this work because they don’t remove the focus from our trio of protagonists while also progressing the overall story. Smith also uses dreams and “cutscenes” to get us more fully involved in his overarching plan, and while these certainly leave the Bone cousins behind, they’re not distracting either. I’m starting to realize that, reading “Bone” for the first time at such a young age, I missed a lot of these details or was confused by how Smith’s narrative occasionally switches focus. I couldn’t even recall if Smith waited a while before springing the “Lord of the Rings” elements on readers or tackled them with it immediately. Turns out, he does neither. The progression is a subtle one, but not slow or boring.

“Out from Boneville” is really meant to be an introduction to readers, and on that front, Smith does a marvelous job. As characters, Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone all stand out as well-rounded individuals, complete with emotions and idiosyncrasies that make them unique and different from each other. While I believe Smith intends for us to relate to Fone Bone the most, hints of relatability reside in Phoney as well. Phoney’s inflated self-perception is under fire, and while he never strays from his arrogance in this chapter, it’s easy to relate to someone who’s just taken a shot to their ego but refuses to see the bruising. He’s quick to blame everyone but himself. Smiley, though not as relatable (yet?), is still a fantastic use of comic relief, with some of the best dialogue and moments in the book.

The human Gran’ma Ben is a total spitfire, a character who subverts the “kindly old woman” trope by being a tough ole bird who can look at you with a smile on her face while threatening to tear your arms off. She races cows (as in, races against the cows on foot) and fights ugly Rat Creatures where her bare hands.

Heck, two of the Rat Creatures—which Smith sets up as your average “cannon fodder” stoolies for the “Big Bad”—have personalities as well, at one point arguing with each other about straight up eating Fone Bone or making him into a quiche.

The only frail character, personality-wise, is Thorn. In hindsight, I headed into this volume ultimately knowing her role in the series. Spoiler, but it’s huge. Huge. She comes into her own as a great character, which makes her involvement in this chapter a bit of a downer. So far, she’s Fone Bone’s love interest, and while she doesn’t respond to his dopey-eyed drooling, she hasn’t done much to set herself apart from the role either. Thorn and Fone Bone run from some slobbering Rat Creatures about halfway through the book shortly after she undergoes some mysterious dreams…but that’s about all of her characterization here. Just a few scattered pieces that have yet to coalesce. Still, knowing what she does later on, it’s a tiny complaint here.

A slightly bigger complaint would be with Smith’s pacing. Though the story flows rather well as it introduces us to locations and characters, and while I can’t say I was ever bored or wished longer scenes would end, I will argue that Smith tends to speed things up unnecessarily. Early on, as Fone Bone is exploring the Valley where Thorn and Gran’ma Ben live, he’s warned about the oncoming winter. He waves the warning aside, only to be buried under the aforementioned literal blanket of snow a few pages later. I get that it’s a fantasy world and Smith can create whatever weather patterns he so chooses. For the sake of the story, however, it just feels like Smith decided “Well, I said there’s gonna be winter, so I gotta make it winter,” and—boom!—winter literally falls out of the sky.

A few other passages reveal similar pacing problems. Phoney Bone does some sneaking when, out of nowhere, he senses someone else coming and hides. Thorn wakes up from a dream about Rat Creatures attacking her to learn that, surprise, actual Rat Creatures have surrounded her grandmother’s entire house. There’s very little set-up for either of these moments, and while I think Smith is trying to inject some tension, both scenes kinda just pop up outta the blue, the silliness of the sudden danger overwhelming the perceived tension.

There’s a lot of focus to this story, and the characterization is wonderful. Smith’s designs for his characters make all of them unique and recognizable, and you can tell he spent a great deal of time visualizing his world. From the Valley, to Gran’ma Ben’s house, to Lucius Down’s tavern Barrelhaven, everything is simplistically striking. The world feels fleshed out, actually realized. Early shots of Fone Bone scaling mountains and cliffsides are a testament to Smith’s literal worldbuilding; they’re the first moment I sort of took notice of the environment Smith has created around his characters and just how important the proper setting is for his story. Considering this is all done in black-and-white makes it even more impressive. Smith creates a world you don’t need color to fully visualize.

Smith knew where he was going. Any curiosities or doubts I had about that going into “Bone” were quickly wiped clean. I’ve even read he drew the final page of “Bone” very early on in the process. Point A and Point B are very clearly defined, but the path getting there may have the occasional loose cobblestone or two.

Winter needs to happen? Poomph, there’s a ton of snow.

Our characters need to get moving? RAWR! Here come the nasty Rat Creatures!

I don’t want to make it sound like I’d want Smith to sacrifice his characterization for a more drawn-out plot. Goodness knows, at a collected 1300 pages, there’s plenty of plot here. But I’m hoping as I read on that the moments that need to be set up will receive the proper timing.

Still, Smith has a ton of space to go. I’m sure the path will even out as we move along.

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