Review: Jeff Smith’s “Bone”—Book 4: “The Dragonslayer” Dedicates too Much Time to Subplots and Fails to Significantly Enhance the Main Story
J. Jonah Jameson.
That’s the image that continually popped into my head whenever Phoney Bone appeared the page. Nearly every time words were blurted from the mouth of that star-shirt-wearing, big-nosed buffoon, I could easily picture them coming from The Daily Bugle’s irascible publisher instead.
(come of think of it, would J.K. Simmons be a good voice actor for Phoney in a “Bone” movie? Hmm…)
Phoney Bone is easy to hate. He’s the kind of person who perceives their bad ideas as good ones, and when those bad ideas inevitably land them in constant trouble, quickly blame everything else around them. They point fingers at everyone but themselves (and lest you think I’m complaining about people I know, don’t worry, I’ve also got myself in mind). I don’t know if Smith made Phoney intentionally irritating for slapstick or because he really wanted a character for readers to dislike. If it was the former, I apologize, Jeff Smith, but you failed. Having recently finished the “Bone” volume, I officially recant the prediction I made in an earlier post hoping Phoney could change over the course of the story.
Spoiler: he really doesn’t.
“The Dragonslayer” heaps a ton of focus onto Phoney, meaning we’re gonna spend a lot of time with his gosh darned shenanigans.
Get ready for some major cringe.
Phoney Bone should be endearing; his brand of annoyance and irritation, if Smith played his cards correctly, should be enjoyable. Going back to my JJJ comparison, the entertainment value in a character like Jameson is knowing that, beyond the gruff and sometimes ridiculous exterior, lies a man who truly cares for others but rarely lets that show (as an aside, recent Spider-Man stories like those by Chip Zdarsky and Nick Spencer have a great job delving into this aspect). But unlike Jameson, whose brusque demeanor is a bit of a façade, Phoney is, to his core, a deeply selfish individual. And that never really changes.
At this point in time, I was hoping Phoney would grow and become more likable as the series went along, that he’d eventually see the deep, deep error of his ways and alter himself for the better. Again, if Smith’s intentions were to propel Phoney in the exact opposite direction and make him even more unlikeable because he thought it’d be funny, he didn’t really succeed. Phoney’s a fool, you see, embarking on one “get rick quick” scheme after another, inevitable dragging his cousins and others around him into the murk. It isn’t funny; it’s irritating.
Which makes me think Smith’s intentions weren’t necessary to provide humor, because the events of “The Dragonslayer” prove how dark one man’s motives can really become. After Smiley lets it slip in “Eyes of the Storm” that Fone Bone knows the Great Red Dragon, the Barrelhaven Tavern is sent into a tizzy. Arguments over whether Dragons exist or not grow into a frenzied chorus of fear. That’s when Phoney offers his services as a “Dragonslayer,” hiring himself out to the townsfolk to end the Dragon menace and keep their families safe. As readers should automatically assume, Phoney doesn’t know the first thing about Dragons…nor does he intend to actually slay one. He just rides the fear train as people start giving him gifts in thanks for eventually “killing” whatever Dragons supposedly intend to harm their town.
To me, Smith stretches his logical limitations a little for this plot to fully work. The one real doubter of Phoney’s plan is Lucius, but everybody gets so worked up over the potential threat of Dragons that they instantly give Phoney their business and many of their belongings. Longtime patrons and friends even ignore Lucius after he argues Dragons aren’t real and won’t hurt them. Heck, it gets to the point where Phoney’s pretty much running the town, erecting barriers to keep out Dragons (or so he says) and becoming a loud and important voice on public matters while dining on the wares offered him and Smiley. When the town wants to throw an annual celebration, Phoney decries it, claiming they can’t celebrate at a time like this! How unthoughtful! Oh, and instead of celebrating with good food and wine, maybe the foodstuffs should go to him instead, y’know, to keep his strength up when he does fight a Dragon.
I have a difficult time buying that an entire town of people would so easily fall in behind a guy they only recently met who, up until now, has shared no proof of previous Dragon-slaying experience, listening to him over an established figure within their local community. Phoney doesn’t even settle for just his renewed popularity, also choosing to subtly turn the town against Lucius bit by bit. Smith seems to be making a message about fearmongering and the lengths people will go to keep their way of life safe; however, the plot takes a slightly unbelievable direction to get to that position. If a few others had sided with Lucius or voiced concern, this particular plotline may have sounded more reasonable.
Shifting gears over to our other characters, we find Fone Bone, Thorn, and Gran’ma Ben slowly working their way to Barrelhaven. A LOT of plot happens quickly here, so I’ll summarize key events:
• The group is attacked by Kingdok, leader of the Rat Creatures. Thorn uses a sword given her by Gran’ma Ben to lop his arm off. • Gran’ma Ben explains to Thorn that the Rat Creatures aren’t looking for her just because she’s a princess, but that she also is the one who can stop the Hooded One’s master, the Lord of the Locust, from rising to power again. • Thorn, enraged that Gran’ma Ben continually keeps things from her, storms off with Fone Bone. • Thorn and Fone Bone make their way to Barrelhaven, while Gran’ma Ben seemingly vanishes.
The highlight of this section is Thorn’s brief battle with Kingdok. It’s not much of a fight, but seeing Thorn rush to the aid of her grandmother shows the massive step Thorn has taken since we first met her. She’s not really a warrior yet, but she’s no longer the young girl she believed herself to be. Thorn certainly takes issue, rightfully so, with Gran’ma Ben’s secrets and lies, but she also understands she cannot go back to the life she once had.
Other than this, the Thorn portion of our story really takes a backseat to Phoney’s mischievousness. The split with her grandmother is perhaps the most interesting dynamic. It comes down to the classic arc where a parent or parental figure hides information from their child or children to keep them safe. “I just wanted to protect you!” they cry. While Smith doesn’t use such hackneyed phrasing, the idea is the same. This isn’t a criticism of Smith’s work, as he’s not intentionally copying other plotlines. Gran’ma Ben and Thorn’s reactions seems less a cut-and-paste response that you’d see other characters make and more of a revulsion. Thorn doesn’t spend much time berating Gran’ma Ben; she runs away.
Fone Bone joins her, and again, we have a portion of story where our friend doesn’t do a whole lot except follow and observe the goings-on of others around him. Similar to his role in “Eyes of the Storm,” Fone Bone sympathizes with Thorn, especially in regards to Gran’ma Ben’s secrets. Thorn, however, is the real hero of this chapter, slicing off Kingdok’s arm and making the Rat Creatures believe he’s dead. I do appreciate Thorn’s reluctant spirit in all this, acting as someone who wants to avoid her fate while also knowing she is, even against her will, being inexorably drawn towards her destiny. When Phoney actually manages to capture a Dragon—Fone Bone’s friend, the Great Red Dragon—it’s Thorn who comes to his rescue, even if she just helps him get lose and doesn’t remedy the entire “Phoney Bone got him caught in the first place” debacle.
This book is jam-packed with material and many of our characters cross over into each other’s stories, making it a bit difficult to parse through the individual tales at times. A few leaps in logic and storytelling are taken to get events to work out: Lucius and Gran’ma Ben each go off running for one reason or another and up and vanish from the rest of the chapter; Thorn’s timely rescue of the Dragon feels a tad coincidental; Smiley and Fone end up taking care of a small Rat Creature Smiley names Bartleby, a somewhat amusing subplot but one that feels out of left field.
The pacing isn’t so much the problem as is the direction. As I discussed in my review of “Out From Boneville,” Smith seems to have a reached a point where he has to stretch the story in between points A and B. Though Smiley now has a subplot of his own that will make him more than just Phoney’s partner-in-crime, Bartleby’s introduction is sudden; having both Smiley and Fone Bone decide to run off from Barrelhaven to return the little guy to his mountain home makes sense for Smiley—it’s a silly decision, thought not an unkind one, with little thought behind it for potential consequences. Why Fone Bone chooses to attend this adventure is a little beyond me. Was Smith looking for a way to separate Fone Bone and Thorn to inject some tension into their relationship? Not sure. The entire situation reads like a side quest in a video game that lacks any real impact on the main adventure.
Now that he’s started his epic adventure off in earnest, Smith seems to be looking for narrative padding to keep from jumping from big plot point to big plot point. Unfortunately, the majority of this book becomes ungainly as a result, with several pages dedicated to factors not necessarily important to the main story itself. The Phoney Bone “Dragonslayer” subplot does feel like a natural extension of Phoney’s rather flat character; but the Smiley Bone “Bartleby” adventure counters this somewhat by forcing in something for the third Bone cousin to do. You can certainly admire Smith’s attempts at offering Smiley his own story, and the intent is a novel one. In execution, this and other subplots pack in more story than necessary for this volume. As a result, surprisingly, you get a volume that is certainly entertaining at times but lacks the emotional punch we’ve previously felt.