My Misspent Youth: Bone by Jeff Smith

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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Let me begin by openly acknowledging that while “youth” may remain a valid term in this instance (the older you get, the deeper into your life the cutoff of where youth ended extends), I’m certainly abusing that italicized “kid” up there. I was already into my twenties–though not by much–when Jeff Smith started his self-published series Bone. With many of my collegiate era finds diverted elsewhere, it took quite a bit to get me to try out a new series, especially one from a previously unknown creator. Luckily, Smith had the key attention-getting quality: immediately evident talent.

I still needed an outlet to get my first exposure to the work in question, which was provided by Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus, who at the time was operating as the benevolent patriarch of the whole self-publishing movement, including devoting several pages in the back of his own publication to previews of others’ efforts (he himself was also extending into the oddest of places). In Cerebus #161, Sim provided a showcase for Smith’s Bone. Unlike some other titles he excerpted, doing them no real favors in the decontextualization of the full works, Bone stood up marvelously well in a sample size, largely because Smith’s cartooning was so sharp and lively. The characters were vividly conceived and the whole thing had an infectious, ingratiating spirit. Just like that, I was fully committed.

And I picked a good time to start reading. While Bone proved to be an extended saga that spread across fifty-five issues, I joined it during an embedded storyline often referred to by the name of the fictional event at its core: The Great Cow Race. The series began with the three Bone cousins, cast out of their home of Boneville because of the hucksterism of the star-shirted Phoney Bone. By this point, they’d already encountered and entered into a journey with the beautiful forest girl Thorn and her grandmother, known far and wide as Gran’ma Ben. As the mysteries behind Thorn’s history were mounting and the lead character Fone Bone was troubled by highly fraught encounters villainous rat creatures, the main focus was on a small town’s upcoming cow race, which Gran’ma Ben always competed in, besting the charging farm mammals without fail. Phoney naturally saw this as an opportunity.

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The means to achieving this involved concocting and then spreading a rumor about an ominous Mystery Cow, a grotesque Guernsey that actually had the power to finally relegate Gran’ma Ben to runner-up status. Phoney’s plan goes off perfectly as he collects a huge number of bets on the mythic Mystery Cow and none whatsoever for Gran’ma Ben. Which brings him to the next necessary step of creating the competitor. For that, he has his cousin and compatriot Smiley Bone.

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Throughout the lead-up to the race, Phoney kept trying to convince local tavern owner (and dear ally of Gran’ma Ben) to put his place of business up as a wager. He finally does so moments before the race, in precisely the way that upends all of Phoney’s plans.

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With that, Phoney insists that his costumed cousin do everything he can to win the race, even decided to help him run faster by joining him in the costume (eventually taking up problematic residence in the cloth udder). While this is going on, Fone Bone is running for his life from the rat creatures (who envision him as the ideal fixings for a lovely quiche), allowing Smith to bring his various threads together in grand style.

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Rereading the earliest issues later, it became abundantly clear that the Great Cow Race storyline was where Smith began to hint at exactly how much ambitious he was prepared to being to this series. Using the Bone characters, which had been part of his repertoire since he was a kid, Smith had aspirations to a vast storyline that had some kinship with the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien and all the bold fantasy tales that followed in the Hobbit master’s wake. He deliberately started with whimsy and silliness so that he could stealthily evolve the series into a small epic of good versus evil.

His gift for cartooning never abated, although his style became incrementally more sophisticated (there was no room for exaggerated jaw-dropping in the later, darker chapters), and it remains remarkable to me how skillfully the whole story builds. It gives away some immediate accessibility in the back end of the story, but by then I imagine most readers were hooked, especially perhaps the youthful readers who were well-trained by J.K. Rowling to revel in a story’s long game. While Smith’s initial comics predate the introduction of Harry Potter by several years, the boy wizard’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic Books, used the knowledge they developed through carefully cultivating a sensation in bringing Bone to a wider audience. Originally printed as black-and-white comics, Scholastic brought out handsome color editions (which are clearly what I’ve drawn from for the images in this post) that served to accentuate the breadth of appeal of the story, reminding of both its innocent beginnings and its more mature, sombre conclusions.

Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton