The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
The acclaimed Bone series, created by Jeff Smith.
Little did I know in 1991 that this black & white funny animal book would change the way I viewed comics, and I suspect I was not alone in this. Bone #1, with it’s Carl Barks by way of Walt Kelly hijinks had me sold instantly. Jeff Smith’s animal characters had such life to them, each one’s quirky personality belying the very humanity needed to sell the epic story that Smith would eventually tell.
Smith published 55 mostly bi-monthly issues of Bone, from June 1991 until June 2004, primarily through his own Cartoon Books label, with a brief stint at Image Comics. Combining elements of light comedy, slapstick humor, and dark, epic fantasy, Bone became a cult favorite, a book that was perfectly suited for the young, and loved by the young at heart.
This grandiose tale centers on the three Bone cousins, Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone, Smiley Bone, and Fone Bone, after they are run out of their home, Boneville. The three are separated by a sea of locusts after crossing the desert, chased by terrifying rat creatures until they meet up again at Barrellhaven where they are taken in by Thorn and her grandmother. They eventually embark on a hero’s journey to save the valley from the Lord of Locusts.
Through this journey we experience laughter, labor, love, loss, liability, plenty of luck, and eventually laurels. Smith has been quoted as saying, “I always wanted Uncle Scrooge to go on a longer adventure. I thought, ‘Man, if you could just get a comic book of that quality, the length of say, War and Peace, or The Odyssey or something, that would be something I would love to read, and even as a kid I looked everywhere for that book, that Uncle Scrooge story that was 1,100 pages long.”
Like any epic journey, there is plenty of danger, lots of excitement, multiple tasks for our heroes to complete, and an eventual showdown with the big bad. This is a story of family, friendship, and sticking together to overcome the odds stacked against you. It is also about how each of us has a destiny, and how even the smallest of us can win the day.
Bone really is an odyssey, starting out as Pogo, and ending as Lord of the Rings. The tale itself is epic in scope, and our heroes are as changed by it in the end as I was. The Bone cousins grow and evolve as the story unfolds, maturing, becoming more worldly, yet keeping their essence intact.
Smith’s art has evolved as well along the way, but right from the start this was an artist with a sure hand, and a clear vision. Through the years there have been a few Bone art books released, allowing us to see his incomparable lines untouched, and while that is truly great, you can see from issue one, page one, that Jeff Smith had a confident and polished style from the get go.
He instills his characters with a full range of emotion, deftly using his brush to bring them to life on the page. And we feel every one of those emotions along with them, as these funny animals had an amazing depth of characterization. This was an artist firing on all cylinders, a perfect marriage of writing and art, and at the center of it all was heart.
The series has won many awards during its run, including multiple Eisners and Harveys, and TIME Magazine critic Andrew Arnold called Bone “the best all-ages graphic novel yet published.” What began as a simple comic tale grew into a sprawling epic of Tolkienesque proportions, and elevated the medium in the eyes of fans and the media.
Bone has been collected into many different editions throughout the last decade, including colorized versions, and a 1344 page complete collected edition, not to mention the action figures and video games inspired by this fantastic series. Like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Bone has created many a comic fan, simply by being an excellent, unique voice, telling a story that nobody else was telling, and doing it masterfully.
In an industry suffocated with the ordinary, Bone was extraordinary, and was one of the reasons it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.