Listen to the Recess! Clip
Like many children, one of the things I enjoyed doing when I was young was inventing characters — and even more fun was creating the stories they inhabited. So what happens if you grow up and never stop dreaming up adventures for these characters? If you’re Jeff Smith, you become a cartoonist and make one of the longest running, self-published comic book series to be put out by a single individual. Smith’s fantasy tale, Bone, started with characters he invented in kindergarten and has since become an epic 55 issue black and white comic that took 13 years to make. It is now currently being re-published in nine full-color volumes by Scholastic.
Bone begins with three orphaned cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. The Bones are all of diminutive stature and are drawn in a style reminiscent of Walt Kelley’s Pogo; their rounded Disney-style figures reveal Smith’s training as an animator as well as cartoonist. Through the avaricious exploits of the eldest cousin, Phoney Bone, which gets him banished from his hometown Boneville, the three cross a desert to a place that is beyond the range of any map they have ever seen; a place where, quite literally, there be dragons. They find themselves in a world full of marvels: dragons with square jaws and pom-poms on their ears, monstrous rat creatures and strangest of all, humans. And with characters like Gran’ma Ben, a warrior grandmother with adamantine strength and a fondness for racing cows, there are some exceptional humans indeed.
As the story progresses, things get steadily darker. A mysterious figure known only as the Hooded One threatens to resurrect the Lord of the Locusts and turn the world into a waking nightmare. If this tale of three homunculean creatures thrown into a land of magic and apocalyptic danger sounds a little like what happens to the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, you aren’t far off. But Smith’s reworking of fantasy themes and his instinct for comedy brings new and wonderful creations to every panel. And like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Hayao Miyazaki’s epic graphic novel Nausicas of the Valley of the Wind, Bone is a story that respects the intelligence of its young audiences. The plotlines are twisted passages that lead to places where things aren’t always what they seem and separating the good from the evil quickly gets complicated. When Phoney Bone (acting like a cross between Scrooge McDuck and Napoleon) incites a town to mob violence by appealing to a sense of moral righteousness, Smith succeeds in blending the chilling with the farcical. And this is one of Bone‘s great charms. It’s a comic that can make people of all ages laugh and then reflect for the over 1300 of its beautifully drawn pages. And if you aren’t sated once you reach the end, there are always the video games.