Bone, Vol. 5: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border by Jeff Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s very hard not to like BONE. When people want to know a good place to start as far as graphic novels go, this is always near the top of my list. Especially if the person who is asking has kids or is a kid. Because besides being heart-warming, adorable, compelling, humorous, and well-drawn, BONE is also pretty wholesome. Imagine Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald (or rather, Uncle Scrooge) stumbling upon an enchanted valley where they get mixed up with dragons, rat-creatures, a princess, prophecy, etc., etc. And to add to that level of surreality, throw in some lovable Bambi-esque woodland creatures. Our heroes fighting alongside, for example, some orphaned turtles, raccoons, talking bugs, and possum kids. Yet the drawing and the story-telling make this Disney-meets-Lord of the Rings schtick work. And work as more than schtick. This isn’t simply a fantasy epic drawn through the medium of a cartoon. It’s cartoon characters– with all the slapstick and mayhem that entails– actually entering into a fantasy epic as characters (and of some depth) in their own right.
I’ve read BONE up through Volume 8, though it was a while ago. Our kids have gotten into them now, so I’ve had the chance to re-read them again up to Volume 5, and I’ll take completion of this volume as a chance to review the entire series so far. The Bone cousins– Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone (the loosely Mickey, Uncle Scrooge, and Goofy analogues)– were chased out of Boneville after one of Phoney’s schemes to get rich backfired, and at the beginning of Vol. 1 they find themselves in a strange valley and thrust into the center of a conflict that involves everything from a lost kingdom to cow races to an invasion of an army of rat-creatures. Epic really is a fitting description of what Smith does with these volumes. It takes a few volumes of the story to even get a complete picture of the conflict the Bones have found themselves in.
It’s whimsical without being flippant. Smith’s artwork runs the gamut from suitably cartoonish (the minimalist Bone cousins are in some respects ‘toons boiled down to their essential properties) to subtle (as in some of Fone’s dream sequences or the sweeping panoramas of the valley we’re occasionally treated to). Originally black and white, the volumes have been colored, and having never read the black and white versions I can’t imagine them without it. The colors are vivid and bring an additional depth and drama to the artwork.
Smith’s work is somehow, absurdly, a nod to both cartoons along the lines of Ducktales at its best and your standard sword-and-sorcery epics. And perhaps even more absurdly, it works incredibly well. Every character– including Phoney– is likable. The story continues to build in complexity and raise the stakes but in a well-paced manner without throwing out a huge web of characters or inscrutable backstory. By volume 5 we learn that the girl Fone has fallen for is the lost heir of a kingdom, that a Sauron-like power has return to threaten peace in the valley, and that Phoney’s money-making schemes coupled with the townsfolk’s gullibility spell trouble. And that Smiley has adopted a rat-creature cub. Where it will go from here is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: Smith proves that there’s nothing at all flat about two-dimensional characters.