Bone #20, October 1995, Cartoon Books
by Jeff Smith
I don’t like yearbooks. Never have, for many reasons. Yearbooks offer a singular snapshot that offer a potentially endless impression of a person that is undoubtedly so much more than that moment in time encapsulates. A yearbook is like one patch in a large quilt, with significance to the whole, but definitely not the whole. That’s how these "A Comic A Day" experiences have felt.
I picked up four comics for two bucks at a pawnshop earlier today, and one of those issues was Bone #20. I had the choice between #5 and #20, so I opted for the issue that might offer more depth into Bone’s world. See, Bone is a book that lives and breathes by its reputation. From the acclaim I’ve read about Jeff Smith’s series, I expected an incredible tale rife with entertaining escapism, and although the book has a rich history, I figured its twentieth issue was a now-the-ball-is-rolling-but-we’re-not-in-too-deep chance to jump onboard.
Unfortunately, in regards to this issue’s story, I felt like I’d opened a yearbook. In the grand scheme of Bone’s life, I’d picked an awkward moment to observe . . . at least, awkward for someone that doesn’t know him. The inside cover offers a brief synopsis: "After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures . . ." Sounds interesting, eh? I was surely ready for an adventure . . .
. . . for naught. Fone Bone (I didn’t know there was more than one Bone) was lost in a forest with two unidentified companions, while the other two cousins were reunited in a tavern running a scam to sell the most beers. The focus of the issue is Phoney and Smiley’s dishonest entrepreneurship, which does Smith’s artistic ability a disservice. Bone was a bimonthly book; although I know comics don’t work in the "real time" they’re distributed, I would expect such an issue to look like two months’ worth of work. Bone #20 is a Sunday morning comics strip. I should’ve tried #5.
The glimpse we get of Fone’s travels through the forest are artistically impressive. Smith uses the black and white format to its fullest, with heavy shadow, varying lines of thickness, and depth that rivals the richest pallets. Although the Bones seem initially simple in design, they are extremely expressive, perhaps the best example of how less is more in good cartooning. The other characters, all humans, have a pinch of Bruce Timm here, of Scott Morse there (Ancient Joe is still on the brain), defining our generation’s concept of the cartoon, just as Chuck Jones and his apprentices did over thirty years ago. The beer-selling subplot may have been a drag to read, but it was lovely to look at.
Based on this issue’s letter column, Bone had a diverse, faithful following. Two of the letters were from wives that became hooked on Bone when their hubbies brought it home from the comics shop. (No pun intended. Grow up.) What would it take to entice these women to pick up the books on their own? To frequent a comics shop themselves? Maybe I’ll save that analysis for Women’s History Month in March.
Also, unbeknownst to me at the time of purchase, this is the last issue of Bone before the title became another on the mid-90s Image roster. I doubt the series changed much with that big "I" on its cover, but in retrospect, I wonder who truly benefited from that move? For a company supposedly based on successful creator driven properties, Image sure was quick to devour them all.
Another thing about yearbooks. Most of the time, all of those people, you’ll never see them again. By "A Comic A Day" standards and practices, I can't review another issue of Bone, and considering the time it’s been taking me to read and analyze a single issue every day, I can’t imagine revisiting this series until the challenge is over. Based on this initial impression, I’m looking forward to it. Yearbooks may offer lasting impressions, but reunions often offer a second chance.