I don’t know whether this is a particularly rare item, but it’s certainly one of this household’s most favourite things…
This is the Great Red Dragon from Jeff Smith’s comic Bone, which just happens to be one of the best comics ever published.
Bone is a fantasy tale featuring a mixture of humans, not-quite-humans, talking animals, dragons, ghosts and stupid, stupid rat-creatures. It’s an epic, enchanting, beautiful, all-ages adventure that, to my mind, easily rivals anything ever crafted by Tolkien, Martin, Lewis, Rowling or any of that lot. You want a powerful fantasy story that’ll break your heart and raise you up? One that’ll have you creased with laughter at times, and genuinely moved to tears at others? A story that will resonate with you so strongly it’ll bring a smile to your lips every time you think about it? This is that story.
The tale opens with three cousins — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone — having been run out of their home-town of Boneville because the conniving Phoney Bone’s stint as mayor has left a lot of people very, very angry.
As you can see, the Bones aren’t human. They aren’t even really cartoony-human like, say, Charlie Brown or Hagar the Horrible. They’re blobs that bear a rough resemblance to the anthropomorphic characters from Walt Kelly’s Pogo crossed with the ghost of Casper the Friendly Boy.
However, along the way they will encounter “real” human characters, as we’ll see later on.
The book’s main protagonist is Fone Bone. He’s short and a little naive, though very smart and kind and — when the story calls for it (which it will, a lot) — very brave.
His cousins are the aforementioned Phoney Bone — also smart, but devious and greedy with it, plus he’s always eager to make a quick buck and doesn’t have much in the way of empathy — and the ultra-naive, ever-cheerful Smiley Bone, dumb as a bag of particularly dense rocks and frequently an unwitting (or at least unassuming) participant in Phoney’s plans.
Shortly after they’re run out of town they manage to get lost in the desert, then separated, and we mostly follow Fone Bone as he searches for the others. He first encounters the Great Red Dragon — as featured on a fridge near me — and then he stumbles across the valley…
This is where Bone suddenly, and beautifully, comes into its own. Aside from the exquisite art, the depth, humour and humanity Smith gives all of his characters is second-to-none. I mean, here’s Fone Bone’s encounter with another creature in the forest as he searches for his cousins:
With the situation defused, Ted suggests that someone called Thorn might be able to help Fone Bone find his friends, and luckily he meets Thorn in the very next chapter…
… And that’s all the spoilers you’re getting from me.
Written, drawn and lettered entirely by Jeff Smith, Bone was first published between July 1991 and June 2004 over 55 individual black-and-white issues on a roughly bimonthly schedule. (That’s the “two months per issue” kind of bimonthly, not the “two issues per month” version.) The issues were later collected in a nine-book series of graphic novels, which came in two editions, the first being black-and-white like the comics, and the second version was fully coloured by Steve Hamaker.
The coloured version is very nice, and I expect it’s more immediately appealing to new readers, but I’m a bit of a purist: I think that the black-and-white version just feels more “right” — but that’s probably only because that was how I first encountered it.
I initially discovered the series when the first collected B&W edition was published on this side of the Atlantic, and I’m not kidding when I tell you that before I reached the end of the third chapter I had fallen in love with it and declared Bone to be one of the finest creations ever wrought by human hands. The next couple of chapters confirmed that declaration. And as if further proof were needed, Mrs Rusty read it, too, and she came to the same conclusion.
We snapped up the rest of the collections as they were published, but eventually passed them on to others when we got our hands on this, the massive 1341-page single-volume collected edition:
It’s physically harder to read than the comics or earlier collections because it’s so heavy, but it’s soooo nice, too! There’s also a hardcover version, which is even nicer, but even heavier and much more expensive: this paperback edition originally cost US$40 — the hardcover was US$125. Still worth it, though.
I’ve not encountered much in the way of Bone merchandise — the fridge magnet was given to us by a comic-shop-employed friend many years ago — but I expect that to change in the near future: an animated adaptation is apparently on the way from Netflix.
Arguably, Bone is very “cutesy” and I can see that putting off some potential readers, but, trust me, beneath the cartoonish surface this one has teeth. Like most good fantasy tales there’s a darkness lurking in the forest.
Bone really is a great book. I honestly can’t imagine anyone — even a non-comics-reading person — not enjoying it.
Bonus: Just what you didn’t know you needed — a rare photo of Uncle Rusty’s old fridge with its collection of magnets! Can you find all the magnets that have a comic-book connection? There’s a self-awarded prize* for everyone who can!
*If you can find all the comic-book references, feel free to award yourself any prize you like! And pay for it!