My Books of 2018: “Bone” by Jeff Smith

Rat Monster 1: “Please, comrade! I just want to chop him up for the stew!”
Rat Monster 2: “And that’s another thing! I’m tired of stew! I want to put him in a crust and bake a light fluffy quiche!”
Rat Monster 1: “QUICHE?! What kind of food is THAT for a monster to eat?!”

Bone: Vol. 1

Jeff Smith’s Bone is correctly described as “a cartoon epic.” Not only is it a graphic novel, but its three main heroes are round-featured cartoon creatures in the style of the classic Pogo comic strip, complete with vague anatomy, exaggerated quirks, and a relaxed adherence to the rules of physics. They stumble out of their presumably silly and gag-based homeland into a mystical valley populated by medieval humans, talking bugs, elusive dragons, and other strange creatures, which is being menaced by a dark sorcerer and large, vicious rat-creatures.

You might fear that these two genres wouldn’t mix well: that either the cartoon humor would undercut the epic’s gravitas or that the epic’s gravitas would dampen the lightness and optimism of the cartoons. Yet for the most part it does work, and delightfully well. Bone is an engrossing fantasy saga with enough sweep and scale to thrill, and enough wit and lightness to keep you laughing and hoping for the best.

I read the nine issues of Bone in a one-volume, 1344-page book. It might be the fastest 1000+ pages I’ve ever read, finishing it in under three weeks; it could have easily been faster. Smith’s art is alternately beautiful and hilarious, and well-suited to the balance that his writing achieves.

Some have compared the story’s epic sweep to The Lord of the Rings, although I think that is far too enthusiastic. It has nothing of the deep history and carefully-designed symbolism of Tolkien’s worldbuilding and stories. The characters are lively and have enough emotional depth to give the story some worthwhile meaning and emotion, but there’s no one so awe-inspiring and life-affirming as Sam Gamgee, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn. But that’s okay, because Bone has as much as it needs. Enough sword-and-sorcery adventure and clever worldbuilding details to intrigue, but leaving it light enough that it is accessible to a wide variety of readers and can be digested fairly quickly.

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