Bone: Adventure, Excitement, and Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures
"Bone" as a comic shouldn't work. The story of three comedic cartoon characters who blunder into a high fantasy setting, it really should collapse under the cognitive dissonance: imagine Kermit the frog being a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, and you begin to have an idea of how strange the story is. But somehow writer/artist Jeff Smith pulls it off, and the three central characters, cousins Fone, Phoney, and Smiley Bone, fit in and contribute to its epic story perfectly.
The story opens with the three cousins wandering through a desert after being exiled from their hometown, Boneville, thanks to one of the avaricious Phoney's schemes to become mayor backfiring fantastically. After discovering a crude map and following it, they are attacked by a sudden swarm of locusts as they approach a mountain range. Separated from his cousins, Fone finds his way into the valley below, avoiding hungry ratlike monsters who seem to be looking for Phoney for some reason, encountering a mysterious red dragon who seems to appear and disappear at will, and finally meeting a small insect named Ted who points him towards the house of the beautiful farmgirl Thorn and her Gran'ma Ben, who put him up for the winter. Fone is eventually reunited with Smiley and Phoney (who have been working for their room and board at the local tavern run by a grumpy old man named Lucius), but hinds himself and his cousins sucked into events surrounding Thorn.
Who are Thorn, Gran'ma Ben, and Lucius really? Why are the rat monsters and their mysterious hooded master interested in her and Phoney? And what does the mysterious red dragon have to do with all this? As answers are revealed, it becomes clear that Thorn has an epic destiny ahead of her, and Fone Bone and his cousins are a part of it.
Fone Bone is an interesting character. While his cousins can be rather cartoony, as it were (Phoney is greedy, Smiley is good natured and stupid), Fone is a straight man, despairing in this strange world where monsters want to make him into a quiche, a dragon appears and disappears seemingly only to mess with him, and Phoney's schemes get him in increasing trouble. He's the viewpoint character for the plot, standing in for the reader as he tries to figure out what's going on.
The other characters are all also very interesting. Thorn, a young woman whose destiny has been hidden from her, responds to the revelation of who she is and what she has to do in an interesting and somewhat uncommon way: while shouldering her responsibilities she resents and distrusts those who had hidden them from her, and is not shy of defying them if she believes she has a better idea of accomplishing her goals. She is easily the character who changes the most, starting out as a simple farm girl and ending as a mature and powerful young woman well equipped to deal with whatever the world throws at her. Gran'ma Ben does not change as much, but the reader's view of her does. In the earlier volumes, only the Great Red Dragon and the Hooded One are more mysterious, as she is obviously not a simple grandmother (she can outrun any cow in the village and can beat a pack of rat creatures unconscious without breaking a sweat, for example). After it is revealed who she is, she becomes less mysterious but is able to retain her force of character, a fount of wisdom and common sense who could whoop pretty much any other character with one hand tied behind her back. I also really liked the Great Red Dragon, who serves the role of "character who appears infrequently but who is always fun to see." His motives are unclear for a good chunk of the story, but he's always great fun when he shows up. Also great were the two rat creatures who are obsessed with eating Fone Bone, but are no good at their job of attempting to invade the valley. They're great foils to Fone Bone and the others, so pathetic as to be sympathetic, and very funny.
As well as good writing (which balances humor and drama masterfully), Jeff Smith is a great artist. He is able to make the cartoony looking Bone cousins and the more realistic humans seem like they really could be standing side by side. His art style is also unbelievably fluid and detailed, and each panel is rich with beauty. To make a final comment on the art style, Smith is so unbelievably good at using light and shadow in his art that it should be a crime. His scenes that take place at night alone are worth the price of admission.
As for flaws, the only one really worth mentioning is the tendency early on in each individual volume of the comic for there to be really obvious recaps of previous events, which can throw the reader out of the story. I can see why this was necessary, as the individual volumes were originally published separately, rather than in one big volume as i read them.
All in all "Bone" is an amazingly good work of epic fantasy with a good sense of humor. Both Jeff Smith's writing and his art are top notch, and if you haven't read it yet, I suggest you track it down as soon as you can, either in its nine original volumes or in its giant one-volume collection. I would reccomend it to anyone who can read.