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Bone: Bugs Bunny Walks Into Mordor [90s Week]
Indie Comics Reading Recommendations

Bone: Bugs Bunny Walks Into Mordor [90s Week]

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This reading recommendation is part of our 90s Week celebrations. Learn more about it and the other articles involved here.

In an interview for the Charles M. Schulz Museum, Jeff Smith said, with an air of satisfaction, that he put Bugs Bunny and The Lord of the Rings together. There is probably no better definition for his self-published masterpiece Bone: the great saga of a trio of round undefined cartoon creatures stumbling upon an epic fantasy tale. It’s The Lord of The Rings, but instead of the hobbits you send out a goody two-shoes Mickey Mouse type, a sassy version of Goofy, and an even greedier Scrooge McDuck to stop Sauron. Comics in the 90s had a tendency to be edgy. It was the era of Spawn, Hellboy, Age of Apocalypse, Sin City and so many other gritty series. While Rob Liefeld was drawing his big beefy characters sporting as many pouches as they had anatomical oddities, Jeff Smith took a different route and made his fantasy title more like a Tex Avery animated film.

Phoney Bone is nothing if not an entrepreneur. He has set many enterprises in motion that more fearful (or humane) bones wouldn’t dare try. Genius ideas such as combining a petting zoo and a slaughterhouse or putting an orphanage on top of a hazardous waste landfill turned him into the richest bone in Boneville. However, they also got him expelled from the city along with his two cousins: Fone Bone, a good bone who knows better than anyone that you don’t get to choose your relatives, and Smiley Bone, a… smiley bone who always finds humor in any situation even when becoming somebody else’s dinner is the punchline. In their exile, they wander a bit too far from Boneville and stumble upon The Valley, a place where nobody seems to know what a bone is. The Valley is equally unknown to the bones. While Boneville (which we never get to see) seems to be a modern society, The Valley is a magical land filled with talking animals, monstrous rat creatures, and a grand villainous plot orchestrated by a creepy hooded figure.

Bone panels by Jeff Smith.
Bone panels by Jeff Smith.

Epic narratives such as Bone will unavoidably have some exposition scenes in them to expand and explain the world the story is set in. As a consequence, long and boring loads of information dumped on the reader are not uncommon for the genre. However, Jeff Smith uses the Looney Tunes essence of his comic to make even the worldbuilding bits entertaining. As the story unfolds, the bones are chased by the vicious rat creatures who are often used to highlight The Hooded One’s evil plan. They could have been just your regular expendable minor antagonist, like orcs or goblins, but the story singles out a couple of monsters from the mob and gives them their own goals and personalities. These big rat monsters develop a Willie Coyote/Road Runner relationship with the bones and, as they fail to capture them time and time again, they have hilarious arguments about what kind of dish they are going to cook the bones into. Perhaps a quiche, but maybe real monsters don’t eat quiche. If you ever found yourself wishing the Coyote would capture the Road Runner and satiate his hunger, you might just find yourself hoping the rat creatures one day get their quiche.

Bone panels by Jeff Smith.
Bone panels by Jeff Smith.

The trio of bone cousins are the main characters in the comic, but we also have human characters to bring the epic fantasy elements to that world and drive its main plot forward. The bones are mere visitors in The Valley, after all. Fone Bone falls in love with Thorn, a girl he meets when he is lost in the forest and she decides to help him and the other bones get back to Boneville. Thorn is an orphan girl raised by her grandmother Ben and is at the center of the main plot of Bone. Grandma Ben is an old lady who is unbelievably strong and the undisputed champion of the Great Cow Race. Thorn doesn’t know much about The Valley and where she came from, but her gran seems to know much more about the conspiracies going around than she tells her. It is the classic story about parents telling their children they know better while underestimating their ability to deal with the truth. Except, here the truth is not that you’re adopted, but that there is a big red dragon that keeps stalking you everywhere you go.

Two creative choices made Bone stand out when it was published back in 1991. It was a series written to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Something not unheard of, but certainly uncommon against the backdrop of never-ending superhero stories and comic strips that dominated the American market. Jeff Smith knew how his story was going to end even before he started drawing the first page.

Bone black and white (left) and colour (right) comparison.
Bone black and white (left) and colour (right) comparison.

As a bona fide self-published comic, Bone was made in black and white following in the footsteps of more self contained stories aimed at an adult audience like Maus and A Contract With God or many of the underground comics from the 80s. Since the bones are cartoon characters, using colours would be the most obvious artistic choice, but Bone works great as a black and white comic. Although the more recent print editions are in colour, Jeff Smith makes a great use of the black and white contrast. In many pages, the main characters may be reduced to silhouettes in the background or the foreground of a panel. It also gives more weight to the somber moments of the story, as when Thorn is distressed by her past or when the characters have nightmares. The coloured version seems to be easier to find nowadays and it certainly has its appeal, but if you are considering which one to go for I would advise giving the black and white a chance.

Over the years Jeff Smith has been contacted by a few companies to discuss an adaptation of Bone. It would seem an obvious choice as many comics have been adapted into animated shows and movies and Bone always had the spirit of animation. However, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros., and Netflix decided to pass on the opportunity after teasing the author with a negotiation offer. Jeff Smith even made a comic strip expressing his frustration, referencing Charlie Brown in his infinite failed attempts to kick the football with Lucy always pulling away at the last second. Unsurprisingly, he chose the industrious Phoney Bone to stand in for the companies that get the conversation going and, just like Lucy, take their businesses elsewhere at the last minute.

For a comic that draws inspiration from so many different sources, Bone manages to be a pretty unique title. It is not a simple mash up of genres and themes, but its own take on many of the works it is inspired by. Putting The Lord of The Rings and Bugs Bunny together sounds like something that could have been just an unremarkable parody without a lot of mileage on it, but Bone had more than enough merits to stand on its own and become one of the evergreen classics of American comics everyone should get to know.

Bone ran for 55 issues and has been collected in nine trade paperback collections (in black and white and colour) as well as a 1,300+ page all-in-one edition. These can be found in all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.

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