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With ‘Bone: Coda,’ Jeff Smith Revives the Unlikeliest Success Story in Comics History

Bone Coda Cover text

Though the title Jeff Smith’s Bone refers to the surname of its three lovable leads, it was also a prophecy for what the series would accomplish for the entire comic book medium. In the course of 55 issues, the cartoon epic would create a new infrastructure for comics to land in libraries, bookstores and the hands of readers young and old. It’s also addictive, charming and funny as hell.

A celebration of slapstick, old-school cartoons and Lord of the Rings-era swords and sorcery, Bone is more than a postmodern brew of its influences; it’s a perfection of them. The comics follow three impish cousins who stumble into a mystical valley on the brink of war. The trio of Fone (loyal and altruistic), Phoney (manipulative and egotistical) and Smiley (carefree and naive) join an ornery woman, Gran’ma Ben, and her stalwart granddaughter, Thorn, in an escalating struggle between dragons, farmers, gigantic mountain lions and quiche-loving monsters. Also: the most epic cow race in recorded storytelling.

To date, the series has sold millions of copies in 26 languages, both through Smith’s own Cartoon Books and education publishing behemoth Scholastic. The collected edition—a 1,344-page, four-pound tome Smith refers to as “the brick"—has cycled through 21 printings. And 25 years after the release of its first issue and 12 years after its last, the Bone cousins are making a comeback this week in a brand-new story—Bone: Coda debuted at San Diego Comic-Con and will release this week in comic stores and on Amazon in early August.

BONE CODA -25.5

Smith had no problem inviting his creations back onto the page. “I was worried about being able to draw the characters—I hadn’t drawn them in 11 years,” he explains from his Ohio studio. “Actually making them come alive…I wasn’t quite sure how difficult that would be. But it wasn’t, at all. It was just like riding a bicycle. It just came alive and they started arguing with each other.”

The comic offers a hilarious sojourn that picks up the Bone cousins’ adventures after the fantasy climax of the last issue, which witnessed Fone and Thorn banish an evil deity through a magical crown. The heroes attempt to venture through the same desert they crossed in the first issue, a mirror trek undertaken a quarter century ago. In the intervening time, they also adopted a shaggy, razor-toothed cub, Bartleby, from a race of feral rat creatures. As always, Smith’s panels flow seamlessly, with body language and facial expressions that convey novels in a few ink strokes. It’s one of the few comics whose characters are fully communicative even if they don’t utter a single line of dialogue.

“The two things that came together for me were [Uncle Scrooge cartoonist] Carl Barks, [Pogo cartoonist] Walt Kelly, Bugs Bunny—all that kind of three-fingered, big-foot American cartooning,” Smith says. “When I was a senior in high school, Heavy Metal magazine came out. All these French guys were just breaking all the rules: painting comics, doing elaborate science fiction and fantasy for grown-ups. I thought it would be so awesome to combine those few things, to stick Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge into a Heavy Metal–Moebius world.”

Smith’s description is apt for a series that gracefully pivots from fantasy to horror to comedy. The narrative features Moby-Dick fever dreams alongside scythe-wielding hags and grand Tolkienesque battles. Bone isn’t afraid to play genre musical chairs, and its cohesion of wildly different tastes remains one of its defining victories.

Jeff Headshot 2014

But its embrace wasn’t immediate; the series arrived at an awkward juncture in comic industry, a time Smith remembers when, as he says in Coda’s afterword, “there was no New York Times Bestselling Graphic Novels list, you couldn’t pick up graphic novels in any bookstore or school library and you couldn’t buy them on Amazon or comiXology.” The cartoonist and his wife, Vijaya, had to play by their own rules to flourish—even hosting signings in hotel bars. “Everybody thought it was really weird, but I didn’t,“ Smith says. "It made complete sense to me.”

But the Bone cousins have occupied Smith’s imagination for decades. He first scribbled them out “in the margins of math papers” throughout grade school before graduating to newsprint in Thorn, a daily comic published in The Ohio State University’s student newspaper. Smith pitched the concept to newspaper syndicates for roughly three years throughout the late ‘80s. Though the editors loved the characters and art, they hesitated on a strip that would have continuity between installments. They were fine with Peanuts and Garfield, but years-spanning yarns like Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant had fallen from fashion.

Continuity was hugely important to Smith, though. He and Vijaya self-published, collecting their monthly issues into handsome books that never went out of print—a now universal practice that was scowled upon in an era of variant covers and price guides, when collectors hoarded comics like bonds. Bone soon garnered positive word-of-mouth from industry luminaries like Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller, becoming one of the few non-Marvel or DC books to enter the mainstream. Then in the early 2000s, various factors converged to cause layoffs and a potential premature ending for the Bone cousins.

The very first drawing of Fone Bone, circa 1965

The very first drawing of Fone Bone, circa 1965

Salvation arrived, though not in the form of sword-swinging princess or massive dragons. “Librarians are my heroes,” Smith says in Coda. “They recognized that comics are reading; that they could be literature and not a jumble of empty eye candy for lazy people.” Bone’s unique storytelling, coupled with its market accessibility, had enabled the narrative to evolve from the “poster child of the self-publishing movement” to something far more ubiquitous: an eminent all-ages hit.

The comic and its newfound visibility soon endured growing pains that would go on to plague like-minded game changers like Smile and Drama from cartoonist Raina Telgemeier (herself inspired by Smith’s work to produce comics outside the superhero template) and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. The book often, and inexplicably, is requested to be banned from libraries. Reasons include general concerns like violence, alcohol (the townspeople drink beer) and tobacco use (Smiley constantly chomps on a Groucho Marx cigar) to bizarre citations like “political viewpoint” and racism.

“It’s a question of being one of the first graphic novels to be so widely available and read by kids,” Smith says. “The very nature of comics is that they’re visual, so it’s easy to just glance and not know what the context of anything is. It’s part of the age we live in when people are so divisive. Anything that they don’t like they want to destroy. I can’t really explain it.”

Those concerns, which often boil down to a few complaints by parents and school administrators, haven’t deterred major studios from attempting to translate Bone to the big screen as an animated feature. It’s currently in development at Warner Bros., though the process of translating the soul of such a distinct story could prove more arduous than conquering Locust gods and bipedal rodent warlords. “I would love to see it as a film, and maybe it’ll still happen. It could,” Smith says. “That being said, I’m very proud that it’s been read by as many people and embraced by kids all over the world without being a movie. It’s just a comic book. And I’m proud of that.”

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