In its original incarnation as an occasionally bimonthly comic book, Jeff Smith's fanciful epic Bone kept falling short of its potential. Smith has a flair for cuteness and an appealing clean-line drawing style born of his years as an animator, so his ambitious tale of three blobby creatures trapped in a harsh human world should have been a comics-and-fantasy geek's dream. It promised to be like one of Carl Barks' Donald Duck adventures, expanded to J.R.R. Tolkien length. But in practice, the comic became something of a slog. Smith's audience waited patiently for months to read dialogue- and-backstory-heavy issues filled with hard-to-follow references to "ghost circles" and "the dreaming." Bone began with deftness, but, like the Star Wars franchise, it devolved into arcana.
Or so it seemed to a lot of readers. The devoted stuck with Bone for the 13 years it took Smith to complete it, often waiting for the trade-paperback collections and reading the story in larger, smoother chunks. Those more patient souls had the right idea. Within months of releasing the final issue, Smith has put the whole 1,300-page monster in one heavy, bound volume. What seemed numbingly dense in 22-page installments now has a magnificent shape, and a momentum that carries the narrative from its light comic beginning to its light comic ending, while seamlessly encompassing the darkness between.
Make no mistake: Bone will still appeal primarily to readers who enjoy complicated sword-and-sorcery cosmology. The story has the abstractly humanoid Bone cousins—the sweetly heroic Fone Bone, the mostly benign schemer Phoney Bone, and the doggedly easygoing Smiley Bone—lost in a valley where a truce has been broken among humans, swarming "rat creatures," and cave-dwelling dragons. Fone Bone befriends a pretty young woman named Thorn and her rugged Gran'ma Ben, then inadvertently uncovers their royal background, pushing a confrontation with the mysterious Lord Of The Locusts.
An extended reading of Bone betrays Smith's clumsy rendering of some human figures, particularly the wildly fluctuating Thorn, whose transition from girlish to womanly in the space of a few pages can't be entirely explained by her coming-of-age story arc. But even though the completed epic has its flaws—mainly a debt to better-realized fantasy classics—Bone plays out with more wit and character than it appeared to possess in serialized form. Smith illuminates the difference between the laws of nature and the nature of evil, poignantly detailing how the right path sometimes feels wrong. The book's thematic development even inadvertently explains why Smith's story didn't always seem to fit together at the time of its publication. People are capricious, and literature even more so.