September 28, 2006


Bone, Book Four: The Dragonslayer. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99.

     The remarkable Bone saga continues to get deeper and darker in this fourth volume of Jeff Smith’s outstanding graphic-novel series – originally published in comic-book form in 1991.  There is less and less that is comic about this tale as it moves along, and more and more than is intense.  Even the colors, which are done by Steve Hamaker, reflect the deepening dark of unavoidable war, moving more into deep blues and deep purples and out-and-out black as the story continues and the complex plot unwinds further.

     It is fair for anyone who does not know Bone to wonder what all the fuss is about.  This is, after all, a graphic novel (in the form in which Scholastic’s Graphix line is re-releasing it), and the central characters – three cousins named Bone – are little more than bulbous-nosed white outlines.  But Smith does not have to draw characters this way – everyone and everything except the Bones is created with enormous attention to detail, including hair and sweat and the threads on characters’ clothing.  So the Bones’ adventures in a world that is not their own – but that, in this book, is increasingly becoming their own – are clearly designed in the strangers-in-a-strange-land mode.

     But now it turns out that the denizens of this land are themselves strangers – to their history, to the danger that surrounds them, to the potential salvation in their midst, and to the war that is about to break out and threaten everything they hold dear.  The keys to the reality (former reality? alternative reality?) that may save the valley’s good people from destruction lie with Gran’ma Ben and her gorgeous but deeply troubled granddaughter, Thorn.  Neither is what she seems – we learned in Book Three that both are from an overthrown royal line that some people continue to support in secret.  In Book Four, Thorn begins to come into her inheritance, which turns out to include everything from some exceedingly fancy swordplay to an ability to move between the everyday world and a dream world that holds great potential and extraordinary danger.  The confrontation between Thorn and a huge monster called Kingdok is genuinely scary and highly revelatory.  Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that Kingdok and his hordes of Rat People are only pawns of the far more dangerous Lord of the Locusts, who was imprisoned in the distant past and is now working to return to rule the valley.  To do that, he needs to harness either the power of Thorn or that of Phoney Bone.

     Yes, Phoney.  Phoncible P. Bone, to give him his full name, perpetrates the latest and greatest of his endless moneymaking schemes in this book, convincing the townspeople that dragons are dangerous and that he is a Dragonslayer who can save them from the menace.  His plot succeeds brilliantly until very near the end of the book, when its very last piece – an actual dragon – falls into place unexpectedly, and Phoney commits what appears to be his first-ever act of bravery and unselfishness.  This development, which barely registers in Book Four, is sure to become increasingly important in later books.  And what of Smiley Bone?  In Book Four, he becomes more than the endlessly grinning simpleton he has seemed to be (although, in truth, there have already been hints that he is more than that).  Smiley helps Phoney with his plans, but “I never know whose side you’re on,” Phoney complains, and that statement proves important within this book and is sure to become more so in later ones.  Bone has by now become a kind of fantasy epic, filled with weird creatures and surprisingly believable characters, even if some of them are shaped like bugs or puffy white plush toys.  Fone Bone, the ever-less-naïve hero of the whole saga, actually bleeds in Book Four, and comes to seem altogether more real, true and good.  Smith’s series deserves all the accolades it received in its original comic-book form, and deserves to find a larger audience and still more praise through these excellent graphic-novel editions.

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