Bone, Book One: Out from Boneville…Book Two: The Great Cow Race. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.95 each (hardcover). $9.99 each (softcover).
Say the name “Fone Bone” quickly and see whether it sounds like “Pogo.” Try just the first two syllables: FoBo…Pogo. The resemblance between the hero of Jeff Smith’s nine-volume comic-book saga and the hero of Walt Kelly’s famed newspaper comic strip cannot possibly be coincidental. Fone Bone actually looks a lot like Pogo – big head, big nose and soft shape. He has Pogo’s charming naiveté and unrequited (perhaps slightly requited) lovesickness. Bone is a less fully formed character than the others in this saga, and Kelly was accused of making Pogo so bland as to be dull (his response: “He’s the glue,” which is what Fone Bone is as well). Fone Bone is not a possum – a minor character in Smith’s work accurately says he looks like a kewpie doll – but there are possums here, and they play a recurring role for no apparent reason other than Smith’s fondness for them. And in Book Two of the saga, the story itself is interrupted by several pages of semi-nonsensical poetry featuring the possum characters. Poetry of that sort was a Kelly hallmark, appearing regularly in Pogo book collections.
To the extent that Bone is an unstated Kelly tribute, it is a marvelous one. To the extent that it is simply a rollicking good tale in cartoon form, it is also quite wonderful. Fone Bone is one of three Bone cousins run out of Boneville in Book One because one of them, the rich and unscrupulous Phoncible P. Bone (always called Phoney), tried one moneymaking scheme too many and got the villagers in an uproar. The third cousin, Smiley Bone, is taller and thinner than the other two, smiles constantly, and “has no brain,” as another character aptly notes.
The Bones find themselves separated from each other in an unknown valley in Book One, and encounter important recurring creatures, such as the humans Thorn (a gorgeous young girl on whom Fone Bone develops a crush) and her grandmother, Gran’ma Ben. There is danger here in the form of huge rat creatures (with a hint of additional danger to Phoney), and mystery in the form of an enigmatic red dragon. Book Two features the race of the title, which becomes a hilarious mixup involving a disguised Smiley (another of Phoney’s schemes gone awry), a whole herd of cows, and a separate herd of rat creatures – two of whom are not only vicious but also rather endearingly stupid. There are jokes and mysteries and story threads aplenty, all accompanied by wonderfully atmospheric art. The occasional wordless sequences (a cart ride at night, a flashback to the dragon’s cave) are outstanding. All nine Bone books are being released by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, in editions equally handsome in cloth and paper binding. This is a classic story with ties to another classic – great fun to read and great to look at.