On Jeff Smith and Tom Sniegoski’s “Bone: Tall Tales”

I’m coming to this stellar collection rather late. I read Bone when it was coming out in comic book form — I started a little late, but I was picking it up regularly in the early ’90s — and became a huge fan of the title, even tracking down a copy of Disney Adventures when one of the rat-tails stories made an appearance. When my daughter was born about a decade later, figures of the Bone cousins looked down on her crib from the bookshelf above. (Ok, maybe not literally — like I’d have books right over her bed.)

A few years later, I ended up getting my daughter a copy of the Bone collection — she likes the heft and challenge of a big volume, that girl — and so it’s rather nice, now that she’s twelve, that I received Bone: Tall Tales from her as a birthday present. That’s two decades of Bone, coming full circle.

What made Bone such an enjoyable read wasn’t just Smith’s charming, clean line art, but how the small character details contrasted with the epic sweep of his storytelling. Smith somehow made his tale of odd big-nosed creatures work amidst the backdrop of a full-blown fantasy saga, complete with princesses and dragons and an evil entity to rival Sauron. The big difference was the humor: though I wasn’t a big fan of the Great Cow Race arc (it seemed like an overlong detour at best), I loved how Smith could balance the constant silliness with the forces of darkness-type peril in which the characters found themselves.

Bone: Tall Tales is marketed as a prequel, insofar as the principal events take place before the founding of Boneville, but one needn’t have encountered the Bone cousins or the Bone universe first to appreciate the volume. There’s an introductory piece about a treasure map that’s a mere setup for a punchline — it’s similar to those two-pagers that come between the ads, and nothing special — and a framing story featuring a clueless Smiley Bone, which is merely okay.

Where it really shines is in the stories featuring a character named, obviously with no pun intended whatsoever (I’m being sarcastic here), Big Johnson Bone. (It reminds me of how I had once recommended Bone to a friend, whose first question was, “Is that published by Eros Comix?” Smith had at times infused the relationship between Fone Bone and Thorn with a little bit of innuendo, a bit of a reminder to the readers that Fone Bone wasn’t just some cute naked child, but an adult creature of sorts.)

These Big Johnson stories are “only” drawn by Smith, but as always, they’re beautifully illustrated; Tom Sniegoski, whose writing I’m not familiar with, is responsible for these broad-humored Paul Bunyanesque tales. There’s an origin story, and a tale about an eating contest (shades of the Great Cow Race here), but the best of the lot is a mini-saga involving Big Johnson, a motley group of adorable but scared woodland creatures straight out of Pogo, and a hungry giant rat creature.

Big Johnson himself is a larger-than-life character, spinning off exaggeration after exaggeration to a scarcely believing audience. Sniegoski’s comic timing is perfect, with a sense of gag-filled humor that’s closer in rhythm to a rapid fire Thirties comedy. He mines the creatures’ anxiety in successive frames, acting as counterpoint to the main narrative. The frames reminded me of those Harvey Kurtzman parodies from Mad from the early ’50s, where entire conversations occurred in the panel margins, or blocks of text — in this case, one tall tale after another — petered out in smaller and smaller cramped type.

Bone: Tall Tales is an excellent collection. It may not be the best introduction to Jeff Smith’s work — you really need to start with Bone proper for that — but it’s good enough to stand on its own.

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