This post is part of an ongoing series.
Part I: The Valley
Book One: Out from Boneville
Chapter 1: The Map
I can be forgiven, I think, for having thought this series was a Disney property when I first encountered. Apart from the fact that I encountered it in the pages of Disney Adventures, it looks like a Disney comic. The main characters don’t look like any particular animal, yet they fit in the same visual register as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – or, for that matter, the Harvey Comics stable.
This first issue has a lot in common with the best of Disney’s work – Walt Disney, that is, rather than Walt Disney Studios. It’s cute and safe on the surface, but a little subversive around the edges. (This first chapter has heroic characters making positive references to cigars and beer. On the first page, we’re introduced to the Bone cousins – Fone, Smiley, and Phoncible (“Phoney”) Bone – who’ve just been run out of Boneville over some shady deals Phoney made. While Phoney is acknowledging – defensively – his shady deals, and lamenting the loss of his wealth-based immunity, Smiley is chomping away on cigars, and scamming Phoney out of his last dollar. Fone, meanwhile, tries to make sense of their map, for they have wandered far from Boneville, and are now high on a cliff, in some generic Badlands.
Smith is deft with his exposition here. The first panel gives a clear sense of who these characters are, and by the end of the second page he’s explained their situation (“Beloved? Th’ mayor declared a school holiday just so th’ kids could come and throw rocks at you!”), all through dialogue and characterization – without it seeming forced.
The three are separated by a surprise attack of locusts – an endless wave of the little beasts, swarming through the air in a thick, cohesive mass. The narrative follows Fone as he falls down from the cliff, wanders through some wilderness, eventually climbs back up the wrong cliff, then finds himself trapped in some idyllic little valley. He has a run-in with some bumbling Rat Creatures who try to eat him, a gruff and mysterious dragon who runs them off, and an enormous, tough-talking insect who decides, reluctantly, to leave Fone unharmed. The insect warns him, repeatedly, that “winter strikes quick in these parts,” and if he doesn’t get out before it hits, “you’ll be stuck here for th’ winter.”
The Rat Creatures are fascinating. They’re hilarious – their constant bickering undermines their every attempt at cooking and eating Fone Bone, like a pair of Wile E. Coyotes. Yet, they have big, frightening, featureless eyes – they remind me of a bug’s compound eye, despite being drawn untextured. And they have teeth. Enormous teeth. I’m reminded of a cat yawning – no matter how cute that cat is, when it yawns, you’re always reminded that these creatures are toothsome carnivores. However, when a cat yawns, it’s likely at its most serene and majestic. When the Rat Creatures show teeth, they’re agitated and rattled.
Winter does indeed strike quick in those parts. The last page of the chapter has just two panels – one of Fone Bone sitting under a tree, while a solid carpet of snow falls from the sky, and one with Fone half-buried in said snow, looking nonplussed.
Re-reading this first chapter, I’m surprised by how compressed the storytelling is. While it’s not the breathless stream of narration you get in a lot of Gold and Silver Age works, this first issue covers events I remember as spanning the first book – six chapters. Events, indeed, that likely would span six chapters in the hands of most writers. Each page has the feel of a well-paced gag-a-day strip, like Calvin & Hobbes.