Dear friends of mine owns a copy, and I'd stay with them every other weekend while teaching a Spring course at a nearby college. We'd play board games, entertain their toddlers, and then once everyone was tucked into bed I'd read another 20 or 30 pages of Bone.
I didn't know anything about it, other than that my friend liked it. So as I read, I was trying to figure out who it was written for...
The plot is fairly straight-forward: the 3 cousins have been chased out of town because Phoney's latest get rich scheme has failed. They get separated in the desert and each make their way into the Valley. The Valley is under attack by rat creatures, who are the first wave of an invading army. The Bones link up with an extraordinary family, and together they save the day. In between, there are a lot of sub-plots and schemes that reinforce the light shading of the characters (Fone Bone is smart and focused though a bit prone to boring lecture, Smiley Bone is gullible, Phoney Bone is greedy and covetous) while ultimately doing little to advance the over-all plot arc.
The backstory, however is vastly more complex. Much like Lord of the Rings, Bone hums with a history and mythology that the reader and even most of the characters are unaware of. This leads to the sort of sudden escapes and unexpected plot twists that I expect from a fantasy epic.
This weighty mythology can, at times, give certain moments a deus ex machina feel. Oh, the villain has added what power? Ah, our heroine can do that now too?
Throughout much of Bone, Smith keeps his touch light- the romance, the fighting, and the dialogue roll along with a humorous PG-rating, a kid-friendly mix of slapstick and verbal gags. That's contrasted though with a few more PG-13 issues: Smiley Bone smokes a cigar throughout most of the comic, characters die (though most of those deaths happen "off screen"), there's plenty of beer drinking at the local saloon, and combat results in a quite a bit of maiming (especially for the early villain Kingdok, and both Fone Bone and his love-interest both lose teeth towards the end).
My disjointed reading of Bone certainly impacts my final thoughts on the book: if it was going to be funny, I wanted it to be more fun; if it was going to be about dragon queens and ancient sorcerers, I wanted to see more of them at work in a way that wasn't all drawn-out mysteriousness (I'm reminded of Emperor Palpatine from Empire Strikes Back, little more than a raspy voice and intimations of evilness).
This isn't (I don't think) an entry into comics book for a young reader- the size of the book (if you're reading the one volume collection like I did) is overwhelming, and I can imagine a young reader quickly losing track of the multiple threads of the story. I may be underestimating the average kid, but I don't see a twelve year old making the jump from The Giver or Narnia or His Dark Materials to Bone.
But, take your dedicated manga reader (someone who's used to an extended storyline, used to reading sequential art, used to soap opera-esque reveals and switchbacks) and Bone could be the cross-over that brings them towards "mainstream" comics.
Don't worry, the irony that a book that was originally part of the self-published comics underground is now a mainstream gateway is not lost on me.
Book 20 of my book-a-week challenge.