When it's a comedy, it's genius. The later books are more serious adventure and are merely very good. The ending's slightly bittersweet. This is the first time I've ever sat down and reread the whole story from start to finish, which was interesting. (I'd read them all on publication, of course, but the series ran for thirteen years.)
It's thoroughly recommended, by the way. It's lovely and inspired, both in writing and artwork.
It's about three cousins: Fone, Phoney and Smiley Bone. They're drawn like Disney characters, with exaggerated facial expressions, no hair and few or no clothes. Fone and Phoney are under waist-high for an ordinary person. They've just been run out of their home town of Boneville after yet another of Phoney's get-rich-quick schemes went wrong. Phoney's an incorrigible scumbag. Fone's thoroughly nice and polite. Smiley might not actually be stupid, maybe, but his brain definitely doesn't work like most people's.
They get lost in a fairy tale valley with dragons, talking animals and lost princesses. It has a lot of whimsy, or even outright cartoonishness, but our heroes also have powerful, sinister enemies. Eventually, there will be war. Not everyone will survive.
I love the art. It's simple, but full of character and acting subtleties. It also understands comic timing. Incidentally, this might also be the only English-language comics art that I've ever seen Tomoko like. She avoids almost everything in my bookshelves, but she's read all of Bone.
Before this reread, I used to think of Bone simplistically as "the early funny books and the less interesting later books". On rereading it, though, the darkness and danger are clear from the beginning. We're not scared of the Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures, for instance, but they're trying to kill and eat Fone Bone and there are a lot more rat creatures where they came from. The tone's light in the first trilogy, but Thorn learns some life-changing news at the start of the second and takes it badly. Both she and her grandmother are extremely slow to forgive.
It's also noticeable that each trilogy is V-shaped, with the middle book being the funniest. Book 2 has the Great Cow Race. (Brilliant. Just brilliant.) Book 5 is one of my favourites too, though, sidelining most of the regulars to tell a story of Fone, Smiley, Bartleby and the two Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures.
"Hey! Nothing we've done so far has been un-stupid, and we're still alive, aren't we?!"
"I can't really argue with that, but I feel like I should."
"Carry on, Fone Bone! Make a stupid decision!"
After that, even the extremely dangerous Book 8 has more laughs than its two neighbours. The bee that likes Fone Bone. The blank sandwich. "Why do I always get the hardest job?"
This series won (and deserved) ten Eisner Awards and eleven Harvey Awards. There's just so much good stuff here. Grandma Ben is the greatest. The dream sequences actually feel dreamlike. Similarly, the world ends up feeling like a world, given its level of history and complexity. There's lots of character development, both upwards (Phoney revealing his very very well hidden good side) and downwards (Kingdok starting out as a proud, efficient leader who happens to be a monster and ending up as a mutilated death seeker who tries to make Thorn kill him). It's both exciting and lovely.
And, of course, it's very funny.