Awhile back I mentioned the epic graphic novel Bone began life as a college comic strip called Thorn. I'm bringing this up again because I have excellent news: that lost strip is coming out of the shadows of obscurity to get its own book! Jeff Smith is holding a crowdfunding campaign RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND for a complete Thorn collection! It can be yours for as little as $30! WOW!
For many, this will be their first look at a lost piece of history, but the truth is, I have actually seen this strip already. Someone went through the trouble of combing the public archives of The Lantern, the Ohio State University newspaper that Thorn ran in, to get as many strips as they could and throw them on a private download server. I never told YOU because the gatherer said to keep it quiet, but now that an official release is nigh, negating all that work, I figure I can share these now.
Thorn is a rough draft of the story that would be told in Bone. All the plot beats are more or less there, and nearly all the cast members are present including Fone, Phoney, Smiley, Gran'ma Ben, the Rat Creatures, the Red Dragon (who's just called "the Dragon" because there's no color), Kingdok, the Hooded One, Roque Ja and others. While it feels familiar, it is also VERY different. There's constant fourth wall breaking, casual swearing, blunt social and political commentary, and other things that would be sanitized out of the book version for a general audience.
Get ready to return to the Valley, but not as you know it. Before the story was his, it was hers. Before there was Bone, there was....
Thorn is long -- for a college strip. It went on for nearly four years and multiple days a week, sometimes even in the summer. While I could talk about every individual strip for the meager libraries of University2 or The Academia Waltz, it's just not possible here. We're gonna have to divide this discussion into arcs.
INTRODUCTORY ARC (Fall 1982)
The first public glimpse of an abstract-looking Thorn and a flat-looking Fone Bone happened on September 20, 1982. Just think -- many years later, Frank Cho would pilfer that last line for the first day of his OWN college strip. Wonder what they'd say to each other.
During the first week Fone remarks at the variety of animals around the forest, and Thorn tells him "maybe there's even a big scary DRAGON," before laughing and saying there's no such thing. Right on cue, the Red Dragon pops his head into frame to annoy Fone. When he disappears for the first time, and Thorn dismisses Fone's discovery, she pulls a Fred Flintstone and offers him a cigarette. No, seriously.
Many of the scenes from the first few issues of Bone were first written for Thorn, including Fone meeting Ted the Bug, the first encounter with the Rat Creatures (though there's no "Stupid Stupid" line) and that infamous page Disney Adventures cut out where Fone has to help Thorn take a bath.
Y'know, I hate to have to bring this up, but....how old is Thorn? She still lives with her grandmother. And how old is FONE? His constant unrequited crushing on her is the most consistent thing about him. Does he seem like a teenager to you? What if he's 35 in anthropomorphic bone years? Egad, what have we been looking at this whole time? Did I just ruin Bone forever? Let's move on.
It doesn't take long for Phoney to show up, and he's pretty much like himself from Strip 1. Gran'ma Ben appears at the same time, and runs into Phoney before anyone else (with the expected result). When Thorn mentions Gran'ma, she drops a REAL WORLD BRAND NAME (it doesn't beat the cigarette, but it still feels weird as hell). Despite the mention here, we never see a cow race in the Thorn strip. It's left up to your imagination.
The plot advances with pretty much the same beats here as it did in Bone, up to the point where the Rat Creatures attack at night. Instead of Gran'ma punching a hole through the wall, the rats crash right through it. And when Thorn and Fone are cornered by the monsters, it isn't the Dragon who steps in to save them, but....Jeff Smith.
When I said there was no fourth wall, I meant it. Ted the Bug hops out of the strip onto Jeff's drawing table because he's worried about the situation Jeff has left Thorn and Fone in, and demands a resolution NOW. Jeff can't think of one so Ted orders him to go into the strip himself and save them. Jeff is resistant to the idea, but decides he has no choice.
Jeff enters the strip, steps up to the Rat Creatures and commands them to step down, as he is their creator. This is the result:
Now Bone, Thorn AND Jeff Smith are in danger of being devoured. It's only at this point that the dragon shows up, with the same dialogue and events as in the book. The only main difference is that when they all return to the cabin to see it destroyed, the dragon says "we've got to be careful....there may still be Rat Creatures hanging around in there...that's why we'll let the cartoonist go first."
Gran'ma Ben is okay, of course. Jeff Smith leaves and the story moves on.
FOULWORD ARC (Winter 1983)
While the Rat Creature mob was attacking, Phoney was somewhere else. He was at the village, chatting with a scam artist whom he quickly formed a kinship with. The man calls himself Barely A. Foulword and is the basic equivalent of a 1980s televangelist, milking the faith of the innocent for money. Phoney being Phoney has to get in on that.
So when Phoney returns to the cabin, he claims to be "transformed" by the teachings of Reverend Foulword and insists everybody else come to his next meeting. Fone is instantly skeptical, but Thorn believes Phoney has changed and that Foulword might be worth visiting. So they attend the meeting, and meet a Karen named Dee who has a pet dog that got Jeff Smith in trouble.
It might not be apparent to modern eyes what the problem is here. That's because you probably didn't just watch "Roots" like the early 80s readers of the Lantern did. Kizzy is the name of a Black man on the show, and this is a very black dog that bears his name. The Karen gave him this name because she's racist. That's the intended implication, but what Lantern readers got out of it was that Jeff Smith was racist.
Smith had to give a public apology for that day's strip, and the woman never appeared in Thorn after this. But as far as college strips go, the content in Thorn was comparatively non-controversial. In the Lantern, the strip was running next to something called I Phelta Thi.
Phoney spreads the gospel of Foulword all over the town and rakes in tributes and donations from everyone. He succeeds in converting Thorn, who in turn attempts to convert Fone -- rather forcefully. Fone is put off and their friendship becomes frayed. Both Fone and Thorn separately consult the dragon for advice. Dragon tells Fone people are free to believe what they want (except what Phoney is selling) and he convinces Thorn not to force her beliefs on others. The pair patch things up and head for a picnic.
Oh yeah, and surprisingly, Phoney gets away with everything. The town eventually turns on Foulword, but Phoney swipes all the cash Foulword made off them, doubling his profits. After one death stare from Gran'ma Ben, however, Phoney nervously agrees to donate his money to fixing the damage done by Foulword's movement.
TELEVISION ARC (Spring 1983)
Phoney finds a television buried in the dirt, and declares it his next get-rich-quick scheme:
He makes plans to broadcast a full schedule of trashy shows filled with sex and violence. Thorn is appalled. In response, Phoney makes some incel comments about "you feminists" trying to "force us to use unisex bathrooms." It's equally surprising and depressing how you could run many of these today with almost no alterations.
Meanwhile, Fone runs into a lost bear cub and tries to return it home to its mother.
He decides to let the cub lead the way, which was a bad idea as he's now lost too. They wind up in the hills, where they meet Roque Ja the mountain lion. Fone starts in with that "rock jaw" stuff immediately, which only annoys him. Roque Ja asks where Fone's loyalties lie: with the townspeople, or with "the Hooded One." Fone says he's definitely on Thorn's side, but Roque Ja is confused because "don't you usually wear a shirt with a small star on the front?"
How does Roque Ja know Phoney already? Fone finds out Phoney has had dealings in the past with the Hooded One, and that the genderless figure (for now) bears a grudge against him.
Back to Thorn, who's sitting aroumd moping about Phoney, and how he'll never change. That's when she suddenly gets an idea to pull one over on him. She convinces Phoney to make a deal with the editors of the Lantern: she'll take off her shirt on May 30 (uhh, how old is Thorn???) and they can charge a dime for the issue (which was usually free). Phoney can't believe it and gets instant dollar signs in his eyes. He doesn't realize May 30 is Memorial Day and the Lantern won't be publishing an issue. It's a joke on everyone.
After this, Thorn runs through the summer, but it's mostly one-day gags with little story to connect them.
HOODED ONE ARC (Fall 1983 - Spring 1984)
This one takes up most of the 1983-84 school year, starting in September. At the annual picnic, there's a large, fat pig named Voochko on the menu. Fone and Phoney discover that he's fully sentient (and talks with a thick Russian accent) and that he wants out. They open the cage....and the pig grabs a butcher knife and attempts to kill them for being "capitalist swine."
To stop the fight from getting worse, Gran'ma Ben simply hoists up the picnic table and slams it over Voochko the Pig's head. Admist the chaos, Phoney attempts to "leave the strip" but changes his mind once he spots the Hooded One waiting in the forest for him.
That reminds Fone what he learned from Roque Ja. He demands to know what kind of business Phoney had with the Hooded One. Phoney confesses he actually "sold his soul to the devil" without realizing those were the terms, and made the Hooded One mad when he tried to back out of the deal. Thorn has been pretty reserved when dealing with Phoney; it's usually Gran'ma Ben that resorts to violence, but....FINAL STRAW, THE CLAWS COME OUT!
So now that the Hooded One knows Phoney is with the fam, and the Hooded One has command of the Rat Creature army, H.O. is going to use said army to kill everyone that very night. Their only hope for survival is if the dragon intervenes...but it would require a power the Hooded One says "he not DARE use."
You might have wondered: if the dragon only plays twos, what would an ace look like? In Thorn we find out. Gran'ma Ben insists the dragon MUST use his full power; it's the only way out of their current situation. The dragon would rather not, but Gran'ma's fists intimidate even him, so he complies. He draws in his breath and....
(yes, there was a day that was completely blank)
When the smoke finally clears, a good chunk of the Valley has been completely annihilated. Incensed that the Hooded One would dare to be so bold, Gran'ma Ben stomps off to kick their butt herself. Then the others remember "oh yeah, Phoney was out there in that blast somewhere....oh well." Phoney (tragically) avoided the blast by hiding with Voochko the Pig.
Gran'ma Ben (whose name is revealed as Rose for the first time here) has her showdown with the Hooded One, who unmasks himself. Rose is astonished to see the face of her sibling, Briar Ben. "I thought I killed you in the FIRST Rat War!" Rose yells. "Yes, but the Rat Creatures brought me back to health, and I work with THEM now!" Briar expositions further, before SLASHING Rose dramatically with the scythe.
No kidding, folks. Burial scene in the rain and everything. Wow.
And just when everything was getting super-serious....Jeff Smith is back, and he's mad the dragon "blew up" his strip. He gets so depressed over it he hits the local bar and gets stone-faced drunk. There he meets someone named Ollie, who I THINK is from the "I Phelta Thi" strip, and the two visit Ollie's frat house before they crash a fast food joint named "Burger Doody," where the workers sing to them:
This is....sure a sequence of strips, all right. I feel like there's a lot of inside jokes I'm missing here.
Well anyway, after THAT happens....
Though the Rat Creature threat is over for the time being, Thorn is incredibly upset over Gran'ma Ben's death, and they have no idea where the dragon went. She doesn't know if she can do this alone, but Fone comforts her, and tells her she will always have HIM by her side. In response, College Fone gets the one thing from Thorn that Graduate Fone never, ever could:
Since the middle of the Valley is pretty much a lost cause, they have to move north to find food and shelter. That puts them in the mountains -- and in the path of Roque Ja, who tells them (after Thorn threatens to torture him by rubbing his fur the wrong way) that Phoney has been captured by the Hooded One. He's now due to be sacrificed. Roque Ja is surprised they are willing to rescue Phoney, and offers to provide a little guidance as they creep to the hideout.
Roque Ja boldly stands in the Hooded One's path. As H.O. protests, Thorn and Fone suddenly make a tackle from behind. The robe comes off, and H.O. is revealed as....GRAN'MA BEN??
Yes, Gran'ma's alive...and as she explains, the woman Thorn buried was actually her twin sister, Briar. It was Rose that won the fight, and she quickly had to pose in the robe as H.O. when the Rat Creatures came looking. After that, she was surrounded by rats for days and had to keep up the ruse until the point where she was away from them, aka right now. But she's still going to sacrifice Phoney, right?
That just leaves the Rat Creatures, who realize with their leader dead, they can do whatever they want INCLUDING kill our heroes right now. That thought lasts about five seconds before the Dragon reappears and they high-tail it into the sunset. And that's the end!
ICE CREAM ARC (Summer 1984)
Out of nowhere, Fone and Phoney have summer jobs selling ice cream at Ohio State University. They're lured by the promise of free ice cream, but the job is backbreaking and unforgiving, their co-workers are off-putting and weird, the machinery keeps malfunctioning and the pay is lousy. Fone and Phoney are under such stress, they start chain-smoking. They eventually come to a chilling realization about their current situation...
Try as they might, Fone and Phoney can't find a way back into their own strip. Jeff Smith tells them they must've hopped out one too many times. To make matters worse, they're fired from the ice cream job and have to collect unemployment.
DOODY ARC (Fall 1984)
This one starts in a castle where a dwarf-like emperor, his face half-covered by a robe, growls that he's up for re-election and the other candidate is attracting attention by choosing a female running mate. He orders his assistant to search the land for a woman he can involuntarily rope into his own candidacy. Cue Thorn outside going "hey, there's a castle!"
This is the final year of Thorn and Smith's art skills have noticably improved since he started. The medieval-looking village the gang walks through at the start of the story is very detailed. While they're looking around, Fone reveals his country of origin. He's not from Boneville, he's from Ohio.
Gran'ma Ben demands to see the Emperor, little realizing she's being led into a trap: as soon as they step inside the castle, Ben is grabbed by a giant, Fone and Phoney are thrown into a dungeon, and Thorn is taken to be the emperor's sham VP for his election campaign. Thorn is angry enough to yank the hood off his head, and she discovers the emperor is actually a talking puppet named "Ronnie Doody."
Then, over the next few strips, BOY does Thorn let Reagan have it. Everything from his economic policies to his backward position on social issues to that persistent rumor about hair dye are brought up. Despite Smith's best efforts, though, he was screaming into the wind. The influence of his college comic strip wasn't enough to prevent a landslide victory for Ronnie Doody with 49 out of 50 electoral states going for him.
Meanwhile, in the dungeon, Fone and Phoney meet their cellmate, who is none other than SMILEY BONE! I can't believe it took this long for Smiley to show up. Now he barely has any time left to do anything. Oddly in his first appearance he talks with a Cockney British dialect, which vanishes the next day.
While Ronnie Doody is asleep, Thorn sneaks downstairs and lets the Bone cousins out of the dungeon. They then make their escape, but into a pitch black series of tunnels, where they run into giant trolls. In the middle of all that, one strip contains nothing but this:
We never find out what that's supposed to mean. Ronnie's assistant informs him the gang is heading for the northern border, and Ronnie gasps: "No! If they go THAT way, they'll run into...." As Thorn and the others are cornered by trolls, their only option is to jump off a high cliff. It is a literal cliffhanger: the strip was about to skip a semester and go on hiatus for five months.
When the strip returns in April of 1985, we find out---
WHAT? Wha...what just happened? The story started over again? But what's at the northern border? How'd they survive the cliff fall? WHO? WHAT? WHY?
The irritating truth is, we'll never have answers to any of that, unless there are commentary notes in the book. That version of Thorn was left abandoned forever. Smith was about to graduate and leave The Lantern behind, and he felt it was more important to get a stack of polished introductory Thorn strips ready to show to newspaper syndicates. Those scrawls he drew three years ago weren't gonna cut it. This means we've entered the....
REBOOT ARC (Spring 1985)
So that's all from Smiley. We don't even see Phoney anymore. We have to watch Fone meet and fall for Thorn again, meet Gran'ma Ben again, etc....but it's not EXACTLY the same as before, nor is it the same as in the comics. This is quite a wild, experimental version of the Valley, a literal fairy tale world where Thorn knows Snow White:
The dirt can talk:
Fone wakes up one morning and LITERALLY LOSES HIS HEAD:
Then there's this brief redesign of the Rat Creatures to make them look more ferocious, which didn't last very long. Quiche is mentioned for the first time here:
The second they meet the Red Dragon again, Jeff Smith stops everything to reveal the strip has been cancelled.
They've lost their place in the Lantern and have to vacate, so for the final few strips the main cast, including the characters wiped in the reboot, hold a college dorm party with characters from other strips the Lantern was running.
These might not be in the book, unless Smith was able to contact the people who created these characters for permission. Guess we'll find out.
The original plan was for Thorn to continue this way -- as a comic strip. But despite it being rather popular around OSU, Smith was unable to get syndicates interested. The main problem, he was told, was that newspapers were not interested in new adventure strips as much as they were in gag-a-day stuff. Smith didn't want to water down his story, and several years passed before he decided to tell it in comic book form instead. You know the rest from there.
Until next time, we hope you find yourself someone who loves you like Jeff Smith loves Vijaya.
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