"Based on a true story," Shawn Granger's Family Bones (King Tractor Press) recounts one teenage boy's horrendous summer in the American heartland. Dumped with his grandparents by his bickering parents, young would-be punk Sean is quickly shunted off to an aunt and uncle's farm after his grandfather gets hospitalized in a hunting accident. "Staying with your Aunt Faye and Uncle Ray will be like a vacation," our hero's kindly grandma tells him, but this couldn't be further from the truth.
His first day there, Sean's ordered by his mean-ass Uncle Ray to begin clearing rocks out of the fields. When the young boy reflexively mouths back, he suddenly finds himself on the ground, eating dirt. "I don't care if yer a Jew," his uncle declares, "yer gonna pick up these rocks."
Sean's Uncle Ray proves to be a tyrannical wife-beater who also is involved in something shady. Though we're not quite sure what this entails by the end of the first volume of this two-part black-and-white graphic novel series (all Sean knows for certain is it involves "funny business with some cows"), it's clear that Ray is not to be trifled with. After farmhand Robert makes some vague ultimatums demanding the money he's owed, the man disappears. Though battered Aunt Faye says the hand has "moved on," we've already been cued to disbelieve this.
True crime aficionados are already ahead of the rest of us once they've read the last name on the mailbox in chapter two. Sean's relatives are Ray and Faye Copeland, the oldest American serial killers ever to be sentenced to death row. Our young punk protagonist's summer away from home will definitely be more than a simple character-building experience.
All is not entirely Dickensian mistreatment down on the farm, however. Left on his own to plow the fields, our strapping young hero connects up with a rural beauty named Wendy. The awkwardly adolescent romantic interludes with Wendy are perhaps meant to show the flip side of the prairie heartland, but they also prove fraught with their own perils: Sean accidentally hits the girl with a brick that's unearthed by his tractor; a fishing trip concludes with a hook getting caught in the crotch of Sean's jeans; a trip into town turns into the inevitable confrontation with townies. If Sean's brutish relative doesn't do him in, his city boy ways could.
Originally serialized in comic book form, the material in Volume One essentially covers five issues worth of prolonged build-up. The digest-sized paperback includes the covers to each ish, though at least one of these – issue four's image of a nekkid Sean and Wendy being frighteningly confronted by his weapon-wielding relatives – doesn't reflect anything that happens in the first volume at least. (Perhaps in the concluding Volume Two?) As with Granger's other recently published GN collection, Innocent, the art chores are parceled out to different artists on a chapter by chapter basis (though Pablo Augusti Lordi is given both chapters four and five), with one of the players from Innocent, Manny Abeleda, showing up to illustrate chapter three. Seeing the number of diverse hands on the art front, I initially wondered if it would prove disruptive for this more sustained storyline, but that didn't prove to be the case. All four of the book's main artists do an efficient job capturing Bones' hardscrabble rural world, even if Sean's girl Wendy looks too pristine to be true.
At times, Granger's preparations for the concluding second volume seem a little too protracted – Sean and Wendy's fishing expedition takes up sixteen pages of story – though I suspect the story is better served by its paperback packaging than it was as a monthly comic. This is the kind of work where you quickly know that something's terribly wrong, though the full nature of that wrongness is more deliberately doled out in bits and pieces. If Volume Two is where it all hits the fan, Granger and his collaborators have done enough to get this reader happily anticipating the moment Sean learns the awful truth about Aunt Faye and Uncle Ray.