By Al Kennedy
It’s difficult to do chase scenes well in comics. That’s something that gets said with some frequency, normally with reference to car chases, and whether it’s actually true or not, (there’s certainly plenty of manga out there with gripping and kinetic chase scenes) it’s inarguable that it’s difficult to do chase scenes featuring cows. Can we agree on that, at least?
Jeff Smith’s Bone, which tells the story of the Bone cousins (Fone, Smiley and Phoney) and their epic struggle against the Lord of the Locusts, ran for 55 issues from 1991 to 2004, and features what is certainly the finest cow-centric chase scene in comics.
To set the scene: the town of Barrelhaven is about to have its annual Great Cow Race. In the normal course of events, it would be expected that the winner would be the only non-bovine competitor, the town’s savvy lorekeeper and formidable cross-country sprinter “Gran’ma” Rose Ben. This year, the arrival of the Bone cousins has thrown all that into disarray – grifter Phoney Bone has lit upon a plan to rake in cash by first talking up a “Mystery Cow” competitor (in reality amiable goof Smiley Bone in a fleabitten cow suit) and then collecting the bets of the townsfolk when Gran’ma Ben inevitably wins.
That plan goes completely out of the window in the final moments leading up to the start of the race, when local tavern owner Lucius, naturally suspicious of Phoney’s involvement, bets the tavern on Gran’ma Ben. For Phoney Bone, this changes everything – now, somehow, the Mystery Cow has to win. Oh, and did we mention that good-hearted, brave Fone Bone has encountered two evil Rat Creatures in the woods and is being chased at high speed back in the direction of the town just as the race begins?
Bone has a reputation as a rewarding high fantasy comic, with dragons and ancient lost cities and forgotten treasures and bravery and escapes and so on and ecksettera and whatnot. The problem with that as a description – though it’s completely true, of course, other than possibly grammatically – is that it does make it sound a little humourless. A little bit “improving”. The kind of bracing children’s fantasy that subs in a zoo animal for a major religious figure. In reality, Bone’s great hidden strength is its comedy. From Ted the bug to Mrs Possum’s kids to the quiche-obsessed pair of Rat Creatures that become Fone Bone’s hapless nemeses, there’s always some bit of business going on to throw a little light against the darkness of the saga’s overarching plot, sharpening and accentuating both sides as it goes.
Issue 10, featuring the Great Cow Race itself, is perhaps the best example of this in the series, and one of the finest vignettes of physical comedy in comics. When Lucius places his bet, Smiley’s jaw drops like an anvil onto the counter of his makeshift bookie’s stand.
That’s the toppling of the first domino in the rest of the issue’s hilarious chain of events. First, Phoney attempts first to tell Smiley on the starting line that he now has to win the race, which the easy-going Smiley seems unconvinced by. Then as the cry of “On your marks…” goes up, Phoney tries to clamber into the costume along with Smiley, an operation which he only manages to half-finish by the time Smiley sprints gleefully off, jostled and buffeted by the dozens of other cows in the race.
Meanwhile, Fone is attempting to outrun two Rat Creatures, an endeavour which is hampered by tumbling off cliffsides, crashing through trees and an unscheduled pit stop into a much fuller nest of Rat Creatures (which Smiley and Phoney, careening briefly out of the race, have crash landed in a moment before). The climax of both the race and the issue sees the three Bones, two still (just about) wearing the same cow costume, trying to sprint ahead of the combined stampede of frantic Rat Creatures and panicking cows as Gran’ma Ben tries both to catch Phoney and Smiley and, of course, to win the race.
It’s chaos, yes, but it’s meticulously organised chaos, as the elements of farce and slapstick combine in ever more soaring harmonies until the whole shebang goes roaring across the finish line (after which point, for the purposes of the comic, the cows and the Rat Creatures effectively run off the edge of the page and cease to exist) and we get the miniature coda of Gran’ma Ben striding off to find Phoney Bone. It’s a well-placed moment, allowing the exhilarated reader to straighten their hair, catch their breath and recover a little.
It is difficult to do chase scenes well in comics. It’s difficult to do most things well in comics. But to do a chase scene well, and to have it keep adding elements and build up its wildness and energy until it overflows gloriously and gleefully, with gag piled on gag and absurdities stacking up almost faster than would seem possible, takes a truly exceptional level of skill and talent. That it’s only one chapter in a bigger, broader work is nothing short of remarkable.
Bone #10: The Great Cow Race
by Jeff Smith
Coloured by Steve Hamaker
Al Kennedy is a writer and podcaster best known as one half of the House to Astonish podcast. He’s been writing about comics since the turn of the century, originally on nearby cave walls but nowadays more usually online. You can find him on Twitter here.
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