One day, a cow got loose. It went for a stroll along the railroad tracks. Cows weren’t the most complex creatures. In fact, life for a cow was pretty simple. Now, humans… humans were the complicated ones. They were always up to something.
Humans had developed the land. Humans had built the track. And humans knew how to make a train that would go full speed ahead. The train was full of many clever and complicated humans…each focused on their own special task. [Shows train captain] This human was clever at driving a train. [Shows upper class passengers] These humans were clever at wearing fancy hats. [Shows working people playing music, drinking and dancing] These humans were clever at making good use of limited space. […] They were all going about their business, no questions asked. That was how everything had always worked. So it seemed very sensible indeed.
The train of capitalism is on a collision course with nature. However, nothing can triumph over nature’s brute force: an unassuming and careless cow. Caught in the middle between these two forces are the different classes on the 20th century’s symbol of capitalist progress: trains. In classic capitalist critique, you have the bourgeois (men in top hats drinking high class tonics, drunk off power), the petty bourgeois (the captain who contorts himself to the bourgeois’ whim for the promise of influence), and the proletariats (the remaining passengers and fireman) all vying for their space, doing what their economic function requires—exploit, work or be worked over. The captain distracts himself with a genteel lady while the train hits the cow (the cow comically rides on the front of the train before being flung off unharmed). The fireman, the captain’s second in command, notices that the bump causes the train to lose its breaks function. Trying to get a hold of the situation, he uses all the coal, but to no avail— the breaks are stuck. The passengers, meanwhile, have a jolly good time racing to their doom. Once it is clear they are on a crash course, though, the rich pay the working class for their possessions to burn for fuel. From the clothes off their back to parts of the cart they ride, the workers offer up their livelihoods for the assurance that the train keeps running with them on it. Once all is repossessed, however, the rich detach their car off the line, but not before the comically large sack of money is yanked back by the laughing bourgeois. They laugh to their oblivion once they realize there are no more resources left to pilfer. Even among the impending doom, the fireman, while trying to handle the upcoming (economic) crash, ably saves the genteel maiden’s pet from the engine’s hungry mouth, and he and the maiden fall in love. As all the chaos proceeds, the reader is reminded that all the passengers, whatever their position in the train, share the same hopeless destiny. At least two passengers find love in the process.
Runaway is adapted from Cordell Barker’s 2009 short film of the same title. This graphic novel, adapted by Sarah Howden of 5-minutes stories fame, takes static screenshots from the film and translates them into a narrative meant for younger readers. Lost is the silent film aesthetic with the effective frazzled jazz soundtrack and puppet-like noises for dialogue, replaced with text bubbles to explicate the narrative with no ambiguity. Ambiguity is later added at the conclusion of the tale, to its detriment. The short film has the train crash and burn while the onlooking cow marches forward as the background trumpet explodes in wah-wahs. This iteration cuts before the train crashes, opting for stills of the cow looking off into the sunset asking, “Was this a happy ending? It’s hard to say…but for the cow, it was a glorious sunset.” At least the cow got the best view of capitalism’s wreckage. By watching the short film and reading the comic together, classrooms have an opportunity to examine how stories are adapted through media studies hermeneutics.
For kids, the narrative hook is the central romance narrative thread that positions love crossing all class boundaries. For young adults, what resonates is the failure of capitalism that is blazing on course to our collective demise—with love, in its unadulterated collective form, as our only hope. I think the good gesture that sparked the romance is the key takeaway from the piece: conscious and deliberate positive actions towards one another’s well-being is the only course of action to prevent capitalism going off the rails; otherwise, you can try to enjoy yourself while the ride lasts.
Lonnie Freedman is a Youth Services Librarian at Vaughan Public Libraries, Vaughan, Ontario.