Savant-Garde:

Shaolin Cowboy

Shaolin Cowboy doesn’t care about me. It doesn’t want my opinion, my critical evaluation or my appreciation. As far as Shaolin Cowboy[1] is concerned, I might as well not exist. That is a very refreshing experience.

A lot of art tries to be like this – or at least wants us to believe that it wants to be like this. If a work of fiction wishes to be more than entertainment, it should be product of what the author has to say, not of what the author thinks the audience wants to hear. But the plain fact is that such art would be almost entirely uncommunicative, and thus would have no readers and no impact. So, the author often must sugarcoat his art – must make his innerself at least partly understandable to others. He must compromise. Shaolin Cowboy does not compromise. Shaolin Cowboy, and there is no way to put it non-bluntly, doesn’t give a shit.

They say that about a lot of pieces of art – but usually that refers to something more… “cerebral” would be the word. Y’know stories with ‘metaphors’ and ‘motifs’ and ‘massages’; not stories about a Shaolin monk chain-sawing his way through a horde of zombies in a fashion that could be called, generously, gratuitous. This, by the way, is the sum total of everything that happens in the first three issues of this four issue mini[2] – the titular Shaolin Cowboy emerges from the ground[3], is surrounded by a horde of the undead and proceeds to re-kill them.

Issue #2, in particular, is such an act of defiance against the reader I cannot help but compare it to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music[4]- for twenty or so pages the Shaolin Cowboy is killing zombies while keeping the exact same structure – everything is presented as a double-page spread with only two, top and bottom, panels and they all present a single snippet of action[5].Two chain-saws, placed on the edges of a large pole, swing about dissecting half a dozen zombies in their wake, the Shaolin Cowboy himself is half-slipping backwards raising his leg for kick into the midsection of another zombie, a small cloud of dust rises of the ground at the speed of the movement, drops of blood and pieces of flesh and bone are making their way through the air…. On and on it goes – not a single word is said, not a single change in page construction.  It’s not a whole-issue-action-scene, it’s a-whole-issue-as-a-moment-of-an-action-scene[6].

The issue, as unit, is incomprehensible – it’s not that it starts and ends in medias res but that the end is the same res in which we have started: picking it off the shelf one could not help but being struck down by the way it ignores every notion of story construction that the medium of comics has developed over the last century. There is plot, there are no characters, not a single line of dialogue or thought bubble. This wasn’t a story, it was a single scene from a story starched out to fill an issue. “Reading” the issue made Ellis’ and Hitch’s run on The Authority look hyper-compressed.

Reading it was a surreal experience – at first I was impressed with the sheer craftsmanship[7], a few pages in and I was starting to frown as the realization hit me – he’s not going to insert even a bit of variety in there, but coming to end of the issue I found myself (unwillingly) smiling again and by the final page I was outright laughing. The whole issue was like a short journey from idiocy into avant-garde.

Issue #2 basically dared the reader to keep on reading the series. Issue #3 carried on in the exact same manner – there was no plot, only blood soaked action and only a slight variation in the page design. If I was disappointed by the 1st issue (because I expected a more traditional story) and  enjoyed the 2nd partly in an ironic exercise of “man, this is so dumb” criticism[8] then the 3rd issue was the one that changed my perception of the series: this was a mood piece, not a regular story – the point of it was the art and the style and the slow-burn of the occurrences. It was an Art comic, which got confused with regular comics because the publisher was Dark Horse and not Picture Box or Fantagraphics, and because it was straight comics about a guy killing zombies and not something more surreal. But these are details – in its essence, Shaolin Cowboy is true avant-garde.

When Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky was told that his latest film Stalker was too slow and un-dynamic, he responded that “[the] film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” And though there is plot and character in Stalker, much of it is spent in slow contemplation as the director allows the characters to experience the world they inhabit fully. And that is the word – “experience”; Shaolin Cowboy is not something you read, is not something the critic can later analyze in terms of the standard critical language (again – metaphor and meaning, story structure and character arcs), it is something you experience. And what a strange experience it is.


[1] I should probably say “Geoff Darrow” instead of Shaolin Cowboy – seeing how he is the writer and the artist – but at this point I feel as if the comics has taken a life of its own, a foreign entity on my shelf. There could be no better argument for Barth’s “Death of the Author” theory.

[2] Yes – I am writing this review before the final issue of the story comes out. In fact – I am sort-of hoping it won’t come out, as it stands right now there is something pure about the series’ puerility.

[3] Actually – the first thing the reader sees are three pages of minuscule text telling a completely different, and extremely plot and character heavy, story: your first instinct is probably to skip them which is, I assume, exactly what the author expects you to do.

[4] Of course unlike Reed’s work the comics is actually enjoyable.

[5] Of course, because it is a Geoff Darrow comics every such panel has within it more details than most comics have in their whole story.

[6] Most of the impact of this would robbed in the eventual TPB reprint – not only because the large spine of a trade is sure to ‘swallow’ many of the details in the double-spreads but also because the ‘issue’ would be nothing more than a block of the whole story instead of an object in its own right.

[7] Darrow is never anything less than impressive and what would by the high-point of most other artists career is for him the norm.

[8] Yes, I know – ironic enjoinment is the worst kind there is.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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2 Comments

  1. I hope #4 is just the same damn chainsaw scene again

    because shaolin cowboy, that’s why

  2. Nick Ford says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Tom! I hope we get to hear your reactions to issue four.

    This sounds interesting for sure and maybe if it ever comes out in a collected piece I would get it.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to it at any rate. :)

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