Writer and Artist: Geof Darrow, Colors: Dave Stwart, Publisher: Dark Horse
Originally published via the still-up-in-the-air Burlyman Entertainment (the website is still functional and offers all the glories of the internet circa 2006), a publishing arm of The Wachowskis meant to offer mind bending pulp-action comics that ended up offering mostly late issues and irritated customers, Shaolin Cowboy was the story of a man who lives both in the west and east as he enters a series of violent altercations despite his peaceful, Buddha-like, nature. More importantly it was a story of a once in a generation talent unleased – the masterful pencils of Geof Darrow (Big Guy and Rusty, Hard Boiled) now free from working under the script demands of Frank Miller or as the maker of concept art for various film productions. This was to be Darrow unfiltered, as raw as he wanted it (a cheat, actually, the color work here is done by the great Dave Stewart who fills the million lines of Darrow with meaty presence and strong texture); and from what little of it I had seen, the original series being long out of print and only available to the unscrupulous amongst us, it justified that belief 100% and more.
Years later a new Mini-series (originally solicited simply as The Shaolin Cowboy and retroactively titled Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet) revived that character under the more deadline-aware Dark Horse banner. That was yours truly first full introduction to charms of the Shaolin Cowboy and remains one of the high point of 21st century comics: both an exercise in stylistic decompression that makes the early issues of The Authority look like a Brian Bendis script and a massive joke played at the expense of the readers, the first issue began with two pages CREAMED with tiny text bridging, in theory, the events between the first series and the current one before switching to a free-for-all fight between our protagonist and a heard of zombies that lasted three whole issues before a very calculated and wholly appropriate anti-climax.
The second issue of that series was dedicated wholly into a repeat of the same structure, two horizontal panels across a double spread, as the cowboy cut and slashed and kicked and slashed some more. It was a breakdown of the idea of movement in comics, an attempt to push the idea of an action scene beyond whatever limits the audience could imagine. It was beautiful and glorious and showed Darrow as a David Lynch type auteur who lives wholly within his own mind, to read his works is to be challenged – dare you join him on his wild ride?
This new series starts right as the previous one ended, though little background is required. Our hero is awakened close to death and must makes his way towards what is considered civilization in the fallen world Geof Darrow depicts only do discover he is the target of several forces hell-bent on revenge for deeds he had done and forgotten. There’s an evil mind-controlling crab and a pig the size of truck who is also a ninja. And if that sounds a bit post-Axe Cop / Astronauts in Trouble “wow isn’t this random LOL” you can free your mind from worries – for though the series is a joyful exercise in absurdity and a showcase of the single greatest action artist in comics today there is something deeper going on here.
It is redundant at this point to compliment Darrow’s attention to details, for if a regular picture is worth a thousand words each one of his panels must be at least a hundred thousand, the way he illustrates every piece of filth on the ground, every part of a car engine as it’s being torn apart by a giant armored crab, every rude joke spray-painted on the ball in the store three blocks behind our main characters, every drop of blood from every hoof to the mouth. But while many artists go for “the more lines more quality” approach Darrow’s work drowns the reader in details in order to re-engage our sense of the world.
The Shaolin Cowboy, we learn, has earned the wrath of the massive and deadly King Pig buy murdering his family right in front of his eyes – not in some glorious battle or as the end result for some epic revenge quest but simply because he was hungry and they were dinner. Those seeking a vegetarian moral might be justified, despite being un-anthropomorphic all the animals in Darrow’s world are fully capable of thought and human-like rational (though seeing how Darrow conceives most people as apathetic monsters this might not be a compliment), but there’s a larger point being made – the Shaolin Cowboy is unaware of the emotional damage his actions have caused to those around him and despite seeking enlightenment once a fight is over his stomach growls and he quickly gives in to the temptation of the physical world. The cycle of destruction and revenge can never end.
The details are a trap, there is too much to take in because the world as we live in it is too much to take in. the people throughout Who’ll Stop the Reign? are either apathetic or a violent or a combination of the two, their response to brutality right in front of them is to pull out iPhones and try and see who can upload it to twitter faster (though thankfully Darrow avoids millennial-moralizing – everyone is equally terrible), to laugh and giggle. They find it impossible to transcend, Darrow gives us a world that gave in fully to idea of consumption culture, the last page is a shot showing several restaurants dedicated to the same food filling a city block, that streets are filled with garbage and excrement because that’s all there is – to eat and regurgitate and eat again.
Even the action here feels more humane and personal than the buffet-style extravaganza of the previous mini-series: there the enemies were personality-free threat whose individuality was brought to life simply by the detailed artwork, not in any words or actions; here everyone Shaolin Cowboy fights has a reason (even if it’s a stupid or misguided one) and there’s nothing quite like the fight that takes the bulk of issue #3 as two lumbering opponents fly gracefully atop electric wires while beating the crap out of one another. They tire and suffer and change strategies and there’s something oddly honorable about the last man / pig standing – like Bruce lee vs Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon.
The only way out, if one exists at all, is to take stock of ourselves, to move out of our own forever-hungry bodies (as the Shaolin Cowboy does for a short while in issue #1 in the beginning before “falling” again into mere physicality). David foster Wallace had this famous bit about automated thinking, about how we learn to think of the world in term of a story of the ‘self’: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.” We forget that while might be the protagonists of our own story we are also just stand-ins in someone else’s story; or we might even be the villains without noticing it.
Maybe we should think twice before making our order extra-large.