Geof Darrow on Shaolin Cowboy

by Matt Brady

It hits stores today – Geof Darrow’s first comic work in…well, in a long time. It’s not a short story, a pin-up, or anything along those lines. Shaolin Cowboy, published by Burlyman Entertainment is the real deal, Darrow at longform, both writing and drawing an ongoing, bi-monthly series about…well, he’s not a Shaolin and he’s not a cowboy.

To learn a little more about the concept and the series, and why, if he’s not a Shaolin or a cowboy, the book is titled Shaolin Cowboy, we caught up with Darrow at his home in France for a genial (that is, anything below that sounds gruff or curmudgeon-ish was accompanied by at least a chuckle) conversation about the book, his art, and more.

Newsarama: Starting off – of the two titles launched by Burlyman, you essentially came up with both of them. Doc Frankenstein was something that you’d come up with, and then let Steve Skroce take on, but where did Shaolin Cowboy come from?

Geof Darrow: Wait, wait – what did Steve tell you about Doc Frankenstein? [chuckle]

NRAMA: He’d said that you’d had both Doc Frankenstein and Shaolin, and in the end, decided to move forward with Shaolin Cowboy and work on that, and let him take over Doc.

GD: Yeah – I just didn’t want to do Doc. Steve asked if he could play with it, and I said, “Sure – if you want to waste your time with it, go ahead.” And now he’s taken off with it. Every once in a while, we’ll talk about what I was thinking it was going to be. Then Larry and Andy got involved, and it became a lot more than I ever thought it would be, which is good in the end, I guess.

NRAMA: So back to Shaolin – how long had you been working on this? You’ve been toting sketches of it around for years…

GD: Yeah, it’s something that I’d always wanted to do. I started this before the first Matrix movie, and I put it aside when I started to work on that. After the first movie, I came back to look at what I had and came up with Doc Frankenstein. I messed around with that for a while, and got distracted – it seemed to limiting for me, for what I wanted to do. I originally saw Doc Frankenstein as Doc Savage mixed with Citizen Kane meets the Frankenstein monster. After a while, I just didn’t feel like doing that any more.

NRAMA: So what was the attraction that pulled you back to Shaolin Cowboy?

GD: It’s funny – he’s not really a Shaolin monk or a cowboy – but the name just sounds goofy enough for me – but he’s a character I can do anything with. If I get tired of taking in an adventure route, he can go supernatural, or a martial arts direction, or a Western. We don’t really know when it’s taking place, but it’s definitely not a Western per se – there are some cowboy hats, but there are no Indians, and no girl is tied to the railroad tracks.

NRAMA: Aside from sounding goofy enough to be attractive, obviously, the name is indicative a little to your inspirations for the broader concepts you want to play with?

GD: Yeah – I really like Westerns, and I really like samurai movies and kung fu movies. Also, he doesn’t look like a typical comic book character – he’s not very good looking, a little overweight, and looks more like Sammo Hung than a superhero.

NRAMA: So what’s his story here? Does he really talk that much, or does the donkey do all the talking for both of them?

GD: He talks a little bit, but not too much. As for the donkey – I started this so far back that, at the time, I thought, you know, there hasn’t been a talking horse or mule in story in a while. I grew up on Mr. Ed, and always thought it was so stupid, but funny. I thought I’d have a talking mule in there to say the stuff that the main character won’t say because he’s not too talkative.

NRAMA: It sounds like a genius idea – a talking donkey and a quiet and somewhat gruff lead character…

GD: Yeah, and Shrek came out, so what do you do? There are a few other things that I’ve done that have shown up in movies like that. What can you do?

I was invited to Studio Ghibli, and they showed me some stuff from Miyazaki’s new film, The Moving Castle of Lord Howl, and it’s this castle that walks around on these animal legs. I told them that I was working on this comic book, and I’d already drawn this thing – it’s a city that’s growing out of the back of this giant lizard. A lot of the story will eventually take place there. I told them that I hope they don’t think I was ripping them off when they see it show up in Shaolin Cowboy.

NRAMA: Alan Moore has theories about “ideaspace” and how once something is created there, it becomes more likely that someone – somewhere will pick up on it and pull it into their own work…

GD: Yeah – and I’m so slow, that by the time I finally get something done on it, someone, or maybe a few people have already used what I came up with, thinking it was so original. Eh – you do it over, you just keep going. There’s nothing new under the sun.


NRAMA: One of the pages that have come out as a preview of Shaolin is the spread with the huge body count…

GD: It’s a fairly violent story.

NRAMA: I guessed as much. It seems that those spreads with huge body counts, in something like a Where’s Waldo? or Richard Scary style has become something of a trademark for you, completely with blood, guts, and or sex if the story calls for it…

GD: What can I say? We live in a violent world. But I always think my pages like those are so over the top that it’s hard to take it seriously. My wife is very squeamish, and doesn’t like violence, but thinks the things I do are kind of funny, so I think I found some kind of middle ground on it all.

Oh, but I also just hate the Where’s Waldo? comparisons – God, people tell me that, and I just have to grit my teeth and smile a little and try to be nice. I can understand why, but comparing it to that…I don’t know, it seems like it lowers it to a level I never intended. I mean, I spend a week drawing something, and someone comes up and says, “Hey – that looks like Where’s Waldo?” 

NRAMA: Speaking of the large images like that, when you draw something along the lines of those spreads, are you thinking at all of the scene before, of what led up to this final scene of carnage, or is it a matter of putting the bodies in the most attractive arrangement?

GD: Well, in this instance, you get to see a lot of it. I’ve done this kind of thing before, obviously, like in Hard Boiled, there’s this scene where there are all these dead people at the end of the third issue. My intention was always to draw it all out, but Frank [Miller] was like, “Just finish the damn thing!” so I did. But I had every intention of how it was going to work out, but in the end, I just left it up to the reader’s imagination of how things got to be like they were.

But even Big Guy was very violent. There were all those scenes with the monsters, and Frank had it in his head that the people who were being digested, once the monster was dead, they all came back, and it was just some kind of virus. But in my mind, they were all dead. Frank’s view was too clean for me.

NRAMA: So back to Shaolin – what’s the setup here for the first arc, and what did Larry and Andy Wachhowski bring to it?

GD: Well they haven’t added anything to it. That’s a broad misconception. They have nothing to do with my comic, really.

Back when I did Big Guy, the first issue really had nothing going on, besides the monster showing up and eating people. In the second issue, Big Guy shows up and blows it up, but at the start of the second issue, I wanted to have all these little panels that recapitulate the story from the first issue. I thought it would be funny to do that, because, I was really recapitulating nothing – nothing happened. Frank didn’t like that idea, so he ignored it.

I still like the idea, so I’ve got the first page of each issue recapitulating what went on in the previous issue in his own monologue. It’ll be like Stan’s Soapbox of a sort.

NRAMA: So the mule sets the stage?

GD: Yeah, starting in the second issue. The first issue just gets right into it, but in the second issue, and there on out, the mule will have his say on the first page, to bring people up to speed on what’s been going on. That little bit, I had proposed to Andy to write, because he’s a very, very funny guy, so he and Larry are going to write what they call the “Ass-ologue” for the issues. But that’s it. Other than that, they’re not writing the story, or anything like that.

NRAMA: What’s the broader picture for the character – is there a mission he’s on in particular, or is he a wanderer, who finds adventure as he goes?

GD: His mission is probably trying not to get killed. He’s made a lot of enemies along the way, and that’s part of the running gag – the mule just can’t believe that he’s pissed off so many people – and unlikely people.

NRAMA: Is he in the same vein as Leone’s Man With no Name character?

GD: A little bit, yeah. And he also owes a lot to the Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. I really like those movies, and always thought he was a great character – he’s funny, and not your typical movie hero. He’s skilled, but also very vain, and his vanity gets him into a lot of trouble, but he has a very strong humanistic side.

NRAMA: When you set up your stories in this manner with a character that can go in any direction and any genre, it almost seems as if you’re challenging yourself – kind of daring yourself to draw these fantastic things – such as the city on the back of a lizard. Knowing your style, it’s obvious to see that’s a lot of work for you…

GD: It is. With the lizard-city in fact, I made the mistake of selling the original drawing to Leonardo DiCaprio, and I had to do it all over. I was shocked that he wanted the damn thing in the first place, but because he did, I had to draw the whole thing over.

NRAMA: Did you try to call him and get it, just to make a copy?

GD: Nah – I just drew it over.

And that was a true pain in the ass.

NRAMA: So, the story basically is a guy riding an ass…

GD: An ass on an ass…

NRAMA: And the ass being ridden on is trying to keep them both alive…

GD: Yeah. Well, I think he cares more for the ass than the ass cares for him.

NRAMA: I’ve confused my asses…

GD: The one he’s riding is more of a taxi – he’s getting paid to take him somewhere. So the ass kind of gets involved, but just sort of. What can he do, really? He’s an ass. He doesn’t have a bit – he’s a freeperson among asses. He can leave at any time he wants, but he wants to get paid.

NRAMA: How do you pay an ass?

GD: That’s an interesting. Not dollars, I can tell you that much, from living in Europe – if he’s smart, he’s going to ask for Euros.

NRAMA: Right. As ass with Euros. Are we going to see some of the Cowboy’s history, and learn why so many people hate him?

GD: We show a little bit in the first one, but not a lot.

NRAMA: The early word out about Shaolin Cowboy is that you’re about a hundred pages into it – is that true?

GD: Yes and no. I did a very bad thing – I am about a hundred pages into it, and then I toyed around with it, and went back to the beginning and added a bit to it. So, instead of being ahead of the game, I’m now behind. I can’t get to the hundred pages that I’ve already drawn until I get through these couple of issues.

NRAMA: How much did you add?

GD: I just wanted to put a little thing that happens in the beginning, so that when the hundred pages start, you’ve got a good feeling of what the character can do. You realize that he’s very good at what he does, but he’s not that good – he runs into some people that are better than he is.

NRAMA: What’s your schedule like in regards to catching up?

GD: Well, my first issue is 31 pages long…which probably wasn’t a good idea, in retrospect, but issue #2 will probably be like a regular comic.

NRAMA: And those two will get you caught up?

GD: If they keep a gun to my head, I can probably get caught up fairly soon…

NRAMA: When I spoke with Steve about Doc Frankenstein, he said that this is pretty much his full-time gig now – is it the same for you?

GD: Yeah. Every once in a while, I’ll do a little odd thing here or there. But I do procrastinate a lot. I’m not all that confident. A lot of times, I just end up staring at the blank piece of paper, saying, “What’s the use? It’s not going to be any good anyway.”

NRAMA: I think you saying that will surprise a lot of people.

GD: Ugh – if I spent all the time drawing that I spend worrying about how shitty this stuff looks, I’d be one of the fastest artists on the planet. People always ask me why I put so much detail in – I put so much detail in because I feel that if it looks like I put some effort into it, they won’t think I’m that bad at what I do.

NRAMA: So, the big secret you’ve been trying to hide all these years is that all the detail is your attempt at getting people to look somewhere else, so they don’t notice some weakness elsewhere on the page?

GD: Exactly – either that or I’m trying to get them to turn the page quicker so they don’t stare at my art and see all the things I do wrong. I left a blot off a spur in the opening pages of Shaolin Cowboy, and that alone really bugs me to this day.

NRAMA: It sounds like a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder…

GD: Oh yeah, I think I am, along with being anal retentive. I mean - I pulled a few things in this issue, too – when you put so many people in a panel, some of them come and go, and you never see again. The cannon fodder in this story, you don’t see more than once. There are a lot of folks in there that you only see once, so I’m hoping that people will figure they just died. When you turn the page, a lot of shit happens. I use page-turning as a time device…why aren’t my characters consistent? I guess they were killed between pages.

NRAMA: So once you hit the point where you can insert the hundred pages into the story, will you be able to breathe a sigh of relief a little, or are you going to want to go back and tweak them here and there?

GD: Nah, I’ll be able to get back to where I left it at the end of those hundred pages, which isn’t exactly even close to being finished. We’ll see where I want to take it from there – he may buy a car. He may open the gates of hell and release demons…I’m not exactly sure.

NRAMA: Is this something that has a definite ending?

GD: Yeah – I’ll probably kill him at the end. I love the whole idea from China where they believe that when you die, you have to fight their way out of the afterlife – it’s why they would have these elaborate statues of dozens and dozens of soldiers buried with nobles. I like the idea of him getting killed, going to hell, and fighting his way back out…

NRAMA: So that’s almost the last scene of the last issue – the Cowboy in hell, but still fighting?

GD: Yeah, that sounds like a good way to end it all…but we’ll see when I get there. We’ve got zombies and demons and cowboys to get through before then, but we’ll get there.

 

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