This week, on April 18th, the newest issue of Shaolin Cowboy rolls out in shops, in an arc titled, “Who’ll Stop The Reign?” And on the surface, it’s a comic about the past coming back to haunt you. About those things not particularly advisable at the time, but long forgotten, coming home to roost. In fact, the comic opens with some vultures chatting, and well, roosting over what they perceive to be a ready meal. It’s the first issue of a new four part story for the Shaolin Cowboy, written and illustrated by Geof Darrow.
Not only do we get a new miniseries from Darrow in 2017, but also a hefty and art-laden volume of his past work with an unusual slant–focusing just on his pencil artwork. Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow gathers material from Darrow’s career that is the result of his intricate first-draft penciling, and it arrives in July.
Darrow’s career has been full of honors, prestige, and strange adventures in art and story, but when I think of his artwork, I think of the ways in which it has reached and touched people, on a level that’s hard to name or describe. It stems from something in the brashness of his imagination, or in the unusual stillness of his crowded, epic scenes. As he will very openly admit, he simply draws what he wants to draw. But I’d say there’s something very important about that, inspiring both other artists and readers alike.
I spoke with Geof Darrow about Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign, his art book Lead Poisoning, and many other things that are all part of the picture.
We started off talking about trying to keep up with all comics coming out on a weekly basis, and Darrow felt that it was impossible to really follow them all. Doing finite series that keep generating new #1’s could lead to problems like we encountered in the 90’s, which affected comic shops so greatly, he observed.
I commented that retailers have been speaking out about this issue, and there have been articles written by retailers reacting the number of new #1s being published on a monthly basis and the difficulties that might be causing.
Then we laughed about the fact that Darrow’s new comic is, in fact, a #1, Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? He said that there was some debate about whether the series should be numbered consecutively with previous comics in the line, but in the end, the gap between issues had been great enough that it seemed like a good idea to make this a #1, and he was persuaded to do so. If it’s supposed to help people feel that they have jumped in on it and will therefore understand what’s going on in the comic, he warned, “They won’t anyway!” That being the nature of the comic.
I asked Darrow “What kind of story were you wanting to tell this time around, versus previous stories?” when it came to Shaolin Cowboy.
He replied, “I never think in those terms. I just draw things I want to draw. You follow him around. Things just happen to him. This one starts right after the last one, though. The first one covered about 20 minutes in time. This one is about a day, since you see the sun go down once. It’s still fairly chronological. I don’t have a grand plan. It’s not like Lord of the Rings. There’s no Infinity gauntlet—he’s not looking for something. He makes a lot of bad choices. That gets him into trouble. He tries to do the right thing, but in this one you find out he’s done some things he probably shouldn’t have done and they come back to haunt him. But it’s just a lot of nonsense. Everything I do is nonsense. When I first started working with Frank Miller on Hard Boiled, it was just a lot of nonsense”.
I said that it was a good to keep that in mind when it comes to comics, actually. I told him that I’d recently been talking to the artist Gary Gianni, who really emphasized the need to hold onto the idea of “whimsy” in comics.
Darrow agreed, saying, “It’s a comic book! Sometimes people question things, saying that doesn’t make any sense, saying ‘How can he get thrown through a window and survive?’ but then you ask them about Spider-Man and they don’t have the same issue. Each reader has their own threshold of belief or disbelief. What they will buy into and what they won’t”.
“I’m always surprised by that.”, Darrow said. “I remember I was working on an animated version of Shaolin Cowboy in Japan and they had the hardest time with the idea of a talking crab. They could not wrap their head around it. I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute—you guys gave us Gamera and that’s ok, but a talking crab? That’s where you draw the line?’. I learned they really take things seriously. Saying ‘There’s physics behind Godzilla’ if you question it”, he continued.
“But comics can be anything. I think there’s room for everything.”, Darrow concluded.
I said, “Well you like your talking animals. I’ve seen issue #1 of this new series and we’ve got some”.
Darrow said, “Well, that all comes from what happened in Japan. They couldn’t accept the crab, so I thought about it for a bit, and said, ‘Ok, it’s reincarnation’. And they bought that. They needed a rationalization. I wrote that into the story after that. I carried some of that over into this new series. I had a talking mule in the first story I did, which I got from the show I watched as a kid, Mister Ed. That’s why there are talking animals in there. I think it’s goofy and funny”.
“It definitely opens with humor”, I said, “and dark humor, specifically. Which sets the tone a bit”.
“Yes, sometimes the animals make more sense than the people.”, Darrow added. “I also find that it’s interesting, especially in film, how audiences react. You can do any kind of violence against a human being, and that’s ok, but if you kill a dog, the audience says, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do THAT”.
“Well, I guess that helps set up some rules for your comic”, I laughed.
I asked if Darrow enjoys drawing the desert landscapes that have come up in Shaolin Cowboy. He said that he does like drawing “natural forms” since there’s more “negative space”. But he does enjoying drawing cities more, it’s just time consuming. He tries not to create “cookie cutter” buildings, and tries to create “real environments”. His settings are very populated in terms of detail, and he feels that “adds character” to settings.
He recalled working with Dave Stevens on The Rocketeer, and Stevens didn’t like doing backgrounds, so he was asked to fill in some backgrounds for him. I observed that Darrow is in the minority, perhaps, as a comic artist who actually likes to draw backgrounds.
He said he thought it came from a European influence, like Moebius, and the French and Belgian comic artists. Perhaps Japanese artists, too. They try to create environments that are “worlds specific to whatever character they happen to be drawing”, Darrow explained.
I said that it changes the entire atmosphere and experience of a story to add a high level of detail to backgrounds, whether readers are looking closely at it or not. But in Darrow’s case they definitely are, since they have come to expect it from his work. He said that the idea of putting a character “in compositional space with buildings and cars and things, and trying to make it look correct” is something he personally finds really interesting.
He recalls seeing a Michael Golden cover that had an excellent use of space, depth, and a sense of drama, and admiring it. Darrow gets thrown off, he said, when he sees a Batman cover, for instance, with perspective that’s off.
I asked Darrow about his cover artwork, since he does covers from time to time. “Occasionally”, he specified. He doesn’t think he’s “very good at covers”, since he tends to “bury the character” in its own cover. He recalls doing a Wolverine cover in Japan where you could “barely see him. You really have to look to find him”. Because he’s surrounded by Yakuza, and Darrow was hoping to create a sense of epic scale.
I observed that readers like that aspect of Darrow’s covers, because they’ve come to expect that as something different. A different kind of composition. He, however, feels he struggles with himself when it comes to cover. He feels that one Daredevil cover he did was “ok”.
I asked him in what ways he approaches creating a cover differently than creating a page or panel of interior artwork. He said that he tries to approach them differently, and tries to create a cover to catch peoples’ eye on the newsstand. Panels have to tie together, whereas with covers, the job is to sell the comic book. “I don’t know that I’m a very good salesman”, he said. “There you go”.
Darrow called out Mike Mignola, Adam Hughes, Michael Golden, and Dave Johnson as amazing cover artists. I commented that it’s a separate art form, in a way, and doesn’t usually get treated as such. Darrow agreed.
I brought up Darrow’s “pretty hefty” art book coming out from Dark Horse this summer, too, called Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow. He said that because he draws so hard on paper when he’s working, he can’t ink on the same paper, since there’s too much graphite. It’s almost like an engraving, with a “trough in the paper”, once drawn. It’s like “trying to get a tire out of a rut” if he wants to try to ink that, and it “gets funky”. So he uses a technique that he originally learned from Moebius to move forward.
When he worked with Moebius, he saw that Moebius would put his drawings on a lightbox with a kind of tracing paper, but sturdier, so Darrow has been “doing that for the longest time”, and it comes out closer to the way he wants it to. So therefore he has a great deal of pencil artwork from the projects he’s done, as well as “movie stuff”. He has so much, that when he started getting stuff together to send to Dark Horse, he just “grabbed” stacks of them and sent them off without looking through them. He said, “It was too disturbing to go through that stuff for me”.
I said that I had been planning to ask him if it was challenging to go looking through old work, seeing stuff he’d forgotten about, in order to put together this art book.
Darrow said there were a few really old things included, and though he hasn’t seen the finished book, he plans on reading it when it comes out. He hasn’t read any of the contributor commentary included, either. He has a hard time asking people to make contributions, so he’d rather other people do that. Darrow commented that editor Scott Allie has done an excellent job putting the book together, gathering contributors and organizing the material. He figures that if someone else asks, they are more likely to be honest in what they say, and was glad that Allie took on those duties.
When it comes to reviews, Darrow said he has occasionally found negative reviews rather funny. And certainly writing a comic about a middle-aged fat guy who kills things is kind of an “anti-superhero comic”, but the product of his tendency to just draw what he wants to draw regardless of the outcome, Darrow said. Recently, he noticed that the Shaolin Cowboy does have superhero colors of red, blue, and yellow, which surprised him.
He’s more influenced in the creation of that character by Japanese films of the 50’s and 60’s where heroes “never look like heroes”. They look like “regular guys”. For instance, Lone Wolf and Cub, where the star is not “buff”, but he can really move.
I added that these guys are almost always paunchy, middle-middle-aged or older, and so there’s a big difference between what they look like and what they can do. It’s unexpected.
Darrow added that when you see Arnold Schwarzenegger walk into a room, “you know something is going to happen”, but when these guys walk in, you “never know what’s going to happen”. He said he has always liked the kind of stories that focus on the idea that “you picked on the wrong guy”.
We moved on to a discussion of John Wick. Of course, Keanu Reeves makes that role work, Darrow said. Darrow, having worked with Reeves in the past, commended his work ethic as “admirable”. I said that I’d recently seen both John Wick films, watching the first because I knew I was going to see the second one, and had been incredibly impressed by them. Darrow said Reeves trains very hard, for “months” to do this stuff. And working on The Matrix, the amount of rigging the actors had to deal with was astounding, and learning how to fall became a matter of making sure you didn’t break a leg.
“It’s amazing that actors put themselves through so much”, I said, “and are brave enough to do the things they are expected to do”. Darrow said that Reeves had some injuries while working, and the studio at the time didn’t want to insure him. Doctors don’t want to sign off on actors where they might be held liable later, Darrow said.
I said that as I get older, I’m increasingly in awe of people who go through such rigors for their careers, and glad that I don’t have to.
Darrow said that surely there must be some difficult issues in my job, like having to listen to “guys like me blather”. He personally has little patience for people who talk a great deal or tell long-winded stories. He asked if I’ve ever done any interviews where I wished people would just stop talking.
I said that mainly if interviews goes really long, more than say, an hour and a half, I get to the point where it’s hard to mentally process everything, and I need a break. Most people, though, who work in comics, have incredible stories to tell, so it is interesting, even if they are just talking about daily life.
Also, it’s important to record those stories and publish them because a lot of readers just have no practical idea of how difficult it is to make comics and what comic creators’ lives are like. They don’t know the labor or complication of it.
“Or the solitude”, Darrow added, “or the silence”. He said there’s nothing worse than sending material into editors, and getting only silence.
I asked Darrow if editors actually give him feedback or just say, “Do whatever”.
Darrow said he remembered that when he sent in Hard Boiled, he got no feedback, and it took the wind out of his sails, thinking they didn’t like it. Now, he thinks, people are probably a little afraid of him, because he will “say things” if he doesn’t like the feedback. “But I think I’ve always been like that”, he said. It’s not that he thinks he’s “that good”, but he thinks it’s a matter of “respect”. If someone has taken the time to create something, then take the time to respond to it.
Some editors work in comics with a great deal of attitude and treat creators “cavalierly”, Darrow said, and he’s amazed by it. But one of the biggest problems is not hearing back from people.
I commented on the sheer amount of e-mailing involved in comics these days for all parties and said that sometimes it feels like you can just never get a response from anyone. Comics is particularly bad for that.
Darrow said he’ll get an e-mail from editors, respond, and then never hear back to his own questions. He understands the strain of it, trying to manage his own interaction with folks. Including trying to even answer messages from fans on Facebook.
There’s only so much time in the day, I agreed, an actual limit to the amount of time one has, and spending all one’s time on correspondence just isn’t possible. And, of course, it stops you doing whatever real “work” you are supposed to be doing, creatively.
Bringing things to a close, I introduced one more question. I said that in the first issue of this new Shaolin Cowboy comic, there seems to be a theme about consequences for one’s actions, and the fact that the Cowboy seems to have never understood that. I asked Darrow why he wanted to include that theme, and what it meant to him.
Darrow said that it’s something we all think about, and it affects everyone’s life. Sometimes we do things without thinking, or even with the best of intentions, and there are consequences. And sometimes they are larger than we can never imagine.
Bringing it into current politics, he said he’s “Scared. Really scared for the environment. Scared for minorities. Scared for immigrants. Scared for people who didn’t vote since they didn’t think it mattered. If that makes any sense”. For him the outcome of the election was the wrong choice.
I asked Darrow if he expected the outcome of the election, since a lot of people were blindsided. He said he did expect it because of talking to people. Just from talking to people in previous elections, too. Hearing young people say it didn’t matter if they voted, since all politicians were the same. With the issues facing young people in this country, it was astonishing for him to hear people say they weren’t going to vote. We talked about the similar and growing problems in various European countries, too.
Leading on from this, I asked Darrow if he thought that storytelling, whether in film, TV, comics, or other media, could make a difference in solving some of our social issues.
He admitted, “I don’t know, quite honestly”. He said, “I kind of think not, but I couldn’t say it really hurts”.
We talked about how difficult it is to tell for sure what kind of “message” a story is trying to send, and that things can be “taken out of context”, misinterpreted, and misused later as well.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign #1 arrives in comic shops this week, on April 19th.
Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow, lands in shops on July 5th.
You can follow Geof Darrow on his Facebook page right here.
Geof Darrow is going to be at C2E2 at table J10 in artist alley this weekend. He will have originals, sketchbooks, books, and prints, but he won’t be doing commissions.