It’s hard for me to conceive of having something to say about the incredible work of artist and writer Geof Darrow that others have not already said or continue to say. He is so universally praised that it’s easy to assume everyone ‘gets’ Shaolin Cowboy and his work on many other projects. But last week a new series of Shaolin Cowboy was released colored by the also great Dave Stewart, ‘Who’ll Stop The Reign?‘ and I had the privilege of interviewing Darrow about his life and work ahead of that release.
Now, looking at the comic, there is so much more to say about the creation of this new work and what kind of place it takes in current comic releases. First and foremost, Darrow’s comics are funny. If we don’t keep that in mind, we’ll lose our way toward appreciating them properly pretty quickly. From the opening dialogue in this first issue, held between vultures commenting on what flavor of human beings they are going to eat, to the absurd and remarkable detail in the conversations going on in each passing vehicle as the Cowboy stumbles long a highway by day and night, Darrow is making sure we can find it all ridiculous. Human behavior, the role of the food chain, the difficulties of survival. The tiny lines that pick out his animals, his lizards, and their goofy behavior and expressions are there as much to be silly and funny as for any other reason, I think.
But then there’s the next level. And it’s not to be dismissed easily. The level of social commentary. Darrow isn’t picking one specific message and hammering it home. He’s casting a net into a sea of garbage–perhaps that plastic island of trash we’ve generated that’s floating in the pacific–and having seized a few tons of it, is dumping it down onto the desert landscape of ‘Who’ll Stop The Reign?’. And we’re left to be archaeologists of ourselves and our own times, picking through that rubbish and thinking, “Ugh, is this what we convey about ourselves?” The answer, of course, is yes. The detritus of American culture isn’t pretty. It can be absurd, and funny, but overall, it’s an amazing tide of mediocrity–or worse.
The major threads of social commentary in issue #1 of ‘Who’ll Stop The Reign?’ are a good number of Trump related graffiti on the roadside rocks and boulders where our Cowboy tries to meditatively restore his Chi, endless background discussion of smart phones and apps, and the different strains of material culture that leave behind useless relics–fast food, beer, cigarettes, and more. Particularly interesting is Darrow’s use of phones in this comic–everyone has a smart phone–everyone seems to be proud of a new model they’ve acquired–or be cursing their carrier’s limitations out in the desert. Everyone is using apps to chart out and construct their lives, while all around them the scraps of disposable culture are piling up like an unwatched pot coming to a boil.
What does it all mean? You can interpret this in a lot of ways–one would be a kind of social one-upmanship driving us to feel a rush of status when we have the best incarnation of technology, and a kind of affirmation we allow ourselves as well as others when we feel we’ve mastered the use of a new tech item–like an app to arrange your decision making for you. To see neo-nazis bragging about their apps and yokels watching porn while driving and throwing trash out their windows into Monument Valley definitely makes a statement about focus and obsession.
Where are our eyes, socially speaking? What are we looking at? Not the landscape, really, but screens, phones, and what others are doing on their screens and phones. And my response, as a reader, is that I need to see and hear this commentary, even as someone who’s not anti-technology and probably never will be. Because everything needs limits. And this is a comic that suggests we don’t have any. And hopefully speaks to us through that. But if you’re reading Shaolin Cowboy for social commentary, you don’t have to stop there. The phone theme is only the beginning.
Darrow would probably be the first to say, “Just enjoy this comic!” It is a wonderfully funny, delightfully lively, devilishly gruesome new series. And the idea that the Shaolin Cowboy is going to face some unforeseen consequences for his past actions, introduced in this issue, sets up the series with plenty of anticipation.
Go enjoy The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? But if you spend a moment or two thinking of what Darrow’s incredibly detailed artwork and perhaps just as intricate dialogue convey about human beings, and particularly American culture, that might be a good thing, too.
The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? #1 is already in shops. Issue #2 arrives May 24th.