By Hannah Means-Shannon
The much-anticipated return of Shaolin Cowboy with “Who’ll Stop The Reign” has a nice ambiguity in the title. It could be taking about King Crab, or it could be talking about our cowboy. After all, depending on one’s perspective, there’s a kind of terrifying and unstoppable feel to both of their influences on their world. We may be rooting for the Cowboy, but in the first two issues of this new series, we’ve seen plenty of evidence for why other characters hate or dread him, and there is something relentless about the violence he’s always facing front and center.
Written and drawn by Geof Darrow, with colors by Dave Stewart, the series follows the Cowboy across a desert-based American landscape, but one that’s hardly deserted or serene. When we looked at the first issue here on Comicon.com, we discussed how much the comic was with social commentary, forming a kind of white noise that should influence our experience of the story. There’s a certain levity to the way the social observations are handled, though, that reminds us of Darrow’s own artwork where each detail is treated with equal care and attention, and its up to the viewer to pick and choose what aspect of a given panel or page they want to inspect close-up and ponder.
In fact, though it may seem obvious to say, Darrow’s writing on this series is a lot like his art. The intricate use of phrases, each with a particular reference or emotional tone, has the same kind of collage-like effect as Darrow’s use of central characters and back ground material in his comic art. That may be even more obvious when the two are one and same–like when his signage in his background art, and the writing that visually appears on posters or products, conveys a certain feeling or message that adds to the world of Shaolin Cowboy. But I’d argue that the same use of reference and allusion we see in those surface details pops up in his writing and it’s not difficult to find examples. It starts with the smaller and aside conversations and only builds from there.
The conversation between gangsters riding in a Beetle car being carried by a giant hermit crab which opens this second issue of the comic breaks down into discussions of whether or not their ammo “sucks” because it comes from “Wo-Mart”, a clear analog for a big chain store you can guess. They have this conversation while fighting the Cowboy, of course. It is as if some background ad for Wo-Mart ammunition, which might otherwise appear on a wall, has come forward, into the foreground of the comic for us to interact with more directly.
This isn’t to say that Darrow’s writing isn’t about characterization, or that it’s all about atmosphere. We get a pretty solid impression of who these dudes are through their ridiculous conversations and insults about the Cowboy’s “butt”. Likewise, we learn a little about a female bystander, for instance, through seeing her texts appear as caption boxes on the screen. She’s just an ordinary person at a gas station and we see a contrast where she is clearly not as ridiculous as the two gangsters preceding her.
So we see choices Darrow is making in his writing. Some characters are more associated with the texture, almost the skin, of the story, forming satire and social commentary and some are chosen for a more distinctive purpose. Since the comic contains, in its own words, “everything from sharp-edged weapons to social media”, we can expect the writing to serve just as many purposes.
So, what if Darrow’s writing is like his art? That helps explain why his comics feel like you’re reading the equivalent of several comics at once. If you thought it was the art work, that’s certainly a good place to start, since you can examine the tiny animals, creatures, and ads that add layer upon layer to the worlds he’s creating. But be aware that in the foreground, he’s bringing the same layered effect to his active characters and the ways in which they operate and interact.
This issue calls out the wealth of background detail to his characters by spending several pages telling the emotional and horrifying tale of Kong the hog. We hear from a hog’s perspective how their absurd and pathetic, now super-violent, life has played out in ways that are intentionally ridiculous and yet strangely meaningful.
Under the impression that their family went on to fame and fortune, Kong learns as hogling that they have been butchered instead, at which point Kong observes a mother’s terrible revenge on humankind. Trained as a ninja, Kong nevertheless turns on humanity to some extent. Kong is a savage character formed by savage experiences. Within all that narrative, we also see plenty of references to human life and behavior in our culture that would give any animal activist or even pet owner pause. There are layers to Kong, even if Kong is a very funny and violent character in the comic.
Issue #1 re-introduced us to the Shaolin Cowboy, setting up the fact that things from his past might be coming home to roost. We also saw King Crab starting to send out his minions to bring down the Cowboy. In this issue, that begins to take effect, and we see how wide-reaching the Crab’s influence can be, drawing in both soldiers, generals, and allies among street gangs. This is beginning to feel like an impossible fight for the Cowboy–but maybe that’s the point. After all, this series is about stopping one kind of reign or another.
Shaolin Cowboy #2 is currently in comic shops. Issue #3 arrives June 21st, 2017.