Four issues, hundreds if not thousands of signs and ads, hundreds of bodies for sure, and as many animals and creatures if not more. Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? has concluded as a mini-series following the Cowboy through the ultimate bottleneck of harm he’s caused through the course of his life, as orchestrated by King Crab.
You wouldn’t be wrong to read Geof Darrow’s new series colored by the great Dave Stewart simply to look at it, but if you do look at it closely, it would be difficult not to begin to consider the story that you’re faced with. Underneath all the layers there’s a fairly simple folktale-like motif that has a pretty powerful message. In fact, the sense the comic gives, when taken as a whole, is something akin to a wise saying wrapped around a fairly brutal truth.
And that shouldn’t be surprising since the world of “Who’ll Stop The Reign?” is pretty deeply sunk in brutality, and I don’t just mean the fight scenes. But the truth in this comic is not exactly something that is said, though a fair few wise things are said. The truth is more something the Cowboy goes through, like the four plus page fight scene that moves him closer to his final confrontation with King Crab. So, what exactly is that truth?
The variant cover for the final issue of the series by Genndy Tartakovsky depicts the Cowboy wading in blood (cue MacBeth), and that’s about right. It’s a great image to sum up the ideas of the comic, and the melancholy findings of the last issue. That suggests the truth of the story might be that we exist in a state of inevitable harm and all we can do is try to survive the basic consequences of being alive.
Looking back at all four issues of the comic, now that the miniseries is complete, presents a vista that may be a little bit of a shock. Only now do you realize, as a reader, how pleasant and sun-shiny the first couple of issues were by comparison to the final two. Dave Stewart’s colors help add to this affect—bringing in pastels and more whimsical tones—but as we move through issues 3 and 4, the crimson and dirt sink in on an increasingly embedded level. That sense of inevitability has reached its apex, and it’s a very raw place to be for the Cowboy and the reader.
You will have been aware all along of a process of escalation–the foes who are forcing confrontations on the Cowboy have been increasing in magnitude, strength, and reasons for their grudges–and they’ll all formed a continuum moving toward King Crab. But in a series never without humor, and one which it would be hard to argue takes itself seriously, Darrow consistently slows down the progress of the plot with actual story detail. He provides the back story of characters major and incidental, either as a pragmatic measure, giving the progress of the story a less rushed pace, or, as I suspect, out of an actual sense of compassion. Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, either.
Wait, wait, that “compassion” thing is not as ridiculous as it sounds. If you, as a reader, stop to ask yourself why the world of the Cowboy is as strange, savage, and brutal as it clearly is, logically, you also have to come to the conclusion that existing in a place like that is bound to make the beings in it strange, savage, and brutal, as well. Is there a place for compassion in a story like this? Well, if there isn’t, then why would we care at all about what the Cowboy goes through, how unfairly the odds are stacked against him this time, or be at all concerned by his own fear and suffering? The story wouldn’t work unless we felt these things about the Cowboy, so why entertain a degree of understanding on behalf of the other characters as well?
Only two-dimensional stories expect you to have compassion for your hero and not for the other inhabitants of the world they move in. But it’s two-dimensional stories that don’t have the time to go into detail about background or lesser characters in a way that make empathy possible for readers. In the case of Shaolin Cowboy, we learn the terrible story of Hog Kong’s family and mother’s demise, in particular, and the just-as-brutal fate of King Crab’s family, too. Both are told in visual and verbal tones which might make you laugh at times, but most likely not on the whole. Those characters experience pretty horrifying tragedies even within the context of their brutal world.
We know from previous issues of this series that the Cowboy has had to face the consequences of his actions that have resulted in harm to others, even though he caused that harm through obliviously giving in to his own basic animal urges as a human being. And that theme continues in our finale.
In this final issue, the Cowboy faces a hoard of humans who all have similar complaints against him, though we may be less likely to feel sympathy for them. That’s probably for the best since we then see them diced and sliced for a good few pages. And the crimes they are bringing up at this point are both funnier and in some ways, more disturbing. They accuse the Cowboy of causing great harm through things like unfriending people on Facebook or leaving the toilet seat up. The accusations reach the point of the ridiculous, but with a point, I think. To prove that it is humanly impossible to refrain from all harm. To remind the reader that you will always be the villain of someone’s story, perhaps.
Instead of leading us to indulge in too much contemplation of what are misdeeds in this world and what are not, the focus falls on the Cowboy’s reaction to these accusations. He doesn’t find them ridiculous. He seeks forgiveness for them and apologizes. But as in past issues of the comic, that is not what his foes want. If they did, it wouldn’t make for a very good fight comic, or Western for that matter. But it does keep the cycle of emotion turning, as our sympathy now returns to the Cowboy for his final showdown.
We get our fight scene(s) and we get more than we bargained for, too. It would have been very easy for Darrow not to go into too much detail about King Crab’s female human minion who he has been “driving” around throughout this series. You’ll recall that at one previous juncture in issue #2, she briefly regained her ability to think as a separate being and expressed some shock and horror at her state, which was pretty disturbing. But she returned to servitude and we were left with a sense of how atrocious her existence was.
In this final issue, Darrow creates a secondary resolution to the story, essentially a double conclusion, by spending quite a number of comic panels on this woman’s state as a victim. She tells her story, which is a strange one, of falling into a relationship with King Crab, but sinking into his control more than she realized was possible. You could read this as an allegory of controlling, brainwashing relationships in our own world, or you could just read it as an explanation of her fate. The point is, it’s almost impossible not to feel compassion for this woman. Whoever else she is and whatever else she’s done in her life, the fact that she feels she should not be forgiven for the things she did under King Crab’s control is tragic.
And because we see the Cowboy feeling compassion for her, this rounds off the emotional content of this series. If you had any doubt that you were supposed to care about characters other than the Cowboy, this is your conclusive evidence. And we can only applaud the Cowboy’s attempts to help her, finally deciding to set her free from her memories of harm and even by giving her money. Of course, the final tone is ambivalent as she seems to turn on the Cowboy once her memories are gone and act just like all the other grifters in this harsh world of the comic.
This only reinforces the sense that the truth is something you go through for the Cowboy in this series. And you can’t reach it in any other way. The harm you do is, in many ways, impossible to prevent. The good you do does not cancel out the bad, and the impact thereof is at best, doubtful. By facing legions of accusers and attackers the Cowboy experiences this message. But what’s he going to do with this truth? Well, he continues to try to do the good thing regardless. Even if the path always ends here. With another suggested cycle of unavoidable harm teased at the end of the series, too. Maybe the important thing is that he didn’t refuse to hear the message, hard as it must be to hear.
There’s a danger when reading a comic like this one that you’ll be understandably distracted by the artwork and praise the sheer versatility of visual storytelling displayed. But if you pay enough attention to the artwork, with or without speech elements, you’ll see the layers of storytelling at work. Simple ideas clearly expressed, specific characterization, and recurring themes in development make for a memorable story here. But one without easy answers. And that is, most of all, what is likely to make Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? stay with you.
And it will probably make you stop eating at fast food restaurants, or any restaurants at all, too.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? issues #1-4 are currently available. A hardback edition with a new cover is also coming out this Autumn from Dark Horse Comics.
Related, you can currently purchase an art book featuring Geof Darrow’s work called Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow.