‘Everything’s A Western Anyway’ – Conversations With Geof Darrow Part 1

by Hannah Means Shannon

The past few months have been the season of Geof Darrow for comics fans, with the release of the four part miniseries Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? and, as that series came to a conclusion, the publication of a major new art book celebrating Darrow’s pencil artwork: Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow, both from Dark Horse. But that season isn’t over, since the hardback collection for this new series of Shaolin Cowboy is also coming up, arriving on October 25th, 2017.

Since Darrow is someone who spends a lot of time on his intricate compositions, this much Darrow in a short space of time has been a real treat for readers and a shot in the arm for comics, reminding fans of his contributions to comic art and the possibilities the medium affords.

Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? picks up with the Cowboy moving through a western desert and townscape pursued by entities who he has inadvertently or purposefully harmed in past days, culminating in a showdown with the infamous King Crab and the woman who Crab has in thrall. What we have on the page is some of Darrow’s most detailed artwork to date (and that’s saying something) in an environment loaded with slogans and references to our current cultural and political climate and dialog that speaks to our modern day distractions and obsessions very well. But most of all, it’s a compelling story that, among other things, reminds us of the nature of conflict. (You can find previous reviews of the series on Comicon.com here, here, and here).

Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow is its own shock to the system, revealing over a hundred pages of masterful linework by Darrow from compositions he created for comics, simply for personal reasons, or for unpublished works. The images are accompanied by enlightening, and at times, hilarious, commentary from comic professionals who know and love Darrow’s work, bringing an added layer of appreciation to his achievements. (You can find our review of that book on Comicon.com here as well.)

At San Diego Comic-Con 2017, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Geof Darrow for a lengthy interview on many topics relating to his work, which we’ll be presenting in several parts here on Comicon.com.

Part 1, which deals with the history of Shaolin Cowboy, aesthetics, and Darrow’s own inclinations as an artist, starts here.

Part 1

Sitting down with Geof Darrow at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, he said that he recalled one of his first Comic-Con attendances in the 80’s where he found himself at a table with Alan Moore, with about five people talking to him, as well as Julie Schwartz, and Frank Miller. Those are people who couldn’t even walk across a room now without others stopping them to talk to them now, he observed.  A lot of the current notoriety has to do with the movies, he feels, since not as many people have read the comics, but key names have become associated with the movies.

Our interview took place during the same week that the final issue of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? had been released, but since I’d only been able to read it during the convention, I told Darrow I didn’t necessarily need to plow into the finale in terms of my questions.

Darrow said he appreciated the fact that I really “look at” his comics when reading them, but then laughed and said that maybe I shouldn’t.

I commented that I didn’t really know any other way to look at comics and don’t really understand not looking deeply into comics, even if someone is just there for entertainment. That’s part of the entertainment to me.

I told him that due to my background as an English Professor it’s harder for me to avoid in-depth reviewing, and the same goes for several friends of mine with academic backgrounds who have become “corrupted into comics”, too. And when they write about comics, they do similarly detailed work, I added. I also said that I was happy to have brought some writers onto Comicon.com who are very interested in in-depth reviewing and commentary at a time when that’s becoming less common.

I explained, however, that I was not very knowledgeable about the “beginnings of the Shaolin Cowboy” and wondered if Darrow could tell me how he first “met him”. Or rather, how Darrow felt about him when he came into existence as a character.

“I don’t know that I really thought about it”, he said, “other than as a motor for allowing me to draw stuff I wanted to draw”. He was very struck by Japanese films of the 60’s, he said. As opposed to American films where heroes looked like Clint Eastwood, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and with these “good-looking guys”, you knew they were heroes just by looking at them, whereas in Japan you had actors who were great actors but looked like “regular guys”. They weren’t always in great shape. Tomisaburo Wakayama who played Lone Wolf, for instance, was a little “pudgy” guy who wasn’t very “good looking” but he was “the best” as that character.

At the time, Darrow wanted to create a character who looked liked a “regular guy” so when you saw him do “all this amazing stuff”, it was surprising.

“You’re kind of looking at what he’s doing rather than what he looks like. Looking at what he does rather than looking at him?” I asked.

Darrow agreed. He said he wanted someone who looked like a “guy on the street” rather than Superman or Batman. It probably isn’t a very popular approach, Darrow laughed. People who want to read comics probably do want to see somebody who looks like Keanu Reeves in a protagonist role, he said.

I observed that these days, in comics, there is something of an underground movement in wanting diverse body types represented. Where life as lived is more reflected on the comics page, including all kinds of difference, from racial diversity to different types of bodies. That includes representing different ages of people as characters, since comics often only have heroes or focus characters who are in their 20’s or so, I said.

Darrow said that he’s conscious of that. It applies to the Cowboy, and though he doesn’t always have that many different female characters in his comics, when he does, he tries not to draw unrealistic characters. He said that he often sees male artists drawing female characters who look very unrealistic, with “gravity defying breasts” and the like.

When Darrow was in Japan working on an animated version of the Shaolin Cowboy, one of the main characters was a young woman who he drew as good looking, in his opinion, but she had a “slight build”. And the production company were very unhappy with that and “re-did” her appearance. Darrow had to make a concession to them since they told him that the Japanese public would not want to see a real woman, but instead would want to see “an archetype”. So they changed her figure, making her far more busty, with larger eyes etc. They also wanted to idealize the main male character too, though, Darrow said.

Darrow argued with them, saying, “You’re the guys who did Zatoichi and Lone Wolf!”. But that seems to be “past” compared to movies now, where many of the actors in Japan seem to be “cast out of boy bands”. Few have the “gravitas” or Kabuki school training as in earlier films, and they don’t look the way you might expect any more based on Japanese film history, Darrow observed.

I recalled having once read that the kind of character we see in Zatoichi and others might draw from a folk-tale motif of a “rough man” type character who lives on the edges of society in Japanese storytelling. Of course, in Western culture, we like characters who exist on the margins of society, too. Part of that seems to be looking a bit wild, not very svelte, and often appearing to be physically dirty and ragged. Maybe it was true, I observed, that tastes had just changed in film, moving away from that type of character.

Darrow said when creating the characters on the Shaolin Cowboy animation, he asked the production team why they weren’t following his designs, and they said, “Your characters are hard for the Japanese public”. He asked, “What do you mean? Hard to draw?”, for clarification. They said, “No, hard for the Japanese public to look at. They look too real. They really like archetypes. If you’re a good guy, you’re handsome. If you’re a bad guy, you’re ugly”. But they found a “balance” with Darrow through going back and forth about the character designs.

I brought up the fact that there are people who have developed their own aesthetics as comic artists and who “do their own thing”, moving away from a “glamorous aesthetic”, but said that in my opinion it’s still true that in mainstream comics, there’s pressure to conform to a more idealized aesthetic. I asked Darrow if he ever felt pressured in that way in comics.

He said, “They could try”.

He recalled talking to Frank Miller once when Miller asked him what he was going to work on next. Darrow told Miller he was going to work on “a kind of Western”. Miller then told him, “Whatever you do, don’t put the word ‘cowboy’ in the title; it’s the kiss of death!” And Darrow hadn’t yet come up with a title, so he thought about this advice. But he did end up calling it Shaolin Cowboy.

I asked if Darrow did this in order to go against Miller’s advice. He said, “No, no. I just thought it was a funny name”. And that’s what interested the Japanese in this comic, actually, the title and the contrast between the two words, Darrow said. Since everyone in Japan knows what a cowboy is, and everyone “knows Shaolin”, Darrow explained. It wasn’t as “amazing a name as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, but it was “along the same lines”, he added.

He said he’s never felt any pressure to conform, really, but the question he always gets from other people in comics is: “When are you going to draw your dream project?” He thinks to himself in response, “Well, I’m drawing it”. But what he thinks they mean is, “When are you going to get serious and drawn Batman or Spider-Man?”

I stopped the conversation to clarify this, feeling pretty alarmed. “Do people still ask you that? They stop you and ask you that?”

“Yeah, I still get asked”, Darrow assured me. He compared it to odd things that Mike Mignola still gets asked, like, “When are you going to do more Gotham by Gaslight?”

Darrow said that people wonder why anyone would want to do anything other than Batman. Darrow clarified that he likes Batman, and sure it “would be fun to do him once, though they’d probably never let me”.  But Mignola has created a “whole amazing universe” with Hellboy. Wondering why Mignola would want to “put those toys away and play with someone else’s” really clarifies the question.

I said it reveals different levels of perception about comics among fans. I doubted that anyone who is really deeply into creator-owned or indie comics would say things like that to Mignola, or to Darrow, for that matter. Though I admitted I could be wrong in that respect.

Going back to the name “Shaolin Cowboy”, I said I had planned to ask him about the origin of the name, but he had partly answered the question already. I asked if Darrow if he recalled why, at the time, he felt like his next project was going to be “a Western”.

“For me, everything’s a Western anyway”, Darrow said. He provided the example of Die Hard, the film, which is a Western in his opinion. It’s about “one guy, like the Sheriff in town”. Many police procedurals are essentially Westerns, he argued. But Darrow’s idea behind drawing a Western was, “If I don’t have to draw a city, maybe I can do stuff faster”.

“That didn’t work out for you”, I pointed out.

“No, I missed the city”, he admitted, “I like drawing that stuff ‘cause it makes me laugh”. But drawing “vistas” was appealing. People got a little bored though, he felt, asking, “How many times are you going to show [the Cowboy] walking across the desert?”

That, I said, was like asking how many times someone is going to watch the sun set. “People love sunsets, so…”

“But in a comic? I don’t know”, Darrow said.

I asked Darrow about the elements he perceived to be essential to a Western. For instance, there would be a conflict-driven narrative…

Darrow said that Star Wars is definitely a Western. He recalled hearing George Lucas say something that really caught his imagination, that Star Wars was a “spaghetti Western in space”.

That’s what Darrow then wanted to do, a spaghetti Western. He was at one time intent on working on “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in Outer Space”. But it didn’t work out.

Stay tuned for more installments of this interview on Comicon.com.

You can pick up Lead Poisoning in shops now, and the hardcover of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? lands on October 25th, 2017, and is available for pre-order.