Our World Is A Three-Inch Screen – Conversations With Geof Darrow Part 2

by Hannah Means Shannon

Towards the end of this month of October, the hardback edition of The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? arrives in comic shops, and shortly thereafter, in bookstores. The book represents the culmination of the story of the Shaolin Cowboy so far, written and drawn by the great Geof Darrow, a story that stretches back years into the origin of the character, really, since this arc brings the Cowboy, slowly but surely, into the orbit of his deadly nemesis, King Crab.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is delightfully action driven, with each conflict rendered in exquisite detail by Mr. Darrow, where panel by panel we watch the through-line of the conflict develop. It’s impossible not to feel like every impact and evasion is part of a bigger game with deadlier consequences than we might immediately perceive. That is because the comic, though disarmingly focused on entertainment, is also one that carries a lot of psychological and emotional weight.

The Cowboy moves through a world in which he is forced to question his own past actions and the harm he might have done through his “appetites”, however obliviously. It’s a world that makes sense both in terms of physics–for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction–just like in Darrow’s fight scenes, but also in terms of the underlying Buddhist context of the Cowboy’s mode of operation.

But lastly, this is a book that is laced through with the detritus of modern life, and like a piece of discarded chewing gum (which you’ll find plenty of in the story), the comic picks up the little shards and shreds of a world we know very well, dominated by social media, advertizing, and distraction, while explosive conflicts in ideology go on all around us. It’s hard to read the book without feeling like it’s the most 2017 work we’ve seen this year, but that’s a helpful feeling knowing that comic artists are processing the world around us in ways that only storytelling can do.

Geof Darrow took part in a marathon interview with me at San Diego Comic Con 2017, and we have previously presented Part 1 here on Comicon.com. Here is our second installment of three.

[Darrow personalizing an advance harcover copy of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? at NYCC 2017]

I asked Darrow why he has mainly stuck with a couple of protagonists over time, and hasn’t wanted, for instance, to work on several different miniseries featuring different characters.

He said he occasionally has other ideas. Like the origin of Doc Frankenstein, which he was going to work on following the Matrix movies. But it seemed, after looking more closely, that Doc Frankenstein was “fairly archetypal” and he felt that there were enough characters fitting that archetype already out there in storytelling at the time.

Instead he was watching a lot of Japanese and Chinese films that captured his imagination. Characters had powers that “made no sense” like ordinary people who could suddenly run across the tops of trees. “Oh, he’s tree-running”, someone would say. Or “wheat-running”. There was one Jet Lee film where characters say, “His wheat-running ability is fantastic!” “Of course it is”, Darrow laughed. These are films in which powers “get taken for granted”.

In his understanding, in Chinese culture there is a kind of feeling like, “Oh, yeah, we used to be able to do that”.

“Like times have just changed”, I said.

“Wheat-running has just fallen off the map. We’ve lost that skill. Like our second sense we used to have”, Darrow added.

I said that was an interesting approach to storytelling, because it makes any wild fantasy story that’s told feel more immediate. I explained that I’d been reading a book about very ancient cultures by Mircea Eliade and he said that there’s a use of verb tenses that suggests the things that happen in myths are just recently past.

As long as it’s past, it can be accepted as real, but the words used in storytelling mean the event was very recent. That way an audience can accept and participate in the mythological stories more easily. It feels immediate, and acceptable at the same time. “We say ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘Long, long ago’, but they said, ‘Yesterday’”, I said.

Putting something in the past, but not so much in the past that it was hard to relate to made sense, Darrow said. He commented that his comics are not set in the past, “But I don’t know how far they are in the future, either”, he laughed.

I introduced some “wild speculation” and said that Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? could be set in the past if the series had none of the material about cellphones or social media. The guns and the Walmart culture could have existed a couple of decades ago, as long as the barebones of the Western were still there to support those elements.

He agreed. But I asked him why, then, he’d still rather the comic be more immediate.

“A lot of that stuff just sort of came in because I got bored”, he said, and he was “looking for gags”. “It wasn’t my point to make a point”, Darrow said. “I did, I think, but that wasn’t my agenda”. “For me, it’s observational”, he explained. He just sees things around him, even walking and watching how “people interact with their cellphones and other people”.

It seems to him that a person’s whole world now seems to be a “three inch screen”. Once he went to his daughter’s grade-school program, and after he arrived, he was asked to film it. He felt “cheated” because the whole time he was forced to look through the camera lens at the event, and didn’t feel like he was “really there”. “It really bothered me”, he said. When people asked him to take pictures at events after that, he said, “I don’t want to do it because I’m not there anymore. I’m there but I’m not”.

Darrow said that he’s amazed by how many people he sees looking through their phones at their kids, and he understands the “desire to film them”, he said, but it seems like “they are going to miss something”.

I commented that “We are being given too much opportunity to do this to ourselves, and we can’t handle it”. I added that I’d been to a lot of music performances lately since a lot of the bands I like happen to be touring this year, and I’d seen the constant struggle of fans to hold up their phones throughout the entire performance, practically blocking the stage view. And I’d felt that struggle myself, wanting to take pictures and record, too.

Darrow asked if I’d seen recent articles about artwork getting damaged in museums because of people trying to take selfies with said art. I had. He said that museums are encouraging people to take selfies because it promotes the museum online, but people are destroying installations by doing so, now. One person climbed up on a sculpture, possibly a Michelangelo, and broke part of it off.

Then there was another incident where there was a conceptual piece of scupture that was basically a vagina, and a guy climbed into it to take a selfie. And the guy got stuck. And the only way to get him out was to break the thing apart. So they “destroyed this piece of art to save this guy’s life”, Darrow concluded, “All for a selfie”. It’s “funny to hear”, but “I imagine the sculptor was not too happy”.

I remarked that there have been memes and an ad campaign recently that showed people interacting with their phones with no sound, or with the phones digitally removed from their hands to show how they appear, and it’s eerie to see. Even though we all do it.

The visual aspect of seeing someone in this pose actually works in Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? because people are constantly looking at screens, too. It shows us how people look when they are on their phones, and how oblivious people are to their surroundings. In some of the larger panels of the comic, there is so much going on, but no one is noticing a thing.

Darrow said that all of this is a struggle for him too. He often regrets later not taking a picture of an event, but occasionally, he’ll find someone else has taken one online of the events he’s attended.

I explained that I had read Darrow’s essay that has been currently appearing in the back of several Dark Horse Comics titled “Buy-Curious” about his discovery of European comics and how traveling increased his reach in discovering new books over the years. I asked him if he had any recommendations of good comic shops or bookstores for finding new reading material.

He said that the most amazing breadth of comics he has found when traveling has been in Tokyo, where they have “everything”, whether French, American, of Japanese comics. You can find titles there in English or Japanese.

But there are also some stores in Chicago he relies on: Chicago Comics, Comics Revolution, Quimby’s for things comics-related. But even in Chicago, there have been problems selling international comics since locals couldn’t read them. For Darrow, it has been worth it to buy comics in other languages anyway. Even if he couldn’t “read” them, he’d look at the pictures, which were “fantastic”. He likes the idea of trying to understand a story just from the “visual evidence”.

The French are far ahead of America in carrying Japanese comics, Darrow commented, including “older material”. Drawn & Quarterly have been translating Kitaro, which is “fantastic”, and “so typically Japanese”, though.

I asked Darrow if he thought the Japanese market has always been more open to European comics than the American market. He said it’s still a “niche market” there, but basically, “yes”. In the USA, Humanoids and Dark Horse publish some of the comics in question. Now, Valerian is being presented in English by Cinebook, but that’s because of the film’s release.

I wondered if Darrow regularly goes to a local comic shop, and he said he tends to go to one in Evansville, Comics Revolution, since it’s closer to his house, but also to Chicago Comics. He praised them both for having manga, French Comics, toys, figures, back issues, and operating as  “full service comic stores” rather than some he’s seen that are more like “airport bookstores” and only carry “best-sellers”.

Finding comics like Valerian in shops helps fill in some comics history, Darrow explained, since the artist on Valerian and Laureline, Jean-Claude Mézières, went to art school with Moebius, which he finds “fascinating”. They both wanted to draw comics, but Jean-Claude really loved Westerns. In fact, he came to the Unites States and worked on a ranch. Moebius came to the USA, too, but he was really into science fiction. When they both finally got into making comics, Jean-Claude ended up doing a science fiction story, whereas Moebius ended up doing a Western. And Mézières has never drawn, to Darrow’s knowledge, a Western, even though he was fascinated by them. He and Moebius stayed friends their whole lives, though.

I mentioned that there have been two developments in the past few years that have affected the situation of trying to get French comics in the United States. The first was when ComiXology started partnering more closely with Glenat and others for digital comics. The second had just been announced by IDW the weekend of San Diego Comic-Con (where this interview took place), including a partnership with Glenat to produce all-new original graphic novels with teams of international creators intentionally geared toward international publication. So these new works, for instance, would be published in French and English almost simultaneously, it seemed.

Darrow found this very interesting, and though it might get him in trouble to say so, he said he’s sure that the French have the ability to draw just about anything in terms of different types of storytelling, but he’s not so sure that “Americans have that same facility”.

I commented that there must be assumed limitations in the medium on both sides of the pond that might come up in team-ups like that and become a learning experience, though initially a difficulty.

Darrow said it’s simply a matter of “difference”, like the fact that splash pages aren’t really used in Europe, due to conserving space. He was also told in Europe that his comics should take exactly 45 minutes to read, which he found “hilarious”. He wondered if people would sit there with a stop-watch timing his comics. He was told his comics were “too easy to read”, that people could read them “in 15 minutes” and “felt cheated”.

I stopped the conversation for a minute to clarify this point. “Someone said that to you, recently?”, I asked. He said, yes, it had happened. I found it hard to imagine, given that Darrow’s current issues of Shaolin Cowboy take a reasonable amount of time to read. He said it’s a difference in reading style, whether you’re reading “intently” or not.

I was still amazed anyone would read a Geof Darrow comic in only 15 minutes.

[**Note: in the above interview, Darrow never refers to the Cowboy as “the Cowboy”, but only as “he”. Referring to him as “the Cowboy” is my own convention for clarifying who we are talking about.]