Crafting A ‘Super-Violent’ Showdown – Conversations With Geof Darrow Part 3
by Hannah Means Shannon
This week you’ll find the glorious hardback collection of The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? in shops, and have the luxury of viewing the remarkable fight scenes and chains of cause and effect embedded in Geof Darrow’s artwork as a single continuum, graced by the color work of Dave Stewart. That opportunity alone is a very good reason for purchasing the book, while the bigger reason is that Shaolin Cowboy is a landmark in comics created by someone who continues to push the potential of the medium forward.
There’s also a very interesting sensibility behind the aerial acrobatics and layers of intricate detail in each panel–one that questions the way we interact with reality. There are a lot of “What Ifs” in Shaolin Cowboy, on the long road since the comic debuted, and in this new story arc. What if you were just a guy trying to live your life, but you had inadvertently made a lot of enemies who were out to get you? What if attempts to disengage those enemies only led to greater engagement? What if, in the end, there was no way out but to face your greatest foe, even if it went against your basic beliefs to do so? In this arc, the Cowboy finally ends up locked into the big showdown that’s been on the way for years–with the super-powerful King Crab. And he has to acknowledge that this conflict, intentionally or not, is of his own making.
Geof Darrow took part in a lengthy interview with Comicon.com during San Diego Comic Con 2017 about Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? and many other topics. We’ve previously published the First Part, and the Second Part of that interview. Today, to celebrate the release of the hardcover collection, we present the third and final installment of that interview.
During the interview, we were looking at a copy of the final issue, #4, of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign?, which had just been released, so I questioned Darrow about the “long fight sequence” that spreads across more than four pages of the issue, and is presented in horizontal panels.
I asked, “To what degree do you use any traditional methods to plan out a comic book?”
He said that he very loosely draws up some of the figures, focusing on the foreground and background. The Cowboy is presented “three or four times” in each of the long panels, Darrow explained, which, if you’re thinking in terms of movies is like a “tracking shot”. You’re “tracking him” moving through this crowd, Darrow explained.
It was tempting, Darrow said, to create this comic in the same way he had created a previous story, and make the fight scene “fifty pages” long. But he knew he couldn’t “pull that one again”. It was too soon.
I asked if he would really have done that if he could. He said, “Oh, yeah”.
“Is it only the expectations of the reader that keeps you from doing it?”, I questioned. He said, “Yes. People get angry about it. People got angry about the last one”. “I thought it was funny”, he added.
When he was a kid reading comics, Darrow said, “I wanted to see Hulk and Thor fight. I didn’t care what their feelings were”. He wanted to see the Hulk throw Thor “through five city blocks” and Thor throwing the Hulk “into space”. Lots of fight scenes were fine.
I told him he might enjoy the upcoming film Thor: Ragnarok, then, and Darrow seemed impressed by the idea of Thor and Hulk fighting in that film.
“But it doesn’t have to be superheroes”, Darrow clarified. This is the same reason he likes Kung Fu movies, where there will be some “crazy fight scene that goes on for 15 minutes”.
I asked Darrow how he conceives of his fight scenes, and whether he has a background in martial arts. While he has done a little Tai Chi, he said, his ideas come mainly from watching movies.
I wondered if Darrow ever feels he’s in danger of getting repetitive in the poses and movements he’s drawing throughout these long fight scenes. He said, “Maybe. I don’t know. I hope not”.
In the case of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? #4, he drew particular dogs (who have knives for front legs) in the first issue, and had “no intention of ending the comic the way that it did”, but he wondered what he could have the Cowboy do that would be unique, given that in the first comic he had “chainsaws” in action.
[Bruce Lee in The Chinese Connection]
After watching a Kung Fu station, where they ran a Bruce Lee film, The Chinese Connection, he noticed that Lee had nunchucks in that film. It occurred to him that it would be “funny” to have the dogs used in some similar way, so that “came out of the blue”.
He just knew there would be a fight at the end, where the Cowboy had to “go through a bunch of henchmen, and then the main villain” who was hoping the previous fights would “tire him out a little”.
I asked if, in the long fight sequence in #4, Darrow’s main goal was basically to move the Cowboy through, from one point to another, from A to B.
Darrow said that was true, and also that he wanted the audience to think that the Cowboy is “doing something kind of impossible”, reaching that Japanese idea or standard of being “a real ass-kicker”.
Darrow also conceded that he thinks there’s something essentially “stupid” about this and it’s just “funny”. It’s “super-violent”, so maybe it can’t be taken seriously, he said.
“I don’t know that I’m necessarily supposed to take it seriously”, I said.
“No”, he agreed, “It’s like a samurai film where a samurai squares off against a hundred guys, and if they just rushed him, he’d be dead”. That’s the way things really happened, historically, Darrow said, even if it doesn’t square with the heroic ethos of the samurai.
If you read the tales of Miyamato Musashi, you see Lords behaving in ways that are totally without honor, for instance. Musashi was aware of this, and kept it in mind in order to survive, Darrow said.
In conclusion, I asked Darrow where he has “left” the Cowboy now that Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? has concluded. I asked what would happen to the character and the comics now.
Darrow said, “I have a couple ideas for things”.
I didn’t get much more information about his plans than that, since he instead had a question for me.
Darrow wondered if I thought it was problematic that the Cowboy has a “pretty knock-down, drag-out fight with a woman” in the final issue of the series. He said that he hoped that it didn’t come off as misogynist since he hadn’t intended it to be.
The point, for Darrow, was that she’s trying to kill the Cowboy, and since he realizes that she’s not responsible for her actions, being under the control of King Crab, he can’t really kill her.
Instead, the Cowboy saves her, which is Darrow’s intent. Darrow wondered if I found the scene “offensive”, nevertheless.
I thought about it for a moment, since it hadn’t occurred to me to be offended when reading the comic. Though I am someone who is prepared to be critical of gender presentation in comics, I said that a “small thing” about the comic made me feel differently about that particular scene.
And that was the fact that in an earlier issue of the comic (#2), the female character has a moment of clarity when she’s not being controlled by King Crab, and essentially says, “Where the hell am I? What’s happening?” and mentions her kids.
When I initially read that earlier scene, I told Darrow, I felt it was very disturbing and made an impact. But then, when I came to read the final issue, I felt glad that Darrow had included the earlier scene. It’s possible that without the earlier scene, some “weight” would be missing from the finale that was necessary to make the story work.
Darrow said that’s what he had been “hoping”, since King Crab is such a “horrible character” and in a way, even though the Cowboy is responsible for “him being a horrible character”, in a way.
But the female character doesn’t come off as a saint once saved, either, if you’ve read the ending of the comic, being a little less than grateful to the Cowboy for his good deeds, Darrow noted.
“Well, that’s the thing about this comic”, I said, “There aren’t any terribly good people in it, are there? I’m not complaining. I’m just saying, that’s a particular approach to storytelling here, right? The idea that even seemingly good people could be the cause of great harm?”
Darrow said that yes, the Cowboy’s “appetites” get the better of him and there’s the idea that he has a Shaolin priest trying to give him good advice and then the “hillbilly movie star” who is giving him almost “Donald Trumpish” advice, too. There must be a middle ground, which “he tries to find, but not always very successfully”, Darrow said.
I noted that the two avatars of advice line up pretty neatly with the two parts of the comic’s title: Shaolin Cowboy. Darrow said he didn’t think of that when he created those avatars, but it does line up. He was, however, glad he introduced those “voices” since the Cowboy doesn’t really “talk”. Before, he had a mule which was “kind of his voice”.
Using the avatars “lets you into his mind more”, I said. Darrow hopes people aren’t confused by the use of those characters, but they are originally inspired by the use of flashbacks in David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV show where he’d “look into space” and there would be a “sequence”.
[**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.]
My thanks to the very patient Geof Darrow for taking part in this interview at a busy convention.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop The Reign? HC arrives in comic shops today, October 25th, so do yourself a favor and buy a copy of a great book.