There was a picture of Geof Darrow going around on Twitter a few weeks back; it’s rare that an image of a cartoonist seems to capture something about their work, but seated among towers of books and discs, dwarfed by his own drawing board, a cap looming against the white ceiling above him like a buzzard, Darrow seems there to inhabit the world of his own comics.
This is where I first saw it:
Some may have gotten hold of La Cité Feu (“City of Fire”), the image suite he drew that was inked by Moebius, or the big Bourbon Thret album released in France, both in the mid-’80s. In English, there was one Bourbon Thret story published in Heavy Metal (Mar. ’85), and another published in Dark Horse Presents (#19, July ’88), but for myself and I suspect a many U.S. readers it was the 1990-92 series Hard Boiled, a collaboration with Frank Miller, that introduced Darrow’s approach. What you see above is what I think is most readily associated with “Geof Darrow” comics – a scene teeming with hundreds of small events, marks of life: from people to advertisements to cracks on the wall to litter on the street. The main ‘event’ of the page, a car crashing through a wall and careening toward an orgy, the book’s protagonist clinging to the front end, is given relatively slight prominence in comparison to its surroundings; there’s a word balloon, and a flash of yellow, contrasting with the rest of the image to draw the eye, but as Darrow himself is photographed distinctly amidst his studio, so does the action of this splash seem to occur as only one thing among many in the comic’s existence.
But that’s not exactly the story told by the comic.
I love a good crucifixion. There’s no lack of Catholic imagery in the Frank Miller oeuvre, but it’s a fool’s errand to attribute any image in this book through guesswork. The creation of Hard Boiled was one of vigorous creative exchange between Miller and Darrow, which Miller once likened to “riding a bucking bronco” (The Comics Journal #209, Dec. ’98); Darrow’s drawing had a way of moving Miller to recalibrate his focus, from changing the main character from a human to a robot to revising the very denouement of the story. Having since read all of Miller’s work as a writer/artist, Hard Boiled now seems in part like a vivid dream of recurring traits in Frank Miller comics, from fine old automobiles to ineffective cops to a bent down, two-fisted anti-hero in a long coat, Batman or Marv, set in a lonely struggle against the corruption of society. But this story is both comedy and tragedy, because the anti-hero longs too much for the ‘blue pill’ (to quote a later popular project on which Darrow worked), to return to the illusion of an orderly life served up by the rotten status quo; and, physically, he is not strong enough to destroy all of his enemies, and heroes in Frank Miller narratives must be strong, or what good are they?
But Darrow is not only about the most readily celebrated aspects of his work. Here, for example, is a study of movement, lacking purposefully in any background detail.
And here is study of movement with detail lavished everywhere, taken from a 13-page splash or double-splash sequence in which a femme robot strips out of her human skin and performs a burlesque routine in a junkyard, her entreaties that the grizzled hero reject the false reality and embrace his robotic nature coached as a seduction; if you look closely, you will notice that while a good deal of ‘time’ elapses between movements, the characters are moving through the junkyard on a horizontal left-to-right basis, like dancers traversing a stage. The scene only breaks into paneled comics again when the hero rejects the seduction and punches his opponent, exchanging sex for violence, at which point the story of his doom becomes ‘normal’ again.
This, of course, is my own reading; I know nothing of Darrow’s intent. Or Miller’s, for that matter. But Darrow would later throw far more focus on movement:
Here are three consecutive double-splashes from the 2013-14 Dark Horse miniseries The Shaolin Cowboy, later subtitled Shemp Buffet in collected form to distinguish it from an earlier, 2004-07 series of the same title from Burlyman Entertainment. Here, Darrow writes and draws by himself, seemingly doing exactly as he pleases; these three images are part of a 44-page suite of identical double-page layouts, in which the titular Eastern-Western man of adventure — basically the same character that starred in Bourbon Thret — battles an enormous horde of zombies. He then continues the fight for another 40+ pages (I’m not even sure where to say it *stops*), on which layouts vary in a manner perhaps analogous to musical composition, the number of panels on page expanding and contracting with the intensity of a fight that doesn’t immediately appear to occur with spatial logic, not like in the junkyard of Hard Boiled, where Darrow (per here) drew the junkyard as a continuous strip, like an animation background, and put the characters atop it to ensure matching spaces, but inking the whole thing anew every time to prevent it from looking too uniform. In this later work, he seems fascinated by drawing each and every thing anew, every time, which appears to be the guiding principal of The Shaolin Cowboy in general. “I just draw things I want to draw,” he’s said, denying any grand narrative plan.
And yet there is a message to Shemp Buffet. The Cowboy becomes so tired, so preoccupied with battling the undead, that he can’t detect the presence of random asshole humans whom he’d innocently offended way back at the beginning of the story. So they shoot him, and he seems to die.
There has always been a tendency in Darrow’s work to emphasize the grossness of his crowded spaces, but above is where I think his work distinctly shifted. It’s from a 2014 short story with the Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, characters created (again) with Frank Miller, but by that time written and drawn by Darrow alone. The foreground and the background combine to tell a notably satiric story – in back, the titular Big Guy spits U.S. exceptionalist he-man dialogue while battling a giant monster, as little Rusty politely instructs the populace as to the finer points of temporary martial law, framed like legal ass-covering on a flight or a visit to a theme park, Meanwhile, up front, the people do not give a shit.
Again, there are no specifics as to traversing space; we can imagine the heroes soaring all over the place, and so Darrow draws new people every time, barely attentive and wallowing in the filth of conspicuous consumption. Some artists would leave it alone that the heroes are macho or patriotic parodies or archetypes; Darrow goes a step further and suggests that parody or archetype or literally-saving-the-world-or-not, people don’t care. It’s nothing! It’s idle entertainment. I remember on the run-up to our last Presidential election I was at a party and I found myself in a pretty good-sized group of people, twentysomethings, who didn’t actually know the difference between Democrats and Republicans. I’m not really good at parties, as you may have detected at some point in the 173 years of this column, but I don’t think this group was all that different from much of the U.S. population, and it’s from that unmoved state that Darrow gathers his mob.
And so, we reach the present.
Who’ll Stop the Reign? is the newest Shaolin Cowboy miniseries, which just wrapped this past month. It’d be a mistake to call it the most ‘organized’ of these series — Shemp Buffet was nothing if not organized — but it tells the most traditionally clear story out of any Darrow comic, with character arcs, rising and falling action and a very clear thematic focus. Where Hard Boiled seemed like a dream, Who’ll Stop the Reign? is set in a vivid reality of teeming and self-absorbed people wandering filthy spaces that approximate a depressed and consumer-addled U.S. Never mind the giant fighting pig and the loose dinosaurs and the hero yet again dwarfed by the scale of Darrow’s scene – pay attention to the lurid, awful sex puns on the signage, and the spent containers littering the ground, and how nobody passing by looks at each other, let alone notice the titanic clash going on around them. Darrow has never hidden his flair for unpretty people, but never before has he infused his settings, prominent in so much of the thumbnail impression of his work, with such evident meaning, that being a great yowl of upset.
“I’m just as big a consumer as anybody,” Darrow notes, laying out his feelings in a recent interview, “but there’s just so much thoughtlessness going around. People not caring about other people. There has to be a little bit of sacrifice. We can’t all have what we want all the time. America has to — we consume too much. We have to leave something for everybody else.” Much of this statement could be intuited by simply looking at these new comics, but I’m interested in the first bit. Think again to the photograph of Darrow, sunk a bit in with the scope of his items, his reference, his studio tools. The media physically surrounding him transubstantiated, if we are being glib, to the countless gags and whims of his pages, all the chicken fat that makes his comics wriggle. Much of what’s drawn about society in Who’ll Stop the Reign? might be taken as scolding, but there is again something going on if we look to a different plane.
Throughout the story, and uniquely to this extent, the Shaolin Cowboy/Bourbon Thret is depicted as both a superman and a creature of appetite. And, it’s through his basic performance of survival that he frequently condemns himself. Early on, he manages to slip away from a ghostly warden of Hell, who takes an innocent bit of roadkill in his stead (this is how he survives the conclusion of Shemp Buffet, in case continuity’s your thing); the implication is that the Cowboy rightfully belongs in Hell. And, as he encounters old and new opponents in his march toward civilization, it is revealed every so often that the Cowboy had somehow spoiled the happiness of their lives, by eating; his main enemies are talking animals, you see, and the Cowboy literally consumed their loved ones. By the end of the story, random human henchmen are lining up to deliver their grievances, the Cowboy humorously revealed to have somehow indirectly hurt them all on his earlier adventures – not that they’re any great shakes as beings in this world themselves. Worst of all is the Cowboy’s arch-foe-of-sorts, King Crab, a small talking crab who’s managed to possess a human woman he’d seduced with promises of companionship through an online dating site; more than anything else I can think of from Darrow’s body of work, these sequences are genuinely sad, the woman sometimes blinking back into consciousness to be reminded of all the awful things she’s been made to do.
Yet just because King Crab and his minions are awful, and because society at large seems awful, it does not follow that the Cowboy is, by default, good. He can seem good, by his positioning in Darrow’s panoramas of waste, but it’s smaller indiscretions, those hardly registered in comparison to great political ills, let’s say, that mark his path. And, from there, Darrow’s very approach to comics is charged with new meaning. What are these drawings but studies of people in and out of the crowd? We might analogize the way Darrow draws to how the individual person sees themselves as part of a country, or any big group. This person might see ‘politics’ as corrupt and disgusting, and society as consumptive and wasteful, and themselves as a participant in some battle for good; I don’t think this is too uncommon these days. Darrow urges us to stare deeper at that person, in that ocean of flotsam, nearly swallowed, and realize that they, us, may be blinded by the detail – that we cannot see our own faults from the extraordinary overload of our surroundings. The Cowboy does not get in trouble because he is not strong enough, or because he cannot accept reality, like in Hard Boiled; instead, he cannot see himself as an actor in the whole of a human story. And so the karmic cycle is unbroken.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting. You could always just buy nothing.
Education: Unfortunately, there’s two Fantagraphics releases up in the spotlight this week; you’ll just have to believe me when I say I feel especially strongly about them. *Especially* regarding Education, a 136-page book from the great John Hankiewicz which appeared in self-published form a few years back (and as an excerpt in the enormous Kramers Ergot 7 back in ’08). Collapsing notions of theater, monologue, classroom lecture, and the temporal variations at ease in comics into a fascinating and paranoid narrative, Education cannot be recommended highly enough to the adventurous and attentive reader. An FU Press release, technically, so get it while it’s here; $30.00.
Love and Rockets Magazine #3: And then we have some of the most celebrated and long-lived Fantagraphics cartoonists, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, newly inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame at the San Diego Comic-Con the other week. A 32-page, 6.5″ x 10″ magazine split between the brothers, each continuing their own stories; $4.99.
To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life & Times of Art Young: Also from Fantagraphics, here is a 320-page, 10.5″ x 12″ hardcover dedicated to surveying the career of the early 20th century illustrator and political cartoonist, a socialist political candidate and defendant in several sedition trials. The editors are Glenn Bray & Frank M. Young (the latter you might recall as writer of the graphic novel The Carter Family with artist David Lasky about five years ago), while additional texts can be expected from the likes of Art Spiegelman & Justin Green; $49.99.
She and Her Cat: Vertical has released a good amount of cat-related manga (see: Chi’s Sweet Home), as well as comics relating to the films of the very popular Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second). Now the two are combined via a 180-page one-off adaptation of a 1999 Shinkai short film from artist Tsubasa Yamaguchi. A young woman discovers “both the freedom and loneliness that come with living independently,” while her cat “learns of the outside world through her actions”; $12.95.
Tank Tankuro: Prewar Works 1934-1935 (&) Otherworld Barbara Vol. 2 (of 2): Two more manga, both from (again) Fantagraphics. Actually, Tank Tankuro was a 2011 Presspop release, and I think this is the same book – I wrote about it a few years ago. A 256-page color slipcased hardcover (slipcase art by Chris Ware) presents a selection of comics by Gajo Sakamoto, a rollicking story about a strong hero shaped like an iron ball, his adventures both manga-like and sometimes like illustrations with verse. What’s really great is an included essay by editor/co-translator Shunsuke Nakazawa, who offers a very useful overview of the pre-Tezuka comics of Japan’s early 20th century. Otherworld Barbara is from another, later icon, Moto Hagio, the girls’ comics pioneer whose recent SF serial of dreams and hauntings comes to a close with a 400-page hardcover volume; $29.95 (Tankuro), $39.99 (Barbara).
All Time Comics: Blind Justice #1 (&) Slasher #3: Here are some continuing comic book series for you, the longbox acolyte. Blind Justice is a (yet again) Fantagraphics publication, from the “All Time Comics” superhero line fronted by writer Josh Beyer; this one has Rick Buckler Jr. providing some art, while Beyer himself draws some other portions, as inked by Al Milgrom. Slasher is a Floating World release, with more from the psychosexual relationship drama of writer/artist Charles Forsman, whose name-making serial The End of the Fucking World will also be re-released from (sigh) Fantagraphics this week; $3.99 (Blind), $4.99 (Slasher).
Babes in Arms: Women in the Comics During the Second World War (&) The Thing from the Grave and Other Stories: Short story compendiums, artist-driven. But the artist in question for Babes in Arms, a Hermes Press release, is author Trina Robbins, who “assembles comic book stories by artists Barbara Hall, Jill Elgin, Lilly Renee, and Fran Hopper together with insightful commentary and loads of documentary extras to create the definitive book chronicling the work of these important Golden Age artists.” The Thing from the Grave rises a little later, being a (jesus christ) Fantagraphics release of uncolored EC comics, this time focused on the artist Joe Orlando; $60.00 (Arms), $29.99 (Grave).
Jerry and the Joker: Adventures and Comic Art: Formative Batman artist Jerry Robinson died in 2011, and I’m not sure if some version of this memoir was previously available somewhere, but what’s coming this week from Dark Horse is a 192-page memoir “with additional notes by Jens Robinson”, in the form of a 9″ x 12″ hardcover that also seems to function as an art book. May well be interesting; $34.99.
Twelve-Cent Archie (&) Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948: Finally, here’s a pair of Rutgers University Press reissues from writers you will recognize from the days of the Journal print edition, their books now in softcover with newly full-color illustrations. Twelve-Cent Archie is a study of the famous teen comics by Bart Beaty, focused on the 1960s and organized into 100 short chapters, each one covering a different aspect of a franchise which still swings its weight around today. Wonder Woman comes from Noah Berlatsky, also proprietor of the semi-hibernated Hooded Utilitarian website, closely reading the content and the context of the earliest comics from DC’s also-still-prominent superheroine; $29.95 (each).