What is The Shaolin Cowboy?
The Shaolin Cowboy is a comic book series, collected in three volumes so far, written and drawn by Geof Darrow. Peter Doherty did most of the coloring (and lettering) on the first volume, while volumes two and three were colored by the much-lauded Dave Stewart. The first volume was published by Burlyman Entertainment, but everything hence (including the most recent reprints) is from Dark Horse Comics.
Who is The Shaolin Cowboy?
As the name implies: a person of contrast, a competing duality. Half west / half east. As good with a sword as he is with a gun. A man in search of peace who always finds violence. A follower of the Buddha who’s a slave to consumption. A man of silence who can speak volumes.
When is The Shaolin Cowboy?
From 2004 to the present, intermittently - both because of its first publisher’s lax approach to deadlines, and because of Darrow's legendary attention to detail that make every page a maze of entities, objects and bloodshed.
Where is The Shaolin Cowboy?
In fine comic book shops everywhere. If they don’t have it, they are, by definition, not ‘fine’. Mostly in hardcover format, though this article is spurred by a softcover reissue.
Why is The Shaolin Cowboy?
Start the Violence
The original series, seven issues over three years, was very much a product of its time. The first truly independent comics project from Geof Darrow in ages, after years in the lucrative wilderness of movie concept art, it was an enthusiastic if scattered effort. The story followed the titular character as he travelled along a vast wasteland desert on the back of a talking donkey with an attitude.
There isn't really much ‘plot’ to that first volume. The first story arc involves the Shaolin Cowboy being ambushed by a group of people he has wronged before, or so they say, led by a homicidal racist King Crab. The Cowboy then shoots, punches, slices and dices through them before trying to find a more peaceful route. When that fails, he punches and kicks some more. The second storyline, which never received a proper conclusion, is even more based on happenstance: the Shaolin Cowboy stumbles upon a baby who is, in turn, wanted by three demons who want to... steal his Chi? Or something? There are a lot more punches. There is a city-sized turtle that swallows the Shaolin Cowboy so the action can continue within its bowels. There are acid-resistant sharks. There’s a pole with a chainsaws on each end. The donkey, and the demons, never shut up. They explain things and exchange gags so much, it becomes a drone.
Shaolin Cowboy: Start Trek (I’ll use the names the collections have in reprint to avoid confusion), is pure id comics. Darrow writes what he wants to draw. The result is impressive to behold. It’s not just that Darrow can draw a lot of tiny details into everything -- lots of people can fill up the page with small lines -- it’s the way he’s willing to stretch and kid his technical ability. This kind of investment of craftsmanship usually demands awe: a certain amount of self-seriousness.
Darrow’s work, however, has a sense of humor to it. A series of six double-page spreads of people standing in line to take on our hero ends with nothing. All that space, all that effort, dozens upon dozens of unique individuals drawn in shifting poses and perspectives, ends in an anti-climax. These people are meaningless. With every panel, Darrow shows what he can do, but there’s no sense of braggadocio to it.
Likewise impressive is Darrow's absolute mastery of movement and choreography. Fighting in comics is always an overtly stylized affair, especially in a work as fantasy-based as The Shaolin Cowboy. You can’t show movement; you just imply it - the characters are drawings on a page, without any real mass and weight to them. Still, despite the improbability of the setting, and the comedic mindset of the story, Darrow takes his fight choreography very seriously. Like a good student of Hong Kong action cinema, Darrow understands the importance of clarity and consequences. we see the movement and impact of each blow, we understand the skill of the fighters and the results of their choices: an opening for a counter, a creeping sense of tiredness after a long brawl, injuries sustained and pain lingering. Darrow has his way of willing the unreal into plausibility.
There’s a hint of interest, of things to come, in the King Crab story. Look at the full page dedicated to the Shaolin Cowboy eating the crab’s family. There’s an audible and tactile quality to that page. More important than giving the villain a reason for his acts, even if he remains a vile figure, is that it anchors something basic about the worldview of the series, in which violence and consumption is prevalent. The first thing we see the Shaolin Cowboy do is kill three people, brothers, so incidentally that it implies he has done it many times before.
The Shaolin Cowboy is not presented as initiating violence, but it comes naturally to him. There’s a sinister edge to this ridicules character; the western part in him, the cowboy bit, seems to take the lead far more than the Shaolin part. He is so quick to solve his issues through violence. In one issue we see him react to a bird dropping by shooting the glob out of the air - completely unaware of how lethal he is, how unnecessary his choice. His attempt at forgiveness before King Crab, after realizing that has killed the beast’s entire family, reads as honest but faulty. He never really considers the implications of his choice (more on that later).
Yet, for all of Darrow’s obvious skill, the sheer chutzpah of doing something so grand and yet so comedic... Start Trek isn’t very good. There’s an obvious limit to this format of style-over-anything-else. Seven issues proves to be way over that limit. It’s a lot of fighting and lot of talking that’s not really grounded in anything. A trio of demonic adversaries in the second storyline are almost as annoying with their yammering as the donkey sidekick. Both, thankfully, would be kicked to carb in subsequent stories.
Start Trek starts off exhilarating, but becomes exhausting in the process. Every moment is bigger and louder than any previous moment until it all loses meaning; it’s the comics equivalent of the Wall of Sound. There’s no contrast – “sound and fury signifying Darrow.”
Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, a belated sequel published by Dark Horse, has a lot of things going for it over the original. It’s only four issues long, giving it a clear focus that the previous series lacked. It’s largely dialogue-free; most of the text is reserved for a short story compressed into tiny type on the first two pages. Two issues are utterly wordless, barring some sound effects. The most important part, however, is that it's got something to say. At least, I think it does.
The concept of Shemp Buffet is simplicity itself: emerging after a long absence, the Shaolin Cowboy comes upon a group of rude bros. These bros, in turn, are soon attacked by a zombie horde. Choosing to risk his life to defend the people who mocked and humiliated him, our protagonist picks up his double chainsaw stick and sets out for a one-man war on the undead. It’s possible -- quite likely even -- that Darrow was still just following his id in making this and the next series. If so, he's made some of the most accidently astute comics of the previous decade.
At the point of initial publication for Shemp Buffet (2013-14), the zombie phenomenon was probably at its cultural zenith. The Walking Dead television show achieved a mode of cultural dominance. The year 2013 also saw the release of such films as Open Grave, The Returned, Contracted, The Zombie King, Go Goa Gone, Zombex, Zombie Hunter, Rise of the Zombie, Warm Bodies, April Apocalypse, Stalled, Infected (aka "The Dead Inside"), The Demented, Zombie Massacre, Germ Z, Rockabilly Zombie Weekend, and Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz.
I can promise to you that these are all real movies. I am also not including stuff like books, video games and comics featuring zombies, because that would require the full length of this article. It’s one of those oddly-fitting ironies that zombie media has become a zombie phenomenon by itself: a shapeless horde, seemingly endless in numbers, laying waste (metaphorically) to all in its wake. Like any good zombie, the media wave was infectious. Even genres that weren’t previously associated with the zombie notion, previously rather one-note in its presentation, became zombified – zombie comedies, zombie action, zombie science fiction, zombie musical and zombie romance. If you couldn’t put zombies in it, 2013 didn’t want it.
Why zombies? Monsters mean different things to different people in different times; it is ridiculous to try and ascribe a single meaning to an idea that mutates across times and places. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the book by Bram Stoker, not the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is based on fear of the other. It was a warning against the unknown foreigners making their way into Britain; they might look like ordinary decent Christian people, but, in fact, they are something far more sinister. Flash-forward to America in the late 20th century, and you see the same story take on quite a different meaning. Suddenly we see the vampire as a sexy aristocrat, praying on the lower classes: the noble person whose outside beauty -- purchased either with blood money or literal blood -- covers a rotten unholy core. The vampire is no longer fear of the ‘other’ who is lower than you, but rather fear of the other who is higher than you. The fear of having your place at the top of the food chain taken over.
It was thus that the idea of a ‘zombie’ was transmogrified from a story about the fear of being robbed of agency by an outside force, as presented in Haitian folklore, into the story of one person (or a small enough group) pitted against everyone. In modern parlance, a zombie story is a story about the fear of being the only ‘real’ human left. Everyone else might have the outside appearance of humanity, but they are empty - and they want to make you as empty as they are. It is an extremely apt fear for the age of social media.
If you are on websites like Twitter, you can be exposed daily to hundreds and thousands of conversations with foreign entities, some of whom are not necessarily human. Governments and corporations worldwide are using bots to push their agendas. There is something quite scary seeing the same talking points crossing over from what are obviously fake accounts to living human beings. One day your relatives are completely normal people; the next, they start to repeat some lines from Facebook about satanic pedophile cults.
There’s something terrifying about the notion, but also partly empowering. If you are one of the last real humans, that makes you de facto important. It also means you can do whatever you want to your opponent, because they don’t matter. They do not have loved ones waiting at home, they don’t feel pain as you blow off their limbs, one after another. Which brings us back to Shemp Buffet.
In the climax of issue #1, the Shaolin Cowboy leaps head first into a horde of zombies. In issue #2, he fights them. The entire issue is based on the same repetitive structure: one double splash page after another, each divided into two long horizontal strips which capture a single moment of action. Halfway through my first read of the issue, I got mad at the obvious waste of time and money - but as one splash followed another, my sneer turned into a smile, which turned into a laugh. The whole thing was like that famous rake gag from The Simpsons, if only it had lasted for a full episode. Geof Darrow played me like a fiddle, while keeping up his meticulous artistic style throughout.
As you leaf through the issue, you can see the differences between the zombies: the various stages of rot; bits of clothing; old and fading tattoos; a particular gait. You can also follow the Shaolin Cowboy’s movements. What you see isn’t just a series of cool poses, but a natural progression from one image to another, every movement flowing from what came before into what follows. This is decompression writ large, the breakdown of the fight scene to its most primal elements – action and consequences: no words to distract you, to slow down time. Like the fight scene itself, so is the Shaolin Cowboy torn down to his most basic form, pure instinct (which has been his downfall before).
The action continuous throughout the series, if in a slightly less regimented fashion, mostly wordless. In the end, having bested the entire horde single handedly, the Shaolin Cowboy finds himself downed by a rifle shot from one the people he has previously saved. Joe McCulloch, in a previous TCJ article about Darrow notes: “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.” Which feels appropriate for the cultural phenomena the story engages with. Aren’t you also tired? Overwhelmed by constant events?
This is what Shemp Buffet does. It gets you into a certain state of mind, and it lulls you with its sheer technical stylings. You get so into it, into the action, into the way Darrow finds new ways to present the pages, that you forget there are other people in the world (even if they are shitty kinds of people). You forget that you are not alone. I didn’t really want to read / watch / listen to another zombie story after this one. It seemed to basically sum up the genre, and the culture that produced it, in one fell swoop.
Circle of Life
The final series of The Shaolin Cowboy thus far is also the best of the lot. Much it has to do with location. While the two previous stories mostly took place in a desert wasteland, Who’ll Stop the Reign? takes place inside a city, which plays to Darrow’s strengths as an artist, allowing him to portray new buildings, new objects, new piles of trash, and human wreckage on every page. Returning to McCulloch’s article, I again find better words than I could express, used to describe the sense of a Geof Darrow page engaging with urban existence: “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.” People aren’t ‘living’ in Darrow’s cities, they are ‘teeming’ in them.
Looking at Darrow’s cityscapes, I am reminded of Richard F. Outcault's Hogan’s Alley. Like Darrow, Outcault was a fine student of sociology and human cruelty. These early newspaper strips were often dedicated to exploring the misery of low-class living in urban areas, mining their humor from the characters’ casual acceptance of death and pain as their lot in life. As R.C. Harvey noted: “Outcault focused on African-Americans living in the imaginary town of Possumville or Irish children living in New York City tenements in which, it is estimated, half the city’s population lived.”
Darrow seems to draw inspiration from Outcault, not just in terms of crowd size, but also in the relationship between the people depicted and their environment, and others around them. One particular strip that appeared in Harvey’s article caught my eye – an image of a dozen or so youths beating a dogcatcher. Those who have not joined the beating are gawking at it with either excitement or passivity. No one seems bothered by the occurrence. While the beatdown is at the center of image, Outcault adds several more brutal touches: in the background, another child with a stick accompanies two dogs as they chase another man (likely a different dogcatcher) away; a cart is lit on fire; one child with a particular angry stare is approaching the scene carrying not a stick or rock, but an ax!
The one detail Harvey stops to notice is a child in a red shirt falling from the window above: “This picture also includes the kid falling from an upper story window, which, Blackbeard tells us, was not an uncommon occurrence during the hot summers months[.]” This gruesome bit has little to do with the main event of the strip, but it does encourage the proper atmosphere of violence. I don’t know if Darrow actually read Outcault, but the spirit of the Yellow Kid lives in his art.
Go back and read Hard Boiled. It’s not just that Darrow draws scenes of vast destruction and violence - he also makes sure to draw the people around them. Impossibly vast masses, each person minding their own business. These people have internalized the violence around them, none of them looking outside themselves. They do not ‘ignore’ the destruction, as that would imply a conscious effort; instead, they simply accept it and move on. In Hard Boiled no one looks at the bodies; in Who’ll Stop the Reign? people only look at them to take pictures and upload them for clicks. Undoubtedly, if Outcault had lived in the age of iPhone, some of the kids in that strip would’ve been streaming that dog catcher being pounded.
Who’ll Stop the Reign? was first published in 2017, and it is very much a reckoning with Trump’s America. Or, to be more precise: the America that led to Trump. None of it is very subtle. King Crab returns for another round, having coerced a new group of people with various grievances to destroy the Shaolin Cowboy, including a new mindless wife literally under his control. There are a lot of Trump references throughout, all of which Darrow delivers with absolute hatred in his pencil.
When King Crab is defeated, and the woman is freed from his control, she begins to mumble “The other king... not Trump. Crab.” She seems lost and confused, and you get a pang of sympathy for her... but she’s still a person covered in swastikas. The Shaolin Cowboy, in fact, feels sorry enough to both pressure-point her memory away and give her a large stack of bills. As she awakens with her memory clean, she looks at the money - satisfied for one whole second before deciding that someone must be ripping her off. That she deserves more money. She’s convinced this foreign person is trying to trick her. There’s no quick salvation, people cannot be changed so easily.
This is also true of the Shaolin Cowboy himself. Besides King Crab, his other major opponent in the story is a truck-sized pig called Hog Kong. Just like King Crab, the pig is another talking animal whose family was the victim of the Shaolin Cowboy’s hunger for meat, and just like King Crab he ends up defeated after a drawn-out fight scene, howling with rage as his life leaves him. The Shaolin Cowboy, once again, asks for Hog Kong’s forgiveness, and promises to mend his ways. It is nan echo of a similar promise he made to King Crab back in the first series (King Crab’s demise, by the way, is being kicked into a boiling pot).
On the final page of the story, the Cowboy, heaving triumphed over all animal kingdom-based adversaries, decides to satisfy himself by walking towards a chicken-based eatery (“eggs it”). As he enters the restaurant, we can see at the bottom of the page there’s a mamma chicken and her baby chicks going into the selfsame restaurant. And so, as if “Through a circle that ever returneth in / To the self-same spot, / And much of Madness, and more of Sin, / And Horror the soul of the plot.”
The Shaolin Cowboy has learned nothing, giving in to temptation, to the immediate physical cravings. The two spirit guides that give him advice throughout the series lead him in two different ways: an Eastern monk figure who warns him to “guard against excessive appetites in all things, or your enlightenment will always be in dispute.” On the other hand is the Western type, a Mitchumesque actor figure who adds “some protein would go a long way to healing what ails ya.” The Cowboy chooses to follow the latter advice.
Except, he’s not really choosing. He isn’t really thinking here, just acting out of instinct. Which is what he has done throughout all of these stories so far; the Shaolin Cowboy never really seems to consider things, which keeps getting him in hot water with all the relatives of people he has killed. In that, he is not much different from all the other people who inhabit Darrow’s world. The other notable element about that final page is that it provides a wide shot of the area the Shaolin Cowboy ended up in. The chicken restaurant he walks into isn’t the only one around. In fact, the whole street is seemingly occupied by nothing other than chicken places with terrible pun names and even worse signage.
That’s the state of America, and the world cast in its image. It’s not that one lady who was broken, nor is it just the gregarious Cowboy. It’s everything. Outcault’s depiction of brutality was seemingly free of judgment. There was no moralizing over the violent kids, nor the dogcatcher. All were equal creations of urban blight. How can you escape from consumption culture when this is literally everything that you know?
The final words of Who’ll Stop the Reign?, printed in a tiny font right in the bottom gutter, are “The path always ends here.” Which is to say, it doesn’t end. With this, Darrow is evoking, perhaps unintentionally, Zygmunt Bauman's critique of modern, capitalistic society in Liquid Modernity (2000): "Desire becomes its own purpose, and the sole uncontested and unquestionable purpose. The role of all other purposes, followed up only to be abandoned at the next round and forgotten the round after, is to keep the runner running[...]" Of course, Bauman's work is unlikely to contain kung-fu, which renders Darrow as the superior social critic.
Shemp Buffet had a similar cyclical structure: beginning and ending with an image of a frog sitting atop a rock, beneath which the Shaolin Cowboy would soon emerge. My first reading of Shemp Buffet was hopeful - there’s always a chance at revival, no matter how helpless things appear. This was helped by the context of the series itself revived, after being seemingly lost to the archivists. After Who’ll Stop the Reign?, my understanding has shifted - this is just another chance to get it wrong. But still, this is a chance... this is what Darrow is willing to give you.