The Shaolin Cowboy: Cruel to Be Kin #1-7

The Shaolin Cowboy: Cruel to Be Kin #1-7

Geof Darrow, with Dave Stewart & Nate Piekos

Dark Horse

A question of form, if you please: what is the upper limit of complexity a drawing can achieve before it loses legibility? A rhetorical question, clearly, but an important one. We’re looking at Geof Darrow, for the exercise.

All images from The Shaolin Cowboy: Cruel to Be Kin. Written and drawn by Geof Darrow, colored by Dave Stewart, lettered by Nate Piekos (of Blambot). Color flats by Mark Sweeney, Raunak Singh, Fred Paculba & Josh Laird, with the assistance of Gabe Fischer.

Pick up the first issue of his recent Shaolin Cowboy outing, Cruel to Be Kin (seven issues, to be collected in May). There’s a sequence at the beginning featuring the titular Shaolin Cowboy jumping off the flying skull of a fossil T-Rex right before it crashes, and in so crashing also biting the head off the infamous Nazi pterodactyl Jojo Samson, whom the Cowboy had been riding via the end of a long towel tied to the pterodactyl’s tail. The pterodactyl is also carrying a tiny baby monitor lizard by its tail (such lizard is the most important secondary character, plot-wise) while an innocent gorilla (holding a gun) just happened to be chilling with his pig friend on top of the T-Rex skull. They’re falling forward as well. There are also half a dozen giant frogs hopping away from the crash site, nine bags of garbage, and countless beer bottles. Oh yeah, the Cowboy himself is momentarily suspended in the air, held aloft by the comically tiny parasol with which he had paraglided onto Jojo Samson’s tail. This is all in one panel that occupies about half of one page.

Imagine getting that in a script, artists of the world!

Now, the remarkable thing is, it works. It maybe takes a little while to get. This is at times a difficult book. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s a necessary consequence of the way this guy draws. Whole lotta detail. I know for a fact Geof Darrow is a very popular and influential artist, but I also know just as surely the same aspects of his work that thrill his cult must surely irritate others. I’ve heard enough cogent objects to Chris Ware on the basis of the supposed challenging obscurantism at the root of his intricate style. There are similar impulses at root, I think. Same with Brian Chippendale, sometimes James Stokoe. Hell, George Pérez on occasion. Pages against the putative grail of accessibility.

But despite all I just said: somehow this thing still moves. It’s more or less one long fight scene, often without even a moment’s pause between issues. Every single page, just about, goes hard. Unrelenting megaviolence and extreme gore of the kind that would be strictly unfilmable in any capacity. The Shaolin Cowboy, if you’re unfamiliar, is a warrior monk who kills a lot of people everywhere he goes. He never kills anyone who isn’t trying to kill him, is the thing - he’s very scrupulous about that. But something about his chi just attracts the worst people in the world, so he spends more or less every day of his life tirelessly John Wicking his way across the landscape. Just as with Mr. Wick, or Conan, or even Groo the Wanderer, we don’t seem to resent the Cowboy killing so many people because people are trying to kill him literally every day of his life. It probably grates.

The character’s downtime in this series consists of a brief sequence straight out of an anime: he gets a job cooking at a tiny restaurant in the middle of the city, and before long runs into an old friend. That’s right before he has to run again because someone is always trying to kill him. Just who is trying to kill him? Well, see, that’s where we start to get interesting. Because Mr. Darrow - I think it might be safe to say, Mr. Darrow doesn’t think much of political developments of the last few years. How do I know? Why, he just released a seven-issue meticulously-illustrated no-ads comic book about going around the country slaughtering Nazis in relentless waves.

And I gotta say, it’s brilliant how he does it. Very structurally canny. Perhaps the best way to illustrate might be a brief comparison. I love the original Howard the Duck, it’s one of my all-time favorite runs, just absolute brilliance from beginning to end. You learn a lot from those books, and Steve Gerber. One of the things about that title I personally puzzled over for years was a similar matter of form: so much of the book had a sillier tone than I thought the material deserved. It is a remarkably silly book. Some of those silly sequences don’t hold up, not as well as the somber stuff or sharper satire. Dated humor is dated humor.

But then, over the course of my life, I read Gulliver’s Travels three times, and in doing so learned many things regarding the shape of the world. Such as: good satire has to start with some really mind-numbingly silly bullshit. Topical dated stuff, even, that might turn off part of the audience. But what you’re really doing is just a burlesque, a pantomime of something you’re going to talk about later in the book, with a little less of the tongue in cheek. The really heavy stuff hits a lot harder when you see it in context. The first book of Gulliver is stupid historical gossip and piss jokes; by Part IV he’s stripped down to nothing and calling a pox on the entire human race. You have to work up to it.

So too, the first few issues of Cruel to Be Kin are remarkably silly. Just absurd: there’s a wretched little babyman riding a giant brain jellyfish and trying to harvest the Cowboy’s chi for his diabolical machines. Movie villain territory. He reanimates a pair of skeletons to drive a Renault and shoot machine guns through the American Southwest. He’s got the aforementioned Nazi dinosaur sidekick Jojo Samson. And it takes a few issues, but the Cowboy comes out on top. Eventually, however, after he gets to the city, the Cowboy runs into the hideous little babyman’s brother, who happens to be just as evil, without so much of the silly. He’s just a crook and a Nazi, with a whole lot of Nazi pals.

You don’t notice, maybe at first, but the book shifts gear. Tone alters considerably, the silliness deemphasized, the gore slightly less cartoonish. The Cowboy is not killing a supervillain, he’s just walking into a room somewhere in the middle of the city and killing dozens upon dozens of Nazis for ten relentless pages. Every page. No captions. No sound effects. No quips. No speed lines. It scans perfectly! You flip through the book thinking, ok, he’ll be done killing Nazis when I turn the page - but no. Page after relentless page of the absolute worst people on the planet biting it in unremittingly gruesome fashion because they thought they could kill the Shaolin Cowboy.

Now, I don’t want to sit down as if no one has been making political comics - far from it. Even in the mainstream, it’s not quite as apolitical now as it was for a while. But there’s something to be said for the laborious, almost sui generis intensity with which Geof Darrow sat down to create his Nazi-killing epic. There’s no ambiguity here with what we’re talking about. We’re not dealing with fantasy analogues. Nobody in this comic is happy, everyone’s life just keeps getting worse, but no one can change anything because of all the Nazis walking around with unlimited ammo: this cuts right to the heart of it. The business end of this comic book is dozens upon dozens of pages of killing modern day Nazis - militia men, weekend warriors, bigots, thieves, and power-hungry creeps. Every geek who thinks a gun makes them a bigger man. Ultimately, all the same taproot, the same reactionary spirit. All grist for the mill. No match for the Cowboy. Amitoufu.