Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shaolin Cowboy: The devil in the details

The most immediately appealing aspect of Geof Darrow's comic art has always been that attention to detail, where he'll show everything he can fit into a panel. Every tiny little detail you could imagine and a lot more aside, right down to the last cigarette butt – and his city scenes can literally have thousands of them littering the ground.

Darrow's style is often imitated and never beaten, largely because he really commits to the whole ideal, and shows everything, no matter how gross or gruesome it gets. Every shrapnel wound, every flaccid penis, every exposed sphincter.

His plots can be little more than showcases for his astonishingly articulate art – one Shaolin Cowboy story featured an entire issue of nothing but the title Buddhist smashing up some zombies, and then Darrow – showing huge balls by actively trolling his audience – carried on for another half of another.

But dig a little deeper into his stories, and that same kind of obsessive detailing is there in the dialogue and plot. It's so easy to get distracted by his delicate and thin line, but there is so much more than that.

The most recent Shaolin Cowboy comic – Who'll Stop The Reign? – is full of incident and theme. There is still that intricate rendering, but it's all about the futility of revenge, and the end results of rampant capitalism, and about a world that has its head so far up its own arse it doesn't realise its choking on the fumes.

Entire manic adventures take place in brief flashbacks, or in single panel epics on the back cover. Sure, there is definitely some cheap thrills in seeing the monk use two dogs with huge knives for front legs as a pair of nunchaku to devastating effect on a bunch of goons with amazing tattoos, but the fairly subtle political subtext is just as interesting.

All the main characters come with a load of instant and usually tragic backstory, but even the background characters have their own story going on and their own problems and quests to deal with. Sometimes they end up intersecting with the Cowboy's own unique path, sometimes they're in and out again, and sometimes they meet horrible, gory fates. Karma is a bitch in Darrow's world, and usually comes with a bucket of blood.

There is a serene goofiness behind the the Shaolin Cowboy's adventures, and a circularity to his adventures – the path always ends in the same place. Darrow's depiction of those adventures is gorgeous, even when we see a lot more than we really want to.

But there is a lot going on beyond the extraordinary imagery – there is a story behind every butt, both the cigarettes and the assholes – and every explosion or car crash destroys a bunch of lives, in exact detail.

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