Exclusive: Geof Darrow talks return of Shaolin Cowboy in Who'll Stop the Reign

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Apr 18, 2017, 6:30 PM EDT

The wait is over.

Fans of Geof Darrow's sensationally violent and exceptionally drawn Shaolin Cowboy comic book have been patiently waiting for the Eisner Award-winning creator to grace comics shelves with another volume of amped-up, double-chainsaw bloodshed and minimal verbiage.

This Wednesday, the first issue of Shaolin Cowboy: Who'll Stop The Reign? arrives in comics shops. The four-issue miniseries, published by Dark Horse, is the latest chapter in the ongoing and occasionally scheduled Shaolin Cowboy series, which Darrow launched back in 2004.

Since then, the series has earned Darrow a shelf full of Eisner and Inkpot awards (though Darrow loves to focus on all the times he's lost) and earned a devoted fanbase. That's in large part to Darrow's brilliant and painstakingly detailed artwork, which revels in precise detail and obsessively elaborate action scenes. The Cowboy's last rodeo, Dark Horse's The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, was essentially one extended action sequence spread out over four issues, with virtually every drop of zombie blood and body part meticulously choreographed for accuracy.

And while the over-the-top violence is what often gets the attention when discussing Shaolin Cowboy, the hilarious plotlines - at least what qualifies as a plot in these books - and the absurd visual gags are a great reminder of Darrow's offbeat sense of humor.

I had the chance to talk with Darrow about this new book, which is uncommon, because the guy is usually too busy to do too many press rounds. In fact, he told me he's working on some quote-unquote "movie stuff" at the moment. But our 30-minute conversation was as entertaining an interview as I've done in a long time, full of Darrow's self-deprecating humor and detours into one recollection or another. We also discussed his working relationship with his fellow Hard Boiled creator, Frank Miller, who actually drew the variant cover for Who'll Stop The Reign? #1, and his thoughts on the recently announced reboot of The Matrix (Darrow helped create the visual style of The Matrix film universe).

And don't forget to check out the special treat we have for you: an exclusive four-page preview from the first issue of Shaolin Cowboy: Who'll Stop The Reign?, ahead of its arrival in comic stores tomorrow.

Spoiler Alert: Some plot points relevant to the most recent Shaolin Cowboy comic are discussed here, so consider yourselves warned!

What was the elevator pitch you gave Dark Horse for this new Shaolin Cowboy story?

Geof Darrow: I didn't. They just let me do what I want. I have a long history … I was back with them all the way to the beginning. I never show them anything (laughs). They get to see it when I'm done.

Well, that must be great for a creator like yourself, to not have to worry about getting the OK from a publisher before getting started on a project.

Yeah, I don't know if it's great for them, but it is for me (laughs). I think the publisher would rather I be drawing The Big Guy (note: The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot is a 1995 comic Darrow and Frank Miller worked on), but yeah … I just hand it in and say, "Okay. There you go."

Did you already have this next installment bouncing around in your head when you were finishing up The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet?

Well, yeah, but whenever I finish something I think to myself, "Well, time to do something else." I kind of left it … so if I decide not to do any more of this, it kind of ends ... well, it ends.

That's the thing, though. Shemp Buffet ends on quite the cliffhanger, with our hero presumed dead.

Yeah, then I thought, well I … I watch a lot of Japanese and Chinese films, and in those films, unlike in American movies, unless it's a shot to the head, nobody … you never know if anyone's really dead. If you've seen any John Woo movies, guys get shot a hundred times and its like, 'Okay, let's go get a hamburger now,' and they walk off together, and they're still alive. So I subscribe to that cinema dictum of, unless you're shot to the head like a zombie, they could still be alive (laughs).

Not to tread too deeply into spoiler territory, but I do love how you resolve the conundrum of having a presumed-dead title character right off the bat with a typically absurd visual gag involving vultures.

I don't know where that [idea] even came from. I just did it, and figured he would be there, surrounded by all these dead people, and that vultures would be there. And then I was like, 'Ohhh.'

When you say it like that, it makes perfect sense!

I just thought that it [the vultures] was funny, because it made no sense at all! I just love that stuff, especially Hong Kong and Chinese movies. If you read their old literature, they had these heroes who were capable of anything. And so, the idea that you could use a blade of grass to take down a horse, to flick that blade and the horse's head would explode. I just always found stuff like that really funny.

I imagine fans ask you all the time at conventions and anywhere else, 'Why don't you make more Shaolin Cowboy comics?' Do you enjoy the long breaks in-between installments; does it help your creative process to step away from the character for a bit?

Not really. And mostly, what I get from fans is, "When are you going to work with Frank Miller again?" (laughs). Which always makes me wonder, 'Oh, they really don't like what I'm doing now.' Or, it's like, "I really like Hard Boiled and I really like The Big Guy, what else have you been doing?' Or, they say 'I'm you're biggest fan! What else have you done since Hard Boiled?' Oh really, you're my biggest fan? (laughs).

It happens more often than you think. I was talking with [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola and he says guys still come up to him and ask him when he's going to do more Gotham by Gaslight. That's what it is. People like what they like. But when they tell you they're your biggest fan and they don't know anything you've been doing, that's kind of like, oh boy.

One of the benefits to doing creator-owned work and enjoying the freedom you have with Dark Horse seems to be that you're not tied to that relentless monthly schedule that drives the comics business. Do you see it that way?

I don't know. I wish, I just wish I was faster. I wish I could do that [monthly comics]. I suppose I could. I can draw really fast, just not the way I want it to look. I'm really envious of those guys. All the comics I read these days are Japanese comics, and those guys … they have assistants and such, but still, the idea of putting out 20-25 pages of material a week for 48 weeks out of the year is, to me, just mind-boggling.

I'm sure the big comic book publishers would love to find even one or two people who could churn out that much work.

And there's certain guys, you see what they're drawing and you're like, 'Holy cow, that's really good.' They're really talented draftsmen over there.

You could also take the approach that some artists do and cut a few creative corners. Back when John Byrne was writing and drawing Fantastic Four for Marvel in the 1980s, his artwork was always great, but some issues you would see little to no backgrounds.

Yeah, but for me, everyone has their own choice to make, but I started in European comics. I always thought backgrounds were a really important part of the story, because you create an environment. Otherwise, it's all taking place in a generic world.

When I commit to a deadline, they know I'll get it done. I had the first three issues of this one penciled by the time they scheduled it, because I knew I could get it done in time. I actually finished issue #4 on New Year's Day.

Your hero in this story is the strong, silent type, which you've said was an obvious homage to the Japanese influence in your work. He's so far removed from the type we so much of in mainstream comics: the glib, fast-talking hero. Is that just a more interesting type of person for you to work on?

That comes to from … I read once that [filmmaker] Walter Hill said that you show intent through action. He doesn't stop to talk about why he's doing this or why. He's just doing it. And that should tell you, depending on what he's done, how he really feels about what he's doing.

Safe to assume that our hero won't be breaking out into a lengthy monologue during this mini-series, then?

I don't think he ... uh, he has in the last issue, a couple of sentences maybe. I can't quite recall. It's mostly him saying, 'Buddha be praised.' That's the thing (laughs), in all these movies I've watched, the guys are always saying, "Buddha be praised." They''ll blow a guy's head off and say, "Buddha be praised." I think it's funny.

Your art style and how you put it to use in Shaolin Cowboy is remarkable. It's almost like you have an internal script supervisor making sure it all fits together. Reading the trade paperback of Shemp Buffet, I didn't even notice at first how that epic 100+ page fight scene is so tightly choreographed. The zombie body parts that fly off in one panel and the blood that flies in another all appear to fall in orderly fashion in subsequent panels. Why would you do that to yourself?

(laughs) Because it just seems like it should be. If you try to take a completely impossible situation -- and I'm not saying I succeeded -- and make it seem realistic, it seems funny to me.

One thing many of us enjoy about Shaolin Cowboy is the absurdist humor in it. But some of your visual gags and references go a bit deeper. Case in point: the Trump Desert. That's taking on a whole new meaning in 2017.

I was concerned a long time ago about that gentleman. Yeah.

Considering you worked on Shemp Buffet back in 2013-14, that would be around the time of Trump and his involvement in the birther movement, right?

Yeah, yeah, that's correct. I was concerned and very angered about Obama, the fact that he questioned, that pumpkinheaded bum, that he could question another man's birthright. I always thought it was born out of race, not out of any concern for America. I just found him so obnoxious, I've always found him obnoxious. He's this horrible narcissist who's now the most powerful man in the world.

It was interesting to see in the first few pages those rocks in the desert with Trump's name on them …

There's a couple other references in there that ... and they were all drawn before he was elected. I don't draw these things straight through. I get other jobs and I do those because they pay more. And also, last year -- I won't go into why -- I had some problems and I couldn't work on [Who'll Stop The Reign?] much.

It sounds like you started working on this book right after the last one was released.

Yeah, pretty much. I'll start it and then something will come up and I'll put it aside. I'll go off and do some movie work. I did some movie stuff that pays fairly well so …

Like storyboarding and creative design work?

Yeah, lot of design work. It's like a different rhythm. Then I have to get back into the rhythm of drawing comics again as opposed to the movie stuff. It's a different mindset.

Can you mention any specifics or which movies you were working on?

Movies that didn't get made (laughs). That's the other thing, people can be on an island drinking and I'm working on stuff you can't see.

You're not a big fan of working off a detailed comic script are you?

I never have done it.

None of your collaborators have ever given you a detailed script?

No. Well, Frank [Miller] on Hard Boiled … and it's funny because I pulled out the original script recently. I still have it. I pulled it out and was reading it and I saw I had changed things. And when we did The Big Guy and I still have that script, it was just four paragraphs. I just drew it.

The only time I ever got a really detailed script and I didn't do it, because …. they were doing a Spirit collection, and they were doing it when Will Eisner was still alive. And they were asking different writers and artists to team up and do a story in the world of The Spirit.

And the editor at the time asked me who I would like to work with. And I said, Alan Moore. But then I said, 'Whatever you do, don't tell him it's for me. Because if you do, I know what will happen. It will be full of buildings and s**t. And sure enough, I get the script, and maybe this was just the story Alan wanted to tell, but it was all buildings. The Spirit was in the background. He wasn't in it at all! And I said, I'm not doing it. I told you not to tell him. I wanted to draw The Spirit. Now I'm just drawing buildings. It would take me too long, it was an architectural nightmare.

I can't remember who drew it, but it wasn't me.

Any plans to do more work with Frank Miller?

He's just so busy, and get the stars in alignment to make it work, to be honest. I think I drove him crazy, anyway. I don't know that he would want to.

But he did the variant cover to issue #1 of Who'll Stop The Reign?

Well, yeah … I mean, he didn't hate me. I just made him crazy … like, 'What the hell's he drawing now?'

Do you think we'll ever see a Hard Boiled movie?

I don't know, maybe. I don't know.

I know Frank kind of poo-poohed a film idea a few years ago, but times change in Hollywood.

Well yeah, for me, throw some money my way and I'm, 'Take her away!' (laughs). But who knows?

What about the Shaolin Cowboy animated movie? Any progress to report?

It's sitting in boxes somewhere in Tokyo.

Any chances to get it going again?

Do you have three million dollars? That's what we need. And there's not enough people to invest in it through Kickstarter or something like that.

Since you worked with the Wachowskis on The Matrix franchise, so I wanted to get your thoughts on the recently announced reboot.

Oh, I don't know. I don't even know if they're going to be involved, I think they've asked them. But hell, I don't know. I like Warner Bros., but c'mon man, come up with something new. And I know it's a lot of money and it's easier to put something out that's familiar to people, but it seems like all Hollywood does is remake stuff now. It hasn't even been that long. I really liked working on it, and I love Keanu Reeves. I thought he was great in the John Wick movies.

I had a feeling you'd be a fan of those movies.

He's good in that role, because he has that elegance and that brooding presence. And he looks cool in a suit. I remember walking on the set of the second film [The Matrix Reloaded] and I saw him wearing that almost, like a priest's ... what do you call it, a smock … and I saw him and I told him, 'Wow, you look cool!' and he goes, "What do you mean?" He was just really cool. When you see him, all in black, with the sunglasses and that outfit, it's almost like a Western thing. I went to Catholic school, so maybe it just all seemed familiar to me.

Geof Darrow, comic book altar boy.

There you go.

Shaolin Cowboy: Who'll Stop the Reign? Issue #1 hits comics shops this Wednesday.