Remember the first forty-five minutes of Wall-E? With nearly zero dialogue, Pixar was able to craft a deeply affecting, emotionally charged narrative about the last robot on Earth, his cockroach pal, and his obsession with the pop culture of yesteryear. That’s all well and good for films, but does the same concept translate to comic books? The answer, according to Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy #1, is a resounding yes. With nary a sound effect or a line of spoken dialogue in the first issue, Darrow manages to craft a bloodsoaked epic that finds our stoic, taciturn Monk slicing the scalps off countless zombies using his trusty bo-staff with chainsaws affixed to either end. It’s a rollicking, frentic, and supremely fun return to the classic character that is packed to the brim with jaw-dropping set pieces and plenty of “Oh, shit!” moments.
This isn’t Darrow’s first Shaolin rodeo though. Originally – and sporadically – published by Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Burlyman imprint, Shaolin Cowboy has existed in one form or another since 2004. Issues trickled out over the next several years until the series went on hiatus in 2007. At New York Comic Con in 2011, it was announced that Dark Horse would be releasing more Shaolin Cowboy stories, and now, at long last, we finally have our hands on the first of a four-issue mini-series. Darrow is still handling primary writing and artistic duties, but colorist Dave Stewart brings the book to glorious life with his sublime palette and eye-popping color choices.
To help get you as excited as I am about the return of Shaolin Cowboy, I caught up with Darrow to talk about what draws him back to this character, his design influences, and just what the hell happened to that long-rumored Shaolin Cowboy animated feature.
Nerdist: I really enjoyed this first issue. It’s a real barn burner. You waste no time getting into the awesome action-packed, chainsaw-wielding fun. Looking forward, what sort of stuff can we expect from this mini-series? It’s six issues, correct?
Geof Darrow: It’s four.
N: Four — OK.
GD: Well, if you don’t like what happens at the end of the first one, you’re not going to like the rest of it. [laughter] One giant bite — I’ve just got to be funny to do it. Maybe somebody — I think in Japan they’ve probably done it. It’s a big action sequence. It has kind of an ending, and — I don’t know, I think a lot of wacky fun, I think. I hope!
N: Oh yeah. No, it was definitely a blast. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I popped it open, and my fears were immediately assuaged when I saw countless decapitations at the hands of a double-bladed chainsaw staff. That was definitely up my alley!
GD: You’ll get tired of that pretty quick, probably! [chuckles] I don’t know — I just wanted to do a big action sequence, which I had never ever really done. I worked on some other stuff that I was kind of frustrated, and I couldn’t do it — not that I’ve done that much — and in this one, I got that and zombies out of my system, I think.
N: [chuckles] Yeah, it definitely packs them both in there, in a very effective fashion. Something that really struck me about this first issue is your use of silence. There’s remarkably little dialogue, and I think that makes these bursts of violence all the more potent. Can tell me a little bit about what motivated that decision, and is this use of relatively minimal dialogue something that’s going to continue?
GD: Yeah, it does, because it — I don’t — shoot, I guess when you’re fighting somebody, I don’t think you’re going to be talking that much. I mean, you can have sound effects in there and I’m not against sound effects (and there’s a little bit), but I think your mind kind of makes them when you’re seeing those heads are getting chopped off. I think you kind of hear the sound; At least, I do. So, you know, the only interplay he really has is with those guys in the car in the first one. I supposed he could be having an inner dialogue, but that’s been kind of done to death, and I’ve always been a big fan of the Japanese films, especially Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and then Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name, the silent character, he just — he does, he just does something, he doesn’t talk about what he’s doing.
GD: I could have had him saying goofy stuff, and I mean, maybe I’m wrong. I think I can write goofy dialogue, and probably have [chuckles], if I want to, but I said let’s have the drawings tell it all and just fight a bunch of things.
N: And not every hero needs to have that constant, Peter Parker stream of endless witty banter.
N: I think there’s something to be said for silence. I actually thought it was very effective. It made it stand out from the crowd.
GD: Well, thank you, because that’s what I thought. Because I looked at it and I thought, well, you know, it’ll just be kind of, you know, because the James Bond movies that I like, especially the Daniel Craig ones, he’s not too much of… that a deal that Steven Seagal would know, one of those movies where he goes “You can take that to the bank — the blood bank!” [laughter] Or the CSI: Miami thing where David Caruso would go — someone gets hit by a lawnmower, and he goes, “What happened here? He must have got cut down.” That kind of “Aaaahh!”
N: [laughter] Yeah.
GD: I mean, you know, they’re pretty cheap shots. I think it’s easy to do. You know the whole other thing of describing the action: “I’m going to hit this guy or I’ll be dead!”
N: [laughter] Crazy!
GD: “If I don’t beat these guys, I can… barely… keep… my strength. Got… to… rest.” You know? I couldn’t put that stuff. I didn’t want to do it.
N: And I think it pays off when you put a little bit of faith in the reader, that they can follow what’s happening.
GD: Yeah. I mean, you know, if you go back, some of my favorite — I know Moebius did some, those Arzach stories are all basically silent, if you’re familiar with those, and they’re brilliant, I think. Even the Japanese, you see a lot of the older style manga there—Lone Wolf and Cub, they’re generally, when something’s going on, he’s just doing what he does; he’s not saying “Seagull Style,” you know.
N: That would kind of ruin the mood.
GD: He’s not saying what he’s doing. You’re drawing it; I think you can kind of — I used to work at Hanna-Barbera, and they used to have describe what they were doing because they never wanted to animate it! “I’m going to hit this guy with a truck.”
GD: And then they would go, “I got him!” And you’d cut to the truck and it had already hit the guys — they didn’t draw them doing it.
N: [chuckles] That explains a lot of my childhood right there.
GD: I could tell you stories about working there. What cracks me up is that they are releasing a lot of those shows that I worked on — Super Friends and some of these — at the time Empire Strikes Back comes out, science fiction was the thing that was hot, and they did a lot of science fiction based shows, and they had gone back to Herculoid and all of their old shows, and I worked on some of those—they were horrible.
N: They don’t hold up?
GD: People say, “Oh, I grew up with those,” and I go, “Eww.” Especially the Super Friends ones, some of those.
N: Nostalgia can involve wearing some very rose-colored glasses sometimes. I know I’ve gone back and revisited certain animated features from my youth, and I was a little horrified, because I remember loving them. And then, going back, I kind of broke that illusion a little bit.
GD: Yeah, I still have great affection for — actually, I probably wasn’t that young when I saw them — a couple of Japanese TV shows — the live action ones, like Johnny Sokko. I just still think those things are — but I thought they were funny when I watched them, and I still think they’re funny, because the whole idea of giving a skyscraper-sized robot to this little kid — it would be a great comedy thing, the wrong kid gets a hold of it, some really arrogant little kid with a lot of self-esteem issues. “Johnny Robot, I want that kid smashed now!” [chuckles]
N: Exactly, yeah! Try taming him now if you thought he was unruly before.
GD: That sense of entitlement. “Get me that PlayStation, now!”
N: So jumping back to Shaolin Cowboy for a moment, I want to talk about the design and the visual tone, because it feels like such a remarkably specific world. I was wondering what influenced the design going into this? I know our hero — maybe this is just me — he reminded me a lot of Shintaro Katsu, the Zatoichi actor.
GD: Yeah, that’s my inspiration.
N: Oh, awesome!
GD: You know, it’s funny, because I had seen his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama, who is Lone Wolf, in those Baby Cart movies — they released one in English here in the early ’70s, when the whole kung fu craze was taking off. I thought it was a kung fu movie — it was called Shogun Assassin 2: Lightning Swords of Death, and I had never seen anything like that. I had never seen a movie that bloody, with as many decapitations.
N: Yeah. [laughter]
GD: And he looks a lot like his brother, Shintaro Katsu, and then when I heard that he did the blind swordsman, and then I saw one, and I wasn’t that — ‘cause they were kind of funny, there is some humor in them, right?
GD: I thought they should be really serious, but then I grew to prefer those — both of those guys, they’re really kind of unlikely looking heroes, and I don’t think that — when I was living in Japan, I don’t think — but maybe it was through my Occidental eyes — I don’t think he’s really handsome, Shitaro Katsu. He has charm, but he’s not like Toshiro Mifune. Maybe they consider him handsome, but he just has an allure in those movies. Zatoichi is just fantastic.
N: Yeah, I feel like it’s a similar case to someone like Beat Takeshi, where they’re not traditionally handsome, per se, but they still have a magnetism about them.
GD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so I, you know, he’s been a big inspiration to me, in terms of Shaolin Cowboy, but he doesn’t look like a hero.
N: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. You don’t expect the protagonist to be more advanced in years.
GD: You know, I mean, what I like about a lot of the Japanese films — and when I was over there working — I found that now they’re really into archetypes, they really—you know, they’d say to me, “Well, your character doesn’t look like a hero.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what I want.” And he goes, “Uh.” I mean, when Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt or Clint Eastwood come in, you know they’re going to do something. But somebody that looks like Shitaro Katsu, you’re just kind of like, “Pht.” And then you’re dead before you realize you messed with the wrong guy.
N: Yeah! [chuckles]
GD: And that, I find, that’s really cool. Beat Takeshi, gosh, there’s a guy that just out of the blue, the violence, when it happens, it’s just so shocking. It’s super effective.
N: Oh, yeah, especially in some of his movies, like Hana-bi, where it’s very, very sweet and serene and beautiful and then…
GD: Oh yeah! We’re on the same wavelength. That one has just such — I mean, fireworks, in all senses of the word. When it happens, you’re like, “Oh, geez!”
N: Yeah, he’s really something else. You should also check out Blood and Bones, a Korean film, if you haven’t seen that.
GD: No — what’s that one?
N: He plays the horrifying, very brutal patriarch of this family, and it follows them through a couple of generations living in Osaka before and after the war.
GD: It’s a Korean film?
N: It’s a Korean film about a Japanese family, and it’s unrelenting, but it’s some really good stuff.
GD: I’d better write that one down. Blood and Bones. Huh! Did you see The Grand Master?
N: I haven’t seen it yet. That’s on my list.
GD: See both versions. It’s interesting. It’s beautifully, beautifully shot.
N: Yeah, I’ve heard pretty good things about this new one, so I’m excited to see what they did. I’m also excited for — I’ve heard similarly good things about Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi, actually.
GD: Yeah, I’ve seen it, and I really like Keanu, and I think he did a really good job, but you know, it tries too hard to make the point, and the scenes, when you see it, when he’s with his master, say it all, without the other stuff. I don’t want to give it away, but some of it, I just kind of wish that he had — geez, it’s so hard to make a movie, and I shouldn’t be criticizing, because he did a really, really good job. I just wish he had let it — he had let it talk for itself. He didn’t have to make the point, because he had already shown it.
N: Yeah. I gotcha. Sometimes less is more, as is the case with Shaolin Cowboy. Look at that segue!
GD: I don’t know anybody that’s ever said “less is more” with me! [chuckles] It’s more, and it’s less.
N: In terms of just superfluous exposition.
GD: Oh yeah, oh yeah — OK. Yep.
N: I think you’re definitely leading the way on zombie decapitations.
GD: Yeah… it gets worse. Like I say, I’ve kind of — you know… yeah. [chuckles]
N: So with Shaolin Cowboy, you’re serving as both writer and artist. I’m curious if you find you prefer being able to control both aspects of a book, or if you prefer to work with a creative partner? If not, do you prefer wearing one hat over the other?
GD: Well, you know, like when I worked with Frank [Miller], I drove Frank crazy, because the first time I just did what I wanted. And then when I worked with Frank, he gave me a script, and I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to change things. And he was so nice to me, didn’t say anything until later, but I put a lot of stuff in there that — like, the first issue I think there’s ten pages of script, and I just went off on tangents, and if he described a scene, I’d say “Oh, OK,” and it would become two pages, not add things.
So I’ve never really sort of been under anybody’s thumb, per se. Like with Big Guy [and Rusty the Boy Robot] — Big Guy was just two paragraphs, basically, of the monster attacks Japan, and he kills them with an atom bomb, and that was it, and then Frank went back in and put dialogue in it, which was kind of like the Kirby/Lee way of doing things.
GD: So I’ve never really worked under a script, so I don’t know. I like to have some leeway. Like in a movie script, when you get a movie script, the action in it, Joe goes into the room and fights all these guys, then the storyboard guy is in there, then the stunt guys and they figure out that scene, but it’s hard to kind of write that kind of action in a script form, and if somebody did it for me, I’d probably get bored. I kind of like to have some sort of creative input in that respect.
N: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I can imagine it’s nice to have a little bit of wiggle room in there. That way you can kind of suss it out and adjust accordingly, as the story evolves.
GD: I think a lot of people think — for instance, if I understand, Alan Moore writes really complete scripts. He says “The guy’s in the room, there’s a can of Coke and some Cheerios and an open bag of Doritos, and there’s a peppermint Schnapps bottle on the floor, and a Chihuahua lapping up the blood from a guy’s neck.” But I don’t think everyone—at least, I don’t think everybody writes like that. I know Frank never did. I mean, a lot of the stuff in the backgrounds I drew was just stuff I came up with, like in Hard Boiled. There was no — he didn’t say, “In this panel we see Nixon and he’s wearing…” — like in Hard Boiled, in the last issue, he puts on a shirt, and the shirt he’s wearing says “Godzilla,” and the old lady is wearing a shirt that says “King Kong.” And that’s something that I did because I thought it was funny.
N: [laughter] Yeah, well, that’s the nice thing, though, because that way everyone gets to put their stamp on the book.
GD: Yeah, and it’s a collaboration. I don’t think there’s anything wrong, obviously, with the way Alan Moore does it. I, myself, I don’t know that I could do it, because…
N: Yeah, definitely. I understand for some people it’s nice that they include all that detail, but I can see how that would be restrictive, as well.
GD: You know, I have people come up to me at the conventions, and they’ll say “Well, you know…,” and I’ll say, “I did that. Nobody told me to do that.” I’m not just a robot. At least Frank never treats his artists like robots. I know Bill Sienkiewicz, he gave him — Bill really went wild when he was doing Elektra: Assassin. But Frank let him run with it. I’m rambling.
N: No, no, it’s fine. With Shaolin Cowboy, this is a series that you kept returning to in one form or another for the better part of a decade. How has the book evolved since you first started?
GD: I just think I draw a little better, the storytelling’s a little better—a lot better, I’m thinking. My drawing got better. I don’t know — you know, the next one will be more of a story, per se. It’ll be more of a beginning, middle, end — not just a piece of time. That was kind of like, in terms of film, some guy – Altman, I think his first film was just a day in somebody’s life. It was just, the sun’s going down, the day is over, and he filmed it. This comic — especially this one — is like that, it’s just about 15 or 20 minutes of time, and something happens in that 20 minutes of time, but it’s not…
N: Yeah, but that’s cool too, because you want the sense that they — he existed before this book took place, there’s a 15 or 20 minutes span before then, there’s going to be a 15 or 20 minutes span afterwards.
GD: I mean, it may sound pretentious me saying this, but life is — you don’t know what’s going to happen today. You take an hour of your day — you may have a very interesting afternoon. However, the rest of it is just doing your laundry, making dinner, then maybe around 11 o’clock, the zombies attack.
GD: After that, you go back to making your dinner. I never… yeah, I have never, ever done — I guess Hard Boiled, even Hard Boiled is basically just a piece of time, but it had an ending, I guess. Nothing has evolved, I don’t think! It’s not like in a Marvel comic when Captain America’s finally destroyed the cosmic cube, or a James Bond movie… I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about.
N: [chuckles] That’s fine. Something that I’m curious about — is there any update on the status of the Shaolin Cowboy movie?
GD: Well, I’m always talking. I was trying to find some money, you know! In terms of the movie, it’s not a lot of money. But the one thing is that it’s traditional animation, and you need like $3 million to finish it, and it’s so hard to describe, because people will ask, “How much of it is done?” By Japanese standards, it’s about half finished. But that’s by Japanese standards. If you went to DreamWorks or Disney and you say the movie is half finished, you have whole sequences that you can show. You can probably actually show half of the movie.
GD: With this, you can’t, because they work in a way in which — well, when this guy — there’s a specialist who’s really good with certain sequences and cars — when he’s available, he’ll do that part. But in the meantime, we’ll do the dog that’s running alongside of the car, and we’ve got another guy who’s really good at doing the running sequences, and he’ll do all of the running sequences, but the backgrounds aren’t done.
GD: And so I always describe it this way — if you had a house, and somebody started building that house, and they put the carpeting down on one floor, they might have the toilet ready for upstairs, they might have the light fixtures for another room, and have the wallpaper in one room — if you put all that stuff together, it would add up to half of it. But if somebody walked in there, it would look like a mess, because it’s just a bunch of stuff, but all together it’s like half, so I can never really show it to anybody because there’s only like nine minutes you can actually kind of look at.
GD: But it’s all sitting in these boxes, all story boarded over there, which is the biggest thing.
N: Have you considered looking to something like Kickstarter?
GD: I just don’t think it’s enough. I don’t think I would ever get that kind of money.
GD: And the Japanese, I don’t think, wouldn’t know how to do it. I mean, they had the hardest time with this thing, and they’re really great, but they had the hardest time wrapping their head around this thing anyway, despite the fact that he’s supposed to basically be Shintaro Katsu, they did not like the way he looked, which really kind of took the top of my head off.
So we’ve kind of moved on. I mean, over there, I discovered that if you’re good, you’re Brad Pitt. If you’re bad, you look like — I keep wanting to say Steve Buscemi, but I like him — yeah, Steve Buscemi. I mean, there’s no… Steve Buscemi couldn’t be the good guy in Japan.
N: Yeah, exactly. They like their protagonists to be very handsome there.
GD: And the women, they’re either knockouts, or they’re super ugly. There’s no in-between, and there’s no middle-aged, there’s nothing over there…
N: Yeah, it’s just one day you’re suddenly an old lady.
GD: Yeah, and there’s a sequence in there with these strippers, and I drew some, and it was funny that they look like… when I was a kid, I remember going to a strip joint, and there were some pretty seedy looking ladies! And that’s what I drew, and they were, like, “Mmm. Mmm. Are these women your fantasy?” [laughter]
GD: “No, they’re not my fantasy!” Every time I draw something, they say “Is that your fantasy?” That’s not my fantasy, but that’s, I mean, look at the way this place is! They’re not going to have Salma Hayek and Megan Fox working there! It ain’t gonna be that way!
N: Oh, my goodness.
GD: But that’s what they would draw, so I kind of gave in on it, so you’ve got all of these seedy characters, and all the girls, except for one — that’s the one that I drew — they all look like Vegas showgirls, in this seedy… which is kind of funny, I guess, hole in the wall strip joint, and they’re wearing Vegas-style costumes. I mean, it’s funny now that I mention it, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The movie is pretty wild now.
N: Well, hopefully you’ll be able to get the funding at some point, because that sounds like something I’d really like to see.
GD: Yeah, it was pretty — it was quite an experience.
N: Is there any chance we could see a Hard Boiled movie someday?
GD: Well, they’re working on it.
GD: Yeah, it’s been optioned and they’ve been working on it. They’ve mentioned someone they’re talking to about it, but I can’t say… but it’s going to be great. But there have been a few guys that have been mentioned that are really good, but I don’t know.
It’s real funny, because when they first started talking about it, I go, “Nobody’s going to make this thing,” because, you know, it’s got kind of a Terminator thing to it. They’d go, “Ah, it’s just a knockoff of Terminator.” But now there’s enough water under the bridge that they think people will go – I don’t think people will forget Terminator, but it’s OK. But maybe, you know. They want to do it, and at one point they were going to do it. The Wachowskis wanted to do it. They wanted to do a huge animated version of it. But, you know — Pft! It would have been amazing, I think. Frank didn’t want to do it.
N: That’s a bummer, because I feel like the Wachowskis got Cloud Atlas made, which I thought was an unfilmable book. I feel like they could definitely do an animated Hard Boiled, no problem.
GD: Oh yeah, yeah. They should have. But, I mean, at the time, I don’t think Frank, I don’t think Frank had seen The Matrix, and I don’t think he knew who they were. I mean, it was right at the time when they were at the top, they were the hottest guys in Hollywood. They’re really wonderful guys, and they called me up and say, “Geof, we’re going to make you a million dollars!”
GD: And I said, “Why? How?” They said — ‘cause they were telling everybody, when they were asked what they wanted to do, they said “Hard Boiled.”
N: Nice! That is cool.
GD: And then Frank shot it down, and I don’t blame them. They kind of walked away and I said, well, I don’t blame them.
N: Yeah, it’s tough.
GD: It’s so hard to get a movie going if one of the persons is kind of negative, you know—you don’t want to go forward with it.
N: You don’t want that kind of ill will playing into your production.
GD: Because at that point, Nicolas Cage wanted to be in it, and Frank felt that, you know, we should put Nicolas Cage in it, and remember, I’ve got to figure, those guys have a million irons in the fire, and if you wait for them, Pft! They’re going to move, they’re going to jump at whatever is going to happen. I always go with the guy that, you know, has got the money and is ready to go! [laughter]
N: Exactly! [laughter] Whoever’s on board.
GD: Yeah! So, anyway…
N: Very nice. Thank you so much, Geof.
GD: I’m sorry I rambled on so much.
N: No, I had a pleasure talking to you. This was one of the more enjoyable interviews I’ve done, so thank you very much!
GD: I appreciate your support of the comic, because it’s an odd kind of comic — thank you, I appreciate it.
And now because we love you guys, check out some exclusive preview pages courtesy of Dark Horse.
That’s a little fuel gauge in the top corner — hint, hint. Dark Horse’s Shaolin Cowboy #2 comes to a comic book store near you on November 13th. What do you think of the book? Let us know in the comments or tell me on Twitter.