Shaolin Cowboy (Dark Horse, 2013, #1 – 4) – Geof Darrow

3 out of 5

It’s okay, I think Darrow would grudgingly accept the comment that this iteration of Shaolin makes for sorta a shitty comic book.

If you’ve surfed through the original series, or read some interviews that happened around the time, it’s apparent that Darrow has a sense of humor about this – and in interview, it can be a self-deprecating sense of humor.  Between comic covers, this became an extended gag of one-liners or text vomit (delivered via the Wachowski’s ‘ass-ologue’ recaps) paired with overkill action sequences or drive-the-joke-into-the-ground-until-its-funny-again moments.  …And the 2013 version could be said to be all of this and more, but it’s closer to, well, as though Darrow took those elements and wondered how to arrange them into the most unreadable sequence possible.  At a high level, it’s pretty hilarious, and delivers the action and detailing for which the artist is known, but actually reading the books is something of a repetitive slog.  What should also be taken into account is that this was initially meant to be an ongoing, and then it became a 3-issue mini, and then it was expanded into a 4-issue mini.  Did that change anything?  Who made those calls?  I don’t know, of course, but it’s worth wondering if this might’ve turned out a bit differently if it had stayed the original ongoing course.  The first issue is certainly the most entertaining and approachable of the batch, so… yeah.

We open with a ‘previously’ blob of super tiny, 3-column wide text that spreads to a couple of pages.  You could just laugh at this for what it is, but it’s actually worth reading for the ridiculous puns and oddity in play, and maybe some of that stuff was actually part of the previous Shaolin stories?  I don’t remember.  Criticisms leveled toward this volume have been the lack of words in most of it – issues 2 and 3 maybe have one actual word each – but, again, taken as a whole (as not a monthly experience, in other words), the amount of text you get up front is probably more than you get in a year’s worth of a regular comic.  Thereafter, Shaolin escapes from a pit in the ground, carrying his double-chainsaw, followed by a ton of zombies.  Thereafter, SC attacks the zombies for almost the entire rest of the book, with tons of blood and dust and body parts a’flyin’.  Issue 2 is all widescreen panels, top and bottom of the page, 2-page splashes; issue 3 expands and narrows the view a bit once the chainsaws run out of gas, going for a couple 2-page spreads before dropping down into 4-6 panels per two pages; issue 4 then ups the panel ante continually, concluding in a couple swaths of tiny box panels (think Dark Knight) detailing every chop and jab, before the ridiculous fuck-you anti-ending that is absolutely in sync with the fuck-you the rest of the book has been.

This guy’s reviews are appreciably critical of the series (as some have been, with the other half just sorta saying yayyy Darrow five stars), but I think he’s giving Darrow more credit for an attempted meaning that what’s actually happened here, which is just a giant joke.  Trying to read into the tattoos all the zombos sport or the actual reason these zombies are here is to ignore that Geof loves putting tattoos and graffiti on everything, and that the first series was just ridiculousness stacked on ridiculousness, the zombies being just another part of that.  But that can be said having read (and re-visited prior to this review, just to double-check my memories) the older SC series; without that in mind, I might be searching for a Why? in this book as well.

Something that I think the setup for this book unfortunately highlights is the lack of connection between Geof’s panels.  He cops to this – characters in one panel disappearing in another, or how strange the physics here are if you try to actually imagine SC’s movements from panel A to panel B – but because this is drawn to seem like one loooong sequence chopped up into moments, all shot from the same horizontal POV, it’s especially apparent, and rather grating given how much detailing is going on.  Something the book positively highlights is how badass of a colorist Dave Stewart is.  You’re taking a field of green/grey zombies, one character in one unchanging outfit, all set across on a dusty brown foreground and a dusky blue background for 32 pages times 4 books, and yet each panel sings with vibrancy.  There was an entire team of flatters here to help smooth this process out, but I can’t imagine this was an easy book to color.

Hopefully down the road we’ll get another Shaolin book that gives us some of the issue-to-issue enjoyment of the first series, and this edition can be taken more for the joke it is.  But as something many of us have waited for, it’s either a huge letdown or a hilarious jab at our expectations.  Either way, it’s not a great read, but I do acknowledge the effort putting into making it that purposefully not-great-read.

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