Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Shaolin Cowboy 2 is A Terrible Comic

Shaolin Cowboy 2 by Geof Darrow
Dark Horse Comics
Geof Darrow's Shaolin Cowboy has always been one of those legends told in comic book circles, described with reverence and awe, the truth getting lost in the legend enhanced by its unavailability. The first series was published as seven issues intermittently between 2004 and 2007 by long-since-shuttered Burlyman Entertainment and has been subsequently out of print since. When Darrow started doing spot-illustrations for the revived Dark Horse Presents and was subsequently announced as reviving the title, there was a great deal of buzz and anticipation. I haven't read the originals as, perplexingly, neither Dark Horse nor Darrow saw fit to reprint the first series as a lead-in to the current one (maybe the reprint rights are all weird, as can happen with creator-owned books pulled from limbo). But I was aware of the legend, and eagerly anticipated the first new issue which came out in October. And needless to say, I was suitably impressed. Darrow's hyper-detailed art style and unhinged story involving slackers and zombies and pop culture and all kinds of crazy shit with the badass eponymous character were unique and delightful. Darrow's exhilarating work in Shaolin Cowboy 1 was quite stunning, and the detailed, manic nature of the work invited continual reappraisal.

Now knowing what to expect, I was very happy to see issue 2 drop without delay, and was floored for a completely different reason: Shaolin Cowboy 1 is one of the best comics of the year. Shaolin Cowboy 2 is one of the worst.

First, Shaolin Cowboy 2 isn't really a "comic." Sure, it quacks like a comic and looks like a comic, but when you open it up all you get are 33 images of a dude attacking a horde of zombies by swinging a large stick with a chainsaw at each end. And that's it. For 33 pages, Geof Darrow presents the Cowboy swinging his contraption and bifurcating many, many zombies.

I know more than a few people who would make the argument that 33 uninterrupted splashy pages of Geof Darrow-illustrated widescreen zombie annihilation is worth the price of admission. The level of gruesome detail Darrow lavishes on his undead horde and the physicality of the Shaolin Cowboy are all without par. Individually, each panel is a frankly masterful display of deliciously delineated violence. But there is no variation to the ceaseless butchery. None.

Every single panel is staged from the same angle. There is no sense of setting or threat, just repeated image after image: Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies... One panel of Darrow illustrating this is like fine caviar. 33 pages of this is like having fish eggs shoved down your throat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month.

The structure, the staging and the storytelling are all atrocious. Every single panel, with the exception of the first, can be interchanged with any other, making them all pointless. Look at all the images I've included with this review. They include the second panel, the final panel, and a random selection of others, all completely out of the order from the published thing. Could you tell? Could you put them in order without reading the comic? Could you do it after reading it? There is zero sense of progression. Comic books are sequential storytelling, but there is nothing sequential about Shaolin Cowboy 2. Of course many comics and many cartoonists can manipulate the language and mechanics of comics in daring ways to tell different kinds of comic stories. But that is not what is happening here.

Within the context of the larger eventual graphic novel, one could see these pages as simply an elaborate illustrative sequence, and within that context it is a forgivable excess that is quickly breezed by on the way to (presumably) actual plot and storytelling. But the appropriate context for this piece is as it was released, as a comic book - and as a comic book it is an abysmal failure and a waste of money. Whatever wow-factor we get from the first issue turns into an again?-factor. Like Darrow had one idea and stretched it about twenty times longer than it should go.

If the scene was the same - The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies - throughout the issue, but presented with some actual visual dynamism, from varying angles or panel constructions, (maybe, I dunno, sequentially!), then maybe it would be tolerable. But reading this, I'm struck by two things: that Darrow spent a great deal of time drawing all of this, and that he essentially chose to draw the same thing, over and over. If you are going through the trouble, when you have proven skills as a visual storyteller, why do this? It would be wrong for me to try to divine the artist's intent without knowing his true feelings, but this feels like simple, hollow artistic masturbation in four colors, stapled with a barcode for the suckers to lose three fifty on.

Ad nauseating ad nauseum ad infinitum.


  1. Oh Jeffrey, for someone who seems to like comics you do lack imagination and visual sense. Too bad for you. Moebius liked it though and he should know.

    1. What an assinine, pretentious reply! Moebius is an idiot if he likes this. What imagination do you see in drawing zombie slaughter for panel after panel from the same angle? This is the opposite of imagination!

  2. I do like me some Moebius ( But I'm pretty sure Monsieur Giraud didn't like Shaolin Cowboy 2 because he's quite dead. Moebius is many things, commenting on comics from beyond the grave are not in that catalog of achievements.

    And I do like comics, love the damned things. And Shaolin Cowboy 2 is just not a good comic on its own.

    1. Maybe he saw it before he died.

  3. I just went through the whole series, and was doubting like while reading 2,3 and 4. Sure the art kept me hooked yet I agree I was getting desensitized until 5 comes in and what a conclusion ! Somehow all of the previous fluff made up for that last issue (we probably could have gotten away with 3) and I'm glad as well as frustrated, at least something happened that I won't forget.