Once again, Dark Horse has tricked me into reading a comic book with a tremendous amount of baggage despite the lowest possible issue number. Shaolin Cowboy #1 is something of a continuation of a series with the same name, last published 6 years ago by Burlyman Entertainment. Creator/writer/artist Geof Darrow returns to what is obviously a labor of love. A quick Google search indicates that this man has been awesome for longer than I have been alive; with a resume that include employers ranging from Hanna-Barbera to the Wachowskis and collaborators like Frank Miller. This now concludes the portion of this review which may have been considered remotely serious.
Darrow is pushing the boundaries of what I would define as a comic book. Essentially, my expectation of a comic is mood and/or narrative sustained through sequential art work. Shaolin Cowboy #1 is the first single issue where, upon completion, I've had to consciously reassure myself that yes, what I just read was technically a comic book. I know I said I was done being serious. The semantic arguments are pretty much over now, I promise.
Shaolin Cowboy #1 begins with a dump of prose; a near stream-of-consciousness rant for two solid pages, three columns across, itty-bitty-font, like an undergrad trying to meet a page requirement for his term paper. Darrow strings together pop culture references and random jokes, all with the tone of a late night hang out with your high school friends in the Taco Bell parking lot. Yeah, it sounded hilarious at the time, but when it’s written down – with proper grammar and stuff… maybe it’s still funny? Who am I to judge?
Then there is silence. Silence and art. Painfully detailed art. If there is a beer can in the dirt at the edge of the page, then it has a label and it is crushed in a unique pattern like a filthy manmade snowflake. You can count the cigarette butts on the ground in some panels. You can practically feel the gritty rust on the chainsaw blades.
The detail is sustained through an elaborate, quite gruesome, action sequence which comprises nearly the entire visual portion of the issue. The movement is easy to follow and somehow seems to evolve in slow motion during the most dramatic stretches. Darrow demonstrates an ability to sustain a simple narrative with little to no dialogue, with an epic, cinematic feel. This talent is what brings the Samurai Jack comparison to mind. Brandon Graham’s Prophet also frequently has this feel.
So, there’s a block of awkward prose, followed by a coherent, graphic action sequence, but with barely any dialogue, with minimal plot advancement, and without character development. Is that a comic book? Yes, but it’s not what I expect. I think it’s brave for Darrow to challenge the standard format with his minimalist offering. I think that his challenge would be more effective if the format was the only provocative aspect of this title.
Much like certain incarnations of Deadpool, Shaolin Cowboy #1 is perhaps a little too random to stand alone. I imagine that Darrow took the most bad-ass premise ever, contributed some exquisite artwork, threw a bunch of funny ideas into a bucket, and then stopped for some reason. I can't quite articulate what's missing. That's usually enough for me.
I would like to conclude with an analogy, one that Deadpool himself might appreciate: A typical comic book is like a taco. Darrow tries to deliver a giant plate of nachos but really, I feel like Shaolin Cowboy #1 is a Costco where taco ingredients are sold. I can make a giant taco if I want, but there’s also a pile of beer cans, puppies, and chainsaws on discount next to the cheddar cheese.
I like Darrow's ideas. I love Darrow's art work. Somehow, I am disappointed with the final product. I guess sometimes a Shaolin monk with a double-chainsaw-staff fighting zombies in the dessert isn’t enough, and times like those you will leave feeling hungry. You may feel hungry for more of the same, or it might be hunger for something with a beginning, middle, and end.