By Geof Darrow and Dave Stewart
Geoff Darrow has put readers in a difficult situation. When learning to read comics, eventually you acquire a rhythm, a method, and a sense for decoding the flow of ideas and movements from panel to panel. So what happens when an artist turns all of that programming upside down, and requires you to read in a completely different way? The result is one of the most engaging, unique, and interesting reads you can find in comics. Shaolin Cowboy number four concludes one of the most ambitious, creative journeys ever told through sequential storytelling. Nigh wordless, and seemingly devoid of plot, Darrow seeks to engage his readers in a way contrary to almost every comic out there.
In order to read Shaolin Cowboy in this new way, it is necessary to understand how Darrow is shifting the reader’s perspective. Reading a comic as a contained story, or an element of a progressive story, we are employing a wrecking ball for a job requiring a standard hammer. That is, we are utilizing analytical brute force for a task demanding precision.
How we typically read comics is with the expectation of temporal advancement: the notion of time passing from panel to panel, from page to page. We are given an idea or image in one panel, time passes, and the next panel is a logical advancement of the prior image. Through the passage of time, the story progresses and we are afforded insight into its development. Action A leads to event B, leaving us at plot point C. Temporal advancement gives us a sense of context, providing meaning and agency to our reading.
Generally the flow of time can be measure by the panel count on a page, as well as the speed through which images within the panels are occurring. A series of splash pages on can speed up the pace of a story; a 9-panel dialogue page can slow the story down. In both examples time flows at a rational pace. Fight scenes might take up fewer pages and utilize fewer panels, but at the end the reader has a sense that minutes, or possibly hours have passed since starting. Likewise, in a dialogue intensive scene, time passes based on the evolution of a discussion between characters, and how they develop through their speech. No matter which conventional storytelling element you examine, each has a logical and defined starting and ending point.
Here is where Darrow requires us to change our reading perspective. While simultaneously slowing down the pace of the action, and speeding it up in each panel, instead of a logical flow of time we are shown seconds, even fractions of seconds in each panel. Cowboy’s movement is depicted step by step, showing us the precision of his deadly art. The flow of movement is so precise, if you follow the hands and feet of Cowboy, it’s almost as if you’re reading a kata instruction manual. So although zombies are dispatched at a lightning fast pace, the action is slowed down to a crawl for the reader to absorb every minute action.
The story of Shaolin Cowboy also proves to be problematic in the face of conventional comic reading. For the most part, dialogue, exposition, and temporal context are consistently answering the “how” and “why” of the story for the reader, rendering interpretation a by-product. For example, Bruce Wayne fights crime to seek vengeance for his parents, the why, through his persona of Batman, the how. While reading a Batman comic we know intrinsically why he is on an adventure, and how he plans to achieve his goals. The only introspection the story requires is confined to the individual dilemma of the issue. Thus, all necessary contexts have been provided, time passes, plot and characters develop, and the story reaches a reasonable conclusion.
Shaolin Cowboy’s story is much more enigmatic, and therefore incapable of following the same method of reading. Darrow drops is in the middle of a singular conflict, with no defined starting point, and an ambiguous end. Aside from sound effects, and small portions of side character dialogue, there is no groundwork for the story to develop or expose character motivations. There is no universal or intrinsic context provided by any element of the comic. Instead, Darrow asks readers to approach the story with an introspection rather than extrospection; we are asked to consider the story elements we have been shown and come to our own conclusions. We are never given a concrete motivation as to why Cowboy engages in an endless cycle of violence, we are only shown how. This ambiguity surrounding Cowboy’s motivation creates a vacancy which the story continually refuses to clarify. So either we dismiss ambiguity as a failure of the storyteller, or construct and individual interpretation to reconcile it. Should we choose the latter, we are left with an open ended space to construct individual opinions about the story as a whole. Is Cowboy a force of good or evil? Are the zombies and dude bros symbols of a greater theme? Does Cowboy’s beautifully rendered carnage represent something greater than mere violence? All of these questions are a matter of introspection, which ultimately give the story a more involved and personal appeal.
As a whole Shaolin Cowboy is much more than beautiful artwork, and is most certainly not devoid of storytelling. Through an augmentation of traditional sequential storytelling, Darrow creates a narrative reliant on the reader pulling their own individual thoughts from the pages. What we see in the story is a matter of what we allow ourselves to see on the page. It is one of the most unique and intriguing comics you will ever read, and will train you to rethink the way you read comics.