By Geof Darrow, Dave Stewart, and Nate Piekos
When reviewing comics, any number of criteria, combined with ingrained biases and preferences, culminate into a comprehensive, subjective analysis (objective reviews are fictional; art is subjective, people) of what works or doesn’t work. Reviewers bring a wide array of perspectives and baggage when digging into comics. Beyond the nuances of comic reviewing, there’s a distinct focus on plot, the what’s happening this issue, and impressions around the pure visual aesthetics of the art, the how it looks. To complicate matters, modern comics aren’t told in a single-installment manner; stories tend to be only part of a greater whole. It’s a complicated process often requiring a good deal of reflection and insight from the reviewer. When a comic like Shaolin Cowboy: Who Will Stop The Reign comes along, a comic consistently bound by the marriage between carefully measured, overt action, and subtle cues in dialogue, background imagery, and content itself, the reviewing difficulty sees a dramatic upward spike. Since the Burlyman days, especially throughout Shemp Buffet, and once again in this third installment, Geof Darrow, carrying an impressive collection of defeated comic dojo signs, issues a challenge: can content and process utterly, completely unite into a singular entity.
To fully contextualize and approach Darrow’s challenge, let’s focus on two key sections: Cowboy’s flashback healing scene, and his battle against Hell Warden Duyu. In his flashback, Cowboy recalls three figures from his past: his teacher, mentor, and former companion. Each provide vital information or encouragement for his continued survival. Most importantly, Cowboy’s teacher reminds him of the Six Levels of Chinese medicine. These stages embody the course an ailment takes throughout the body as it progresses. What follows is a sequence of Cowboy methodically going step by step through all the levels of healing to stop his bleeding to complete a kind of battlefield triage. The entire page requires an act of slow-motion reading. As if pulled from a Chinese martial arts manual, Cowboy goes step by step to hit his own vital points, and initiate his own body’s healing mechanisms. This presents a degree of articulated nuance most comics tend to avoid. It’s laid out in such a way the eye can literally follow Cowboy’s hands, guided by trails of blood to see the action in progress, in real time. The action is so conjoined and precise movement from panel to panel almost feels like animation.
Focusing on a step-by-step, as opposed to a montage style page, is an example of Darrow integrating process and content. Cowboy’s martial arts mastery is an established part of his character, and a feature of the comic. By breaking down this sequence into its individual components, Cowboy fully expresses his expertise, while providing deeper insight into his character. His powers of destruction and death are ubiquitous aspects of his character, while his talents as a healer are more or less unexplored. Through this page, and through employing healing arts in general, Cowboy develops from a silent harbinger of death to an emissary of peace. Much like Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, another invincible, primarily silent protagonist (which this immediately brought to mind), Cowboy exhibits depth past killing machine. His destruction has purpose, it has direction.
In the fight against Hell Warden Duyu, another element is at play. Here, Cowboy, moments from death, confronts the reaper himself in a battle to continue living. The battle itself, tucked inside another impending threat to Cowboy’s life, creates a laundry list of references and influences for Shaolin Cowboy as a character. This is significant since the specific task in front of Duyu is to say Cowboy’s true name prior to defeat. Because I obsess over stuff like this, I went down the line and looked up each and every name. They range from martial artist actors, martial arts movie directors, Chinese folk heroes, legendary comic artists, a philosopher, to a pair of musicians. On their own these references create a comprehensive look at Darrow’s impressive knowledge of Kung Fu movies, and pinpoint specific characteristics of Cowboy himself. With a few exceptions which mainly signal aesthetic choices, all of these referenced figures share a commonality around the vigilant arbiter of peace thrust unwillingly into conflict archetype.
Thematically these references support Cowboy’s journey throughout the entire series up to this point. Riffing off martial arts movie tropes, Cowboy rises from the brink of death with a reinvigorated sense of purpose and dedication to his mission. This is the scene where, at the eclipse of the second act, the villain defeats the hero with a demoralizing, overwhelming show of power. While Cowboy’s nemesis isn’t defined in concrete terms, the opening pages serve as the opening to the third act wherein our hero picks up the pieces, meditates on the nature of defeat, only to triumphantly rise again. One of the names Duyu uses is “Thousand Mile Journey Ching,” which is a specific call to Laozi’s text Tao Te Ching, and the proverb “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s a cue that Cowboy’s journey is either already underway, in progress, or destined to continue perpetually. Like Zatoichi, Wong Fei-Hung, and Ogami Itto, all characters walking never-ending paths of redemption, justice, or vengeance, Cowboy’s quest is just getting started.
On the surface, Shaolin Cowboy may seem like an artistic action exhibition. Accompanied by Darrow’s impeccable eye for detail, and Stewart’s legendary color embellishment, anyone with eyes is capable of enjoying the visual details. What’s missing is the underlying depth and subtlety layered into each and every page whenever a new issue comes out. It’s a reading experience unlike just about anything happening in comics with each new installment. It requires careful inspection and multiple readings to fully embrace. In a landscape where comics struggle for a plot in the field of Art with a capital A, it proves how the unique combination of static pictures combined with words culminate to form something leagues beyond disposable entertainment.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign #1 is available April 19that a local comic shop near you.