Geof Darrow Talks ‘Shaolin Cowboy,’ His Early Years, And The Anatomy Of Pac-Man
After six years since the last issue, this October marks the return of Geof Darrow‘s Shaolin Cowboy, a comic that basically defines the term “rip-roaring.” Focused on a cowboy who is also a Shaolin monk who wanders the world constantly finding trouble from people (and the occasional crustacean) who want him dead, the book is the perfect showcase for Darrow’s highly detailed, kinetic art, and it’s something that we at ComicsAlliance could not be looking forward to more.
To get ready for it, we talked to Darrow about his return to Shaolin Cowboy, the reasons for the hiatus, his time working in animation, his continuing use of chainsaws througout his career, and perhaps most importantly, what happens when you “peel the skin off Pac-Man.”
ComicsAlliance: I hate to start with this question because it’s so close to “where do you get your ideas,” but Shaolin Cowboy has that perfect mashup quality, where the title is just two words that you can perfectly combine in your head when you see it, but at the same time, you take that idea and take it to this complete extreme. Was it something you just woke up with one day, thinking “oh, a Shaolin cowboy, that’ll be fun to draw”?
Geof Darrow: When I started out, I started out in France, and I came up with this character that I called Bourbon Thret, which is a weird combination of names that came from being in Japan. If you go over there, you’ll see people wearing shirts with just odd words put together, like “The Sunny Catches The Day,” and I asked them why. There’s got to be someone over there who speaks English, but they said they just liked the way certain words looked together. It was an odd combination of two things that have nothing to do with each other, so I just came up with this thing. “Bourbon” and “Thret.” It sounded odd to me. It sounded Japanese to me.
I’ve always liked the character, and I wanted to do it again, but I thought “well, that’s an odd name. No one in the United States will like it, it’s just too odd. What can I call him?” I like Westerns and I like martial arts movies, so it’s like taking a page from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s an odd two things to put together, so that’s what I decided to call him. “Shaolin Cowboy” instead of “Bourbon Thret.”
I’ve told this story before, I told Frank Miller I wanted to do something like a western, and Frank says “whatever you do, don’t put ‘cowboy’ in the title! That doesn’t sell!” So of course I followed his advice.
CA: Right, you made it 50% of the title.
GD: Never say never! It never works until it works. I’m not saying it does work, but that’s an old thing in Hollywood that kind of cracks me up. They say “oh, period pictures don’t work, nobody wants to see period films,” until somebody does an Indiana Jones. It just depends if it’s a good movie, if it’s something that’s good or not. They have all these adages out in Hollywood, “a woman can’t carry a picture!” It won’t work until it works, and then everybody wants to do it.
CA: So do you definitely see Shaolin Cowboy as a Western?
GD: Only in that I think everything is a Western, in terms of theme. I’ve always been this huge fan of Star Wars, and I remember when they first announced it, it was in Time Magazine in the late ’70s. George Lucas had done American Graffiti, which was this big hit, and the next film he wanted to do was this science fiction film. They were talking about how the next wave in Hollywood was going to be science fiction, things like Damnation Alley and Logan’s Run. Then they talked to George Lucas, who was doing this sci-fi movie, and he said “think of it as a spaghetti Western in space.” That always stuck in my head. That’s a cool idea!
But I mean, it’s Star Wars. It’s a Western. It’s the lone hero, just like Shane, I guess, and that’s a lot of modern movies. Like the Die Hard movies, they’re Westerns to me.
CA: That’s a really interesting way of looking at it.
GD: The Western hero is the first real American iconic hero. In Europe, it’s a knight, or it’s a pirate, but in America, it’s a cowboy. We refer to a hero, or even a policeman these days, it’s like “he’s gone cowboy!” It’s the guy who takes on everybody by himself and has his own set of rules, for good or for bad. Even if they probably never actually existed, the cowboys that a lot of people think of.
CA: That’s the kind of idea that shows up in Shaolin Cowboy. Structurally, you’ve got this lone hero with a bounty on his head, wandering around getting into trouble.
GD: Or he just steps in it. You’re walking a long, you step in a pile of, you know, whoops! That’s his life. Stepping into one pile of something after another.
CA: How much of it is plot-driven?
GD: Probably none at all, to be honest. I think it’s fairly obvious. I was always a big fan of my mentor, Moebius, and Airtight Garage and Arzach, a lot of that stuff is just like ballads. He just drew what he wanted to draw. I have something in mind, but it’s not Dickensian in its approach, I don’t think. [Laughs]
The seven issues I did for Burlyman, issues 3 and 4 were the first ones I did, and I figured I needed to add something to the beginning of it. So I went and did the first two issues, which had this crab character in it that just came out of nowhere. I’d drawn this long pan of all these guys waiting to kill the Shaolin Cowboy, and I’d drawn a crab in there for laughs. It’s funny, you’ve got a crab in the desert, it’s pretty goofy to me. Then I get to the end and think “well there’s gotta be one left over that can really kick his ass,” so I went back and looked at it. “Ah! No one’s ever had a guy fight a crab before!” So I did that.
So no, it’s not plot-driven at all, but the next one will be. I’m going to do one that has an actual plot. I’ve been in Japan working on this movie thing and had to write an actual script that had a beginning, middle and end, and that was a real story.
CA: Can you talk about that at all?
GD: Oh, yeah, because it never got finished. It got halfway done and the company that was putting the money up backed out. It happened right when the financial bubble burst, and they figured that the last thing they needed to be putting their money into, because they were going bankrupt at the time, I think, was this crazy animated movie. It’s half finished, sitting in boxes over in Japan. I was over there for about a year, along with Steve Skroce from Doc Frankenstein, who did a beautiful job on the storyboards. He did a lot of work on it too.
CA: So this was the Shaolin Cowboy movie that was announced a while back?
GD: Yeah, that was it.
CA: What was the plot?
GD: The best way I can describe it is in Hollywood terms, where you have to mish-mash stuff. It’s sort of him involved in a mix that’s part Yojimbo, Godzilla, Night of the Living Dead and The Sopranos all at once. It was pretty crazy. It didn’t follow the comic at all. The only thing from the comic was the crab character, because at the time, it was being watched over by the Wachowskis, and they really liked the crab guy. A lot of people liked that crab guy, so he’s in there and his little origin story made his way in the movie, but that’s the only thing from the comic.
CA: Did it have the big double-ended chainsaw staff?
GD: That didn’t make it in. It was going to be in there, but there was a lot of other stuff in there.
CA: That’s the thing I always go with when someone asks me what Shaolin Cowboy is about. “Well, there’s a guy has a staff with a chainsaw on each end…”
GD: Well if you like that, you’ll like this new issue. There’s a lot of that in it. I’m so tired of drawing that chainsaw, but I got it out of my system for a little while.
CA: Along those lines, and I mean this in the best way because I’m a really big fan of the book, it seems like a lot of what happens is driven by “oh, that would be cool to draw.”
GD: That’s pretty much it.
CA: Is it a challenge for you to be able to pull off those long, silent sequences where it’s just weird things happening?
GD: I don’t know where to stop sometimes. I’ll go off on tangents. When I was working with Frank Miller on Hard Boiled, I’d go off on a tangent and draw stuff that wasn’t in the script. He was really cool. I didn’t find out ’til later that he said “he’s driving me crazy! He’ll draw this stuff and I don’t know what the hell it meant!” I said “Well, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just crazy.” I don’t know if you remember the comic book, but that sequence where he crashes through the wall and once again, there’s people with chainsaws. I don’t know what it is with me and chainsaws.
I had an uncle who cut off his leg with a chainsaw. Maybe that’s it.
CA: That seems like it would be pretty influential.
GD: Well, I didn’t know him that well. He probably shouldn’t have been handling a chainsaw at the time he was handling it. He was an amazing guy. [Laughs] He was declared almost brain dead and they said “he’ll never wake up, you should probably think about whether you want to put him on life support.” Three weeks later, he was out buying a car. He came back to life! It was really crazy.
I just draw stuff I think would be fun for me to draw. I did a lot of commercial work that wasn’t a lot of fun, and comics let you do whatever you want. The sky’s the limit, and that’s the beauty of the medium. One of the many beauties of the medium. I’m not a big talking head guy, let’s put it that way.
CA: On the subject of commercial work, you worked at Hanna-Barbera early in your career.
GD: Yeah. I think I owe Hanna-Barbera a lot. It made me realize how little I knew about drawing. I had a boss named Bob Singer, and I was so bad. He’d always tell me “you’ve got a lot to learn. Did you actually go to school? Wow. You got a lot to learn.”
As bad as those cartoons were, and I thought they were really bad, there were guys who worked on those things that were fantastic. They could draw anything. I worked in the model department and you had to learn how to draw things in three dimensions, and that’s when I realized I’d just been faking stuff, and started figuring out perspective. It was a long, unending road, but he was right. I really didn’t know much. There were a lot of guys who worked in comics who came out and tried to work in animation, and had a hard time because of that. You draw fast in comics, and a lot of times you can fake stuff, but when you have to do that same character or object from all different angles, you realize you can’t just fake it. It has to be three-dimensional.
I was the worst guy there. All I ever did was trucks and weapons. I did monsters sometimes.
CA: That makes perfect sense.
GD: Nobody else wanted to do it! Everyone else wanted to do the characters, and I was just not good at it at all. I couldn’t do the Hanna-Barbera style, but a car is a car. I worked on Super Friends, a thing called Richie Rich, and Pac-Man, which was the easiest to do.
The one I remember the most was working on the one where they go to the museum, and we had to do Pac-Man style skeletons. If you peel the skin off of one of those characters and try to figure out what they look like underneath, it’s impossible! It’s just a sphere. Where does the jaw hinge? And we’re drawing Pac-Man dinosaurs. I don’t know who the lead guy was on it, but someone finally broke it down and figured out the anatomy, but it was so weird trying to draw his skeleton. The arms come out of nowhere, the legs come out of nowhere. Where does the spine come in, or the hips? There’s no room for any of that s**t. But with a skeleton, you have to figure it out. It was odd.
We’d do them really fast and then just screw around for the rest of the week. You could do the whole model sheet in like two days, easily.
CA: Because it was just drawing circles.
GD: It was just circles! They’d be like “Oh, he’s gotta have an ice cream cone,” so you’d draw an ice cream cone. It wasn’t like Scooby-Doo, where they’d be wringing their hands. “Oh, I don’t know, I think the smog monster shouldn’t be quite so smoggy! He has to pull this mask off!” The Smurfs was a pretty good-looking show. That was because of Peyo, who created it, and was very precise on what he wanted.
CA: Did you ever work with Jack Kirby at Hanna-Barbera?
GD: Yeah. Gosh, yeah. He came into my office once and asked if he could use my desk. I just sat there and watched him draw. I actually got to go out to his house. He’d come in once a week, just the nicest guy. A sweet human being. He worked on everything. He worked on Scooby-Doo doing models and characters, Astro and the Space Hounds, Space Ghost, Super Friends. He didn’t do any Pac-Man.
At one point he went over to Ruby-Spears and was doing Thundarr, and you can see his influence on that show, whereas the Hanna-Barbera stuff, you couldn’t, really. They’d change his stuff quite a bit. There’s a couple episodes of Super Friends that had some of that stuff. His wife would drive him in.
CA: I’ve always heard that he couldn’t drive because he’d have too many ideas.
GD: What I’d heard was that he was driving and he went the wrong way on a turnpike or something, and that was the last time they let him drive because he’d be distracted. He was probably creating a universe while he was driving. We always thought he would draw in the car on the way in because he was so fast. People would just show up at his house and he’d let ’em in.
There were a lot of great guys out there that I got to meet. Alex Toth, Tex Avery. Carmine Infantino passed through there.
CA: It’s interesting to think about you working in animation with those guys specifically, because your style has that deep level of detail that you don’t see in cartoons.
GD: That’s why I was never any good at it. I remember one of the guys I worked with, we all came in at the same time. I’d done some work, and I remember he showed it to Bob Singer, who really thought I was a loser and was probably pretty accurate. He said “Hm! He never did anything like that when he was working here!” They didn’t let me! [Laughs]
That was about the time the computer stuff was coming in, and they were trying to simplify it even more. Those were some of my favorite times. They’d hire people around May or June, you’d work for three or four months, and they’d lay you off. I was the last one hired and first one fired at Hanna-Barbera for about four years, which suited me fine. I was trying to draw comics.
CA: Getting back to Shaolin Cowboy, it’s been six years since the last issue.
GD: Yeah. [Laughs] And?
CA: Was it difficult to come back to it after that long gap?
GD: I never meant to let it go. What interrupted it was that I went to work with the Wachowskis on Speed Racer.
CA: I didn’t know you worked on Speed Racer! I love that movie!
GD: Oh, yeah. My daughter did too. She has this little animated sequence she did that’s in the movie. She was eight years old at the time. I worked on that for close to a year, and that was around 2007, 2008, and then this whole deal came up in Japan where they wanted to do another animated movie with the Wachowskis, and they thought Shaolin would be a good one. I spent a couple years on it. I couldn’t do both, because I was living over there. It’s a long story, but that was not an easy thing. Nothing ever got finished, which was the hardest. To spend that much time of your life on something…
That took a lot of time, and then when I came back, I did a lot of movie work. But I was working on the comic here and there, when I could, but that movie thing took the wind out of my sails for a while. It took a long time to want to do it again, because it ended so badly. Every time I’d work on the character again, it’d make me feel bad. All that time. But I got over it.
I’d come up with some other characters that I wanted to do, but the thing with him is that he can do anything, at least in my small brain. He can end up in space, he can go into cities, he can be out in the West. He can do anything, I think.
CA: The series coming out from Dark Horse is slated for three issues.
GD: It’s four. Originally, the second issue was going to be 64 pages long, but it makes more financial sense to break it up, so the second issue is 32 pages and the third is 35, and then the fourth is 31. I’m working on the last one, we just have to ink it. The coloring is being done by Dave Stewart, who’s just done a beautiful job. I’m so happy with what he’s done. It looks like he’s having fun, but by the end he’ll probably hate me.
CA: So with a character that you’ve put this much time into, and that you say can do anything, I’m guessing that chances are pretty good that we’ll see more after this run.
GD: If they sell, yeah, I’d like to. This one kind of ends, so it could end right there. Or not. [Laughs] It has a surprise ending!
He’s such an odd character. When I was working in Japan, they tried to redraw him. They said, “well, he’s not very good-looking.” They think in archetypes, and they wanted him to be a muscle guy when he’s not. He’s just a shlubby guy, and that’s what makes him interesting.
CA: He’s very lumpy.
GD: He doesn’t look like he could do what he can do. My inspiration was this movie actor, Shintaro Katsu, who played Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. Or even Sammo Hung, if you know who he is. The guy looks like he’s about forty pounds overweight, but he can do anything. Jump around, flip around, he’s amazing.
I hope you like it. I’ve put my heart into it.