Looking back on- and forward to- Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy

Cinematic storytelling in comics is a tough thing to pull off.  The list of artists who can truly nail it is a short one.  Cassaday, Hitch, and Quitely come to mind.  But maybe the best of all of them is Geoff Darrow.  When a new Shaolin Cowboy series was announced at the NYCC Dark Horse panel, I was both shocked and super excited.  After 7 sporadically published issues on the Wachowski’s Burlyman Entertainment, it disappeared, with intermittent rumors of an animated movie and little else to be heard for the past 4 years.  But all I wanted was more comics!  With its return apparently imminent, let’s take a look back on what made it so amazing.

Perhaps the most well-loved issue of the series was issue #6, where the titular character fights off possessed sharks in the belly of monster carrying a city on its back.  All the crazy ideas Darrow has thrown out really come to a head in this issue, and you can tell he loved drawing it.  While the fight scenes are epic, look also at the intense panels leading up to all the hyper violence.

We follow the action in an over the shoulder shot, as Darrow moves our eye back and forth across the page.  We know the attack is imminent, but he lets us wallow in the calm before the storm before we get the straight up action promised by the cover.  This is exactly how to use cinematic storytelling on a static page.  For my money, it works better as a comic than as a movie, because he uses our natural side-to-side reading movements to convey the back and forth movements of the shark.  Then, we simply wait in the fourth panel, soaking in the the artwork, which he produces at a scale much larger than the printed version to allow the insane level of detail.  Then when the action hits, it’s always big:

Yes, it’s a cowboy monk fighting a shark with a chainsaw on a stick.  That’s pretty tough to screw up.  But look at the storytelling for a minute.  While most comic book fight scenes are easy to blow by, the commitment to hyper-detail in every panel slows down the eye to digest and appreciate everything that’s going on.  And look at how expertly he leads the eye through the page.  In panel one, the Monk is leaping off screen, which continues in panel 2 with only his feet and chainsaw visible.  Panel three finds him coming back into view, and panel four finds him landing lightly on a floating suitcase.  How do you know he’s landing lightly?  The splash is contrasted nicely with the chaotic feeding frenzy going on in the background.  And when he lands, he doesn’t even scare off the mice feeding on the bloated carcass in the foreground.  The sense of nimbleness is easily conveyed, even though the the character is not exactly a lightweight.

Oh and by the way, they’re fighting in the belly of this:

Never let it be said that the man doesn’t know how to use splash pages for effect.

So if you’re in the mood for a kung-fu cowboy fighting crabs with grudges, possessed sharks, and the occasional baby, it’s officially okay to get excited now.

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