Smash Pages Q&A: Geof Darrow

The creator of ‘Shaolin Cowboy’ talks about how he works, Moebius, Keanu Reeves and more.

Geof Darrow is one of those creators who straddles the worlds of Hollywood and comics. He’s a well known storyboard artist and designer, who remains perhaps best known for his work on The Matrix films. In comics he’s collaborated with Moebius and Frank Miller and for years now has been writing and drawing his own series, Shaolin Cowboy.

Last year Dark Horse collected the miniseries, Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign and the company just published Shaolin Cowboy: Start Trek, which collects the first seven issues of the series in one collection, which has been out of print for many years. I had the chance to speak with Darrow late last year and we spoke about how he works, Kung Fu, vegetarianism, Keanu Reeves, and Darrow’s mentor and collaborator, the late great Jean Girard.

I’m curious how you describe Shaolin Cowboy to people when you have to.

I always quote Pee-wee Herman from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and say, “It’s action-packed!” I don’t know. It’s a ballad – and when I say that it’s just a French word for “walk.” You’re just following this guy around and coming into his life later and the chickens are coming home to roost in more ways than one. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Some of that is that the name “Shaolin Cowboy” sounds weird and a little goofy, and the subtitle of this book, “Who’ll Stop the Reign” is the same.

Because he’s fighting King Crab, he’s fighting to stop the reign of the King Crab. I just thought it was goofy. I always liked that song, and the movie. They did a movie with Nick Nolte and I don’t know if it’s a great movie but it really stuck with me. It’s about a guy who does the right thing despite the fact that it’s probably going to get him killed. I like people doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do.

I always compare the comic to the TV show Kung Fu.

That show really affected me. The first time I ever saw anything like kung fu is when I saw The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee. I was like, what the hell is that? The movements were just so amazing. That led me into my fascination with the Pacific region and Japan. I’ve been a big fan of Japanese movies. Although I have to say I’ve never quite understood why whenever [Caine] walked into a town they’d go, “what do you want Chinaman?” He didn’t look Chinese to me at all, but everyone seemed to think he was. Maybe I was missing something. At least they didn’t use makeup like they did with Joel Grey in Remo Williams.

Your art book Lead Poisoning came out a little while ago and I love the title, but you could talk a little about process because your pencils are so tight and detailed.

I’m not very confident in my drawing so I have to spell things out. Although I am capable of just drawing, I always think it looks like crap. I always spell it out so if I want to change something, the foundation is there. I’m big on that. Academic drawing especially in European comics is really strong and that really affected me. Trying to reach that level that you see in a Moebius/Jean Girard or Jean-Claude Méziéres. François Bocq draws like a god. Hermann. Otomo, who is probably one of the first real academic artists in Japan in terms of comics. A lot of guys over there, too. I’m a big fan of Japanese comics.

In your work I see the influence of a lot of European and Japanese artists but also that Alex Raymond-Al Williamson school of American artists.

Yeah, Al was one of those artists I found as a kid. I didn’t know who he was. I got confused because later on I found these Big Little books drawn by a guy Al McWilliams and I thought that must be him. For King Comics he drew Flash Gordon and I had no idea who Alex Raymond was at that point, but holy cow, I would pour over that and copy the drawings out of that issue. Then I discovered who Alex Raymond was and started reading him and Hal Foster. That school of comics really influenced the European comics market more so than the American superhero comics. You see that in their work. It’s a little bit ignored in the United States. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it’s just interesting.

You can definitely see that influence in a lot of people and work. Jean-Claude Méziéres, who drew Valerian, for example.

That guy can really draw. And he’s a nice man, really sweet man. When I lived in Europe I’d go and see him and he was always super generous. Tintin, also. It’s cartoony, but there’s a lot of really solid drawing in that.

Tintin is a simple character, but the backgrounds are very detailed.

I went to Studio Herge at one point and there’s a gentleman there named Bob De Moor and he was the guy who did a lot of the backgrounds. He did another comic by himself. The clear line is very solid drawing and it was very interesting to have these simple characters in front of these very thought out compositions with correctly drawn cars and boats and buildings and chairs and everything.

You draw a lot of animals. Do you like drawing animals?

Not necessarily, but I guess I draw things that I have trouble drawing. I have a hard time drawing machines and cars. I got interested in drawings animals because again looking at French comics, those guys can draw everything. Living in France I would see dogs everywhere. I thought it was a nice way to give some flavor to a panel that was kind of boring, to have a dog in the background. Of course I would often have it pooping or peeing because I’m such an intellectual. [laughs] It adds character.

Reading Who’ll Stop the Reign and Pong’s story, it’s like a PETA account of why we should be vegans. [laughs]

[laughs] I didn’t mean it that way. I was a vegetarian for years and the reason I stopped was I got bored. I grew up in Iowa and all we’d have would be meat and potatoes. I like brown rice and I like tofu but I wasn’t big on beans or cauliflower. [laughs] I was just bored eating rice and peapods. I gave up being vegetarian because I was bored.

I guessed you didn’t mean it that way, but his story really does add something and really give different to the book.

There are consequences for everything you do. Although in that particular case, he wasn’t eating any actual pork in the restaurant. He was eating tofu. He’s paying the price for it anyway.

It’s this moving, tragic story – about a giant pig.

Basically. I don’t know what I was watching but I misheard the city “Hong Kong” as “Hog Kong” and I wrote around that. Then it just got goofier and goofier because I just can’t take things too seriously.

You say that, but you take a lot of care into going, okay, if this happens, then this is what will logically follow, and exploring that in great detail.

Well I think that if you draw with great seriousness, it makes it funnier. If you draw it goofy, of course it’s goofy. I think that’s part of the joke. If it is a joke. But humor is relative.

I think it’s funny. I hope it’s funny. I don’t know.

What’s the challenge of telling a story, telling many stories, about a character who almost never talks?

That’s kind of hard. I think that’s why I put these other characters in there so that they can do the talking. I often work myself into a corner like what if I start having him talk a little more. It comes from my love of spaghetti westerns and westerns in general where the hero hardly said anything. The Man with No Name, the Clint Eastwood character who is effectively Yojimbo. You just see what kind of people they are by what they do. They do it reluctantly, but they know it’s the right thing to do and they do it.

I say the challenge of having a silent character, but everyone always says that the villains are the most fun to write or play. The villain gets the long wild monologue. You just turn that up to 11.

I have them stop and explain why he’s going to do this to this character. To have the pig tell his life story, that part of it is that old stereotype so well done in The Princess Bride with the Mandy Pantinkin character.

When did you start working on Who’ll Stop the Reign?

I started up maybe a year after the one before this where he’s fighting all those zombies and he gets shot. He’s still alive and I just started up right afterwards. You could almost put the two books together and there wouldn’t be any pause at all. It’s one long thing. I’m debating whether I should keep doing that or jump ahead.

Reading the last book, I read the ending as you’re not saying this is it, but it might be.

That was it exactly. I have ideas for other things, but I keep coming backwards to this. There are so many genres that I can put him into. He could become a sheriff in a town. He could be a guide in the desert. It could be Mad Max. It could be Kung Fu. It could be a spaghetti western. It could be sword and sorcery. In my mind at least. I don’t know if the public would accept it.

When you had this idea, what made you go, I want to come back to the character and tell this story?

I knew I had to get him out of the desert because I got tired of drawing rocks. I have a dear friend Andrew Vachss who really liked the King Crab character and I liked the idea of that character coming back. That’s just such a stupid character. The whole genesis of that just came out nowhere. It’s one of the dumbest things you can fight. I just happened to draw this long line of people who wanted to kill the Shaolin Cowboy in the desert and I just drew a crab in there for laughs. I wasn’t going to do anything with him. Then I thought, what if he fought that stupid crab?

Andrew Vachss really likes King Crab?

He really does, yeah.

When I was in Japan working on the [Shaolin Cowboy] movie they had trouble with the crab. We were trying to turn the comic into an animated film and it boggled my mind because they couldn’t wrap their head around a talking crab. I kept wanting to say, you guys have Gamera and you think that makes sense? This is where you draw the line?

I had to convince them that the public would accept a talking crab. I remembered there was an old Japanese fairy tale about a monkey and a talking crab. I found it and was like, here, this is famous Japanese fairy tale. And they were fine with the crab then. I loved working with them. They were great.

Is there anything to say about the movie? Or is it completely–?

Oh it’s dead. It died. For years I tried to find the money to finish it, but… Harvey Weinstein was the guy who deep sixed my movie. They were supposed to finance it and they pulled out after they signed all the papers. I was working in Japan for about a year until the Weinstein Company decided that in spite of signing contracts, they weren’t going to do this. That was the end of it. They’re just so hard to pursue because they’re super-litigious and you can spend years fighting them. We settled out of court. It happened when the recession hit and you can kind of understand them not wanting to finance this crazy animated film with talking crabs and giant monsters and zombies. It was about forty per cent finished.

In between doing Shaolin Cowboy stories, are you doing movie design work?

For the last six months I’ve been working exclusively on film projects so I haven’t had time to draw any comics. It’s hard to say no to the money. I say, I’ll do one more film and then put a lot of money away and then draw comics. That’s generally what I do. I’m afraid to turn it down or quit because I’m now a dinosaur in Hollywood. Everybody draws on tablets and I still draw on paper. I just like drawing stuff. Every once in a while someone will want an old school guy. It’s a lot of work. It’s very time consuming. It’s all consuming. It keeps me from accomplishing anything else.

Work on one movie, then go make a comic.

I always feel guilty because they’re paying me so much money that I end up working seven days a week. I started last March and I’m still going. I finished the Shaolin comic and when I finish this movie I’ll see what I’ll do next. Maybe I’ll go back to mowing lawns, delivering newspapers. [laughs]

So you’re not sure what’s next. You have ideas, but you’ll wait until you have time to sit down.

It’s nice to have an open horizon. I can do anything. Once I’ve committed myself, that fantasy goes away. I’m so easily distracted. I’d never seen Game of Thrones, but when my daughter was home from school this summer we started watching. I wanted to draw Game of Thrones. Then I saw John Wick and was like, I want to draw John Wick. Mad Max will be on and I want to draw Mad Max. That’s why I stay away from the Marvel movies. I’m afraid if I watch them I’ll want to draw Thor. If they’d let me. Once I start a comic I go, I wish I’d decided to do that John Wick idea instead. [laughs]

I can see how John Wick would appeal to you.

I worked on The Matrix movies and I really like Keanu Reeves. He was such a nice guy and he works so hard. He’s so sincere. His work ethic is really inspiring. He gives it his all. He doesn’t just show up. He really really works at it. I saw him on the set and spent some time with him at press junkets. He’s a really well spoken guy and well read and he’s just really shy about certain things. People think of him as that guy in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, but he’s not. He’s a great guy. I can’t wait for John Wick 3.

We were talking about Moebius earlier and you dedicated Who’ll Stop the Reign to him. Why? And why this book?

I had just never done it before. I talked to him about five days before he died. He was in the hospital, but was going to go home. I was going to send him some movies. He’d never seen the show Hell on Wheels and I thought he would enjoy it. Five days later I got word that he had died. I went over there for the funeral and they asked me to talk. I talked about how if it hadn’t been for him, I never would have gone anywhere. I probably would have never left Iowa, where I grew up. I probably never would have thought about comics the way I think about them. If it hadn’t been him, I never would have met Frank Miller. If I hadn’t met Frank Miller, I wouldn’t have done Hard Boiled and if I hadn’t done Hard Boiled, I wouldn’t have gotten to work on The Matrix. It all goes back to Jean. He saw in my work something that he really liked. He agreed to work with me and he put me on the map. This was 1985-86. Everybody knows Moebius and when he said we were doing this thing together people went, who is this guy working with Moebius? Afterwards working with Frank, he had done Dark Knight, everybody was like, who’s this guy working with Frank Miller? It all stems from having met Frank through Moebius. I owe him everything. That’s what I said at the funeral. It’s very obvious in the way I approach things, although I don’t have the sophistication or the finesse or the poetry that he has. Or had.

I would say that you have similar sensibilities, but his work has a lightness while yours has a heaviness, if that makes sense.

He could make a guy sitting in a chair lyrical. He could draw anything.

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