A massive lizard carries a city on its back. A paunchy adventurer fashions
two chainsaws and a kendo stick into a two-pronged zombie-slaughtering
weapon. A monster pig with ninja skills seeks revenge for the consumption
of his family.

These are just some of the outsize images typical of the art of comic book
creator Geof Darrow, who’s best known for his intricately designed scenes
of mad machinery and inventive mayhem. His 13-year stint as a Chicago
resident will be ending soon as he departs for France (exact location to be
determined), but he’ll be leaving behind his art, including a long-awaited
reprint of the hard-to-find first arc of his signature work: The Shaolin Cowboy: Start Trek.

Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Darrow, now 62, first came to Chicago
when he enrolled at the now-defunct Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1972.
Since graduating, he’s bounced around between Chicago, Los Angeles, France,
and, occasionally, Japan. His career has been similarly diverse, shifting
from the grunt work of Hanna-Barbera animation to doing conceptual design
for the Matrix films and other Hollywood fare. But his friendship
and collaboration with French artist and comics legend Moebius beginning in
the early 1980s inspired him to pursue his true medium: the comic book.
While hard-core fans may have picked up his collaborations with Moebius and
stories about Bourbon Thret—a precursor to the Shaolin Cowboy—Darrow first
gained attention in America in 1990 with Hard Boiled, an
Eisner-winning collaboration with writer Frank Miller, with whom he would
later cocreate Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot.

Then there’s The Shaolin Cowboy, originally published by
now-defunct Burlyman Press in 2005. The titular character is a schlubby
blend of Shaolin monk and Robert Mitchum acolyte who can’t seem to avoid
trouble, whether in the form of dopey rednecks or evil King Crab, and the
series is equally action comic and idiosyncratic experiment. For example,
in the second arc, Shemp Buffet, the Shaolin Cowboy fights
zombies. What could be more mainstream than that? But he fights those
zombies in a wordless, sprawling, 100-plus-page gore fest in which every
body part, blood spurt, chainsaw slice, ill-advised tattoo, and zombie cat
is rendered with the exacting line work that is Darrow’s trademark.

Such scenes exude a gleeful intricacy and lust for detail that set Darrow
apart from other comics artists.

“Everything matters,” he says. “It matters to me. I draw all that stuff
because it adds content, and it makes it very particular. Each one of those
drawings, each one of those streets: they’re not generic. . . . I try to
make everything its own creation so it doesn’t get boring. It adds
character to the drawing.”

While you can’t talk about Darrow without obsessing over his obsession with
details, there’s much more to his craft. As Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, writes in an e-mail, “Sure, he puts every little nut and
bolt and spinning wheel into every piece of machinery, but just look at how
well drawn his people are. And his animals. And everything else. Cramming a
drawing full of stuff is one thing, but his locations feel real, his living
things have real personality. No matter how crazy his action is, things
bend and move naturalistically. He is all-around an amazing artist.”

Darrow’s experiences and interests don’t entirely account for his
maximalist style, but they explain it a little. His inspirations include
samurai classics such as Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira
Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune.

“I think Yojimbo just took the top of my head off when I saw it. I
still think that’s the archetype for most loner heroes,” said Darrow. “I
can watch that thing over and over: it is so amazing. Because it’s a comedy
as well. And yet, it’s horrible. I can’t think of any movie that sets up
what’s coming more than the beginning of that movie, when Mifune walks into
town and the dog runs out of the alley carrying a human hand in its mouth.”
Darrow fans will recognize that exact image popping up in his art from time
to time as a hat tip to the inspiring film.

On a more mechanical level, Darrow’s time as an animator for Hanna-Barbera
was instructive, if not fun.

“In animation, you have to draw things in perspective,” said Darrow.
“Because you have to turn whatever it is around, whether it’s a car or a
person. At the time, mostly what I did was cars and trucks and boats and
telephones, whatever objects they needed. It was a real eye-opening
experience.” Another benefit of that experience was getting to know one of
his artistic heroes, Jack Kirby, creator or cocreator of many superheroes
including Captain America, the X-Men, and the New Gods.

Darrow’s dense scenes also have great depth, which is informed by his
“artfather” Moebius and filmmakers such as Anthony Mann, director of many
Jimmy Stewart westerns, a genre close to Darrow’s heart.

“[Mann’s] film compositions had a foreground, a middle ground, and a
background, and an incredible amount of depth,” Darrow says. “I always
tried to get that kind of depth into what I do, because I think that’s
really interesting.”

But Darrow’s depth is far weirder than Mann’s. A memorable two-page spread
from The Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? features a ninja
pig flying through the air, squealing and sweating and bent on vengeance,
while all manner of people and dogs and other animals go about their
business; the background is filled with graffiti, discarded cans, cigarette
butts, and dog crap. Darrow’s frequent inclusion of dogs is influenced by
his time in France, where he says “dogs are king,” but contrast is king in
Darrow World.

“I love the idea of drawing crazy things in the foreground and then in the
background being semi-realistic,” said Darrow. “Or at least I attempt to
draw realistically. And it makes the crazy stuff seem even crazier because
you can identify with the background.”

Ever the perfectionist, Darrow says he hoped that flying giant ninja pig
fit into the composition in proper perspective. He adds sheepishly, “I’m
interested in really dumb things.”   v