Geoffrey Darrow and his family recently moved to Chicago from Paris, and apparently customs officials were less than delicate while inspecting their stuff. “The piano was delivered upside down in the crate,” he says. Fortunately his foot-tall Bruce Lee doll, which is sitting on top of a drawing table, survived the trip. “You can put it in any pose and put the little clothes on it,” he says. “It’s good to see the folds and the anatomy beneath it.” The doll is part of Darrow’s ever-expanding collection of reference materials. “I’ll pick something up as a model and not use it for a couple years,” he says. “Then I’ll remember, oh yeah, I got one of those. It gives the tax guys headaches: ‘You bought this thing, did you use it?’ ‘No, but I might.'”

Darrow, 50, has been drawing comic books for over 20 years. He’s collaborated on two series with Sin City creator Frank Miller and drawn covers for Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, and Andrew Vachss’s Cross and Hard Looks. But he’s perhaps best known for his work on the Matrix movies: the delineated bullet trails, mechanical insects, and neon-tinged urban blight came directly from his illustrations. The success of those films has allowed him to devote his time to The Shaolin Cowboy, a comic book published by Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers. Last year the series was nominated for two Eisner Awards, the Oscars of the comic-book world, for best new series and best penciler/inker.

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Darrow never had any plans for his life other than drawing. He started looking at comics by the age of three or four, before he could even read. “If it had a cool cover I looked at it,” he says. “Anything that had a monster. Or a dinosaur.” The first “real” books he picked up were the Doc Savage paperbacks. “They looked really lurid; I was sorta afraid of them,” he says. “Actually, for a long time I was really disappointed by books with cool covers, because I’d open them and see there were no pictures inside.”

As he approached his high school graduation in 1972, Darrow went with his dad to check out the American Academy of Fine Art in Chicago. The school didn’t have a specific program for comic-book illustration, but the instructors hinted he could do what he wanted. “My goal wasn’t to get a degree in school,” he says. “I think I have an associate’s or something, but I just wanted to learn how to draw so I could make a living.” A few years later, at the age of 24, he moved to LA and landed a job at Hanna-Barbera. He wound up working on Saturday morning cartoons–Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, The Super Friends, and Richie Rich–though the monotony of drawing virtually the same animation cel over and over wore him down. “The work was just so badly done, and there was only so much money they would put into the actual cartooning,” he says. “It was product.”

During his time at Hanna-Barbera Darrow met the French artist Moebius, creator of the Blueberry newspaper strip and an innovator in sci-fi-fantasy illustration, who was in LA for the filming of the movie Tron. At the time, Darrow says, Europeans saw comic books “more as an art form” than Americans did, “and Moebius was the guy. I didn’t really belong at a dinner party with him, but I was, and the guy was nice to me. I never showed him anything, but one day he asked what I did for a living. Then he asked to see my drawings.”

Inspired by Moebius’s success in France, Darrow quit his job at Hanna-Barbera after six years and moved to Paris, where the two wound up collaborating on a limited-edition portfolio, Le Cite Feu (“The City of Fire”), published in France in 1985. Darrow handled the illustrations, or “penciling,” and Moebius inked and colored. “People would ask me which part of the portfolio I did,” he says. “No one knew me then, and they were asking, ‘What could you have contributed?’ Because the guy is a genius.” But as a result Darrow started receiving job offers for pinups–single images not part of the story in a comic book–trading cards, and comic-book covers for French companies like Aedena.

While his connection to Moebius helped Darrow get established in Paris, his illustrations bore little resemblance to the flowing fantasy worlds of his mentor. “I like that line-clear style that was started with Tintin,” he says, “because you can draw everything and see everything.” Seeing everything for Darrow entails drawing every piece of broken glass on the street, with a crystalline economy that fills the panel without muddying the image. Line weight determines perspective and space–there’s no black, no shading.

Darrow returned to LA briefly in the early 90s. There he met Frank Miller, who was penciling for Marvel Comics and overbooked with jobs. Miller wound up asking Darrow to pencil a cover of Daredevil, and as Lou Bank, a former Marvel executive, says, “People saw his work and were floored. There really hadn’t been anything like Geof’s work before.” The figures looked as if they were based on actual people rather than idealized or stylized humans. “If anything,” Bank says, “his work has gotten more realistic over the years.”

Miller and Darrow wound up collaborating on Hard Boiled, a three-issue miniseries loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner Darkly, in which a character named Nixon lives in alternate realities as a suburban insurance investigator and a cyborg killing machine in an urban wasteland. It was published in 1990 by Dark Horse, then an upstart company specializing in alternatives to the men-in-tights stories offered by Marvel and DC.

In 1995 the two collaborated again on Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, a much more innocent tribute to old monster movies and sci-fi stories, with Darrow handling pencil and ink duties. When he first delivered the panels, he says, the folks at Dark Horse needed a magnifying glass to pick out all the tiny details. Knowing the full effect would be lost once the illustrations were colored, lettered, and resized for publication, the company wound up printing a second version of the comic in a larger black-and-white softcover format so fans could see what the drawings looked like naked. A similar reprinting of Hard Boiled followed.

During his stint at Dark Horse, Darrow received the script for The Matrix from the Wachowski brothers, whom he’d met while they were working as writers for Marvel a couple years earlier. Intrigued, he sent back some ideas. “They called me, laughing, because the first drawing I sent was so detailed the fax took forever,” he says. Darrow’s drawings ended up setting the visual style for the entire series, and he was credited as the films’ conceptual designer. “I guess I would do it again,” Darrow says. He liked the work and says he respects the Wachowskis–whose latest project, V for Vendetta, opens next weekend–but making movies was never his goal. “People act like I’m Mr. Movie Guy now, because once you’re involved with a movie, you’ve made it big. Like that’s the highest achievement for someone.”

Still, Darrow realizes his options have changed as a result. He admits to working too slow for most of the comic-book business, and he now has the license to work at his own pace. Since 2004 he’s collaborated with the Wachowskis on three comic-book titles published through their Burlyman Entertainment imprint: The Matrix, Doc Frankenstein, a political modernization of the old tale, and The Shaolin Cowboy, the first standard 32-page comic he’s made in almost ten years and the only one he’s ever written. “I had shown [Shaolin Cowboy] on the evening of the [first film’s] premiere,” Darrow says. “But I was working on it through the second and third movies.” The first four issues have each sold more than double their initial print run; the fifth will be released this spring.

The Shaolin Cowboy is a dumpy, terse loner traveling through what could be the old west on a talking mule. “He’s not really a Shaolin monk or a cowboy,” Darrow says. “The name just sounds goofy enough for me. He’s a character I can do anything with.” In the first two issues the cowboy is hunted down by a king crab that has dedicated its life to killing the man for devouring his whole family at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. In the opening scene of the third issue, as the mule rambles on about the innate hipness of Robert Mitchum, the cowboy whips a gun from his holster and shoots some descending bird feces out of the air.

Darrow has no specific outline for the story, which appears to be following a supernatural, futuristic, comical martial arts route as the cowboy meanders toward some undisclosed goal. In the meantime he’ll continue doing what he wants as long as he can. “I don’t have any plans,” he says. “Things come up.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.