Trumping Realism

Shaolin Cowboy #1
Art and Writing by Geof Darrow
Published by Dark Horse

The kind of attention to detail Geof Darrow brings goes way beyond realism. Where that movement–typified in comics by John Cassaday, Bryan Hitch, and Greg Land–affects the way the world looks (as appropriated in styles hewing closer to Gustave Courbet or Honoré Dauemier), Darrow seems more intent on capturing the way things are. The worlds he depicts in Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, Hard Boiled, and especially this newly-relaunched Shaolin Cowboy, are cluttered with garbage, roadkill, tattoos (including tramp stamps on zombies), and graffiti. Even text, be it profanity-only dialogue during a zombie attack or an absurdly-long recap in the opening pages (blending pop cultural references and broad political humor), is part of Darrow’s sensory overload, but Darrow’s more numerous silent pages are plenty dense without it.

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Rather than hyperrealism (Darrow doesn’t aim for photographic fidelity, only hi-def), this artwork can be considered hyper-materialist. Like with subsequent detail-obsessed artists James Stokoe and Christian Slade, everything about the world is summed up in the little details, point-blank stating an objective, physical reality occurs even when one is not looking (yet, paradoxically, only seems to matter when one is). A group of slackers encountering the Shaolin Cowboy, and the undead he battles this issue, have a car packed with candies, drinks, and junk food telling exactly what their routine is day after day (likely including some percentage of the spray-painted desert rocks); this is mirrored by an NSA satellite whose techies have similarly disheveled appearances and sloppy workstations–the satellite is also stamped with corporate logos, connecting America’s surveillance apparatus with the online targeting of Facebook ads. Darrow practically begs questions about the entire hacker/contractor structure which Edward Snowden currently is the face of with his imagery.

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This in itself is much more impressive than Jim Lee’s gaudy-yet-sterile gatefold poster pages from Superman Unchained #1 (hyped for their size like a dick-wagging contest). Darrow not only has more social-savvy than Lee, but better design sense, too. Darrow’s pages move, whether it’s the opening splash (mostly empty space until you get to a frog on a rock) or the moment-to-moment transitions (such as Shaolin Cowboy glancing left and right before sighing with exasperation). Lee is content with blowing up standard action poses (Superman smashing a DC version of the International Space Station) to make collector’s items–disrupting the flow of the comic itself for shameless consumerism.

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Where Lee promotes mindless, lifeless destruction (for all the Scott Snyder narration, those poster images lack any context or purpose beyond Superman punching metal), Darrow invites closer inspection. The clutter never interferes with the action: Darrow’s layouts, coupled with Dave Stewart’s colors (exchanging the noir tones of Fatale and Hellboy for a blues-and-earth palette, leaving the Cowboy in primary colors), always make his trash a sideshow attraction, simultaneously moving the action forward but allowing readers to linger on life they might otherwise ignore in their daily reality. As good as the fidelity of Hitch or Cassaday is, or as superficially spectacular as those Lee pages are, that quality of capturing life, like Courbet and Daumier, is missing. In that respect, Darrow trumps realism.

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