Review: Shaolin Cowboy bebops its way to insanity


  • Books
  • Tuesday, 26 May 2015

That's the most speech balloons you'll see coming out of Shaolin Cowboy in Shemp Buffet.

Think Mad Max: Fury Road redefined “crazy”? Then you haven’t received an eyeful – let alone dozens of eyefuls – of Hard Boiled artist Geof Darrow’s utterly mad-as-a-hatter opus Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet.

Shaolin Cowboy is a Darrow creation who’s been around since, oh, 2004 but whose appearances span a measly 11 issues in as many years. Seven issues were published by Burlyman Entertainment, the imprint of the Wachowskis (only natural, since Darrow was “conceptual designer” on all three of their Matrix films) ... and then the Cowboy went into hibernation from 2007 until Dark Horse picked it up in 2013.

The titular character is a serene-looking, bald and slightly pudgy warrior who was “asked to leave” the Shaolin Temple. He wanders a strange land set “the day after yesterday and a week before tomorrow” – but really, all that is immaterial.

All you need to know is that this collection of the first four issues of Shaolin Cowboy’s Dark Horse run is an oversized visual indulgence, of the Cowboy doing very little apart from killing zombies.

Apparently, he has escaped from hell (the events of the Burlyman run, ending with the Cowboy down “there”, are recapped in a pun-heavy prologue in this collection) into the desert and is pursued by a horde of zombies.

A bit of digression here to talk about shemps. Thanks to Sam Raimi and his love for the Three Stooges, it has become a term for someone who appears in a film as a replacement for another person. Long story, basically it has to do with how original Stooge Shemp Howard was replaced with a fake after he died (Google “fake Shemp” for further details).

Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, written and drawn by Geof Darrow, published by Dark Horse Comics
Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, written and drawn by Geof Darrow, published by Dark Horse Comics

According to the Dark Horse publicity blurbs, these zombies from hell are intent on “turning America’s finest youth into an endless shemp buffet”. Whether or not that’s a commentary on the youth of America – referring to them as shemps, I mean – is open to interpretation.

The example of that youth on display in this book, a gang of drunken waste-of-oxygen types, stumbles into the middle of this undead shuffle to complicate the ongoing chaos. And the rest, as they say, is page after page of sprawling, incredibly detailed, intricately conceptualised, highly dynamic panoramas of zombie-killing. There are probably more zombie kills every four pages than in an entire season of The Walking Dead.

There is an astounding wealth of detail in each and every figure – even the background ones. The zombies are curiously expressive and, um, anatomically correct (even if that anatomical correctness is wasted and shrivelled away), while the scavengers infesting their bodies look almost alive. And to borrow a line from Clive Barker, they are all a book of blood – wherever they’re opened (by chainsaw, mostly), they’re red.

And then there’s the matter of the kills. Initially, they’re carried out by the Cowboy’s weapon of choice, two chainsaws attached to each end of a very long polestaff.

Then it comes down to just about every kung fu killing stroke you’ve seen in, like, every kung fu movie ever. Palm strike? Crane kick? Tiger claw? Hopscotch on heads? Check, check, check, check.

Spinaroonie time: There are only two chainsaws, really. But Shaolin Cowboy is so dang fast, he can even turn persistence of vision into a deadly weapon.
Spinaroonie time: There are only two chainsaws, really. But Shaolin Cowboy is so dang fast, he can even turn persistence of vision into a deadly weapon.

Darrow, also known for his Frank Miller collaborations Hard Boiled and Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot, really cuts loose with his imagination even if the field in which he lets it run wild is somewhat limited. If there is one overarching statement Darrow is making here, it is simply: “Because I can!”

And as for my statement – well, I have never been as simultaneously fascinated, awed, appalled and impatient (for something else apart from zombie slaughter to happen) while reading any kind of graphic tale as I was while going through this book. Call it an art book, a self-indulgent showcase of showing off, a plot outline in search of a script – just don’t call it ordinary.

Kwai Chang Caine never had days like this, but some other Shaolin Cowboys just can't get enough of the undead.
Kwai Chang Caine never had days like this, but some other Shaolin Cowboys just can't get enough of the undead.

Handsomely bound and certain to look impressive on any bookshelf, Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet is not for everyone, but might appeal – in addition to completists – to those in search of something experimental or that will just smack you in the chops, over and over again. And then some more, until it decides to stop.


 

Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet and Shoplifter are available from Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail: ebd3_kbm@kinokuniya.co.jp.

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