Sometimes, it feels like people do strange things just to catch God’s attention. Geof Darrow’s beacon to the gods is the Shaolin Cowboy series, wherein our Shaolin Cowboy dispatches dispatches zombies with two chainsaws attached via polestaff. That. Is. All.
But wait, won’t that get tiring? I mean, throw in a plot, a line of dialogue or–
*chuckling to myself* oh you, with your outdated notions of storytelling and mannered sensibilities. Do you take a bite of sushi and whine to yourself “OH, but the PLOT, WHERE is my PLOT? The CHEF has forgotten my PLOT…” Because honestly, that’s what you sound like right now. Grow up.
Okay, here’s the deal. Printed on the back cover of the book is my favorite review: “The structure, the staging and the storytelling are all atrocious… This feels like simple, hollow, artistic masturbation in four colors…”. That’s because this is an art book in disguise. It’s a study in illustrated poses: for an aspiring comic artist, this is a full course on dynamic postures, and gritty detail. Oh-so-gritty detail. I mean it, these zombies are tattooed, anatomically correct, rotting, and crawling with vermin, each and every one of them, and every panel has at least a dozen of them. Shemp Buffet is a beautiful summation of what Geof Darrow has learned to do very well, which is communicate living detail on a small scale, and visual dynamism on a larger scale.
So what’s the appeal in a pure action comic book?
The appeal of Shaolin Cowboy as a series is that it’s irreverent, self-parodying, and places a premium on fun above all else. It follows an exiled Shaolin monk on his aimless trek across a featureless, rocky desert. From there, Geof Darrow is free to chuck whatever he wants into the monk’s path: demons, a vengeful crab, a shark, hordes of gunslingers, everything and the kitchen sink, with little context or reason. It’s freewheeling, but not entirely senseless–the Shaolin Cowboy himself is a constant. He’s a portly fellow, someone you’d confuse for a farmer, and silent as a plank except for the occasional praise to Buddha. Contrasted with his simplicity are his feats of ludicrous martial skill, the efforts of which take a visible toll in copious amounts of sweat and bruises. You feel his perseverance in a visceral way thanks to Darrow’s detail, which goes a lot towards making mythology out of comedy here.
The appeal of Shemp Buffet is in the name: this is a buffet. The difference between a buffet and a restaurant is that your seafood buffet won’t taste as good as your master-chef sushi bar, the point is that you get what you want, in whatever quantities you want it in. If you need martial arts action, zombies, chainsaws, and a bare desert background, Shaolin Cowboy can deliver these to you in such quantities as to constitute a strange event in comics–an action sequence so long that time slows down, each and every punch and slicing chop matters, the small moments become, well, momentous. You can pick up the book and open to any page and it will read the same way, yet differently too because of the varied choreography. By the end of the fray, you’re as exhausted as the Cowboy is, and at that point you know that the book worked. It might’ve been tiring and a lot to swallow at first, but then it gets hypnotic, then beautiful, then you’re just silent in awe.
I still can’t believe it, can you run down what actually happens?
Shemp Buffet collects the four issues of Shaolin Cowboy published by Dark Horse, following the events of the seven issues released by Burlyman Comics, in which the Shaolin Cowboy faced a Shaolin-trained crab, a reanimated voodoo corpse, a shark, and other unmentionables. In Shemp Buffet, our Cowboy fights zombies. First with two chainsaws attached via polestaff, like I said. And then after the gas runs out, with his fists. Oh, and there’s a punchline at the end that is guaranteed to… affect.
This doesn’t sound like something for everyone.
Nope, not at all. Don’t bring your shellfish-allergic friends to the seafood buffet, you know what I mean? For 90% of the book, the only dialogue is “Amitofu,” which translates to “Praise be to Buddha,” so don’t expect poppy banter, character development, plot twists (well, expect twists, but not of the plotty kind). Honestly, I did a quick flip through it and wasn’t exactly thrilled that it’s a book-length zombie grinder, but once you sit down and give yourself to the frames, you might come away with more respect than you’d expect. Shemp Buffet is a single-minded and gleeful celebration of energy and excess, and in terms of what it’s attempting to accomplish, the book is nearly peerless.