Geof Darrow was watching Shaolin Soccer when Paste gave him a call to talk about the upcoming deluxe Dark Horse reissue of Bourbon Thret, his early eighties debut that’s never before been published in English. The coincidence (Darrow’s best-known creation is a Shaolin Cowboy) fits the legendary artist perfectly.
Across a career spanning three decades and at least as many continents, Darrow has established himself as a dizzyingly meticulous artist, a storyteller with a singular vision in a crowded field. Despite close friendships and working relationships with industry gods like Moebius, Frank Miller, Alex Toth and Jack Kirby, Darrow is humble and even self-deprecating when discussing his own work. He reads critical reviews of Shaolin Cowboy, his most frequent project of the past 15 years. He also pokes fun at his pace and tendency to grow bored and fill the page with bizarre little moments.
Paste chatted with Darrow about bringing Bourbon Thret to American audiences after nearly 30 years, as well as the many international influences that have contributed to his style, his preference for traditional methods in the age of digital and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s way with words.
Bourbon Thret is about 30 years old now. Did you have any anxiety about releasing early career work to American audiences who’ve come to know you over the last decade from Shaolin Cowboy or your covers?
Geof Darrow: Not so much now, but I did before, which is why it never got printed. Now, I don’t care. [Laughs]
Paste: How has it felt revisiting some of your earliest published work? Have you had much of a hand in Dave Stewart’s recoloring process?
Darrow: Well, he hasn’t started yet, and part of it won’t be recolored because part of it originally was colored by Studio Hergé. If you know Tintin, it was colored by [Tintin creator Hergé’s] niece. And that I’m going to keep because I was always a big fan of Tintin and I liked her work very much. But the second part of the thing was started by the same colorist who quit because it drove her crazy, and they brought in two or three people to finish it. It gets pretty funky.
Paste: It’s pretty hard to even find excerpts of it online these days.
Darrow: Yeah, it’s an odd book. The original one that came out in France was a really large book, and it had foldouts that had really never been done that much. It’s a really nice book, production-wise. The [US edition] is going to be the size of The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet hardcover. I’d do ‘em larger, but when you do ‘em larger you always get people like, ‘Eh, I can’t fit in on my bookshelf.’ [Laughs]
Yeah, but do you like it? “I like it but I didn’t buy it.” Why? “I couldn’t fit in on my bookshelf.” If I like something, I buy it. It doesn’t matter how big or how small. The way they stock books in France, they put them in bins. Some on shelves, but a lot in little bins, like the way you see comic books here, and you could flip through, so it didn’t really matter unless it was too wide.
Cover to The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet by Geof Darrow
Paste: Do you think your artistic influences are more apparent in Bourbon Thret, or have they worked their way in over time?
Darrow: Oh gosh, my main influence has always been Moebius (Jean Giraud), and I think it was apparent in that first book. I think it’s less now, because I have a way of doing certain texturing things I picked up from him that I think are neat. I was close to him, and he never considered that I was copying him. There are these guys he considered the “Sons of Moebius.” Most of us, we didn’t try to draw the same themes, we were just influenced by the drawing. We didn’t try to draw guys riding around on big birds, wearing a giant hat. [Laughs] Or, you know, crystals and all that stuff.
It’s a drawing style that you don’t have as much in the United States. He would draw everything. It’s a complete composition: foreground, middle ground, background. It’s a lot of work to figure it out. There are some guys who do it, but a lot of them, it’s just easier to fake it. His drawings are very real; they’re very grounded in reality even though the subject matter was crazy. They were always convincing drawings. You couldn’t find a failed drawing, couldn’t say, Oh, the perspective here is wonky. It was always dead-on.
I remember there was a guy over there, an artist named Silvio Cadelo. They’d say, “He’s a monster! He can draw anything!” There’s also a Korean gentleman, he draws live, and he can draw fish-eyed-lens drawings out of his head. It’s mind-boggling. And he does this at conventions. They put a camera on him and he’s on YouTube. His name is Kim Jung Gi. Look him up—it’ll take the top of your head off. It’s depressing, he’s so good.
Paste: One of the trademarks of your own work is the flawless composition, the spatial relationship between figures, objects and setting that most artists just don’t do, whether by choice or by time constraint. What is the work process of putting all of these details on the page? Is it something where you’re doing countless sketches?
Darrow: I always figure out my perspective and my point of view and my horizon line. I’ll grid it out a little bit, and I’ll just draw a bunch of lines going to the vanishing point so I know where things are going. Then I’ll draw one thing and it kind of goes from there. [Laughs]
It’s really hard in the beginning. “Oh, this looks like shit.” Most of my drawings start out pretty boring, so I get bored and I’ll start drawing a guy in the corner urinating, nothing to do with the story, or a dog crapping. Just different things to make that scene specific. It’s not just a generic scene: there’s a story going on. Generally, what’s going on in the background is more interesting than what’s going on in the foreground. There seems to be more backstory in the background than in the foreground of what I do, if that makes sense.
Art from The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet by Geoff Darrow
I find it interesting to draw a background that’s pretty realistic, but if you’ve got something crazy going on in the foreground, it makes it even more surreal because it’s grounded in reality. That was something I picked up from Moebius. If everything’s crazy, nothing’s crazy. But if you’ve only got one off-kilter moment in a realistic setting, it seems to make that one thing seem nuts.
When I was drawing Hard Boiled, Frank Miller would say, “Why did you draw that?” Then, I swear to god, a week later, he’d go, “I was walking down the street and I saw a guy doing something like you drew!” It’s all out there if you keep your eyes open! [Laughs]
I remember I drew these cars, and they had giant soda cans on top, because I thought in the future people would really buy in bulk. Later, I was in Paris and there was this car driving down the street, advertising Red Bull, and it was just like this drawing. [Laughs] This giant Red Bull can on top of the car. I found that wild.
Paste: How has your work process changed in the years since Bourbon Thret? Are you purely pen-on-paper or is there a digital component now?
Darrow: Pen and paper. I played around a little bit [with the computer], but I like having the drawing afterward. And I can sell it. [Laughs] I’ve got so many portfolios full of drawings. I draw on paper and I ink on a lightbox, so the pencil drawing is separate from the final drawing. I think the pencil drawing is much more interesting than the ink drawing anyway.
Paste: Do you usually find there’s much of a difference in your work between the pencils and the final inks?
Darrow: My pencils are really tight. A lot of people say, “Oh, why’d you ink it for? It doesn’t change much.” To me it looks different, and when I started doing comics, you couldn’t reprint pencil. Now you can print anything. It’s so great, you can use any technique in comics nowadays. Back then you had to use ink, or the pencil would look really funky and broken up. You couldn’t reproduce painting very well either, which was hard.
Frank Quitely, if you’re familiar with his work, he doesn’t ink anymore. It’s all manipulated from the pencil. I have to tell you, by the time I start inking something, I’m like, Jesus Christ, I wish I could just print the pencil. [Laughs]
Paste: You probably get asked this quite a bit, but how long does an average page take you these days, from start to finish?
Darrow: I would guess two days, if I’m being honest. Sometimes I can do a page in a day, but when I start doing things like overlapping figures, that’s difficult. If I’m just doing one figure, standing there talking, or a headshot, I can draw that stuff pretty fast. In that latest book I did, I had all of these figures, and I kept drawing all these overlapping figures in the foreground to give it more depth, and pushing things way, way into the background, it was crazy.
Paste: Have you ever had moments where you’ve been tempted or pressured to construct more conventional narratives in your work? The guiding ideas behind Shaolin Cowboy and a lot of your solo outings have always seemed to embrace imagination and visual fun.
Darrow: You know, I haven’t, but I wrote a Shaolin Cowboy animated movie. That script was pretty conventional, with a beginning, middle and end, so I guess I can do it. I just I don’t like the idea. I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t always know what’s going to happen. With [Shaolin Cowboy], he’s just walking through life. You’re following him and stuff happens to him, but he’s not going to run around in a van with a talking dog and solve mysteries. Well, maybe…
I’m working on another one, and it’s a continuation of the last one. In the last one, about 15 minutes of time passed. And in the new one, it’s taking more time because he’s trying to get himself out of a bad situation. But it’s still only an hour or two later. [Laughs] And it’s still only going to be another 20, 30 minutes in this one as well.
I’m still drawing it. If you announce it and it doesn’t come out, everyone gets kind of bent out of shape, understandably so. I came from the European school of comics, and over there, they do what they call albums. Moebius was very prolific. He’d do two of them a year. That’s 80 pages of material, which by American standards is not a lot. But over there, some people just do one album a year, 40 pages. So I’ve gotten a little faster. It’s something Moebius said to me, that he spent 40 years learning to draw so he could forget about it. And it freed up his imagination. He knew he could draw the figure, and then he would just do what he wanted with it. I haven’t gotten to that point, but I can draw things a lot easier than I used to, and it does free me up to think of other stuff.
Paste: You’ve talked before about your brief time in animation where you crossed paths with a lot of big names. Are there lessons from that experience you still find yourself using?
Darrow: That was a turning point for me, actually. I went in there thinking Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons were so bad. I liked the ones in the ‘60s I grew up with, but they were doing Scooby-Doo and it wasn’t even the original ones, it was the later ones, and I thought they were just horrible. I still think they’re pretty bad. I went in there thinking, “I can draw that,” and I learned how little I knew and how good the guys working there actually were. You just never saw it on the screen.
I worked in the modeling department drawing characters, and I learned it’s easier to draw a character once, but you have to draw him from the front, the back, the side, three-quarters. You have to think in three dimensions. And I realized how little I could do that, because I was just faking it. And there were guys from comics who came in and they couldn’t do it either, because you’d just fake stuff, but you can’t in animation because you have to be able to turn that character around. It has to be consistent. I dreaded going to work every day because my boss just made me feel so bad about myself. But in the long run, it made me think about perspective and volume, and if I’m anything, it’s because of that experience of being the worst guy there. [Laughs]
I was 22, 23, something like that. Jack Kirby was there. Alex Toth, Jesse Santos, there were just guys there who you didn’t know. Mo Gollub, who could paint like a god and draw anything. He could draw animals in any position, doing anything, right out of his head. He used to paint all these comic covers for Dell Comics, because Dell always had these painted covers. Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and Trigger the Wonder Horse. God, those guys were so good.
A lot of the guys who had done Jonny Quest were there, and Jonny Quest was beautifully drawn. That was Alex Toth and Doug Wildey, Tony Sgroi, Warren Tufts, a lot of these guys that people don’t remember anymore.
Paste: Speaking of animation, do you think Shaolin Cowboy the film is something you’ll ever return to?
Darrow: Oh yeah, I wish I could finish that one. If someone wants to put up three or four millions, maybe. Which is not a lot by movie standards, but by animation standards in Japan, that’s a lot of money. It’s sitting in boxes, almost half-finished, in Japan. It was a very hard experience that ended up not so well. As rough as it was, I always thought, At least at the end of it, I’ll get this crazy movie, and I didn’t even get that. [Laughs]
Gosh, they had some really amazing guys that were going to do it. There’s a really brilliant animator named Masaaki Yuasa, he recently did an episode of Adventure Time. It’s very loose and beautifully done and kind of abstract animation. And he was doing a whole sequence that was a flashback, so the style suddenly departed from my fairly realistic style to this crazy style. One of the characters is this talking crab, and it was the way he saw life. You were seeing the movie through his eyes.
And all the cars! They had this giant chase sequence, and they were doing all the cars by computer, but then they were going to go in and draw over the computer images so it was consistent with the movie. This giant chase sequence with these giant monsters…it was crazy.
Paste: Perhaps you’re not asked often, but it seems like you don’t talk as much about Japanese influences on your work. Do you feel like that’s a big aspect of where you’re coming from?
Darrow: Oh yeah. I like Japanese comics. I was a big fan of [Goseki] Kojima and [Kazuo] Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub. I had them all in Japanese long before they got translated. When I went to cities on business, back when I worked in advertising, I’d look in the yellow pages and see if there was a foreign-language library. I didn’t know what they were about, but the storytelling was so fantastic. To this day I buy Japanese comics that I can’t read, but you look at the pictures and you can basically tell what’s going on. [Laughs]
You don’t get all the backstory and stuff, but the storytelling is fantastic. I discovered [Katsuhiro] Otomo by going to these stores. I introduced Moebius to Otomo’s work and he went, “Oh, oh, I’m going to stop drawing! It’s depressing, this guy is so good.” I’d given him a book Otomo did called Domu, and I was buying Akira because it was being printed in a weekly magazine called Young Magazine. I subscribed to it and I’d get it every week and cut them out. I still have them in a stack somewhere. Guys like Sanpei Shirato, a lot of them have not been translated into English, but you can find them in French. In English, I could never convince anybody to print some of these classic guys who formed everybody that’s over there now, the very famous manga artists.
My dream [when I was young] was to go to Japan. I was working at Hanna-Barbera, saving my money, but I only worked four or five months out of the year because I’d get laid off. I was the worst guy there. I was the last guy hired and the first guy let go. I took a charter plane, cheapest flight I could find, and I went around Japan for two and a half months. Back then, the yen was really low, and I would just go to comic stores. I came back with two huge bags full of them, and you didn’t need to worry about weight back then either. Monkey Punch [creator of Lupin III] and this guy Mikiya Mochizuki who did the thing called Wild 7. They were the most amazing action comics, and I couldn’t read any of it.
I’m 6’6” standing in stores with all these kids looking at comics. In those days, they didn’t wrap them in plastic, so I discovered that if you didn’t go to these stores before school got out, you couldn’t get into the places because it was just wall to wall kids reading things in the store. I bought so many of them. I have them all lined up on my shelf. I still go over there and buy stuff.
They’ll have action sequences that would go on for 40 or 50 pages, which is what I wanted to do. They’re the closest things to a movie on paper that I think you’ll ever find. When you do that here, people go, “Oh, that’s a waste.” I don’t think there’s any wrong way to draw comic books, but you get told that there is. I got that from the one I just did. “Oh, it’s a hundred pages and nothing happens. It’s the same drawing over and over.” Well, it isn’t. [Laughs]
I think the main comic book audience in America, they want these fights. That’s what they buy it for anyway, to see the Hulk fight Thanos. They’ll put up with all this stuff for like, 30 pages, and then “Ooh, look, he kicked Thanos in the kneecap! Wow! Bitching, man!”
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with that, I just like when they’re like, “Oh, that’s the wrong way to do it.” According to who? My daughter yells at me because I started to read more [comments online]. There’d be some nice reviews and then there’d be some where it’s like, Oh, you’re breaking my heart. “It’s badly drawn and there’s no storytelling skill here at all, blah blah blah.” You kind of want to say something to them, but it’s a losing game.
Paste: Speaking of Thanos and the Hulk, you’ve said before that you’re a Marvel fan at heart, but haven’t quite had the time and inclination to do longer work for the publisher. Is this still something you consider?
Darrow: I’m not fast enough. I’ve always kind of walked up to the edge of that cliff, but I’ve never jumped over because then I don’t own it. It’d be fun to draw Fin Fang Foom. I can draw Fin Fang Foom, and I can draw it for myself. That’s where Big Guy came about, wanting to draw a Marvel superhero. Frank went, “Well, we’ll just do it.” I’d love to do Batman once, except I’d have him killing people, because I think that’s what he’d do. [Laughs] But I’m sure they wouldn’t let me do it.
I’ve never done any work for hire for anybody. Way back when Frank and I were talking about working together, I was going to do this Daredevil story he had written, and he said, “Nah, let’s do something original, I don’t want to be the guy that brings you into work for hire,” which was really nice of him. He asked me what I wanted to draw, and we did it.
Art from Hard Boiled by Geof Darrow
Paste: Would you work with Frank Miller again in the future? Do you keep in touch at all?
Darrow: Yeah, I would if I could. He’s a hard guy to get ahold of for whatever reason, I don’t know. Took me a year at one point. I love the guy, but sometimes I feel like I could probably get through to Obama faster than I could get through to Frank. [Laughs]
Paste: You talked earlier about your friendship with Moebius and your experience in the French publishing industry. Do you still follow the European scene closely?
Darrow: Oh yeah, I do. I lived over there for thirteen years. My wife is French and my daughter is French. I like François Bourgeon, if you’re familiar with him. There’s André Juillard, Tanino Liberatore. There are a lot of guys over there. They have an amazing talent pool.
What I loved about them is that nothing ever happens in the comics. [Laughs] I’m sure they’d say, “You do too much in yours!” You go 40 pages and someone finally says, “Gosh darn you!” and that’s the action. C’mon, you’ve been talking about killing this guy for 40 pages and that’s what happens!? I’m very infantile.
Paste: Why do you think not that many European artists, or French artists specifically, seem to make the jump to American audiences?
Darrow: I don’t think they could do the workload. They couldn’t do 20-some pages a month. It’s a different style of drawing. Spanish guys, they’re faster, they have a different rhythm. That’s why guys like Jordi Bernet, those guys did a lot of American stuff. They didn’t say, Oh, I’m going to just do 40 pages a year, or 80 pages. They had monthly comics. A lot of them got work in Italy, which is another amazingly talented group of artists there. Most of these books you can find on Amazon now, on Amazon France, Amazon Italy.
Paste: Digital comics and Amazon and other venues have made it a lot easier to connect with international comics. The Incal, for instance, which was very difficult and expensive to track down for a very long time, is now available in its entirety online.
Darrow: The thing about France is that you can find everything there. You can find American comics, Japanese comics, Spanish ones, Italian ones. They’re really open to everything. Except there’s no real French superhero. I think it’s something that’s just too ridiculous to them. And it is pretty goofy.
But then you look at some of their famous series, like Blake and Mortimer, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they’re just two English guys. It sells phenomenally well but it’s just like, gimme a break. They’re just walking around. [In a British accent] “Oh by Jove! Who’s turning the water of the Thames yellow! We’ve got to find out, Blake!” They just sort of talk about shit! They never do anything. They drive their car over and it’s like, “Oh, look, there he is! He’s putting dye into the river, we should stop him! Here’s a spot of tea!” But they love it! They just love that stuff. In America, it’s like, “Look, he’s putting yellow dye in there! Hit him with the repulsor ray!” And bang, they blow it up. The whole thing is over in ten pages.
Paste: How do you feel about digital comics? Are you much of a digital reader?
Darrow: Oh, I don’t. I don’t at all. I don’t read them on the screen. Some people say, “Can I send you my comic in a PDF?” and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll get it when it comes out.”
When I was a kid, and I still have a lot of the comics I had as a kid, I didn’t care how it looked. If I didn’t have that Spider-Man #36, and it had a rip in the cover, I bought it. I didn’t care. That was mine. If I found a better one, I might buy it, but usually the one I had was good enough. My comics look like somebody enjoyed them and I like that part of it. It’s like, wow, somebody actually read this thing.
Shaolin Cowboy has been the primary creative output we’ve seen from you for a while, and you’re planning more adventures with him, but do you have other stories you’re hoping to tell in the near future?
Darrow: Yeah, I do, there’re a couple things I want to do. Whether I get around to them, I don’t know. Gosh, I just wish I were more prolific. I’m a big fan of Stan Sakai. I’ve got all the Usagi Yojimbo trades, but they’re putting them in these black and white collections that are larger than the original trades, and it’s like, Oh my god, this guy’s body of work is so amazing! And look at what I’ve got, you could fit it in your glovebox. [Laughs]
I want to get faster, but then I come into my office and I sit down and draw the figure and think, hmm, what if there was a guy cutting this guy’s hair in the background? And he was reading a Batman comic? And then these broken plastic cases on the floor…
Paste: A true English edition of Bourdon Thret has been a long time coming. What else would you like to say to readers?
Darrow: It’s such a crazy thing. The original publisher thought I was crazy. You probably can’t put this in print, but the first thing I did over there that put me on the map was City of Fire with Moebius, this portfolio. I drew it out, and Moebius took the pencils and put them on a lightbox and he inked over them on a separate sheet of paper. And because he touched them, I think they’re beautiful. And that put me on the map because it was like, “Who is this guy working with Moebius?” The funny thing is, I met [director and writer] Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the first time I meet him, he goes, “Darrow, why are you fucking your father?” [Laughs] “You’re working with Moebius and he’s going to eat you alive.” That story always cracks me up. The first words out of his mouth were “Why are you fucking your father?”