The War of Words & Pictures: Comic Pioneers Brian Michael Bendis & Geof Darrow In ConversationComics Features Geof Darrow
Brian Michael Bendis and Geof Darrow are sequential-art pioneers occupying different poles of the same medium. In the late ‘90s, Jessica Jones creator and Marvel Comics architect Bendis introduced winding, natural dialogue to the form. Inspired by cinematic figures like David Mamet, his writing further humanized superheroes, and gently paved the road for the characters who occupy the silver screen in The Avengers and Spider-Man. Decades previous, Darrow likewise evolved the trade, growing the visual lexicon of genre art on Frank Miller collaborations Hard Boiled and The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot before spinning the techno-organic hyperbole of the Matrix trilogy as a concept artist. In this exclusive interview, Bendis and Darrow discuss the creative tissue between art and stories, and how Darrow’s latest opus, Shaolin Cowboy, challenges its very foundation.
Geof Darrow: Hello Mister Bendis, how are you?
Brian Michael Bendis: I’m so glad we’re doing this.
Darrow: Why? [Laughs] Do I owe you money and this is your way of contacting me?
Bendis: No, No. This is me paying you back for quite a lot of inspiration. When people see these creator interviews, they assume we’re best pals or we’d be having this conversation anyhow. But we don’t know each other at all. We’ve never had a meal or a coffee.
Darrow: I’m notoriously antisocial. I do conventions but I never talk to anybody. I always figure that nobody wants to talk to me or will know who I am. I just stay to myself.
Bendis: I’m literally asking you everything I’d ask you if we did have coffee. This is my way of making you answer all of my questions. We talked years ago at Seattle, Emerald City Comic Con, where I purchased a big pile of the French Darrow Magazines. And I saved them.
Darrow: You’re kidding me.
Bendis: So when people say, Who are you to talk to Geof Darrow? What do you know? Dude, I have the French Darrow Magazine, and I don’t speak French. This is a commitment.
Darrow: I used to have people call me up when I was living in France. They’d send me their portfolios because they wanted to do artwork in the magazine. They thought it was a magazine. It wasn’t a real magazine.
Bendis: Explain the magazine, if it wasn’t a real magazine in your words. What would you describe it as?
Darrow: In France they used to do a lot of limited edition books, where a book would come out in a limited edition, and they’d do something extra. It was from a company that was owned by Moebius and they had all the best guys in Europe. They had [Tanino] Liberatore, [Andre] Juillard and [Andre] Franquin, and all these amazing French, Italian and Belgian artists. They made most of their money from these limited editions. You’d do something extra, and nobody knew who I was. I used to joke about them doing a magazine called Geof Darrow Comics and Stories. When they did this thing, they said, “Let’s do a Darrow Magazine.” I think the issue on it is 200 or something. It was just a joke. We just got a bunch of different artists to do drawings of me. I wrote most of it. It was just me answering people’s sexual questions. It’s all made up.
Bendis: That’s very funny, because if you don’t speak French, it looks like a real magazine. I didn’t know it was a joke. I want to rewind the clock a little bit. According to the internet, you worked with Jack Kirby at Hanna-Barbera Studios?
Darrow: One time he came in and he had to finish something, so he asked me to sit down, and he took one of my pencils, just a nub of a pencil. And he did a model drawing on my desk, and I’m watching him. Afterwards he left and I took the pencil and I put it in an envelope and wrote “Kirby’s Pencil.” I don’t know where it is anymore, because I’ve moved so many times. He did models. He did character designs at Hanna-Barbera. He’d come in once a week, and he’d bring in a stack of drawings. It was a lot of money compared to a comic page; it was like $150 a drawing. He worked on everything. At the time there was Super Friends, he worked on Scooby-Doo. Those were the best. Some of the drawings he did for Scooby-Doo were amazing because they were so off-model. Working in animation is a particular kind of work, and you have to stay on model. And Jack just did what he did.
I’d met him at a convention because he was like a god to me. New York used to be the big convention. He came there one year in ’75 to announce he was returning to Marvel to do Captain America. We ran into him outside at the hotel and he was so nice. I was with some friends, and he asked what we did. We said we were trying to draw comics. He gives us his room number, and says, “Come up to my room and show me what you got.” We never did because we didn’t want to interrupt him. Another one of my friends named Gary Gianni asked if he wanted to come out and have a drink with us. He said, “No, no, I’m too old. I can’t keep up with you young guys.”
Years later, he was there at Hanna-Barbera. I went to his house. What a sweet, wonderful man. You’d show up at his house and he’d invite you in for dinner. He was that kind of a guy.
Bendis: I’m so glad you’ve had that, because I’ve had these experiences where someone will invite you to something, Come up to my room! and you say, Oh no! Not worthy! And then you’re mad at yourself.
Darrow: I remember reading about someone who had met [Frank] Frazetta and they just stepped all over his generosity. And I remember reading that and thinking, I never want to be that guy. And when I met Jack, that guy was in the back of my head. And I thought if I do this, he’s going to think, Frazetta must have thought of this guy.
Bendis: I had a similar experience once when I was in San Diego. You know [former Comico and Dark Horse editor-in-chief ] Diana Schutz, right? Diana and I are dear old friends, and she was dying to get me to meet Will Eisner. She says, “Come on, we’re going to lunch,” and I went, “Oh no! No, no.” That was way over the top, but I should have. I’m mad at myself for never having done it.
Darrow: I completely understand that sentiment. I stumbled into my relationship with Moebius, just because my girlfriend at the time had a really good friend who was working at Disney. He was an architect and one of the engineers on Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. I’d heard that Moebius was in town working on Tron. I just wanted to meet him. Just shake his hand. I called my friend up and asked [for an introduction]. He said, “I’ll see what I can do.” A day went by and I gave up on it, and then he calls me up and says, “We’re having dinner with him on Saturday.” That’s how my relationship with him started. All I wanted to do was shake his hand because he was such a mystical figure.
The World of Edena Cover Art by Moebius
Bendis: Was he Moebius at the time?
Darrow: I’d always knew him as Jean Giraud. I had found Lieutenant Blueberry through this book by Maurice Horn called A History of the Comic Strip. It’d show me frames from this western, and out of all of these different comics, and I had no clue that there was anything outside of the United States, comic-book wise, except maybe Tintin, which I could never quite figure out as a kid. I think I saw the movie version from the ‘60s, the live-action one. And I knew that it was based on a comic strip. So Bud Plant had a little catalogue and he’d mentioned that he had these Blueberry books. I think they were $3, and so I got them and I couldn’t believe anyone could draw like that. I still can’t. I’d just watch him draw…yikes.
Bendis: You’re literally asking my questions for me. I was going to ask did you literally sit and watch him draw? Did you get to watch Kirby draw?
Darrow: My magical moments were Kirby, Moebius and Vaughn Bode, who was drawing at that same comic convention. I watched him draw as these two elderly women just shook their heads. They were so saddened, because he was very androgynous. He painted his nails and looked very effeminate. And they just thought, He’s lost to Jesus forever! I remember hearing them say that. They were genuinely concerned for him, which struck me as pretty funny, just watching him draw the Masked Lizard. I just like to watch people draw.
Bendis: And it’s so funny, because we get to an age where some of my long-term collaborators will start drawing, and I’ll start staring. One artist friend of mine said, “You’re not making fun of me, are you?” And I said, “No! I’m just watching you!” It’s fun to watch someone do craft. I just love it.
Darrow: To me, it’s always been magic to watch people. The funny thing is, I’ve also watched Moebius struggle, too, which was kind of great. It was probably sadistic on my part. He had these rough days, and he’d tell me he had rough days where a single little head would throw him off.
Bendis: That’s genuinely fascinating. I think it helps people. Even people who are good…everyone has a shit day. It’s why I like the Raiders of The Lost Ark development pitch. You’ve probably read this, where they’re trying to figure out Indiana Jones. It’s literally a transcript of Spielberg, Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan trying to figure out Indiana Jones, and they don’t have it yet. They’re just trying to figure out all the different ways they can do the story. When you see them struggle with it, you’re like, Oh thank God. In my head, Indiana Jones was birthed complete out of the air. When I hear Moebius struggled, it just makes me think, OK, good.
Darrow: When I first met him, he told me that he spent 40 years learning how to draw, so he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I understand what he was saying in that he could draw so well that that part of his mind was freed up to go into the imagination and creative part of it. He wasn’t always fighting to get the anatomy right; he could think about what the character would be doing.
Bendis: You just said two things I want to follow up on. Number one was that when he was drawing and it was working, did you feel like this was next level? Did you ask Where is this coming from? And you know people feel that about you. I was wondering, having described this for Moebius, if you feel, when you’re into it with those larger pieces, if you find that could get into a meditative state—where you’re not drawing, you’re just creating. That’s a hoity question, and I apologize, but you mentioned that thing that happens when you’ve left the craft behind but you’re actually drawing.
Darrow: For me, I don’t know, because I struggle so much with drawing, still. I don’t think it flows out of me like I wish it would. Every drawing I start looks really mundane and kind of boring. Somewhere along the line, I get this thing where I go, What the fuck? and I draw a dog crapping in the corner. It liberates me. I say, I screwed this one up, so whatever I do from here doesn’t really matter. I did a Transmetropolitan cover, and I didn’t enjoy them that much, except I did one and I drew a bottle of pop and I called it Ebola Cola. It said, “You Drink It, It Eats You.” After that, I said, “Oh, this is OK.” Because I had that one bottle, nobody cares about that bottle in that drawing, because that was funny. It’s how I approach things. This comic I do now, I come up with a billboard or some goofy thing going on in a corner somewhere. It might be a bad drawing, but that’s kind of funny.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign #3 Cover Art by Geof Darrow
Bendis: It’s actually one of my favorite things. I just read the last three issues of Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign?, so I’m caught up to date. What I took from the latest stuff, which I thought was an interesting evolution, is that there are a lot of different stories going on. You have the main thrust of the story, and then you have orgies or dogs playing poker and whatever’s going on in the corners and in the background or in the foreground. And I always wondered if you were literally writing about these things in your head while you’re drawing. You have a name for each of these dogs, you have a backstory about why these people are at this table. In the newest Shaolin Cowboy, we see that you’ve given an inordinate amount of dialogue to some of these people. You’ve put words in their mouths more than usual, and I find that fascinating. The writing is actually coming into the art.
Darrow: I’ve always had that dialogue in my head, you’re right. I was working on The Matrix and I was drawing stuff. I was drawing the cockpit of one of the ships and I put cupholders in there, and they said, “Why’d you put cupholders in there?” They got to be drinking in there; you never see cupholders in movies! It makes it more interesting. I’m generally bored. When I was drawing Hard Boiled, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to change stuff. I added things that weren’t in the script. Frank was very gracious and understanding. He just let me go. But I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to add things. I was just bored and I didn’t know where things were going.
Bendis: It was actually Moebius who introduced you to Frank Miller.
Darrow: I was a big fan of his and I got to meet him through Moebius. I was living in France at the time and I’d come back in the summer back to Los Angeles and spent a couple months there, just to get the Parisian life out of my head because it’s not always the most fun place to live.
Bendis: How was living in France? How long did you live there?
Darrow: I was there for 13 years. It was hard. There were things I really liked about it. There were things that were really difficult. The service there is horrible. You can’t count on anybody for anything. The plumber throws a dart at a calendar and if they say they’re going to be there between nine and six, you know they’re not going to show up. FedEx was the same way. It was just really frustrating. It’s such an expensive place, everyone’s always rushing around. People aren’t in a very good mood and they don’t like to joke around much. I got in so much trouble for kidding around with people. They didn’t have much of a sense of humor. It’s kind of like New York without a sense of humor.
Bendis: It’s funny. I recently, for the first time, fantasized about living in other countries. I don’t know what’s happening in the world that makes me feel that way all of the sudden.
Darrow: I have no idea either [Laughs].
Bendis: When the president of France says come here, maybe I should.
Darrow: I’m probably going to move back there in the next year. My wife is French and I have a double nationality and go back there. I’ve thought about this being the floor. I don’t know what your politics are before Trump was elected. I was waiting to see how the French elections turned out, because as goofy as I find Trump, Marine Le Pen…they keep calling it Front National, but it’s basically the Nazi party. Really ugly, horrible, horrible, horrible people. And I’ll tell you a really funny story. I had to do a drawing about Americans in Paris. I did this drawing of these guys fighting monsters, and I did a word balloon saying—and this was when LaPen was rising to power—“This is the last time I accept a dinner invitation from Marine Le Pen,” as these monsters are trying to kill him. And they censored it. They took out that entire balloon because they were afraid of Marine La Pen. You know what the name of that magazine was? Charlie Hebdo. [Laughs]
Bendis: Oh, no shit.
Hard Boiled Second Edition Cover Art by Geof Darrow & Dave Stewart
Darrow: I got censored by them. This was back in the ‘80s. That was before they became what they are now, but I got censored by Charlie Hebdo.
Bendis: So you’d already done a bunch of comics, you’d done some smaller works.
Darrow: I did one comic. The first book I did in France, as a joke, I made up a bunch of comics that I never did. People think they missed it.
Bendis: You did that great joke—was it the end of Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot with covers to other adventures? It was the 22 Jump Street ending, but in comics it was hilarious. Who was your peer group? You mentioned Gary Gianni.
Darrow: I moved to California and I was working at Hanna-Barbera, but before I went to Hanna-Barbera I went to Filmation and I met Dave Stevens. He was working there, and to this day I remember the drawing that he was doing. That guy was so slow. Holy cow. We got to talking and he was a guy who I ended up hanging out with a little bit. He was too classy to me. But we would go out on occasion, because he was such a brilliant artist. A really funny, wonderful guy. I mostly hung out with artists in France. When I moved to Paris, they were very open. Because I was working with Moebius, it opened the doors for me. When Dave Stevens would come to Paris, we’d go out with Liberatore to this one club called La Marisol. It had magic, jazz and strippers.
Bendis: [Laughs] A great combination.
Darrow: It was really wacky. We’d go there and Liberatore was like the ultimate playboy. I got to know [Milo] Manara and some guys you might not know, like [Andre] Juillard and Régis Loisel. Those are the guys I hung out with until I came back to the states. I met Frank at Moebius’ house. I go over to his house in Santa Monica and Moebius wasn’t there, so I was with Frank and Lynn Varley for about an hour before he showed up, and that’s when we got to talking.
Bendis: It was quite an amazing American comics debut. It really was unique. Frank was so established, and he’d only worked with established, really big names so far. When you came on the scene, it was quite something and I related this to our mutual friend, Scott Allie, and it is the reason we’re speaking, and I talked a little bit in your pencil book [Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow]. It’s a phenomenal book; it’s just pencils with commentary from other writers and collaborations. What I said in the book, was that I was in art school, and you came on the scene and really messed with a lot of people. The style of your art was the kind where I thought I could imitate this…Oh my God, no I can’t. It was very funny to see a bunch of illustrators all flailing for a semester in front of an illustration teacher who had no idea why we were all losing our minds, and drawing super detailed illustrations without any realization.
I was glad that I was able to purge past you, so I could get on with my life. I’m sure you had that with other artists in your life, where you say I can’t even look at this person’s artwork if I’m going to draw today, because it will mess up my head.
Darrow: I’m amazed that I had that effect. I was living in France when it came out, so I had no idea what the reaction was. I just figured people bought it because it was Frank, and understandably so. The first guy I ever worked with was Moebius, and that put me on the map in France. And then it was Frank, and it wasn’t anything I did by design. It’s not like it was anything I did; I just showed up at their houses.
Bendis: It is quite amazing, but if you didn’t have the chops, you’d just of had a nice dinner.
Darrow: With Moebius and Frank, it was the same way. With Moebius, I met him and we talked and I never told him what I did. One day he said to me, “Well, what do you do?” And I said, “I kind of draw.” He said, “Well, can I see it?” I showed it to him and he liked it. It was the same with Frank. I sent him some stuff, and he called me up, and The Dark Knight had come out, and it was 2:00 a.m. in the morning in Paris. And he said, “Jeeze, I didn’t realize you were the guy who drew these books that you sent.” That’s how he got to know me as an artist. He asked me one day if I’d ever think of working with somebody else, and I said, “You? Yeah!” Much to his, probably, consternation. I think I probably drove him crazy.
Bendis: How did he write for you? Was it full-script?
Darrow: He asked, “What do you want to do?” I said I want to do something that has a lot of action in it. There were a couple projects that we thought of doing. One was a Marvel thing. At the last second, he said, “Well, you know, you’ve never done work for hire and I don’t want to be known as the guy who does work for hire.” The other thing we were going to do was something that had Steve Gerber. They had talked about doing their version of Superman. And that I thought was really cool, and that didn’t come about. And then he wrote Hard Boiled. The first script…I think it was 10 pages, and that was the first issue. I added all this stuff to it that wasn’t in there. After I did the first one, he kept it a little looser, because he figured I was going to ignore certain things.
When we did Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, it was three paragraphs. The whole thing. I just drew it, and then he went back…
Bendis: Like Marvel house-style.
Darrow: Yeah, yeah. I think he had things in mind in Hard Boiled, that, because of my drawing, he had to change his story. I remember him telling me that there’s no way a human being could survive all that carnage. I said, “Eh, it’s a comic book! Who cares?” You ever see those Hong Kong movies? Those guys can get shot 100 times, unless they take one right in the skull, they’ll live. They’ll walk home and then they’re back for the sequel. That was my approach to things.
Bendis: After this, you started writing for yourself. How do you write for yourself? Do you write a script? Do you just start drawing?
Darrow: I have an idea in my head, and then I just start doing little layouts. It’s pretty much like a Kirby/Lee thing, especially in this last Shaolin Cowboy. Did you see the one where he fights the zombies?
Bendis: Of course. Many, many of my peers debate this graphic novel a great deal.
Darrow: In the latest one, Who’ll Stop the Reign…I actually don’t like putting titles on comics until they’re over. But I felt like I had to, so I did. I just knew this guy’s in this panel here, there’s going to be exposition here, but I had no idea that they were going to be saying what they said most of the time. The crab would be talking about his motivation, and for most dialogue I just sit down and write it. Scott Allie is a great help, because sometimes I put too many words in there. I like when people repeat stuff. I think people repeat stuff a lot in real life, but in a comic there’s just no room for it.
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot Cover Art by Geof Darrow
Bendis: It’s one of the things I work on in my work as well. You hear it, you listen to the music of people talking and there’s repetition. But when people see it on page, it can jar them. I have to find that balance. It needs to feel real, but at the same time…
Darrow: I’ll go back and read that stuff and I don’t even remember writing it. I’m surprised that I wrote certain things. Does that make any sense?
Bendis: You can get into a meditative state when you’re writing, and not know what you’re writing until it’s written. You read it back and go, Oh, I wonder where that came from.
Darrow: To me, it’s the hardest thing. I can’t have any music on. I just have to sit there by myself. It’s just hard. And when it gets going, then it becomes fun. I always think of you guys: how do you do this every day?
Bendis: As we get older, you find yourself thinking about it more. It is. You’re just sitting there making your time. Also I’ve got four little kids. I’ve trained my body to work in any condition. I can’t be precious when I’m doing my surgery. I just have to do the best job I can. Hopefully that added chaos is actually helping the writing. It’s not always in chaos, but sometimes I’ll look at what I did in chaos and look at it in quiet, and be excited that I wrote something.
Darrow: I always hear that these Alan Moore scripts are like telephone books.
Bendis: I love those Alan Moore scripts, and when I teach I show them to students, because it shows how there’s no right or wrong way to write a comic strip. There are a million different formats, and they all work. The first page of Watchmen is madness. It’s just all caps, there are no paragraphs, it’s just like a unibomber manifesto. But inside there is the perfect thing that Dave Gibbons needed to draw to draw the perfect thing. It doesn’t matter how crazy it looks. It got the job done.
There are a couple artists who I work with right now who are so particular, and my instinct is to ask, What can I do to not be in your way at all? What can I do to get the hell out of your way and help you shine as brightly as you can, and I’ll just stand behind you and take a bow?
I do find myself writing far less for those people than I would other people. It’s less because I want the inspiration, not, Do what I say, art monkey.
Darrow: Most people say I’m not writing anyway, but if I work with a real writer, I could get more done again. I wouldn’t go off on the tangents that I go off on. I’d get more accomplished.
Bendis: But the tangents are what people like. It’s what’s different than everyone else’s work.
Darrow: I went to Thought Bubble in London, and the comic Shemp Buffet had come out. This guy came up to me and said, “So why did you do that? You got no story in that book.” I go, “Well, there’s kind of a story.” He says, “No, there’s no narrative at all.” I say, “Yeah, there is.” He goes, “No there’s not! It’s all action.” I go, “Well, that’s the narrative.” He says, “No, it’s not.” I say, “For me, it is. OK, you made your point.” He says, “Well it’s not.” And I say, “Now I’m getting mad and you’re going to have to go away.” He walks up, and he keeps yelling at me, “There’s no narrative! There’s no narrative!”
Bendis: That’s hilarious. Let’s talk about that. Here in Portland, there are an inordinate number of comic creators that live here. So we, thanks to my wife, get together on Friday nights and have a nice get-together. Scott Allie is part of that group as well as many artists and writers. Your last Shaolin Cowboy graphic novel, in which he fights the zombies, is the best-illustrated of all of them. I’m dying to hear your thoughts on it, because—I’d hate to use the word again—it’s almost like a meditation. It’s like this 10-minute sequence, slowed down to the slowest amount of time it would take to kill all these zombies and how much time it took to draw all that. We debated it so much. I was dying to hear your thoughts on the choices that you made.
Darrow: You know, I just started drawing that thing. I never got to finish Shaolin Cowboy for Burlyman.
Bendis: Were they just done with comics?
Darrow: They’re still there. But the Wachowskis, they get to working on a movie, and [comics] aren’t their main thing. But nobody knew that the comic was out there, because it wasn’t being run like a comic company. It’s hard to do something that nobody knows exists. They were doing their best, but I said I just have to leave. That created a problem. In order to get out of the deal, I had to leave that. And along with Steve Skroce I came up with Doc Frankenstein. Then I had to leave that property and Shaolin behind, so I wasn’t able to finish that story. So in theory, that eventually was what was going to happen between that and that other book, and a whole lot of other crazy stuff that was going to happen. I just wanted to get the zombie thing out of my system. I thought I’d do one issue of him fighting zombies just to get it back, and then I’d move onto something else, have him get back into the city and have some adventures. I like drawing urban stuff.
Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet Interior Art by Geof Darrow
Bendis: We debated this in, honestly, the most complimentary way, that you have a bunch of artists and writers yelling about your work at each other. I can’t imagine anything more complimenting, so I hope you take it that way. These are all huge fans of yours. There’s a very large sequence where the Cowboy is murdering every zombie with a staff, and it’s basically a mid-to-full-figure shot…over and over and over again.
Bendis: Absolutely. It’s as wide-screen as it gets. A straight-ahead shot, page after page after page. It’s glorious to look at it. It’s almost exhaustive. It literally breaks just about every rule you’re told in comics, which is what I love about it.
Darrow: What rules did it break?
Bendis: A variety of shots, there’s literally no narrative at all; it’s just him carving and carving and carving. This was before I’d read the newest stuff, which surprisingly has much more narrative. And I said, every one of these zombies has a story, he knows where every zombie came from, and you’re reading it in a very American way of reading comics, where if there are no balloons you turn the page. And after 10 pages, you’re saying, you have to stop and look; I’m forcing you. I’ve told you what you think. I’m dying to know what you think.
Darrow: I was only going to do 10 pages of that thing. And then I thought, I wonder how far I can push this thing before people get pissed off. I thought it would be funny to keep going and keep going, and actually the second and third issues, in my mind that was one issue—it shouldn’t have been broken up. It should have been done in three issues, and that CinemaScope fight was just supposed to be one long thing.
Bendis: There was something funny about issue two being an entire fight scene, and then you say, In issue three we’re going to pull back the narrative. Nope! Issue three: still more fight scene. It was hilarious. So funny.
Darrow: Well, I thought, OK, he runs out of gas—both him and the chainsaw. And he stops, he breathes a little bit, and then he starts up again. I thought it was funny. And why not? I didn’t want to have people saving earth. It’s a waste of time, a waste of drawing.
Somebody once told me it’s the same drawing over and over. It’s not the same drawing. There’s a director named Anthony Mann and he would do a lot of fantastic stuff with things in the foreground, things in the middle ground, things in the background to create a sense of depth. And I really wanted to try to do that, with the zombie’s ass right in your face.
Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet Interior Art by Geof Darrow
Bendis: Years ago I did a book where I asked a bunch of artists some questions I had. One of them was the thing that bothered them the most. And the artist Chris Bachalo said you’ll get a script, and the script will be 10 pages of three people on a rooftop. It’s a great scene, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but the writer didn’t give any thought to the fact that, yeah, however long it took to write this scene, it’s going to take me three and a half weeks to draw it. So I’m stuck on this rooftop for three weeks. I’m not going anywhere. No matter what I want to do, I’m stuck on the rooftop.
This is someone I worked with a great deal, and they never voiced this to me directly. I think about it every day. I think about, What am I asking this other person to do and do they give a shit enough to do this as much as I give a shit? And then I make my choices. I look at the latest issue [Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign], which is Shaolin fighting this giant pig, or the last series which is Shaolin fighting hordes of grey zombies. You have made a conscious choice to stay with these zombies or with this pig for weeks, if not months, on end. You made yourself. [Laughs] You’re laughing, and I think that you find that funny, and that makes me very happy.
Darrow: It does. I talk with other artists about this. I get the script, and it’s nothing but talking heads for 10 or 15 pages, and then you have the confrontation, and you have to do it in two panels. Come on! Give me some Jack Kirby to throw things around, big action. And that was my answer to super talky comics.
Bendis: I’m as guilty of this as anyone.
Darrow: No, no. Some guys you read their thing, and it’s like, come on man—you’re too much in love with your writing. Mike Mignola and the things that he writes…instead of pontificating, he’ll just go, “Well that was something!”
Bendis: One perfect line of dialogue—yup.
Darrow: There’s a comic that I like. I read it. And I think, Here’s a guy trying to prove to everyone that he’s a writer. There are these big speeches. Walter Hill is a director who I like, too. He says you can show things through action.
Bendis: I’m blanking on who said this years ago, but there was an artist who revealed himself as a writer/artist and, like yourself, a very big, stylized artist. He said that he had to be very careful about his writing voice, because he said that for most people, the writer me is just getting in the way of artist me, and the artist me is selling all the tickets. Artist put asses in seats. Writers are who they’re putting up with. I immediately was like….no, that’s wrong, but it was interesting he was aware that he could be creating a battle within himself between writer and artist. I thought, not with that attitude. One person can do both things.
Darrow: I think it used to be that way a long time ago. Right now, I think people read comics because of the writer, which is great. I think it swung way too far in the other direction.
Bendis: It’s too far into the writer’s category, like it was too far in the artist’s category…
Darrow: But I love that people know who the writers are now. They knew who Liefeld was, and Jim Lee and Frank. But when I was over in France and they have this rule and it makes me laugh, that a good comic should take you 45 minutes to read. Buy a book, take out your stopwatch, and you hit it. If you finish it in 39 minutes, do you feel like you’ve been screwed? That’s hilarious to me.
Bendis: But did you feeling anything? Did you learn anything? Were you moved? Were you shown a truth? It only takes a second to show you a truth that could change your life. I spent a great deal of time revisiting your work, looking for a takeaway that I had not thought of before. One that stuck out and that I’ve been thinking of all day is your abuse of time. And this goes back to your earliest work. You will take a scene and you will crank it up and you will slow it down to almost like it’s not happening. Or crank up the scene to be as quick as possible. It’s a constant abuse of time. Whereas some artists will set a tempo, which you kind of did with the zombie stuff, a lot of times, there are three or four tempos going on at once. Is it conscious?
Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet Interior Art by Geof Darrow
Darrow: I’d have to say it isn’t. I have an awful hard time getting a character from point A to point B. I’m never quite sure where to stop and where to cut. In that latest one, I was so proud of myself because I got [Shaolin Cowboy] in the back of that truck and I thought, If I can get him into town real fast… And then I have him hitchhiking for 10 pages, just for the fun of it.
Bendis: My favorite thing in the Wonder Woman movie: she just wakes up in Act 2. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. They go, wake up, we’re in Act 2! It’s a brilliant piece of writing, because they’ve just got to get going. There will be one page where a monster will stomp on something. So one page will be one second of action, and then you turn the page, and that double-page spread…you’ll need to spend 10 minutes on it. And then you’ll turn the page, and you’ll only need one minute on this page.
Darrow: For me, that’s a way of showing a lot of stuff going on at once. It goes back to Jack Kirby. I always loved his splash pages, and I usually hate them. Moebius did a splash page in Blueberry, and that pisses people off because they think they’re getting screwed. If they’re not getting 10 panels on a page in France, they feel like they’re getting screwed.
Bendis: That’s a very funny mindset, and it still goes on today. I don’t know what to say to that: I go, I’m sorry, I just showed you the coolest drawing I’ve ever seen.
Darrow: I really love the great manga guys—they’re probably some of the best storytellers in the world. [Hiroshi] Harata, Sanpei Shirato, [Osamu] Tezuka and [Katsuhiro] Otomo. I think the Japanese could tell a story. They have to crank out so much material, and I know they have an assistant. Even so… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work with an assistant. Giraud tried it once. He had an assistant, and he said it drove him crazy because he’d have to stop and say, “OK, draw a rock here with a wagon wheel.” He said he could have drawn that in the amount of time it took to tell him. And the assistant wasn’t good at it; he eventually stopped. I’m self-conscious and don’t like people watching me.
Bendis: It’s Eastern and Western influences clashing on your pages. You have the European and the manga influence. I guess that’s where the time stuff is coming from.
Darrow: Probably from the Japanese stuff. I’d find these Japanese comics way before any of them were translated. I’d go to a Japanese bookstore, just pull things out and look at them. I had all the Lone Wolf and Cubs in Japanese long before they came out in English. You could look at them and just go from panel to panel and figure out what was going on.
Bendis: I’d do the same thing with Moebius’ French editions. I didn’t know we were going to get English ones, so I thought we better just buy these…
Darrow: I remember buying them and showing them to people, and they’d say, “Yeah, but I can’t read.” I’d say, “But look at the drawings!” Years later when they started printing them in Heavy Metal, I’d say, “Have you seen this guy, Moebius?” I’d say, “He was the same guy I showed you five years ago. You wanted nothing to do with him.” I went with him to Marvel Studios when Stan Lee was still there handling the animation studios, and I took him in there and showed him around. I said this is “Jean Giraud,” and they said, “Hey, how are you doing?” I said, “Jean Moebius Giraud” and their heads just swiveled. Oh, now he’s OK.
Bendis: That’s very funny. So we have Shaolin Cowboy. What next? What’s the future?
Darrow: What do you think I should do?
Bendis: Truthfully, I would love to work with you someday, but I feel like I’d drive you insane.
Darrow: I’m thinking it would be good for me maybe.
Bendis: I seek out collaboration that forces me to write and do things I wouldn’t do on my own. That’s where I’ve been at in my life the last couple years.
Darrow: I always worry that I might piss people off, because I’ll go off and I’ll feel constricted and I’ll change something, and they’ll get mad.
Bendis: It’s funny, because I do it too. They get mad. People used to tell Bill Sienkiewicz, “Do your old stuff! Don’t do it like this—do your old stuff!” And he’d say, “This is my old stuff.”
Darrow: It’s hard. I always have people come up and say, “Aw, I’m your biggest fan. I loved Hard Boiled. What have you been doing lately?” They have no idea [laughs]. I like Shaolin Cowboy. I don’t know if people like it or not.
Bendis: You worked on the Matrix movies. Do you have film aspirations? Do you want to direct?
Darrow: I spent three years working on this animated Shaolin Cowboy movie. It got half-finished in Japan. It was being produced by the Wachowskis and Madhouse Animation, who did Ninja Scroll. The Weinsteins were putting half the money in.
Bendis: What happened?
Darrow: The bubble broke. The Weinsteins…they were already going bankrupt and they pulled their money on it, so it’s sitting in boxes. I wrote it and I was co-directing it with a Japanese director. That wasn’t my aspiration. They asked me to do it. And I asked the Wachowskis: “You think I could do it?” They said, yeah, we think you could. I probably should have said no because it was heart-breaking. Three years for nothing. I was over in Japan for over a year. It started in 2009.
Bendis: This is pretty recent. Is this salvageable?
Darrow: They need like $3 million to finish it. It was called Shaolin Cowboy in the Tomb of Doom. Little bits made it into the latest comic. I showed a little bit of it at San Diego one year. There’s not much of it. The Japanese, they don’t shoot pencil tests. They do it in bits and pieces. So even though you’d have half the movie done, it doesn’t mean they have half of it animated. It means they’ve got half of all the work complete: some of the animation, some of the layout, all of the storyboards, all of the color. But you put it together, it’d be half a movie, but it’s spread out like part of one scene, part of another scene…layouts for another scene, key animation for one scene, but not in the next. I compared it to being like a house, and you had some of the carpeting, some of the stairs, you had the kitchen sink, some of the pipes, the light switches and some of the roof. Put it together, that’s 50% of a house, but it doesn’t look like a house yet.
Bendis: Like a broken LEGO set.
Darrow: The Matrix movies came out, and I was getting calls to direct movies. I kept saying, “I don’t know how to direct. Get another director.” The Wachowskis would always laugh about it and say, “Just say yes!” I’ve never directed a movie. They said, “We can teach you everything you’d need to know in 20 minutes. Just get yourself a good cinematographer and you’re good to go.”
Bendis: It’s not like you’re walking off the street with no storytelling experience. You do know how to tell a story.
Darrow: On those Matrix movies, I saw how they make a movie, and Jesus Christ: you really have to have guts of steel. It’s hard. It’s amazing that movies get made, because it’s so much work. They just optioned Hard Boiled, which I don’t think they’ll ever make. They had it optioned, it lapsed. Someone else picked it up, it lapsed, and now the Warners have picked it up again. I say give me the option money, that’s fine. You’ve worked in the business.
Bendis: I quite enjoy the free option money.
Darrow: Options don’t mean anything. I see comic guys get so excited, and I say, “You better slow down, because you’re going to get really disappointed.”
Bendis: You have to get really zen about it, and I tell this to anyone who will listen: you got to get zen. You can’t be bouncing on the walls. Stop waiting for your career to happen. That’s not how it works.
Darrow: No, it’s not. Some of these movies that get optioned nowadays, it’s like wow. I’m really, really glad for them and shocked. I talk to guys at San Diego, and they just optioned this and they just optioned this. But you better just cool down, because you’re setting yourself up for a world of pain.
Bendis: I get really honest with fans, because I just want to be clear: there’s a difference between an option and a greenlight and a development. An option affects you financially, but it doesn’t affect you guys at all: there’s no product.
Darrow: The other thing you run into: people think, to this day, that every time The Matrix gets shown, I get money. I always talk to Mike Mignola about it for Hellboy. People think you get 50% of every dollar. It doesn’t work that way.
Bendis: A relative asked me if I get money every time someone mentions Jessica Jones. I go, “Like in conversation?” Do people just hand me quarters as they walk by me? No, that’s not how it works. My mother has absolutely no idea how I make my living, at all.
Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow Cover Art by Geof Darrow
Darrow: My mother never understood that my career stopped at Hanna-Barbera. Whenever she would describe what I’d do, she’d say, “He works at Hanna-Barbera.”
Bendis: Something they can wrap their heads around. It’s so funny.
Darrow: I go mom, that was like 10 years ago.
Bendis: Knowing that my mother doesn’t get it, is why I’m probably better at my job than I should be.
Darrow: I don’t think my parents would even read anything I’d do because they were always afraid of what they were going to see.
Bendis: In your case they were right. It reflects terribly on them as parents. [Laughs]
Darrow: Can I ask you a question before you go?
Darrow: Do you like my comics?
Bendis: I truly think you’re one of the greatest comic book artists who has ever lived. I’ve said this to our mutual friends, I’ve told this to your face to my great embarrassment. You do not handle it well in person.
Darrow: I don’t.
Bendis: Neither do I! I respect it.
Darrow: I really like those comics that I did. And I think it’s the best thing that I ever did.
Bendis: I think the newest Shaolin Cowboy is what anyone would ever want from you. It’s the best work you’ve ever done. Your writing is a couple steps ahead. I think your meditation with the zombies on the last series made you find your voice on this series. I also find where you’re drawing your humor from to be unique. In this world? That’s almost a miracle. I apologize for not being more profuse…
Darrow: I wasn’t going on a fishing expedition for compliments. I always hear from other artists, Oh, I like what you do! But I always hear from writers who say, “I like the drawing…”
Bendis: No, no, the writer in me spends a great deal of time analyzing your choices as a writer/artist, because I’m writing for artists and some artists are as unique as you are. I take my responsibility to how much time I’m spending with them very seriously. I examine the work that you do for yourself and the many moments you give yourself to really go nuts—to really shine. It reminds me to let my collaborator shine, to get out of their way, to let them stand up. That was my big takeaway. Also, I’m going to start playing with time a little bit more. That’s my takeaway from Shaolin Cowboy. You’re messing with people’s heads on a few levels. I think there’s more room for that in comics.
Darrow: I think there’s room for all kinds of comics. One thing I was going to ask your take on…. One thing that kind of bothers me. Now there are comic books and there are graphic novels and it’s the same thing. I understand the need for graphic novels and I guess people say they don’t want to read comic books. But it bothers me that people have to call them graphic novels.
Bendis: It has shifted so much, and I’m sure you feel the same. When I broke in, it was still Bing, Bang, Boom!, though Harvey Pekar’s work had come out 30 years before. But over the course of the past few years, I guess the aughts were when the TV shows and movies really landed. My frustration now goes from people who would poo-poo the medium, but are obsessive about seeing these characters in other media. They’ll see Avengers: Age of Ultron 19 times, but they’ll never do the comic, because that’s beneath them. And that is ridonculous.
Darrow: I’ll go to some conventions where I’ll talk to people and they’ll say, “Do you read comics?” “Oh yeah, I love comic books.” “Which ones do you read?” “Oh, I just see the movies.”
Bendis: Listen, we have lots of fans who just watch the movies and TV shows. Do whatever you want. If you go, I’m just not much of a reader, great—no problem. But if you say comics are shit? No.
Darrow: I was in a cab somewhere in Europe or France, and somebody asked me what I did and I said I drew comics. They were hardly impressed. If you said you drew comics, they’d go, “Oh yeah?” He said, “Get a real job.”
Bendis: You have some credits you could throw in their faces. You could shut them up. I do feel, and this is what I’ve been thinking about all summer and I’m actually going to Marvel next week to discuss this at great length: everything about our culture has changed. Everything about the relationship the audience has with these characters, and not just the superheroes, but Hellboy, has changed. It’s completely different. Yet, the industry we work in acts completely the same as it did 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. We do nothing different, even though everything around us has changed, including the fact that these characters are so available in so many media, that comics are becoming the least important place where they are. And I think it’s important to make sure that that doesn’t happen. It starts and ends with us and I think we have to look at the format of our product, we should look at the pricing of our product, the delivery of our product and really sit there and ask, What are we doing that’s right and wrong? I’m worried about us getting buried by our own awesomeness. That’s a problem if everyone has a TV show. And literally every one of my friends has a TV show based on a comic that they wrote, or created or are working on. Well then, who’s going to be making the comics?
Darrow: I’ve ran into guys and their whole thing is they write or they draw thinking toward the movie or the TV show. There’s nothing wrong with that I guess, but I’ve always drawn what I want to draw.
Bendis: We always sound like hypocrites. You and I have both had what can be perceived as successes in film and television, so when we sound like don’t go pursuing it, we sound like hypocrites. But you and I both didn’t go looking for it, it came to find us. That’s a very different thing.
Darrow: The Matrix came about because of Hard Boiled. I’m working on a movie thing now, all I really want to do now is just draw comics because I can do what I want.
Bendis: Exactly. And you get spoiled. It’s fun. Even when you work on The Matrix, you’re still working for bosses.
Darrow: Since then, I’ve worked on…when I say real movies, I mean corporate films, or one of the versions of Superman. And it just wasn’t as much fun. It pays well, and I know a lot of guys in comics want to work in movies and a lot of guys in movies who want to work in comics.
Bendis: It’s my absolute favorite thing. I straddle both worlds, and the movie guys look over at us: They get to do whatever they want. And we look over at the movie guys: They get to go home and eat dinner and have money. My favorite thing is what happens when there’s a writers’ strike and a Screen Actors Guild strike and a few showrunners will come on down and do a little comic book work. And some of them will turn to one of us and say, “This is all you get paid for this?!” And they never come back.
Darrow: Some of the scripts that they write, because they don’t understand the medium and they still think in movie…and the first panel will be, “Joe enters the room, takes something out of a drawer, fires his gun, looks out the window, lights himself a cigarette and makes himself a sandwich. Panel one.”
Bendis: One-thousand percent. Or they’re novelists that come and they still think they’re getting paid by the word. But to flip sides, comic book people sometimes make that mistake. They will not embrace the language of film or television, and really stumble. You can’t just saunter in. You really have to spend a lot of time and work and think about what the similarities and differences are between the media before you embrace us or venture forth.
Darrow: When I used to write these scripts at Hanna-Barbera, and I was working on Super Friends, and they had no money. Sometimes they’d just describe the action: “That plane has just crashed into that monster, knocking that building over.” They’d cut from Superman saying that to the building, and it’s just a single drawing so they didn’t have to do any animation.
Bendis: In my opinion when you create a comic, it’s a real event. It’s a moment for everyone to pause, take a look.
Darrow: I appreciate it!