By Justin Wood
This may be one of the hardest books to review I've ever come across. In fact, I'd argue nothing I've read can compare to this. Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, collecting the Dark Horse era of Geoff Darrow's cult classic miniseries in hardcover, is evidence of an epic undertaking with over 120 pages of Darrow's immediately recognizable hyper-detailed linge claire style, meticulous from beginning to end. It's also an epic undertaking to read from cover to cover, a true endurance test. I can't quite tell how to classify this book. It's either a fascinating piece of experimental art or an insufferable oddity that only exists as evidence to Darrow's inexhaustible patience of drawing the exact same thing for months on end. Or maybe it's both.
In discussing the story, there isn't one. In 1964, Andy Warhol made a film called Empire which consisted solely of 8 hours of a single unedited shot of the Empire State Building. It's the closest thing I can compare Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet to, as it's 100+ page count is mostly one rarely interrupted fight scene between the titular cowboy and a horde of largely identical zombies. Interruptions of this scene are brief, infrequent, and nearly completely inconsequential to the vague concept of a story. It's all very intentional, the comic starts with a comically dense block of text catching you up on the "plot", seemingly constructed via free association. The hero chops, punches, and stomps zombies for around 100 pages and then the book abruptly ends. It's not a story. It's not supposed to be experienced as a story. Frankly, this thing is practically an art book and should be, in most cases, consumed as such. Put it on the back of your toilet, and when you have to use the facilities, open it up to a random page and appreciate the craftsmanship of the artwork. On their own, every page is interesting. Read in bulk, the comic is mindnumbing. It may be an action scene, but after a while the art starts to run together, most pages barely distinguishable from the last. Again, it's so comicly exaggerated that it begins to feel like a piece of experimental art, but if the exhausting extremity was some sort of intellectual joke on Darrow's part it boggles my mind the amount of work that went into pulling it off.
From my understanding, mangaka Akira Toriyama only started writing and drawing his series Dragonball because he wanted a series where he could draw whatever came to mind without needing to justify it logically. Shaolin Cowboy feels like a similar exercise, only if Toriyama wanted to draw just one thing over and over again. Rocky desert. Litter. Shriveled genital-less zombies. Zero-g blood. Chinese man. Over and over. Darrow has always had somewhat repetitive tastes in art, but the scale of this is terrifying. The greatest pity I have is for Eisner winning colorist Dave Stewart, whose perfectly balanced unsaturated tones compliment Darrow's artwork, but somewhat obviously by now, in the same way page after page. After a job like this, you want to offer the man a medal and free therapy.
Now, here comes the part that is so hard about talking about this book: a verdict. Most comics aim for the same, easy to understand goals. Even borderline impossible surreal titles like Nameless are after straightforward concepts. Books usually try to make you laugh, or try to scare you, or make you think, or raise your blood pressure. When you understand the goal, it's usually easy to make an estimation how close they came to the goal they were going for, or make judgements based on the failures or unintentional meanings the finished product resulted in. With Shaolin Cowboy, the goal completely escapes me. Experimental art? A prolonged joke? Actual completely unreadable entertainment? Half way through I stopped being amused and the whole exercise became borderline infuriating, staring at that Empire State building even though you know nothing is going to happen.
But here's the twist, the bent logic this far too literal critic needs to remain sane in the face of this monstrosity: I'm kind of glad it exists. Somewhere in the world a highly talented illustrator drew a highly detailed, gratuitously violent action sequence in excruciating detail for over 100 pages, like a grindhouse zen exercise, and published it in color. While a nightmare to experience in any kind of methodical fashion, as a sort of bizarre pop artifact Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet is kind of a miracle. Do I recommend you read it? No. But if you wanted to have it on your coffee table to amuse and impress your weirder friends, it's a good investment. It's a work of art, regardless of how valuable a work you might think it is in the long run. A strange, bewildering, insufferable, impressive piece of unreadable art. In that respect, reviewing it is kind of silly, but my verdict stands. I'm glad art like this exists in the world, but I also don't have to pretend to enjoy it.
[su_box title="Score: 2/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]
The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet Creator: Geof Darrow Publisher: Dark Horse Comics