Darrow! There you are!

*Recipe for magic: I stumbled home at about two or three in the morning and for some unfathomable reason I couldn’t get to sleep so I started to rustle through my stacks and stacks of bargain comics that I’d bought in bulk from months back. No better time to read those fuckers than in such a state at that particular time of the evening.

You know what suddenly hit me, around the time I finally got to sleeping at 6:00AM or so? The old Fantagraphics anthology “Zero Zero”, which began in 1995 and ran for 27 pamphlet-form issues, was an amazing goddamned series. I managed to get eighteen issues of that thing for one dollar each, and there’s so much good stuff in there that never got collected into a trade or whatever that it's baffling. I guess the ‘big’ serial the book did was Richard Sala’s “The Chuckling Whatsit”, which ran for eighteen chapters, although that one did get compiled into a now out-of-print collected form (which I think Fanta is reviving this year). But far greater were such lost gems as Mack White’s “Homunculus”, an excellent blend of ancient myth and Christian iconography with bizarre sexual images and subtexts, and a quest worthy of a Cinemascope epic, with the title character searching for the lost half of his body, which provides the key to his powers as a ¼ god (you see, he used to be a full-sized man with a miniature twin growing out of his belly, but then the Evil Romans had him crucified and his mini self escaped, but now he needs to locate his big body to regain his powers, of course). It's fascinating work, and White's meaty, realist artwork makes some of the wilder creatures all the more potent, like a goddess' winged steed formed largely of living phalluses. Great work.

Then there’s Kim Deitch, who had both “The Strange Secret of Molly O’Dare” in issues #6-8 and “The Search for Smilin’ Ed” in issues #21-27 (excluding #23 and 26), providing some of the tall-tale fact-flinging action as currently seen in Deitch’s superb “The Stuff of Dreams” (which every last one of you needs to check out, two issues available, go go go). Plus, the earlier serial ties into some of Deitch’s prior work on his 1989 “Shadowland” series, although it also provides a truly satisfying stand-alone story by itself. Neither of these “Zero Zero” works (nor “Shadowland”, actually) have been collected into trade form, as far as I can tell.

And while it’s not a serialized story or anything, some of these issues have some impressive short work by the infamous and non-prolific Al Columbia, including an incredible two-color Fleischer Brothers homage in issue #4. This stuff is leaps and bounds above anything he’d done before, such as in his scratchy, shock-laden 1994-1995 two-issue series “The Biologic Show”, capturing a keen design sense and some brilliantly smooth character art. Which only makes one more anxious to see new work, which apart from his scripting work on “The Pogostick” (and from my experience, pure scripting isn’t where Columbia’s primary strengths reside), has been sadly absent.

And there’s tons more. Tons more. Gotta raise up those hopes for “Mome”…

Oh, and I didn't wake up until about 4:00 this afternoon.

Shaolin Cowboy Vol. 54 Issue #2

Yep, found it yesterday. Yep, they’re still playing that game with the title. Oddly, all they had in stock was Mike Mignola’s variant cover, so that‘s now what I own.

I’m really starting to understand the ‘Vol. 54’ in the legal print, since writer/artist Geof Darrow is plainly in no hurry to reveal any background about his title hero, leaving us to imagine a no-doubt complicated backstory with scores of prior adventures. All you need to know is that the Shaolin Cowboy rides through the world on his faithful talking donkey, Lord Evelyn Dunkirk Winnieford Esq. the Third, and confronts many many enemies that he’s made along the way. This second issue brings our opening arc to a close, and you may to surprised to realize that any sort of ‘arc’ had formed. Maybe I should say that the story here resolves itself. Yeah, that’s better.

If you’ll recall from countless reviews, issue #1 of this title featured an utterly ridiculous ten-page spread of assorted villains, which actually inspired a bit of admiration on my part at the sheer conspicuous consumption cheek of it all. This issue is not like that; in fact, it’s quite plot-heavy. The ‘plot’ is 100% nonsense, admittedly, but it’s entertaining nonsense, if maybe a little more forced than the easy-going absurdity of last issue.

As we last left Our Heroes, a whole lot of villains were dead, and a whole lot more were still alive, and a talking crab burst in to stop the issue. Here, we learn this tragic archvillain’s story. He once lived an idyllic life with his family and betrothed in a run-down restaurant’s tank, until the dark day when the Shaolin Cowboy burst in and ordered the all-you-can-eat special. The only thing on this human plane that can match the Cowboy’s martial arts skill is his appetite for discount seafood, and the Hungry Man Meal Deal soon became a crab family holocaust, with only one survivor. Thusly, this bitter crab, King Crab in fact, vowed revenge and embarked on three solid weeks of martial arts training with the Cowboy’s own former temple, who seem to really hate him. All through this narration, the long line of villains (well, the ones who aren’t dead) plead to tell their own origin stories, King Crab trips over more than a handful of factual errors in the telling of his tale (all dutifully logged by the Cowboy’s steed), many a wildly juvenile joke is told (“My lips don’t concern your ass,” declared the King - lol he’s talking about a DONKEY folks, no sweat!), several somewhat weak industry references are put forth (an “Avengers Disassembled” joke?), there’s awful puns galore, and a grown man/average-sized crab martial arts showdown brings us to the end.

This is pretty handily the best new book I got this week, and really a lot of fun, even though you can start to sense Darrow straining to be Wacky! at certain points. But even when overextended, the writing style matches Darrow’s gorgeous art perfectly, and his excellence at fight scenes is undimmed by the passage of time. Let's not forget the fine colors and letters by Peter Doherty, or the generally amusing prologue written by the Wachowski brothers (also the book's publishers). And unlike that other book Burlyman’s putting out, I didn’t feel like my intelligence was being insulted and there’s no pretension toward any freshman-year dorm room political message. No, the message of “Shaolin Cowboy” is a mature and insightful one, truly words for the sophisticated reader to savor, as articulated by the dear Lord Winnieford:

This is why I stick to processed foods… the processing plant serves as a barrier between the consumer and a potentially vengeful relative of the eaten party.”

Now that’s one to grow on.