Life is a series of rabbit holes, all waiting in their proper place to trap hapless wanderers into writing blogposts about what they’ll find within.
A few weeks back, I happened upon a copy of Dark Horse Presents #19, originally released in July of 1990: a book of some interest – among its contents you’ll find an able, if typical, Rick Geary piece, a rather muddy continuing serial about a rictus-grinned fourth-wall breaking character called Masque (later to gain renown as Jim Carrey’s sophomore stepping stone to mid-nineties comedy domination), and something else, I think – they can’t all be winners, or even memorable. But what compelled me to shed seventy-five cents for the issue was the story advertised by the figure on the cover, standing apart and dominant from his co-stars – Bourbon Thret; he bore a gun shooting a grimacing bullet, an awkward stance, and all the tell-tale textures of a Geof Darrow piece. A fine piece of work – enough to provoke a round of quick research later on, with everything I deem relevant filed in my computer brain.
A week later, another used bookstore. A batch of newly price-tagged Heavy Metal back issues in the mature “ID-only!” section behind the cash register counter, beckoning at me amidst a copy of the Kama Sutra and a few volumes of Nana – being a boy on a budget, I only pick one among the other items already in my basket (Hey – Kim Deitch back issues a buck each! It was a good day for hunting). Perhaps some unseen angel (or demon) guided my instincts, lending a stray bit of glowing aura to this specific issue, or maybe it was the brown paper enfolding it with an address sticker attached, proof that it had come pre-loved, by someone willing to sign that love onto a check or money order. Anyway, when I finally opened up that decomposing magazine, there he was again – Bourbon Thret, smiling inscrutably and in pursuit of his prey: ME.
Geof Darrow – if you’re reading this you’re probably aware of him. He’s something of a standard bearer at this moment of form over content in comics, form decisively trouncing content whenever Darrow maneuvers his way through a page. Hard-Boiled, which catapulted him into “Who is this guy and where did he come from?” status back in the early nineties, wasn’t particularly strong as a story – a layer thin treatment of a premise that can be poked through by a ten-year old, particularly the poignancy shoehorned in all throughout, but you suspect Miller is just setting things up for Darrow and then getting the hell out of the way; if you’re on the lookout for a similar work, just as exuberant in terms of bravura ultraviolence but punctuated with satire that’s more handmade and less rented-for-the-occasion, you’re better off with Bakune Young – but as a tour de force of stylization it was hard to ignore, with a long-fuse impact that seems to have been felt most intensely in the past few years, particularly in the forward-thinking front of Image’s current line-up. Squint a bit and you can spot his influence, not always overriding but certainly there, sometimes directly, sometimes in overall aesthetic approach, and sometimes both.
It’s not too hard to grasp the entirety of his current narrative catalog with one hand: Hard-Boiled, Big Guy And Rusty The Robot, seven fine issues of Shaolin Cowboy, an early curio entitled Comics And Stories, and a handful of one-off strips*; with that in mind, if you encounter a work of his that breaks the one page barrier, you grab it and make it your own. That list can be divided in two quite easily, with one half a thousand variations of frenzied urban clutter and the other the dusty lands of pastiche, i.e. those with “Frank Miller” in 40-point font on the cover and those without. Or, barring content and context, you can define the difference between them as a shifting of emphases, the Miller collaborations filled with grid-like tableaus of perpetual motion, with the chaos therein differing only in slight degree pre- and mid-carnage, and Darrow’s work as sole creator nicely summed up by Joe McCulloch as “…bodily above environmental”.
Bourbon Thret, Darrow’s first official comics creation, falls mostly within the latter. As an excuse for Darrow to dip his toes in the comics arena and draw whatever he felt like, he served his purpose well. (You could say this is pretty much what Darrow has always done, if you believe the anecdotes that surround his later collaborations – Hard-Boiled and its creation leaps to mind, Darrow inadvertently hi-jacking the somewhat more grounded narrative Miller originally intended when he submitted those first pages portraying a too-wounded figure set against the world (Darrow, paraphrased from his recent Inkstuds interview: “Well, Nixon wasn’t supposed to be a robot!”).) Thret had a brief run lasting about half a decade, popping up every few years in foreign limited editions and the odd anthology for the eagle-eyed – and apparently jet-setting – comics reader to search out before Darrow’s other projects presumably waylaid the character.
Mind you, I doubt anyone with an eye on Darrow is too hasty to mourn its continued absence, at least from the vantage point of this here new millennium; after all, Shaolin Cowboy, Darrow’s sole venture into stamping his authorial signature onto the form of the 32-page floppy, is Bourbon Thret in all but name, or at least the same impulse carried over into a name with a more immediately recognizable (i.e. commercial) cache and uniform visual appearance (and the prominent addition of a talking donkey). Those original free-floating pieces share not only the same muse with that series but provide its embryonic form, their scenarios extrapolated into multi-issue epics of vengeful crabs, inane rhyming demons, mammoths erupting from the sand, and wandering babies with mp3 players. That title, between 2004 and 2007, saw seven issues of rambling glory before an abrupt – and likely permanent – pause. But even then, it refuses to lay down, with Darrow more recently focused upon shepherding the character from the humble four-color page into an animated feature; no doubt that’s a distant proposition, with the road to that most financially relevant of mediums strewn with the corpse of many a “dormant property”, but it may be fitting for a character with such a clear debt to the movies.
Whatever name attaches itself to him, the character’s pedigree remains a cinematic hodge-podge, a neat merger of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with its unofficial remake, Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, but played in the key of silent comedy – Thret’s spectrum of character is a small one which runs from Buster Keaton stoicism to the befuddlement of Tati’s M. Hulot, this last connection made explicit in the final panel of the Thret’s first story. Like Tati, sound (such as it is on the always mute page) and dialogue are there more for the sake of ornamentation and formalist gags than any utilitarian purpose, with ceaseless babble, malleable word balloons, ideograms, and word play that strays into and out of coherence all floating, pleasant and irrelevant, way above the story. There’s very little that needs explanation and behind whatever question marks you may have, you’ll uncover a charming and superfluous mush.
As ever with Darrow, what’s on the page is a bottom-up process, all content proceeding from the potent image of a body in action** – Nixon poised in his tattered frame of synthetic flesh, Thret standing his ground against all the thugs that can fill a double splash page panel, etc. – with wondrous and damn near self-sufficient scenes, not so much memorable as experiential, built upon that foundation. It’s all on the page where everything’s happening, with every gesture, however intricate or baroque it may initially scan, leading easily into the next.
The character greeted the world in 1984 with “Bourbon Thret Episode #301: The Parochial Terror”***, a four page strip which originally saw print in good-n-garish bande dessinee institution Metal Hurlant, and was subsequently expanded to thirteen pages the next year for release in Heavy Metal, Hurlant’s stateside counterpart (ALSO: Did you know that “metal hurlant” translates as “screaming metal”, not “heavy metal”? The things you take for granted…).
The story, in its less-abbreviated English form, is a bit of straight-ahead riffing, with our lumpy and unself-conscious protagonist plopped into an elaborate and makeshift science-fiction setting of a kind not uncommon to Heavy Metal strips, the emphasis less on world-building and more on effect: Bourbon Thret, on a commission from the Universal Church’s Holy Order Of Contented Cows Of The 7th Level Of Iconoclastic Child Behavioral Studies And Car Repair for a hit against a rogue nun spreading heretical cuisine, walks into his target’s cantina homebase, takes out – sword in hand – all of the adherents who stand in his way, and then gets the job officially done. It’s a brief, boiled down version of a pretty rote scenario, common to American and Asian popular cinema – the quiet man of action proving his worth against all comers – framed by bits of absurdist embroidering that are pretty much a given with Darrow. Fighting happens, monster chops are showcased – both Thret’s and Darrow’s – and then it stops. There’s also red tanks and a bull dog wearing a weird gas mask because, y’know, Darrow.
Darrow’s artistic signature looks to have emerged near fully-formed here: the simple and precise mise en scene, the obsessive detailing (a few hundred thugs and each of them with their own day-glo armor, albeit not all colored in, cuz it’s a one-man job and there are only so many hours in the day), the off-hand exactitude of his body language. What differences there are are near negligible: the bodies are a touch more stiff, with his compositions slightly less viscerally immediate, the energetic complexity of his “in media res” moments a hair off what we’d later expect, and, most noticeably, you can see the hands of the claire ligne masters resting heavier on his shoulders, less Moebius and more Herge – the edges of everything just a bit rounder, the contours smoother, less stippled. But you’d be hard-pressed to label it anyone else’s work – no one marries excess with clarity quite like Darrow.
A fine addition to the resume. The next year, 1986, would make it even more impressive, with French publisher Aedena releasing two Bourbon Thret centric titles, at least one of which gets the privilege of its own golly-gee copyright page. The first was an 80-page album bearing the gleefully vague title of Comics And Stories, a description that carries over into its contents as well, judging by the sheer lack of concrete info I’m finding via the web; if the covers offer any indication, Bourbon Thret’s adventures in bemused violence continue apace. This was followed by the (very) limited edition East Meets West (1986), which the po-faced Wikipedia page describes as “…a ten plate portfolio story about the adventures of Bourbon Thret and Clint Eastwood”. Circumstances mentioned at the beginning of this post, I can only pass over these in silence.****
Anyway, almost certainly barring a few pin-ups (Darrow’s easy mastery of the dense single image may lend these some discussion-worthy narrative weight), Bourbon Thret made his last official appearance in Dark Horse Presents #19, with the nine-page “Sead”, where we began.
If “The Parochial Terror!” is reducible to a threadbare gesture well executed, a nascent cartoonist’s round of target practice with the medium, “Sead” is something else. It’s comprised of a few basic elements – man, desert, beast – and all the antics that result when those elements interact. To wit: Bourbon Thret goes anglin’ for water in the desert, by which I mean he buries the end of his fishing line in the ground and waits for a nibble (yup), and soon gets more hydration than he bargained for, courtesy of a hot water bottle leviathan that doesn’t look too kindly upon those hunting her and her brood; hi-jinx, etc.
Simply put, everything works. After the first panel, it doesn’t stand still, with nearly every image thereafter bound tight to Thret’s movement – jumping, pulling, being pulled, falling, etc. The economy of it is a wonder, a simple sequence of action and reaction sustained over nine pages – actually sixteen, considering the sideways turn the pages take after the first two while still retaining the dimensions of the traditional comic book page, meaning every page thereafter is proportional to a double splash panel spread.
It’s as streamlined a work as you can imagine, with no clutter. Oh, there are set pieces, like this page:
It seems to have emerged from some collective unconsciousness – Thret’s poise all throughout, the tautness of the line and its graceful slackness in the third panel, the shoes dug in the sand, the punchline in the final frame; everything seems both incredible and inevitable. But no matter how individually impressive, everything has its cog-like function and all in the service of a story as lean and unified in structure as a Krazy Kat strip or a Road Runner cartoon. It’s the kind of thing that might lead an audience member to ask “Well, why aren’t they all like this?”
“Sead”, with all its weight placed on the spectacle of pure physicality set against the barest of landscapes, seems an easy glimpse of Shaolin Cowboy – the clear destination in the sunset which features in the strip’s final panel for Darrow, knowing what we know now.
But that would be a long way off.
Hard-Boiled was much closer, only two years away, but the gulf from here to there was a vast one. There, Darrow would pull off one of the finer balancing acts of the decade, edging toward disorientation and a destabilized narrative every few pages – finding your focus pulled elsewhere in the frame and, maybe, playing in there, getting lost – all the while keeping his hand firmly on the steering wheel of storytelling. It might be something else he shares with Tati, the idea that you, the reader or viewer, could choose your own adventure among all the options on display; notably, they both opt frequently for the similar angles, the raised height that tilts downward while still keeping the theatrical proscenium arch in view, the better for the image’s depth to enclose as many figures, all those possibilities, within the reader or viewer’s sight. Of course, Darrow, unlike Tati, probably isn’t guided by any ideology of stretching the notion of “pop” into “populist”, merely seeing how far he could push an idea. Either way, the story must go on: in Playtime, Tati lets those moments linger on for a bit before making the inevitable concession to progress and Darrow’s single panel set pieces swallow up those possibilities as soon as they’re presented. It is one of the more lovely dead ends in art, that impulse – to let the audience go their own way, should they be so inclined, or at least imply it, which is more than most artists can do.
Darrow, of course, would swing back, refocus. Thret would return and to a grander canvas, changed but the same, like most comic characters. And beyond that, who knows whether he’ll get the hypothetical third act his creator intends, one with more real-than-real moving textures, one unchanging panel to frame him, and a literal third act (followed by credits!), but, if so, it’s hard to imagine how he’d be improved, his actions felt on the still page with far more impact than most, regardless of medium.
*And, beyond this, there are extant materials too numerous to list here – pin-ups, covers, and the like – which abound across time, space, genre, and corporate trademark. HEED MY WARNING: do not be seduced by the variant cover to Tin Can Man #1.
**The same principle holds for most comics, obviously, the majority of superhero comics specifically, the image depicted on the cover or on the plastic fast-food cup or the jigsaw puzzle of Batman and Robin I recall obsessively doing when I was four. Functionally every resulting narrative, beyond the character’s origin maybe, is fleeting commentary, a none-too-weighty footnote to that image.
***The apocryphal ongoing serial joke – y’know, just like the original formal gambits of the first Star Wars movie or Leonard Part 6 – will get played out repeatedly in Shaolin Cowboy as well, most amusingly on the cover to issue #4, which offers a glimpse of quaint and tattered prose works starring the Cowboy, the tenor of which runs completely counter to any of the actual narratives on display. Fun stuff.
****BUT NOT REALLY: after all, you could google up East Meets West and find many a helpful Flickr image, all deadpan violence and liberal image appropriation. I’m not quite keen on placing it up as an item for discussion here, though, and that’s not just my predisposition towards funnybooks in their “book” (and, hopefully, “funny”) totality, print comics on the computer always being pretty much a drag. The iPad may indeed overcome any prevailing luddite instincts and lead us on to the promised land, as many fine and trustworthy folks claim, with an unsullied copy of Mighty Thor #133 and a complete collection of Mark Newgarden’s The Little Nun strips all properly pixilated and ready to delight me at my immediate disposal courtesy of a wondrous mechanical box straight out of Lord Kirby’s mightiest dreams, but right now, I’m just a poor lad who subsists on rocks and wind for his meals and whose internet connection is comprised of cans and foil-covered strings. I’ve got my monocle and top hat ready for when my day comes, though…
Anyway, Flickr seems a less than ideal form to view anything other than direct experience, and, as such, it seems to flatten out any aesthetic effect filtered through it; a rendition of Clint Eastwood shootin’ dudes, much less Geof Darrow’s, should never be anything less than immediate. Maybe it’s an inadvertent decontextualization effect – in this instance, the pictures framed by their packaging and the table they’ve been placed upon, and thus the comic’s mode of transmission acknowledges a space beyond its natural boundaries. Breaking those boundaries works fine as performance or commentary, whether the relationship be comic-to-reality, comic-to-comic, film-to-film, whatever (and there’s always the fun of watching the implicit competition which arises when you juxtapose one already-made work to something outside of it). Try to put your focus on one item within that framework, though, and you’re left with… well, a chore.