Most readers encounter the work of comic book artists at the finished stage — after the art has been penciled, inked, colored, lettered, and printed. Peeks behind the creative process are therefore always welcome, and Dark Horse’s new book Lead Poisoning: The Pencil Art of Geof Darrow offers a plethora of insights. Darrow is one of the most legendary creators in the industry — he’s a three-time Eisner Award winner — having spent decades producing jam-packed visual fantasies featuring cyborgs, cowboys, cyberpunk detectives, and everything in between. The new book offers a wide range of Darrow’s pencil art, from character sketches and convention doodles to drawings dating back to his childhood. Without ink or color, this pencil art fully shows off all the painstaking details Darrow’s art is known for, accompanied by quotes and analysis from fellow comic legends, including Mike Mignola, Sergio Aragones, Richard Corben, and more.
Certain images and recurring themes are evident in Lead Poisoning. The Shaolin Cowboy, the protagonist of a series of comics Darrow has written since 2005, appears in several, including one of him riding a gigantic turtle. “Riding” is a common motif in Darrow’s work; several Lead Poisoning drawings show smaller creatures riding on top of towering monsters or impossibly complex machines, while the villain in the latest Shaolin Cowboy miniseries is a crab that rides on top of people’s heads while controlling their movements. According to Darrow, this was inspired by a drawing by Ron Cobb, who did a lot of conceptual design for both Alien and Star Wars.
“In Star Wars, the first one, there’s a shot of a stormtrooper riding on top of the lizard,” Darrow tells EW. “I think that was inspired by this drawing Cobb had done, of a guy riding on a giant lizard. I saw that in high school and was like, that’s the coolest thing ever!‘ I’m always trying to achieve that level of capability and drawing and making it look convincing. I also just like vehicles of all sorts.”
Even when they’re not riding giant lizards or other fantastic vehicles, Darrow’s creations are often bursting with details. To offset this, Darrow often sets these characters against unremarkable backgrounds in order to play up the contrast.
“I always think that if you draw something crazy, but if you make the background fairly realistic, whatever’s going on in front of it will seem even crazier because it’s grounded in reality,” Darrow says. “Like when Robert Altman built the set for Popeye, all the buildings are wood — browns and some greens. And then you had these characters that were super colorful and totally unreal, and they just popped because you had this background that contrasted.”
The Shaolin Cowboy, in particular, drifts across any number of ordinary-looking backgrounds while dealing with otherworldly enemies. The 2013 miniseries Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet kicks off with the titular character fighting off an entire horde of zombies against a nondescript desert highway, and this year’s Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? pits him against gigantic animals and the aforementioned mind-controlling crab in the middle of an average American city street.
Mignola, a friend of Darrow’s who is quoted in Lead Poisoning, once told EW that Hellboy was “kind of my ‘everything’ book,” where “anything I want to do, I’m gonna do with this guy.” Darrow says Shaolin Cowboy fulfills a similar function for him: An avatar he can drop into any situation that interests him.
“Mike and I actually talked about it. He’s an engine,” Darrow says of the character. “He’s a little bit like Clint Eastwood in those Man With No Name movies, and he just kind of shows up and things happen around him and he reacts to them. He’s not married into any kind of genre.”
The Shaolin Cowboy, therefore, encounters the things Darrow is thinking about — and like most people these days, Darrow says his thoughts often turn to President Trump. His name appears several times in the latest Shaolin Cowboy series, emblazoned over radioactive material, uttered by the mind-controlling crab’s swastika-tattooed followers, and always hovering in the background.
“I actually did a lot of that Trump stuff way before he was elected,” Darrow says. “He just always annoyed the hell out of me. He seemed extremely pompous and narcissistic, and the more it went on, and the more he started winning, it just bothered me more and more. I thought it was kind of funny to put it in there.”
He continues: “Maybe I have a disconnect — I’m not a religious person — but I can’t understand how anybody who says they are Christian could support that guy. You overlook so much stuff with that guy, I can’t wrap my head around it. I just don’t understand it. It saddens and mystifies me. His hatred of Obama – I think that he’s so f–ing intimidated by that guy. It’s making him crazy and just wants to erase any trace of that man from the face of the Earth. It’s just so sad and childish.”