In part one of our interview with comic book legend Geof Darrow, we discussed his Dark Horse comic book The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, now in hardcover, as well as his love of cinema. In our continuing conversation, we talk more about that series, as well as his time working in film and animation.
FreakSugar: You did a lot of animation designs for cartoons such as Super Friends, Pac-Man, and Richie Rich. Were there any of the shows that you go back and look at and think, “That was an awesome design”?
Geof Darrow: Never. [laughs] Not a single one.
FS: [laughs] Not a single one?
GD: [laughs] Not a single one. I was so bad at it. There’s stuff I liked—There’s probably a statute of limitations that I can get away with it. We used to put the names of the trucks that were in the backgrounds. [laughs] And we had one of the worst—Do you know who Ed Gein [an American murderer] is?
GD: We wrote on one truck “Gein’s Meats” and the other was “Gacy’s Boys Wear” after John Wayne Gacy who killed a bunch of people. We did it because the networks had Standards and Practices and they would look at our drawings and decide if they were racist because there were would be Chinese and African Americans in the shows. And this group of old white ladies would decide if we were racist or not.
We had this great department head of layout named Don Morgan on Super Friends who was an artist on Pogo. He went in and yelled at them and said, “Look, who are you to decide if this person looks too black or this person looks too Chinese?” And nobody did a drawing like those horrible old things they did in the 1930s and 40s. By the time [Standards and Practices] got through with them, the characters looked just like white people who were colored brown, which I found more offensive. They couldn’t have Afros.
FS: Which seems odd, seeing as how that was the style at the time, especially if you look at [Super Friends character] Black Vulcan.
GD: Oh my God, I was working at that in that period. I was like, my God. I could go on. I have so many funny stories about stuff we would run up against. At that point, the networks were so worried about kids getting hurt. Like Firestorm [a character on Super Friends] couldn’t have a flaming head because they were afraid someone would set fire to his head. So his head was modeled after the torch from the Statue of Liberty.
FS: I remember that!
GD: They would throw in stuff like a samurai who had a lightning sword. And then they had El Jaguar who would throw in a Spanish phrase like “Madre de Dios” that everyone would know. And we couldn’t draw anything too dangerous. I remember drawing a warship that the network complained has too many points. They said it was too war-like. The title of it was the Zygon Warship. It was a warship! What do you want, flowers growing on the deck? And most of the guns at that time looked like pencils or paperclips. They could not look like a gun. They looked like a flashlight or a remote control or something like that.
GD: [Legendary comic book artist Jack] Kirby was there. They’d bring him in and he’d draw something. Some of it made it on, some of it didn’t. It was an amazing learning experience. I learned more working there than I did from art school. There were some amazing artists working, but it didn’t get reflected on the screen too often because they made it so cheaply.
FS: See, now I want to go back and watch Super Friends and do a whole article about how Ed Gein made it into the show. [laughs]
GD: There are so many stories. The writing was so—I always bring this up. There was one episode, I think it was called “The Space Giant” where astronomers were looking up at the sky and, all of a sudden, the moon is blacked out. And they can’t figure it out. So they analyze the situation and it’s this giant strand of hair from a giant who is striding through space and collecting planets like marbles and putting them in his bag. And he plucks the Earth and puts it in his bag! And nothing happens! The Earth is fine! [laughs] Superman eventually flies out and beats the giant, I can’t remember how. There’s a great shot of Superman pushing Earth back into its orbit, but you can see him pushing it in profile. So, in theory, he would have to be a thousand stories tall to even appear on the edge of the globe. But the network didn’t care. [laughs]
Sometime we’ll have to talk about Super Friends. I was there right at the end of Hanna-Barbera as we know it. When I was there, they still had the ink-and-paint girls, they called them. In the basement or the first floor they had a hundred women painting The Flintstones or whatever it was. And then the next year or the year after, they started sending it over seas and doing computer color. When I left, the only department left was the model department. The animation was shipped out, layouts they shipped out. They still did the key layouts and key backgrounds, but it went from a giant factory to just one floor with 25 or 30 people there.
FS: I know you’ve worked a lot on the Wachowskis’ films. Does your experience make you more or less inclined to work on more movies? I know comics and films are such different animals.
GD: It’s such an odd thing. When I was working on the movies, and the Wachowskis were so nice to me, it was an amazing experience. They allowed me to see how a movie got made from the very beginning right until the very end, up to the press junkets. I saw all of the good and the bad. People don’t realize how hard even selling a movie is. Even the actors pay a price for all that fame. I’ve seen how it can turn you into a prisoner of your own fame. When I was working on those, I was thinking, “I just wish I could draw comics again because I can draw whatever I want.” I was always concerned that I was doing a good job and doing what the Wachowskis wanted. They were paying so much money and I felt like I should be hitting a homerun every time. It was really hard for me in that respect.
The other guys who did that work, though, that was their full-time job, they did it year-in and year-out. They would go from working on The Matrix to Stuart Little, which was hard for me to wrap my head around. [laughs] And they all wanted to work in comics! The guys who work in comics often want to work in movies and the guys who work in movies often want to work in comics. It’s because there’s that tradeoff.
When you work on a movie—except for The Matrix, which was a very different experience—you’re just another bolt in the machine. You can count the number of guys who have had an effect on a film and you know who they are. You got your H.R. Gigers and your Ralph McQuarries, but, for the most part, you have so many amazing artists that you don’t know who they are. Because it is a director’s film, it’s his vision you’re doing, if you’re doing your job. You’re not trying to impose your own vision on them.
FS: Is there anything you’ve seen on screen that you think is most representative of your work?
GD: There’s stuff in The Matrix I can point to. I’ll always remember watching the movie at the premiere and I didn’t think they would use anything that I did. And I’m watching it and I go, “Wow! That’s that thing I drew!” And the Wachowskis were both looking down the aisle looking at me with big smiles on their faces. When you see those guys plugged into those pods, that was the first thing I ever drew on The Matrix. “Wow! They used that!” Or the sentinels or the harvesting robots. There’s a lot of stuff. But there were a lot of other guys working on the film. Steve Skroce was there. God, that guy storyboarded 70% of those three films.
FS: I didn’t realize that Steve Skroce was involved.
GD: Oh yeah, and it made everyone else look bad. [laughs] He was their go-to storyboard guy. He storyboarded all of their movies, right through Jupiter Rising and Speed Racer and V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin. He’s an amazing artist. I don’t know how he does it. He draws so fast. He has such a fluidity to what he does. I didn’t do much storyboarding. I don’t think I’m very good at that. It was mainly conceptual stuff.
FS: Back to The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet, I like the fact that it doesn’t have many words in the story because you can concentrate on the art and it helps me to fill in what I think the Cowboy is thinking, even if I’m way off-base. It plugs me into the story in a way that a dialogue-heavy book doesn’t always do.
GD: Yeah, as I was doing it, I thought that I could throw in some dialogue, but I thought that I didn’t want him to be Spider-Man. I didn’t want him to say as he was fighting all of those zombies, “Head’s up!” [laughs] You know, that kind of quippy stuff would seem redundant. If you’re fighting that many people, you’re going to run out of breath! You’re going to keep your mouth shut and try to get the Hell out of there. It’s so surreal, but I thought about it realistically, which is really stupid. [laughs] That’s what I do, I write these weird situations and try to add realism. But he has this fucking chainsaw, why do I do that? [laughs]
FS: I don’t think it’s stupid. I think within the world you created, you inject the necessary realism. It’s a good storytelling exercise.
GD: You know, I think if you’re going to do something, you have to do it seriously, because, otherwise, the audience is going to think you’re kind of poking fun at them. I think that the comic is funny in a weird sort of way. I hope so. It’s kind of ridiculous. [laughs]
FS: I love your book Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. Do you have any plans to revisit that world?
GD: Yeah, I do. It’s a little complicated. [Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot writer] Frank [Miller] is busy. It’s something we worked on together and I like working with him, even though I’m sure it’s nightmarish because he never knows what I’m doing. [laughs] But yeah, I’ve got an idea for something.
FS: Do you have anything you’re currently working on?
GD: I’m doing another Shaolin Cowboy that I’m drawing as I speak. It has a few more words that the other one. The main reason I did the first one like I did was that I thought I would have it set in the desert so I can draw it really fast. [laughs] But then I put in all those zombie-things that slowed me down to a snail’s pace. I thought that I have to get him out of the desert because I’m tired of drawing rocks, so I got him back in the city. But now I’m like now I have to draw all this crap in the city! [laughs] But I like drawing. I like drawing everything. The only thing I don’t think I would like drawing because I’m not good at it is something on the water. Water is so hard.
FS: I would think so.
GD: My water always looks like Popeye water. There’s a perspective to the waves unless the water is unnaturally calm. That’s where my story would take place. [laughs]
FS: Man, this has been a treat and an honor. Thank you so much for being so gracious.
GD: Thank you for taking the time.
Also be sure to check out our 10/10 review of The Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet!