Edited by Kaitlin Campos
In all four issues of The Shaolin Cowboy, the eponymous cowboy has only uttered 1 word: ‘Amitoufu.’ Based on my limited research (mainly Wikipedia related), the phrase (or some derivation of it) originates in the school of Pure Land Buddhism (the most prominent form of Buddhism in China) and acts as a Mahayana Sutra chant.
This means that it’s a chant meant to invoke mindfulness of a previous Buddha, who has achieved enlightenment, in an attempt to focus oneself to achieve enlightenment also— though within the Chinese school, it’s used a way of emptying one’s mind. I like to think this was a subtle in-joke from writer and artist Geof Darrow, because that’s what this comic series has been like: having your mind emptied.
In case you haven’t been following my reviews, The Shaolin Cowboy is a comic series that follows shaolin monk, who is also a cowboy, and his battle with a horde of the undead. I should stipulate; I don’t mean that in a Walking Dead or a Land of the Dead or even a The Strain or World War Z manner. The series has just been a full 4 issues of the anonymous karate man beating up an army of zombies. He rarely speaks, and there are no other characters; it’s just 4 straight issues of zombie killing. Dark Horse has accordingly marketed the title as a high-octane thrill ride with “So much action, you’ll get an adrenaline contact high!” which is both laughably inaccurate and kind of anti the actual thesis of the comic, for you see, reader, The Shaolin Cowboy has delusions of being about something.
I touched on this in my review of issue 3, but it bears repeating here, because this issue sees the subtext of the series come right out into the text in a big way, beyond just the metaphorical dead. Obviously, zombies-as-symbolism isn’t a new concept; in fact, the zombies on display in The Shaolin Cowboy are actually rather similar to the zombified metaphors of Dawn of the Dead, in which director George Romero used the undead as a representation of mindless consumerism. The shambling corpses of The Shaolin Cowboy have the same meaning, though a more biblically grounded reasoning behind it— a reasoning that you won’t understand unless you tracked down the previous story, despite this being a new series.
Lucky for me, as I had not heard of The Shaolin Cowboy before this issue, in the Dark Horse online plot summaries, they mention that these zombies are meant to be from the 4th circle of Hell. Now, for those of you who prefer the adventures of Superman and the Hulk to Dante’s Inferno, the 4th circle of hell is where the sin of Greed is punished, and part of that punishment is that the greedy lose their individuality to the greater collective host of greed. That’s the central concept of the zombies here; they represent the all-consuming nature of corporate greed (as indicated through the many corporate brands tattooed on the various zombies) and the way it can wipe away personal identity, and the Shaolin Cowboy is battling against as a sort of balanced middle ground between Eastern and Western cultures.
This message is almost interesting if, again, it didn’t require peripheral reading to actually become clear, but issue 4 decides to send it into a sharp right hand turn into distasteful; I won’t say exactly how, because it’s a spoiler for the ending, but let’s just say it involves an incredibly mean-spirited stereotypical caricature of “the ugly American.” I’m not sure if this caricature is meant to tie into the 4th circle of hell thing representing the prodigal who squander wealth in contrast to the greedy who horde it, or if they’re just there as an angry middle finger at no one in particular, but it doesn’t work, not for a second.
Most of the things about the caricatures that are meant to be horrible are just very basic things, like being tattooed, drinking beer, wearing shirts with corporate logos, or taking selfies, which is just about the last thing anyone should be complaining about (seriously, complaining about people taking selfies is like walking up to someone, slapping them in the face, and shouting “You shouldn’t like yourself!), and ultimately just confuses any actual point of the comic. This ending just comes completely out of nowhere and shatters the tone of the series, while accomplishing nothing other than feeling needlessly angry; it’s the comic book equivalent of Throw It On the Ground.
The Shaolin Cowboy was a mess. I desperately wanted it to be good and afforded it the benefit of the doubt at every turn, but here at the end, it just doesn’t hold up. The action in this comic is jumbled and boring, with only a couple cool moments, but in general there’s so much of it to desensitize you to those moments. The cowboy has no character, so there’s very little investment in his fate, and as a result, the action has no tension or urgency. The artwork is occasionally nice, but generally tries to work in way too much and comes off cluttered; I don’t recommend it, and the whole the series feels like it’s wasting your time.