If The Matrix has a comic-book feel to it, that's entirely by design. Specifically, the conceptual design done for the movie by comics artist Geof Darrow. Matrix writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, onetime comics scribes themselves, made a point of recruiting Darrow when they started contemplating the movie's look three years ago much the same way George Lucas famously called on painter Ralph McQuarrie to lay the visual groundwork for Star Wars. After seeing Darrow's hyper-detailed rendering on comics like the ultraviolent neo-noir Hard Boiled (written by The Dark Knight Returns' Frank Miller), the Wachowskis figured this was the guy who could make their dystopic vision a reality. ''The very first thing I worked on were the power plants with all the people plugged in to them like batteries,'' says Darrow, 44, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native now living in Paris. ''But we had only talked about it by telephone. Larry called a few days after I sent my stuff in and said, 'Your drawings weren't what we thought.' I said, 'Oh no, you're kidding.' 'They're much scarier.' So I guess my own ineptitude helped me.'' That initial illustration was so fantastically dense, recalls Larry Wachowski, ''the first time Geof faxed it through, it was a black smear. We had to reset the machine.''
Darrow's first adventures in the screen trade came at Hanna-Barbera in the early '80s, as a character designer on 'toons such as Richie Rich, Superfriends, and Pac-Man, but it's only recently that Hollywood has got genuinely hip to his talents. Director Sam Raimi has said that Darrow's cover for Hard Boiled #3 picturing the story's antihero framed by a gaping bullet hole in an opponent's head was an inspiration for similar imagery in his 1995 Western The Quick and the Dead. This month, Darrow's battlin' 'bots comic, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot (another Miller collaboration), is launching as a Saturday-morning cartoon on Fox. And he'll be the conceptual point man for the pair of Matrix sequels slated to go into production next year. This time around, the Wachowskis know to adjust their fax machine accordingly.