On Friday, May 13 (an ominous portend if there ever was one), the family of legendary comic book artist, Darwyn Cooke, posted on his blog that he was in palliative care battling an aggressive form of cancer. When I’m not writing for The Kraken, my other job is working as a registered nurse, so when I saw “palliative” qualifying the type of treatment Cooke was getting, my heart instantly sank. Palliative care means giving comfort to those at the end of their lives, and this meant that Cooke’s newly-announced cancer was not treatable. The optimistic part of me, the selfish and shellshocked part of me, wanted to hope for the best. The part of me that sees people in their last days on a routine basis wouldn’t let me, because I know palliative care truly means all other options are exhausted: this was it. Yet, and completely selfishly, I hoped against hope that we had enough time left with Cooke that he would offer us all something before he passed, something (and I’m not at all sure what) left behind. A parting word, a last sketch, something, anything. Just one more thing. We couldn’t lose him like this, with so many years left ahead of him to ride a creative wave that first rose up over 20 years ago and never crested.
But we did lose him. Less than 24 hours after his wife informed the world of his illness, his blog reported his death. Age 53.
I was shocked. I still am shocked. Everyone familiar with him seemed to be in shock. This was not expected. This isn’t Charles Schulz or Jack Kirby, dying at 77 at the end of a long and distinguished career after their medium had largely transcended them. This is a loss that makes the world poorer and less vibrant, bereft of a critical buttress. The bold strokes and bright colors of his early work reframed an entire age of comic art and influenced a generation, and he never stopped reinventing himself. His recent Parker series was everything his early stuff wasn’t; gone were the clean lines and rich colors and high-flying adventure–all had been replaced by rough brushwork and brooding shadow and hard-boiled noir aesthetic… and it was goddamned amazing.
Cooke’s death lead to outpourings from all of today’s industry luminaries, from Brian Michael Bendis to Gail Simone, from DC honcho Dan DiDio to Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. He touched a lot of lives and made a lot of people happy, and people in the industry admired and respected him and felt lucky to count him as a friend. Bill Sienkiewicz, a leading comic artist famous for photorealism and atypical media techniques, said of his passing:
“In addition to immensely talented, Darwyn was generous—downright sweet to his friends—kind, opinionated, and combative when it came to standing by his convictions. The definition of ‘complex.’ I have no doubt that the cancer had to blitzkrieg in order to overtake him. Darwyn was not the sort to go quietly or gently.”
I had the honor of meeting Amanda Connor a few years ago at Dallas Comic Con, and we sat and spoke about myriad things from Spider-Man to what art supplies the pros are using these days, and of course I had to ask her about her work with Cooke on the Silk Spectre-led Watchmen prequel. I’m not quoting her here, but let me simply say she spoke with nothing but love and admiration for his generosity and collaborative acumen. You could see it in her eyes how much she enjoyed working with him, and words just flowed from her. Then she autographed a sketch for my yet-to-be-born kiddo, which I will make sure that he one day knows the sentimental value of.
Some of you readers out there might not be wholly familiar with Cooke just from the name, so let me wax on a bit. While a trained graphic designer, Cooke stayed out of comics for much of his early life simply because he couldn’t find steady work. In 1990, after a career in corporate art he answered an ad he saw for design and storyboard animators at Warner Bros to work for a young fellow named Bruce Timm on a serialized animated version of their Batman property (here’s where you at home all go, “Ohhhhhhhh, right,”) which was, of course, Batman: The Animated Series. Cooke would stay with the show and become a key design artist, and later was the lead design artist on the sequel series, Batman Beyond. If you’re a fan of the DCAU, you’re a fan of Darwyn Cooke.
It’s hard to believe, but Cooke’s first comic was only published 15 years ago, a one-shot called Batman: Ego that found the Dark Knight being psychologically tormented by a terrifying manifestation of his own psyche. It was a brilliant bit of work, and its critical success paved the way for Cooke’s future in the medium, as not only did he do the art (and he arted the shit out of it) but he wrote it, too. And inked it. And colored it. The guy was a virtuoso, and he put out content like he was trying to win something; in his career he had 24 titles alone where he was the lead penciler and writer, with another 11 series that he assisted with… and none of that is counting the nearly 60 covers he did for other artists’ series. He managed to rack up several awards and nominations during his career, including Eisner and Shuster Awards and an Emmy nomination for his work on the animated adaptation of his own magnum opus, DC’s The New Frontier.
I love that book.
Interesting story: I went to college for comic art (or, “Sequential Narrative Art” as the course catalogue called it) under the tutelage of Andy Fish, a respected published artist in his own right, and I can’t tell you how many times people would have questions about, well, anything, and if Andy pulled out a piece of reference art to help illustrate a concept to that student, there was about a 50% chance that piece was going to be by Darwyn Cooke. Very often, that piece of Darwyn Cooke art was going to be from The New Frontier. Now, I’m not going to gush and revel in my love for that book, because you just wouldn’t read ten more pages of me doing that, and I understand, but seriously, that book is a masterwork in so many different qualifications. If you haven’t picked it up yet, please do so, and give yourself a few days or weeks to pour into it. It’s a sprawl, and it can be quite dense at times, but… man. The way Cooke is able to take you visually through the entire Golden and Silver Ages of DC’s pantheon, not just reflecting back to you the styles that you already know, but making you feel like you’re there and the characters are there and everything is real in that four color world… But it’s the repeated insistence upon optimism in that work that really gets its hooks into my tear ducts. It’s not just projecting that Kennedyesque early-Camelot brightness at you, it’s holding your hand and showing you why that optimism was real and what it felt like and why it’s always needed, even today. You finish that book and you feel that optimism rise inside you, the energy and love and determination that says, “We are not here to curse the darkness; we are here to light a candle.”
I hate cynicism. You might find that ironic or hypocritical if you’re familiar with some of my work, but I would argue that my critical output is born not from an expectation of disappointment but from the frustrations of seeing complacency in failing to achieve the ideal. I can be angry at times, but if I were a cynic I would simply resign myself to that defeat–firm in a belief that a better tomorrow will never come. Darwyn Cooke came just at the right time in comics to turn the tide against cynicism. The early 1990s were a wasteland of hyperviolent, overdrawn, highly-sexualized anti-heroes featuring “adult” themes that were really only adult in the same way my granddad spoke about children who cursed–an effort to appear mature that is so without understanding and context that it only makes you seem more childish.
These comics were crass and vulgar for the sake of vulgarity, all of them chasing the assumption of cool without actually doing the work. This is what the comics industry was like then, in the years after Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Wolverine and Moore’s Watchmen, a sterile sea of mindless excess taking the wrong lessons from those better works. Into this period, Cooke brought with him a wave of bold stylistic resurgence that reminded people that the medium had more to offer than explosions and titillation. He and other luminaries like Mike Mignola, Doug TenNapel, Jeff Smith and Cliff Chiang paved the way for a more classical approach to sequential storytelling, modernizing both the art and the narrative. People didn’t like their work because it had a grimy primal appeal, they liked it because it was beautiful to look at and told good stories about interesting characters. At a time when everything the big three comic publishers put out looked like either dated Marv Wolfman knock-offs or unintentionally-hilarious Liefieldian horrors, these artists’ work reminded people that comics could still be bright and clear and (dare I say it?) fun.
Let’s indulge just a little to show off Cooke’s incredible talent.
This is a page from Cooke’s first project with DC, Batman: Ego. Right off the bat(!) you can see a lot of the visual cues and flourishes that would become his hallmark, but the thing that strikes me most here is the overlaid meta-image upon the very traditional panel structure (which Cooke was also fond of); each individual panel contains an image motivating the story, but pulled back and taken as a whole you see the outline of this oppressive black figure dominating the space and towering over the entire monologue. Line and shadow trade places and one image begins where the previous ends, and it jams so much mood and atmosphere and depth into what is already a stunning work.
Cooke also understood the potential and importance of composition and coloring in terms of embellishing the narrative.
The above is not Darwyn Cooke. That’s Jim Lee, one of the most prolific artists of the last 20 years… and I don’t like his work. What does the picture above tell us? What information is being imparted to the audience? What is Batman even doing? Is he angry? Vigilant? Focused? Distracted? What emotion is Lee trying to evoke? What is he telling us about Batman? Honestly, not a lot. The setting is dim, but it’s night, and fairly well-lit at that. Batman seems to be flexing his left arm in a pose, but his right is calmly rested. His cape is swirling about him so dynamically it may as well be magic. And how about that costume? It might as well just be body paint, as there is little to suggest it’s anything more substantial and weighted. Lee’s mise en scene is doing little more than making Batman look bloated and tense, and the eyeline and subject focus make the whole work seem off-kilter. There is nothing that scene can promise you other than that you’re looking at a very beefy Batman, probably at night. But take a look at this:
See what Darwyn Cooke could accomplish with a fraction of the line work and coloration? Nothing in that frame strives for the same level of detail that Lee’s image above does, nor does Cooke use many different colors, all of which are ungraded and static. There’s no hyperreal dynamism to be found anywhere in this frame (it’s practically minimalist in this regard), and the only suggestion of motion is Alfred gently laying a blanket over a sleeping Batman. But the panel gives you so much information. Batman fell asleep while working, surrounded by the newspapers and books and tablet that all tell us he rarely ever stops. Alfred displays warmth and love for his young master by gently covering him. Batman’s hand is bloodied and bandaged, and the warm contrast of the amber sun is starting to peer over the horizon–our boy has been out all night keeping us safe. The limited palette of earthy browns and greens mirrors the overall sensation of familial warmth and earthy organic emotion in the scene. Cooke saves the heavier lines for the mid-ground to draw our focus, but the desk jutting into view at a low angle imparts of feeling of both intimacy and connection; we’re right there in the room with them, at their level. He isn’t Batman right now. He’s Bruce, and he’s tired, and he’s human, and he’s loved. And we feel it. That was Cooke.
Kyu: Although Cooke spent most of his career on superhero stories, his passion project–and the work that I knew him through–was something altogether unique, his adaptations of Donald Westlake’s Parker books. A series of hardboiled crime novels about a thief who was as spare and tough as the prose he was rendered in, the Parker stories are not only excellent but heavily influential. Cinema is littered with Parkers by other names; he’s been played by Lee Marvin (in the excellent Point Blank), Robert Duvall (The Outfit), Jim Brown (The Split, a rare case of casting a white character as black), Mel Gibson (Payback), and unofficially, characters like Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs and De Niro’s thief in Heat were also based on Parker. More broadly, any thief who talks little and stays professional owes something to Westlake’s iconic character. And he knew how special Parker was, because nobody was ever allowed to use the name Parker in their adaptations, even when they had the rights to specific novels. Nobody except Darwyn Cooke. Westlake died before Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter was completed, but he was so impressed with the materials in progress that he let Cooke use the Parker name.
And it’s no surprise–The Hunter, and the three volumes that followed it, comprise the most faithful rendition of Westlake’s literary thief in any other medium. Cooke understood what, say, the 2013 film Parker (starring Jason Statham, and authorized to use the name by Westlake’s widow) did not–that the books were not about flashy violence or sex appeal or big, Ocean’s 11-style heists. They were about a man doing a job. Parker’s laconic nature and hard-edged, down to business personality were reflected in the way Westlake wrote about him (typical first sentence of a Parker novel: “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”), and Cooke’s phenomenal art for the series in turn captured that ethos:
Cooke’s style in these four graphic novels effortlessly evokes an unforgiving world inhabited by tough people. Faces are distinct without being cartoons; objects are carefully detailed and based on endless research into the design aesthetics of the period, while motion is often simplified into quick scratches of lines. The shading alone in these books is virtuoso, building detailed environments out of what is essentially black and white, like a more subtle version of Miller’s art in Sin City; Cooke’s use of shadows to create depth, mood, and emotion is simply sublime. And the way he adapted the narratives themselves demonstrated the same thoughtfulness and efficiency, Cooke taking most of his dialogue verbatim from the novels and paring down already sparse stories to the bone. Each graphic novel captures the clockwork precision of Westlake’s plots, the way the action is always unexpected, the way no element is wasted, and it’s Parker’s hellish determination to achieve his goals that drives every moment of the story from one panel to the next. As cold and as intense as they are, each of Cooke’s Parker adaptations is still a beautiful work of art.
I was lucky enough to see Cooke at San Diego Comic-Con panel a couple of years ago, where he was talking about the then just-released third entry in his series, Parker: The Score. Even over the course of a brief Q&A session, it was clear that he knew exactly what he was doing in every respect, from the story to the art design to the color. He knew when to stay concrete, like when he’d lay out one of Parker’s plans in what was almost a map or infographic, and when to go abstract, as in one two-page spread depicting a sudden key explosion as erasing the outlines of his figures entirely. And he seemed to delight in the research into the way old buildings and cars and signs looked in Parker’s 60s period setting. He seemed like a kind person, too, happily signing books outside for fans after the panel. He signed my copy of The Score, and it sits now on my father’s shelf right next to the other three. Those volumes are one of the things my father and I share a love for, and I had assumed that Cooke would get around soon to completing the set (he had planned to adapt at least one more Parker book, Butcher’s Moon). When an ordinary person dies, their friends and family feel the loss; but when a man like Cooke is taken, he leaves so much work undone, and the world is poorer for it forever.
Amy: Cooke has been influencing me since almost before I ever first took up a pencil, and now I’m a mom in my thirties who has some of his original art on her wall and still waits in buzzing anticipation for the next bit of news for his latest project. Except now there isn’t going to be one. There isn’t another project down the pike. There isn’t another release date around the corner. This is it, save the obligatory posthumous releases of unpublished and unfinished sketches and the like. I’m sure I’ll gobble those up, just as I have almost every other thing Cooke released, but it won’t be the same, you know? It’s not him, it’s just people reminding us again that he’s gone, like a ghost in a new suit. For Christmas this year I was gifted a copy of Graphic Ink, a compendium of his sketches and art for DC Comics, and it’s still on my shelf in its packaging. I feel a bit self-loathing for having let whatever else in my life keep me from sitting down with it yet, but now I’m not sure if I can bring myself to open that wrapper. When I do, it’s going to be last new thing from Darwyn Cooke I’ll ever see, and I already have tears in my eyes at the thought of it.
However, as much love as he had for the styles of the past, Cooke was not one to hold on to sentiment. I’ll get around to reading it. I promise. I owe him that much, at least.
“Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do… The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.”
– President John F. Kennedy