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Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke

Thursday - July 08, 2010

There's something about seeing work done by someone truly skilled that combines a sense of admiration with a slight tinge of jealousy. The basic cause of most geek-rage is that for the great mass of nerd consumers there is always the belief that they themselves could do something better than those mere professionals who make the comics, movies, and games that the geek so bitterly consumes. This knee jerk judgement often becomes more acute when a consumer is somehow connected to the industry responsible for the media that he is partaking in. Since we've seen behind the curtain a bit we are often convinced that we could have made far better if only we had our chance.

Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter set off a few of these knee jerks in me when I first learned of it since I fancy myself a graphic designer and have recently broken into professional comics production. I had never heard of Cooke before The Shuster Awards and now I hear about him constantly. He won the Best Cover Shuster this year and during the presentation of the award, which he was not there to pick up (see my last blog), the presenter started throwing around some design words to explain why the cover was chosen. My graphic design bullshit bells started ringing with the old art school chestnuts of "good use of negative space", "strong font usage", and "a scene that asks more questions than it answers". So he left part of the cover white, he used a completely obvious serifed typeface, and he showed a scene from a book that we haven't read? Come on buckaroo, learn what you're talking about before you try to impress this hardnosed son of a printer.

Cooke's comic novel is an adaptation of a Richard Stark book about the strongarm thief Parker. Stark, a nom de plume of Donald Westlake, writes with a tough guy panache that is of its day and place. People get killed for the smallest infraction, women get smacked around but still can't control their lust for Parker, and Parker's only true mistake was trusting a broad what done him wrong. It's difficult to make a hero out of a homicidal thief bastard but Stark/Westlake/Cooke make him seem more like a force of nature, someone who makes even check fraud seem tough and hardboiled.

The next day I looked up a copy of The Hunter to see what all the hubbub was about. Twenty five bucks later I sat back at our booth and cracked it open. It was a slow day at the con and I expected to browse it casually.

I suddenly realized that I was well and truly full of shit.

Back up fifteen years to the first time I read Frank Miller's Sin City. I was flying on a white knuckle flight up to Chicago and had not yet become the world traveller I am now. Planes freaked me out. Especially bouncy commuter flights that took longer to climb and land than actually flying level. I was jittery when a friend handed me Sin City. I opened it, started reading, and then realized that we had landed already. The graphic style and writing hooked me and pulled me along as surely as the tow chain at a drive through car wash. I just went along for the ride.

Back to Cooke's book. I felt the same immediate tug and pull as on that flight to Chicago. Instantly upon opening the book I realized that here was a creator who had the chops to pull off what I had a first thought a difficult task. Taking a dusty old crime novel and spinning it so that it turned into something worth looking at again in a new way. From the atom-age fly paper design to the soft buff tone of the interior paper I knew I was in for something cool. The whole book is printed in two colors of ink, black and a muted 50s blue-gray. These colors combine with the yellowed paper to create a multitude of effects. Each setting feels right, shadows fall where they should and have a relative deepness depending on the scene. Cooke avoids handling each setting with the same treatment and each page tells the reader where they are quickly with no fuss. A few graphic tricks, like rendering memories with a subtle halftone pattern, go a long way to visually telling the story.

This ability to use only images to tell a story is one of Cooke's strong points. Parker's only words in the first thirteen pages of story are "Go to Hell.". We don't even see the guys face until page twelve. But there is already a strong sense of who this person is. His physical power and his mental state both come across in simple actions that he performs. There is no shortage of exposition later in The Hunter but you get the sense that Cooke often includes words more to allow Stark's dialogue to come through than because he needs it.

Page layout is simple but totally in control. Each panel is in a nice little box with no sweeping movements across the page. But the size and choice of action for each panel and page starts to feel very rhythmic, very jazz beat, and totally intentional. Far from constraining the artwork Cooke's use of frames keeps things perking along like they should. He speeds up and slows down the reader as he sees fit. He has set up an initial format and sticks to it without making things feel at all forced.

Cooke describes himself first as a graphic designer and this surely comes through in The Hunter. He has a sense of the 50s and 60s design style that resonates with this story. A non-designer might be able to work up a passable design motif but it would be a facade that didn't truly understand the look of the period. Cooke owns this design style. His hand lettering coupled with the overall layout of the book works with the art to do more than tell the story. It begins to feel like an artifact from a lost era.

Something that slipped my mind while reading The Hunter but then hit me on the head like a pan of bacon and eggs was how ballsy this whole publication was. IDW deserves some applause for publishing and Darwyn Cooke deserves plenty for doing something out of the ordinary with a non-established comic character. When all of the yahoos like to reckon that "comics arent for kids anymore" this is the book that they're talking about. It's strong visualized fiction that uses what it's got with an assured and excellent hand.

The second of Cooke's Parker books is slated to come out this year and Im primed to read it. I've got the same feeling about this series that I used to have about favorite bands albums coming out.

Westlake has never been my favorite crime novelist although I appreciate his other novels more than the Parker stuff, (if I want to read batshit crazy crime I'll go for Jim Thompson every time), but this amalgam of Westlake as Stark and Cooke goes beyond reading a grubby paperback. It takes a character who has been used and reused and simply makes him work in a direct and complete way. Although the stories of Parker have been made into several films none of them have used the character name of Parker. Cooke gets that honor as well as putting a face to someone who Westlake admits was modeled on a young, and scary, Jack Palance. The Hunter is truly a blend of two craftsmen at the top of their game spinning yarns that entertain and feed our male ids. And Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter is truly a well-crafted piece of work.

However I still think the cover is the weakest bit, probably because it seems like the most obvious solution. I guess they had to give him some sort of Shuster Award.

~ Brian S. Roe


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