Friday, July 13, 2012
Recommended Reading for 7/13: Richard Stark's Parker
If I have one favorite creator currently working in comics, it would be Darwyn Cooke. Attaching his name to any project is a sure fire way to get me to buy it; a comic company could put out Darwyn Cooke's The Phone Book, and I would snag it first day (on an unrelated note, what will we as a culture do when we don't have the phone book to reference as the object of boredom?). Cooke is a double threat as one of comics' premiere writer artists. His pacing in both aspects of his career is impeccable; his plots know when to take their time and expand on a plot point and when to barrel forward at top speed. His art style is clean and detailed, with dynamite action and prefect flow from panel to panel. Some of his best works (especially DC: The New Frontier) harken back to a nostalgic 1950s and 1960s, with an art deco design that feels so real you could walk into it.
Donald Westlake was one of the great writers of noir and hard-boiled fiction; his name is mentioned in the same breath with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. He wrote in an era where men were hardcases and women were dames, and the world was a place of shades of grey. For a genre that often has cardboard cut outs for characters, Westlake knew how to create a fully formed character who was still a noir protagonist. Westlake and Cooke's styles line up perfectly in that they both know exactly how to pace a story, and one of Cooke's first original graphic novels, Selina's Big Score, has the feel of one of Westlake's great capers. So it's only fitting that Cooke's current tour de force and opus is a series of adaptations of some of Westlake's best known books; under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake wrote over 20 novels starring the criminal Parker, and Cooke has set out to adapt four of the best.
While Parker stories have been adapted for other media before, Westlake never let the filmmakers who made those films call the protagonist Parker. One aspect of these adaptations that is especially cool is that, Cooke so impressed the author, he was given the blessing to use the Parker name, and Cooke has not let Westlake down in his faithfulness. Cooke does not use any word that was not from the original novels. He does not put in all the narration, since the art does so much of that storytelling, but Cooke does not stray from Westlake's original blueprints. And why would he need to? When you have a perfect gem, there's no reason to cut it.
Parker is a career criminal, and completely unrepentant about it. He does whatever he needs to to make a buck, and doesn't particularly care who might get hurt along the way. Not the least bit a hero, Parker doesn't even really qualify as an anti-hero, except for the fact that he's usually knocking over guys who are even worse than him. He has few friends, and as for the women he is with, well he might care about them, but they don't exactly have a great life expectancy. Parker is the prototypical noir protagonist; a loner who just looks out for number one . Despite this (or at some times maybe becasue of it), you can't help but root for Parker, wanting to see him get even or get what he deserves, and to see him put paid to the other bad guys.
So far, Cooke has released three full length Parker adaptations, all published by IDW publishing: The Hunter, The Outift, and The Score. The first chapter of The Outfit was a highlight from another Parker, The Man With the Getaway Face. He also released a short adaption from another Parker novel, The Seventh. Any of the three graphic novels are readable on their own, so feel free to start at any point, but I would recommend starting with The Hunter, which is the first Parker novel, and gives you access to Parker's version of 1962.
The first two Parker adaptations are stories of Parker getting even. The Hunter sees Parker, having escaped a betrayal by his wife and his partner, seeking them to exact his revenge, while The Outfit has Parker escape a mob hit just to rip the mob off and exact his revenge. Parker is usually cast in the roll of the underdog at the beginning of the stories, but always comes out on top by outthinking and outshooting his targets. The Parker novels are all elaborate capers. A pleasure of them is how elaborate the capers are, but without being so elaborate as to be confusing to the reader. Parker plays every side of every situation against the others, and does it with a cold precision.
Cooke draws Parker looking like none of the numerous actors who have played him; he is Westlake's Parker come to metaphoric life. He is a handsome man with a glint of malice in his eyes. Cooke does a great job of making the reader see those gears turning in Parker's mind. Even after Parker gets plastic surgery to help him escape his old life, he is still the same Parker, and there's things in his facial expressions and in the gestures and poses that Cooke gives him that make it clear that this is the same man. All his characters have a great look about them, and he does a great job of capturing Westlake's characters.
Cooke is an artist's artist, and he does some great things with style throughout the series. He has thoroughly researched the era, and everything, from the architecture, to the cars, to the clothes are authentic from the early 60s. Especially noticeable is the sequence in the middle of The Outfit where we see Parker pulling off a series of daring heists against the mob. Each of the capers is drawn in a different style; one is a magazine article from a Time-like magazine, one is a cartoon, etc. It's a testament that while each of these short pieces are very different, they are all clearly from the same artist; they're all so different from Cooke's distinct style, but all fit within the world that the story's are set in, and all are part of one man's vision.
One of the hardest aspects I have found for many comic book artists to really get right is a good fight. Not a battle between titans, but the chase between two guys before they start punching and kicking the hell out of each other, and the aftermath. And while Cooke can draws gorgeous cityscapes and beautiful women reclining seductively with the best of them, he is also one of the best fight artists I have ever seen. Parker is a tough guy, and he often settles things with his fists and gun, and when Parker is having a throwdown with someone, Cooke's knowledge of continuity on panel shines through. You can absolutely follow the fight from punch to punch, and it's brutal. The fights aren't gory, but they are real, and you can feel your face ache when Parker lands a good punch.
Another aspect of Cooke's art that really stands out in the Parker adaptations is the coloring. Coloring is usually for me one of those arts in comics that I don't notice unless it's shockingly terrible or amazing. The Parker adaptations are two color, and not just black and white. The coloring has a yellow to it that makes me think of old newspapers and magazines, which does a great job of adding to the nostalgic feel of the books. The page quality is also a lovely weight and feel. These are BOOKS, something to be looked at, held, and enjoyed. No glossy stock or quick binding that will fall apart. These are volumes to put on your shelf and go back to look at later to appreciate the work IDW put into producing them.
This week saw the release of the third of the Parker adaptations, The Score, with the final one, Slayground, announced for next year. The Hunter, The Outfit, and The Score should all be available at any comic book shop, and if they're not right there, ask your local retailer to order them. And if you fall in love with Parker like I have, see if you can track down the Parker Martini Edition, reprinting the first two volumes in an oversized, slipcase format, with the original short from The Seventh, and a gallery of all the actors who have played Parker as drawn by Cooke. It's worth the look, trust me.