Saturday, May 14, 2016

Darwyn Cooke: A Remembrance of His Work

I had a completely different, much lighter piece planned for yesterday, and I'll probably post that recommended reading next Friday, but when I heard the new that Darwyn Cooke, easily one of my favorite cartoonists in comics, had entered palliative care for aggressive cancer,  I decided to pull back and write an appreciation of Cooke's work and post it today. Sadly, it was just confirmed that Darwyn Cooke has passed away, and while part of me wanted to wait a little longer, I decided instead to just pour out my feelings right here and right now.

I picked up Batman: Ego, a prestige format one-shot that Cooke both wrote and drew the week it came out, and that was a comic that completely blew me off my feet. It was an examination of Batman's psyche, diving into the dark recesses of why Batman does what he does, and when I put it down, I looked at the name of the creator and I though, "This guy is going to be huge." I found out he had next to no comic credits before that. but had worked with Warner Animation on Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond, and you could see the influence of those shows' designs on his work, or vice verse, but everything Cooke touched had its own special Cooke feel as well.

Cooke didn't stick to one genre. While he drew amazing superheroes, he didn't even stick to one universe. His work on DC was usually reminiscent of the Silver Age, with bright, bold panels, but he drew the first arc of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman, one of the most noir influenced of any Batman title, and Cooke wrote and drew the original graphic novel Selina's Big Score, a prequel to that run that was an absolute noir. While he wrote two charming, Silver Age-inspired Spider-Man stories in the anthology title Tangled Web he also pencilled an issue of the late X-Force series, a character spotlight on U-Go-Girl, a comic that was very modern in theme and tone, as well as a the spinoff mini-series Wolverine/Doop.

It was clear from his work how much Cooke loved crime stories. Not only did he do Selina's Big Score, but he resurrected Will Eisner's The Spirit for DC, following Eisner's mystery man/crime formula, folding Denny Colt into a more modern milieu without losing what made the series what it was. And his adaptations of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's Parker series were a delight, these gritty noir stories adapted perfectly into comics, with style that matched the content; I write a recommendation of them very early on in this blog's life, and those books are some of the best adaptations of prose into comics that I have ever read.

There's so many other things Cooke did, that it wold take a series of posts to discuss them all. His Before Watchmen: Minutemen spotlighted his attention to historical detail. His work on Jonah Hex and All-Star Western showed he was just as capable with Westerns as he was with crime stories. He drew countless covers for all manner of comics. His last work (to date anyway. We can hope for some remaining work to make it out as a tribute), Twilight Children, was a sci-fi or fantasy piece with Gilbert Hernandez that was a strange little tale of a town in Latin America that is nothing like anything Cooke had done before.

And I've left one piece off this post until the end, because it was something that is so special to me that I wanted to thing a bit before I wrote. DC: The New Frontier was a retelling of the origins of the Silver Age of DC Comics set in a more or less historically accurate late 1950s. The Red Scare is in full swing, and racism is a day to day fact. But, despite all of that, it is a story of hope, of the dawning of a new age, of heroes, and of possibility. It is a comic that is filled with every DC hero you can imagine, and many an obscure Silver Age appearance. Martian Manhunter is a huge part of it, and Cooke captures the lost soul/stranger in a strange land thing better than most. Hal Jordan, the test pilot, is the standard bearer for the age, as he was a hero in both identities, but ti doesn't skimp on the big three either; as a matter of fact, his Wonder Woman in the series is one of the most physically intimidating and fascinating portrayals of the character I've ever seen. I not only bought all six issues, but I have the gorgeous, slipcased Absolute Edition with tons of research and background, and it's one of my favorite graphic novels in my collection.

I sadly never got the chance to meet Darwyn Cooke. I read all sorts of stories about him; some said that he could be prickly, others said he was a warm, pleasant soul. I think that just makes him human. He was the number one artist I would have wanted to get a commission from, and would have paid top dollar, and although I probably would have asked for the Batman Beyond suit to stay with my Batman theme, it would have been hard to resist asking for Martian Manhunter. Sadly, that will never come to pass. I wish he could have done a couple more Parker adaptations. I wish he could have released the Image mini-series, Revengeance, that was announced last year. I wish his family could have spent more time with him. My condolences to the Cooke family, and I hope you know how much his work touched me and his other fans. Thank you, Darwyn Cooke.

In his memory, the Cooke family has asked for donations to be made to the HERO Initiative and the Canadian Cancer Society.

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