Darwyn Cooke has spent much of his career re-interpreting other people’s characters, and now it’s time for him to break out on his own.
The writer and artist of DC Comics’ “The New Frontier,” which brought DC’s classic characters from World War II to the Cold War era, Cooke is currently adapting Donald Westlake’s Parker crime novels to graphic novel form with IDW Publishing. His first Parker book, “Parker: The Hunter,” won both an Eisner and a Harvey award, and numerous critics named “Parker: The Outfit,” as one of the best graphic novels of 2010. Cooke is currently working on the next novel in the series as well as a combined edition of the previous two comics.
While his work with other people’s characters has brought him wide acclaim, Cooke has also been teasing a new graphic novel of his own, a fully creator-owned work that he plans to publish as an e-book. At his Boston Comic Con panel this past weekend, Cooke said he wanted the e-book to be fully interactive, and he plans to delay print publication for five years or so in order to encourage people to read it digitally.
Cooke was at Boston Comic Con this past weekend not only to promote his own work but also to help his wife Marsha and his niece Candis launch “Teenage Satan,” an interactive digital comic co-created with and featuring art by Stephanie Buscema.
CBR News spoke with Cooke as he was enjoying the sunshine outside Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. During our conversation, the creator revealed new details about his creator-owned project, discussed his work on the Parker adaptations, his influences and his personal work ethic.
CBR News: What are you working on right now?
Darwyn Cooke: I have to be honest, I have had a pretty slack year. I have been at this ten years straight without a break. Most of what I have been doing is little bits. I just did a Rocketeer story [for IDW’s four-issue Rocketeer anthology], covers for some DC books, but what I have really been putting together is my first fully creator owned project, which will be an e-book exclusive.
When will that be released?
I’m hoping we are looking at sometime shortly before Christmas. It’s been tough trying to find the time to devote to it with all my other commitments. It has been ten years now and I still haven’t done a fully creator-owned thing, so maybe I have a bit of fear in me. There will be a lot more eyes on me than there would have been six years ago. Whatever I do, I’m thinking I have to knock it out of the park. It’s a complicated project because of the technology and how I want to use it.
I remember you talking about this at New York Comic Con. Can you tell us what it’s about?
It’s a romance. It’s a love story. Imagine two young people that love each other, but it’s so new they haven’t even told each other yet, and they find out that the world’s going to end in less than an hour. And they are 400 miles apart, and they make a deal to meet in the middle, and they each have 45 minutes to cover 400 miles to reach this spot where they meet on the weekends. It’s their story during the last hour of the world.
That sounds really different from the rest of your work.
That’s the point. People really are desperate to categorize any sort of entertainment medium. For example, at DC I can’t get any work other than retro Silver Age takeoff work, because “New Frontier” was successful, so that’s what I do. [Thanks to] the Parker books, now I have been categorized as the crime guy. When people ask me about my next book, they think it’s going to be another hard-boiled thing. This is another stretch, and I’m really interested in getting into the idea of two young people and those feelings. It’s an opportunity for me to flex different muscles and think a different way. I feel like maybe it’s about time somebody did a graphic novel about love.
What was the inspiration for the story? Are you drawing from past personal experience, or is it just an idea you found interesting?
I wanted to do a romance, but I also knew that I’m not a nonlinear creator. I need an engine to drive the story, and that’s how I came up with the notion that they have got this insurmountable problem if they are going to be together.
Did you ever see the 1980s movie “Miracle Mile?” A kid makes a date with a girl, they talk on the phone, then he gets a call from a kid in a missile silo saying [nuclear war is about to break out]. He hears the guards come in and kill the guy on the phone. It’s all about six people in this coffee shop at two in the morning who have to decide if this is real or imagined. So that was kind of the inspiration.
There’s no such thing as a new story. It’s all in how it’s told and what point of view you take. I think that’s true of any genre. That’s the only way to keep it fresh.
How far along are you in the creation of the book?
I do pretty intensive preparatory work, so at this point I have it written. I don’t have the final dialogue — that’s the last thing I do, because the characters come to life as you draw them, and as a cartoonist you have that option to wait and let the voices emerge. I have everything designed, I have tech guys reserved who have my menu of what I want to do. I have done everything but actually draw it. I’m pretty quick, so that’s not going to be the hard part.
I don’t want to commit to finished artwork until I’m positive I know what we are doing. I don’t want to do traditional comic pages and slice them apart. I want this built specifically for an online viewer.
You have always worked with an editor in the past. Will you have someone look over this book for you?
I will probably call upon my editor at IDW, Scott Dunbier. He is the best editor in the business as far as I am concerned, and one of my best friends. One of the reasons I like working with Scott is he is not afraid to tell me when I am going off track. It’s invaluable to have a guy who is able to call me up and say, “Hey, I think you are making a mistake here. This might be wrong, have you considered this?” You get to the spot I’m at in this business, it’s very important to have someone like that around you. Otherwise, everyone is telling you, “That’s great.” You need objective input. You might capture some lightning on a bottle here and there, but working with an editor you can trust is always going to bring out a better book.
Are you working on anything else right now?
It is going to be a very busy year. The third Parker book is coming up, “The Score,” and we are doing an oversized collection of Parker work, “The Martini Edition.” That’s a big project too because it’s very important to me — if you’re going to collect something like that, and it’s going to have a price tag like it has, it has to be incredibly special. It has to have a reason to exist, other than to take money from the reader, so I am working very hard. There will be 80 pages of extra material. We are trying to contact some of the greats in other media who have been influenced by Donald Westlake — John Boorman, the director, and Lawrence Block, one of Westlake’s contemporaries — so the book is laced with contemporaries and the whole effect he has had on other writers and film directors.
When I look at the Parker books, the art looks to me like a perfect imitation of spot art from, say, “Life Magazine” in the 1950s. How did you develop that style?
I was born in 1962. That was the year “The Hunter” came out. Even as a child, I was somehow oddly aware of how comforting I found the aesthetic of my life. It changed so radically in the 70s — at that point I was a teenager, but I was starting to look back. I preferred a certain type of clothing. I remember going to high school parties with heavy metal playing and I was the guy in the corner with the Steve McQueen haircut and desert boots, having these guys with long hair coming up to me going, “Hey, fag!” I spent my life admiring and learning from that work. That’s what made it such a perfect project.
Westlake was still alive when we started. He was very concerned; he didn’t have a lot of faith in what we were doing. I think the day he turned the corner was the day I told him “We are doing this in 1962, because if I do it now, we will have to rewrite everything [Parker] did — cell phones and all that. He’s a character of his time, and I have to capture that.” He had a lot more faith in us after he heard that.
What sort of things did you look at?
Noel Sickles, “Life Magazine” and “Readers Digest.” There were a series of Whitman books when I was a kid based on TV shows, they had Alex Toth do the illustrations, wonderful two-color illustrations that were orange and black, and it was very obvious that he inked it as two layers and they printed them in orange and in black. That stuff has always been with me, and it has always been a fundamental part of how I have been an artist.
I want people to be able to open my books at any time and see something, not necessarily dated, but classic. I don’t want it to look like an Image book from 1990, I want it to come from this place that’s timeless.
I strove for that in my DC work. I never worked on continuity things, never worked on one of the events. I want it to be readable in ten years. I’m as lost as the next guy [when it comes to continuity]. I don’t know who these characters are. I did a Justice Society cover last month, and they sent me a list of characters and I didn’t know who they were. I am sort of out of touch with month to month stuff. I want my books to have a shelf life. I don’t want to be part of the here today, gone tomorrow.
How old were you when you started drawing?
Thirty-seven. I had taken a run at DC with “Batman: Ego” when I was 30, and it didn’t go anywhere, so I ended up getting a job on “Batman Adventures” as a storyboard artist, at the Bruce Timm studio. I was very happy there, and then somehow the pitch I had done for “Batman: Ego” ended up in [DC art director] Mark Chiarello’s hands. He was clearing out an office, throwing stuff out, and he found it and called me — I still had the same phone number — and he said “Do you want to do it?” I laughed and said “I can’t. Maybe next year,” and after another year working in animation, I said “OK, I’ll give it a shot.”
What is your work process like?
If I’m in hard production on a book, it’s all day. I can’t not work on it if I’m working on it. Poor Marsha knows this — once I start, I can’t stop. I have pushed the production cycle as tightly as I can, and it forces me to produce the work at a certain pace, which keeps it fresher and keeps me from destroying myself. But I have a very hard time putting something down until I am done with it, because there is always something to consider.
How do you deal with facing that first blank page when you start a project?
You have to trick yourself. All the work I have done is long form work. Sitting down with page 1 of “New Frontier” — it’s 370 pages. I have my plot broken down into sequences, so to me each sequence is a complete story, and I take it in small bites. I have a seven-page story, after that an eight-page story, so that’s a little victory along the way. If all you are doing is counting off numbers, it can get pretty daunting.
The other thing is, there’s no work ethic [any more]. Guys just don’t sit down and do their work. Look at how many books never come out. John Buscema was ten times the man all of us are. We have our “superstars” who take three months to pencil a comic book. A lot of it is, yeah, you just have to sit down and do your work. After a week, you are off and running. That’s so much of it. I think I was lucky. I am not an educated guy, I didn’t come from a family that was very well off, my folks couldn’t afford to send me to university or college without me paying for it myself. I was a construction worker, I have worked in restaurants, I have done all kinds of things when I was younger. That sort of helps ground me. A lot of guys got into this right after high school, and the world doesn’t function the way comics do. I find I am having discussions with guys about simple, common sense business things, and they don’t know what I am talking about. It’s because they are native to this business. I feel lucky that I have that experience; it sort of frames my work ethic.
I have had a lot of editors who found me difficult to work with, but there is not an editor out there who can say, “He shafted me.” If you’re going to be like me and be “difficult,” you’d better deliver.