Darwyn Cooke’s spotlight panel at Toronto Comic Arts Festival was a relaxed affair. Held in the dimly lit upstairs room of a local bar, the writer/artist sat in the back of the room, flanked by his editor at IDW Publishing, Scott Dunbier, and panel moderator Tom Spurgeon. As the panel began, a waitress brought him a martini. With a twist.
Cooke has had an eclectic career; after years as a graphic designer and art director, he turned first to animation and then to comics. His body of work includes the “DC: The New Frontier” miniseries, the Batman/The Spirit crossover, and two “Before Watchmen” titles, but the conversation in the spotlight panel focused on his graphic adaptations of the hard-boiled Parker crime novels, which were written by the late Donald Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark.
Spurgeon started the conversation with a comment on how conventions have changed over the years. Cooke recalled going to Comic-Con International in 1998. “The show back then would be 30,000, 35,000, and we thought it was enormous. You could count the women at the show on one hand, and you would never see children. It was very much that nerd club/collector sort of gathering, and what we have seen happen — I have to give most of the credit to manga, how it opened these shows up — all of a sudden, we started to see a lot of young women showing up at the shows, and new vendors bringing in new types of material. And now, here we are, 15 years later, and look at how diverse the audience is at the show. It’s incredibly rewarding now to go to the show, whereas it used to be, ‘Oh, yeah. God — just a bunch of nerds who haven’t showered, like me.'”
Shows such as TCAF bring new readers to the medium, he said. “People coming in off the street, to the library, with free admission, they are not coming in to pick up a Green Lantern ring or a variant cover ‘Superboy’ book. They are just walking in off the street to see what it’s all about. And it’s really cool to watch people who aren’t into comics navigating the room and just gravitating toward the thing that catches their eye, that they honestly just see for the first time and go ‘Wow, that looks interesting’ and walking in and discovering this stuff on their own terms. We are in such a better place now than we were even 15 short years ago, and TCAF is the kind of show you can use as a barometer for the change we have seen.”
After releasing three graphic novels based on the Parker novels, Cooke is now illustrating new editions of the original prose books, hoping to create a deluxe, archival editions of stories that were originally published as cheap paperbacks. “The hope was that what Scott and I have done with graphic novels had generated enough interest that if I stuck a few of my drawings in there, that would help push the notion over and make it viable,” he said. “I think one of the reasons we always succeeded with Parker was we always understood it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about Donald Westlake; it was like, between the two of us, if we brought enough of our fans into the tent, we would have enough people make it work.”
Spurgeon pointed out that Cooke’s paintings of Parker for the new books are very different from how he approaches illustrating the comics. “What was it like to revisit those moments in a different artistic mindset?” he asked.
“It was really strange,” Cooke replied. “Having adapted the work into comic form — we’ll start off with this: I think I’m a decent comic artist, and I think I’m a terrible painter — ”
“He’s also a poor judge of art,” Dunbier interjected.
As a comics artist, Cooke said, “I don’t just draw pictures to draw pictures. There’s a story or there’s a target or there’s a communication aspect to it.” Book illustration, he soon learned, is completely different, because the pictures don’t have to tell the whole story. “You lie back a bit more, you use wider angles, you are trying to get a sense of the environment, the place, the time, the different mood aspects of the point in the story you are illustrating. You may not necessarily be going for a decisive hardcore visual moment; you are helping the prose by giving a visual impression of where and when this is taking place. You are not telling the story with pictures, because the story is all there.”
Spurgeon observed that the paintings had a sadness about them. “They seem more somber,” he said. “Was that from working with the medium? ”
“I think it has to do with the amount of detail the paintings have,” Cooke said. “Once you bring detail in, it can’t be clean or happy or dazzling. I think the cartooning kind of has a snap, and a there’s a childlike quality to all of cartooning that might take a bit of the edge off the material, but once you are painting in full detail, you really can’t avoid that.”
Cooke spoke about his relationship with Westlake, who died in 2008. “It’s always there,” he said. “Especially because he is not. If he was still alive, I would have him to guide me and to debate, and we’d be able to talk these things through and make decisions, but without him around — yeah, his presence is there. I have his obituary from the New York Times up in my office, and I look at it every day before I get to work.” In fact, he said, Dunbier gave him one of Westlake’s Smith Corona typewriters as a wedding gift.
“I was able to do that because of the incredible generosity of Abby Westlake, Westlake’s widow,” Dunbier said. “When I approached her about it, she said she wouldn’t sell me one but she would be happy to give one to Darwyn. We were talking about how Westlake isn’t here — Abby Westlake is a huge fan of what Darwyn is doing.”
Spurgeon turned to Cooke’s most recent adaptation, “Slayground,” which he called “really lean and mean. It’s almost bare bones Parker. It’s almost like a one-set scenario. What was it that appealed to you about this one?”
“This is the one place where you see the guy, stripped down to the complete essentials, like who this guy is and how his brain works,” Cooke replied. “All these books are about him, this process-driven creature, planning, carefully arming himself, bringing in the right people, getting the right vehicles, figuring out the routes. You see all this deliberate care in everything he does, and in this book, we see him without any of that, having to act intuitively and instinctively, having to act off the cuff, without his usual toolbox. I love the idea that the minute he realizes he is trapped, he starts finding the stuff he needs. His brain works that way. We see him at his most elemental.”
Although “Slayground” is 60 pages shorter than the preceding book, “The Score,” it took longer to produce, Cooke said. “What I didn’t want to do was have a lot of narrative or expository talking-to-myself dialogue to explain what is going on, ” he said, “so that meant it had to be clear from the pictures. There is this 15 page sequence where there is not a word said, and he is crossing the wires on amusement park rides and rigging trip wires and all of these things, so it required an almost instruction-manual clarity of the visuals so the reader is able to fully understand and appreciate what is going on.”
Cooke begins each adaptation by going through the novel, making notes and cutting out nonessential material. “The first part of the process is subtracting everything we don’t need to use,” he said. “That takes forever.” For “Slayground,” the next step was to draw a placemat-style map of the park to figure out where the different events in the story took place. “I’m writing numbers on this map — scene one goes here, scene two is here — wow, he really bullshitted here, there’s no way he could get from here to here except in a prose novel, so I gotta move this over here.”
“Prose writers have the luxury of being able to skip logic in a certain way,” Cooke continued. “Because your eyes can’t see what is going on, it reads like it makes sense. But it doesn’t. Like at the beginning of ‘The Outfit,’ a guy comes in and takes a shot at Parker, and it says when the woman screamed, Parker rolled off the bed. And you see him rolling off the bed as the bullet hits the pillow. In the book, it says he climbs under the bed — now, he’s six foot four, 230 pounds — he just climbs under the bed, he’s got a gun strapped up to the bottom of the bed in case of emergency. He takes the gun, he doesn’t want to make any noise in the hotel because it’s late at night, so he just scuttles to the other edge of the bed and throws the gun at the guy who is shooting and hits him in the head and knocks him out. Now, that sounds great in a book, but you try to throw a gun from under a bed and hit a guy in the head that’s standing beside the bed. It’s impossible.”
In “Slayground,” Spurgeon said, “it really does feel like every physical confrontation is legit.” He asked Cooke if his animation background was helpful in adapting and illustrating the novels.
“There’s the space, the physical space, the things and the people occupying that space, but then there is them moving through that space,” Cooke replied. “And while comics don’t move, in my head they are moving. In between each of these panels, there’s movement, and I need to know that movement feels legitimate or that the cut I’m using to cover something is convincing and will take the reader along and make them feel like this could actually happen.
His work as an art director has also informed the look of the Parker books, which evoke the early 1960s, the era in which they were written. He recalled a conversation with Tim Sale in which Sale asked about the level of detail. “I said ‘OK, well, in 1960, men’s pants the cuffs stopped two inches above the top of the shoe. The pant was actually pretty wide and it’s weird how they flop around and you can see the socks underneath. By 1962 the cuff is touching the shoe and you’ll find it’s got more of a pegged silhouette.'” When it come to design, he said, “I have been immersed in it for so long that most of it now, I just call it up.”
Cooke sees the Parker era as a time when design still mattered. “You could look at a Pontiac, and it was a Pontiac,” he said. “There’s no way you could confuse a Chevy with a Pontiac back then. Now, they are all the same; they are amorphous things.”
Spurgeon closed the panel by asking what Cook had lined up after his work on the reissued novels. “I have no fucking idea what’s next,” Cooke replied. “I’m at a weird impasse.” When he began the Parker books, he thought of them as a vanity project, an alternative to the superhero comics he was doing to make a living, but they have supplanted the superhero comics as a source of income. “So, now what can I do to express myself? I’m kind of up against a wall right now. My favorite way to describe it [is], I’m not fuckin’ Adrian Tomine, I’m John McTiernan. I’m the guy you call to shoot the lights out, to make it look cool. I don’t have that story about the uncle that touched me. I read ‘Marble Season’ or ‘Love Bunglers,’ I wept my way through that a couple of days ago, but I don’t have that in me, I think. Or if I did, it got expunged in the sea of commercial work I did to get me here. So I’m not really sure right now.
“There are certainly several things I am sitting on — but the minute I’m convinced it’s a good story, I go, ‘Ah, geez, I gotta get somebody decent to do this.’ So all of those types of things I have been interested in pursuing, I’m chasing other guys. I’m trying to get Michael Cho on board with one of the books, Paul Pope with another, and in terms of a personal cartooning vision past this, I’m not certain, to be quite honest. And it’s been a problem actually, for the last year. I have never gone a year without being absolutely positive of what it is I should be doing right now, and I’m at this point where it has been a year and it hasn’t clicked over yet. So it will be a surprise to all of us.”