Although many fans know Darwyn Cooke mainly from his work on superhero titles like "The New Frontier" and "Catwoman: Selina's Big Score," his first love has always been crime fiction. Cooke's first published work from DC Comics, in fact, didn't involve superheroes -- it was a short story called "The Private Eye," which appeared in "Talent Showcase #19" in 1985.
"It's really what I've always wanted to do," Cooke said at his spotlight panel at Comic-Con International. "You sort of have to go where the interest is, and in this industry, that means finding out things about superheroes that excite you that you want to get into. But I knew after 'The New Frontier' I probably had the leverage and the ability to perhaps try to go out and do something that would be a little more in line with my own personal interests."
Cooke's passion for crime drama resulted in one of the best reviewed graphic novels of the year so far, IDW Publishing's "Parker: The Hunter," an adaptation of the book by Donald Westlake, who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark.
Cooke had planned to leave DC Comics after "The New Frontier" and start doing his own books, but then DC offered him the opportunity to work on Will Eisner's classic character, the Spirit. "It was really the only thing they could have pulled out to keep me there for another couple years, but I really felt honored that they'd asked me to do it," Cooke said. "I felt it was going to be the challenge of a career to try to live up to Will's work, so I sort of dove into that and put my own plans on hold."
But that didn't stop Cooke from thinking about crime fiction, particularly one character he couldn't get out of his head. "The one thing I couldn't stop thinking about was this guy Parker," he said, adding the Donald Westlake creation was basically an amoral, purpose-driven criminal. "Despite the fact that he's not a good guy in any sense of the word, he's an incredibly magnetic personality. There's something about Parker that clicks with almost everybody who reads the book."
Cooke said he discovered Parker and Westlake's novels after seeing the movie "Point Blank," which was an adaptation of "The Hunter" and starred Lee Marvin. "It's probably one of the greatest crime films North America has ever produced, and it's certainly one of the greatest North American films of the '60s. It's Lee Marvin's finest hour, without any question," Cooke said. "Being the movie freak and crime buff that I was, this movie had a profound effect on me, and the way I visualize things and the way I thought of that type of material. And when I found out about the book it was based on, it drove me straight to it. And once I read that first book, I was hooked."
Cooke said he previously tried to put to produce a Parker comic book adaptation a few years ago with some friends. "We couldn't really get it together," he said. "We didn't know how to penetrate the licensing arena." So he said the project ended up "sitting over on the side" even though he still really wanted to do it.
"The thought of being able to take the material and adapt it into comic form, I just thought it would be the perfect place for the material to shine in a way that it wouldn't in a movie," Cooke said. "It's been brilliantly done in film, but this would be a different thing and I think a far more natural fit for the material."
After finishing up his run on "The Spirit," Cooke left DC Comics to focus on his own projects. IDW editor Dunbier also left DC around that same time. "Cooke left, I was pushed," Dunbier said.
"Well, they pushed him, then I said I'm going, too," Cooke added.
Once Dunbier joined IDW Publishing, he called Cooke and suggested they do something together. So Cooke sent him a pitch for "The Hunter," and Cooke said within two weeks they knew they were going forward with it. "This is exactly the type of thing where I think whatever ability I have is going to be put to best use," Cooke said.
Dunbier added that Cooke's material won over Donald Westlake, who they both exchanged emails with in the early stages of the project. "Ed Brubaker and I were talking about this a couple of weeks ago, what it's like when you have the opportunity to work with somebody who you are a huge fan of," Cooke said. "Going into it, I was saying to Ed, 'Y'know, I had to think every day if some fan of mine came up to me and started pestering me about wanting to take some of my work and do something with it, how would I want him to behave?'"
Cooke said he "wouldn't want him kissing my ass, I wouldn't want him sucking up to me, I wouldn't want him prattling on about how wonderful I was. I would hope he'd just be able to stick to the nuts and bolts about what it is he was trying to achieve."
Cooke didn't want to be pushy, so he never asked for the 75-year-old Westlake's phone number or to set up a meeting. "I tried to just email him when I needed to, and that worked really well," he said. Cooke added that Westlake was "incredibly forthcoming, and incredibly funny, and a really forward-thinking guy."
Westlake still used typewriters, rather than a computer, to write his novels up until he died. "You're expecting a certain type of person, but he was so upbeat and witty, and also so open to anything, whether it was a graphic novel or the new electronic delivery and all the different ways the work can be put out there," Cooke said. "He still had this incredible curiosity and enthusiasm for it. So it was really rewarding for me to have the opportunity to talk to the author."
Dunbier asked Cooke about his approach to adapting the novel, and how he decided what to keep and what to leave out. "Essentially when you're coming in to adapt some material, you're usually in one of two positions," Cooke explained. "You're either dealing with something that is considered valuable or brilliant, and that's why you're adapting it, because it has incredible merit. Or you're taking something broken and trying to find a way to realize the potential its premise might have or some character's characterization might offer you. "
Cooke said he didn't have an interest in adapting material he didn't already respect. "So I'm going into it thinking this book is one of the most important books in the genre, it's one of my favorite books, and it's kind of brilliantly constructed. So at that point it's hard to think I should be going in to try and reinvent the wheel."
Cooke said Westlake came up with the pseudonym "Stark" because it reflected the stark, stripped down prose of the novel, where the emotional state of the main character is hardly ever addressed except "through his physicality." So Cooke took a different approach to the artwork than he would have to a "galactic sci-fi opus." "I started looking at it from that point, and I thought, 'Okay, no trick layouts, no gimmicks, no full pages where you have to follow the line through it," Cooke said, adding that he wanted to "break it down to the point where it's almost just color shapes that overlap and create a sense of form, so that the artwork is as stark and stripped down as I considered the prose."
Cooke said it was a challenge to portray Parker as such an unsentimental protagonist. "It was really difficult to restrain myself, because I believe in the heroic ideal," he said. "I'm horrified by some of the things that Parker does in these books. There was a real struggle as I was doing it."
He went on to describe a scene where Parker disposes of a body and slashes her face so they won't put her picture in the paper. "That's cold-blooded stuff," Cooke said. "And it's horrible to even consider."
Cooke thought about not including the scene. "But with this guy, it's essential," Cooke said. "And I realized every time I wanted to make him more likable to the reader, or I wanted to defend him, maybe, or try to explain why he'd be like that, I was failing, I was screwing up. I was making the mistake of thinking for the audience."
Cooke said Parker wasn't a violent character in the sense that he acts out of anger, but he will use violence when he has to. "He has no judgment either way, other than he's got an objective, and that's what he'll pursue. If that means sitting and letting someone talk for two hours until he gains their trust, he'll do that. If it means just taking out a knife and stabbing them in the eye, he'll do that, too. "
Cooke said Westlake likened Parker to a carpenter. "Think of him as a guy who really takes pride in what he does, and he doesn't make any sort of judgments about what it's going to take. He's going to do the job and do it right. And anything that's in the way of that, he'll get it out of the way."
Someone in the audience asked Darwyn Cooke why he chose not to use full color art, but opted for a single color. Since the book is set in 1962, Cooke wanted to invoke the style of the period and even the production methods that were available then. He told IDW, "The book can't look like there's anything in it that wasn't available in 1962. I want it to look like it came off a press during that time."
Cooke said that back then, full color was reserved for things like magazine covers and labels. "Most of the color you'd see in print back then was spot color," he said.
He also wanted the binding and typesetting of his "The Hunter" look authentic. "I wanted it all to feel like it was something you found in a box from 40 years ago," Cooke said.
Subsequent volumes will use a different spot color that "reflects the overall mood of that book," Cooke confirmed.
Another person mentioned that when Westlake brought Parker back in the 1990s, the character was a "kinder, gentler" Parker, and asked if Cooke was reluctant to read those stories. "Not at all," Cooke said, noting he thought they were as strong as the original run. "I think people are going to change over time. I read my first Parker novel as a young teenager, so I've changed a great deal from the first one I read. But I think he managed to keep the character intact. I do agree, though, that there is almost a sense of him being bemused at times. He's not as ruthless as he had been."
Dunbier said the book has been doing well in bookstores and in comic shops. "Both the direct market and mainstream bookstores have responded very, very well," Dunbier said. "We went in with certain expectations, and I think it's safe to say they were exceeded."
The editor said IDW ran a very aggressive overprint on the book, and he and Cooke made a bet as to when it would sell out. "One analogy I made was that I sort of compared the book to a movie coming out," Dunbier said. "A good movie will start out in a few theaters, and as word of mouth goes off it expands." He mentioned the book has gotten a lot of good press and rave reviews. "I believe the next book will even be more successful."
Cooke said he thinks a lot of what holds comics back in bookstores is presentation. "Marvel and DC's presentation is geared toward the direct market. It's geared toward a certain customer who is looking for a certain aesthetic," he said. "And with all due respect, it's the only place on the planet that you're going to find that confluence of elements. Outside of it, we're going to do a completely different thing. So right down to the size of the book, the color scheme, its heft, even the cloth and the tape we put on the spine, it was all engineered to look like a book, and to feel like a book, and to make a book reader comfortable with wanting to have it."
Cook added he'd like to see "The Hunter" shelved in the Mystery section instead of the graphic novel section in mainstream bookstores. "It's not like I've reinvented the wheel here adapted a book into comic form, but I think it was really smart that we picked the author we did, and the type of fan base and the genre we did, and then approached it with the format we did. Because I think it's going to maximize our ability to get outside of where we are."
Cooke shared some details on the next book he'll be doing in the series, called "The Outfit." While the second Parker book by Westlake was "The Man with the Getaway Face," Cooke opted to include only a few elements from it and jump directly to the third book. "I don't think it's one of the strongest books, but there's key continuity in there," Cooke said of "The Man with the Getaway Face." "'The Outfit' was the first real bona fide classic. It's the one where Westlake really hits his stride, and all this material really comes together in a strong, strong way."
Darwyn Cooke and Scott Dunbier expect to see "The Outfit" published in October of 2010 from IDW.