CCI XTRA: Darwyn Cooke on Leaving "The Spirit," More

At the "Spotlight on Darwyn Cooke" panel on Thursday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Cooke discussed a variety of topics from his upcoming work, to the future of the comic book industry, to his thoughts on George Lucas. An Eisner Award-winning writer and artist, Cooke was joined by inker and regular collaborator J. Bone, who served as moderator.

The biggest announcement was the news that Cooke's run on "Will Eisner's The Spirit" would be ending after issue #12. "I was committed for two years," Cooke said, "but we're going into the second year and J is not going to be available to work on the book, and that's like cutting off my arms and asking me to still do the job. There were some editorial shuffles as well and I looked at the book and said, 'I can't do this halfway and I can't do it if there's the risk of doing a less than perfect job, it is Will Eisner's Spirit and I just didn't feel I had the tools for the second year. Without the support of the team we've got I just can't see us maintaining the quality."

Cooke did reassure the audience that "The Spirit" would be continuing with a different creative team, though he didn't know who it would be.

On the upcoming film version of "The Spirit," written and directed by Frank Miller, Cooke said that he hasn't seen anything the public hasn't. Based on interviews Miller has done, though, he said he thinks the movie will go in a different direction from the one he has taken in the comic.

"I think it will be a really fantastic crime movie and it's probably going to be visually stunning," Cook said. "But I think his interpretation seems just a little one-sided to me. He seems to be concentrating on the sex and violence, from what his interviews indicate. I always thought the strip had so much more depth to it than that. Those were elements that helped drive many of the stories but I don't think they were what the strip was about. And I think at the end of the day, as nasty as the business was that [the Spirit] gets involved in, it's a hopeful strip. It's got optimism at its heart, and humanity. I don't know that the movie is going to reflect that, but I think it's probably going to be damn exciting."

The subject of sex, violence and other material termed "adult" was a popular one, and Cooke discussed his thoughts on it at length.

"I think the word 'adult' is often used in the most ironic fashion in this business. The material termed 'adult' is among the most juvenile. It's adult because the boobies are big or because the guy says 'shit' ten times. The themes are as juvenile as imaginable. However, you can do almost any subject matter you want if you present it in the right way. In 'The Spirit,' we've beaten the tar out of him, we've melted a poor guy's head, we've got a guy in love with an animal, and this is all perfectly acceptable because of the way it is presented."

This doesn't mean that Cooke doesn't enjoy darker, grittier comics. "I read and loved 'Watchmen' and a lot of the books that came out because of it," he said. "But I don't think anyone expected to see the entire industry turn around into that. I sometimes fear that in this industry a lot of people are eager to make the easiest choice. That is to say, killing a character or perhaps raping a character, or any other number of other things are very easy ways to get readers' attention or to create a stir, but does it serve the characters' needs ultimately? I think it's far more difficult to sit down these days and create a story that is compelling and exciting and emotionally rewarding that doesn't skirt these lines. That takes real work. Those are the kind of books we've tried to do. We draw lines that we won't cross, so in order to engage the reader we have to make sure that the story really works and is really involving. 'New Frontier' was an attempt to say 'See? We can still do this! Heroes can still be heroes!'"

Cooke said that the idea for "DC: The New Frontier," a six-issue limited series published in 2003 and 2004 and set in the late 1950s, came out of DC's request that he do a Justice League story. "I'm really not a superhero guy at heart," Cooke said. "I've always gravitated more towards characters like Batman, or Catwoman, or Slam Bradley - real people. So to take on the Justice League wasn't something that I felt naturally comfortable with. I had to find a hook for myself, to make it personal for me. I realized that when I looked at everything that DC had done, there was one thing that I was confused and disturbed by; it was the fact that it was all unrecognizable to me.

"So, I started tracing what had happened with these characters since I had stopped reading them and I can remember getting particularly disturbed by Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern's life, as DC had plotted it out through the '90s. That's when it occurred to me that maybe all this grim and gritty stuff is really doing more damage than good.

"I thought, is there a way to look at these characters and recast them in the light in which they were created? The more I looked, the more it became apparent that the only way to do the project was to put the characters in the time in which they were originally meant to appear. Mark Waid had just done 'Justice League: Year One' so that territory was already covered. The only thing that hadn't been worked to death was the period before they became the Justice League, to look at the characters as people and determine what it is that made them the type of people who'd end up in that group...Then it was something interesting. Linked with the notion of trying to authentically present the period and the social setting in which the characters had existed, I knew I had something I could be passionate about.

"Hal was really the spine of the book for me. He's like the only member of the Justice League who isn't a freak. Wonder Woman is a goddess; Martian Manhunter is an alien, and Aquaman, who knows what the hell he is. The Flash is this guy who's been poisoned by chemicals and his body is transformed. But Hal is just a human being, he's just a guy. It tied in to my fascination with test pilots and the definition of courage and the line between courage and stupidity. The more I read about that type of man, the test pilots and astronauts of the era, the more fascinating Hal became to me."

"New Frontier" begins in 1945 with the story of the Losers, a group of World War II soldiers and their deaths on Dinosaur Island. "The whole thing with the Losers was very simple... nobody liked them," Cooke explained. "It was the lowest selling DC war book the entire time it existed. That's why it was called The Losers. You might not know this but, Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge, they were all separate comic books that sold poorly. So they were all being canceled and Kanigher [Robert Kanigher, the writer of the Losers' stories and former DC editor] said to himself, 'What can I do with these guys?' and he stuck them all into one group and called them The Losers because that's what they were. So when I started 'New Frontier' I thought, 'no one's going to read this thing... so I'll just do what I want.' So I wanted to take these characters, the least well-known characters in the DC line, and in forty pages make you love them, and then tear them all away from you. I thought 'if I can achieve that, if I can get readers to care about these losers then I'll know I've got them hooked."

Another aspect of the "New Frontier" books that was important to Cooke was that only colors available in the 1950s could be used. Cooke worked with colorist Dave Stewart, who he described as, "one of the best colorists that's ever been in the business" to ensure colors were era-specific. "Cars had to use the color combinations of the time, women's dresses couldn't be certain colors because the synthetic dyes hadn't been invented yet. Outside of that I just let Dave go, because he's brilliant."

In January 2008, Warner Bros. will release "Justice League: The New Frontier," a 70 minute, direct-to-DVD, animated film of the miniseries. Cooke acknowledged that because of time limits, a lot had to be cut from the story. "'New Frontier' was so heavily weighted towards the non-meta characters because that's where my interest really lies. Almost all of that other than the flavor, we had to get rid of. It was hard for me, to see a lot of my favorite sequences get cut. But you have to be realistic, and say 'much as I want to see this scene, I know it's not germane to the main story."

"Justice League: New Frontier" is hardly Cooke's first experience in animation. Prior to finding success in comics, he worked as a storyboard artist for "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Superman: The Animated Series." Additionally, in 1999, Cooke created the opening montage for "Batman Beyond" with Bruce Timm.

"For the shot where we circle Terry, Bruce took a Nightwing action figure and carved it into a Batman Beyond figure at home. Then he glued it onto a lazy susan, put a piece of blue bristol board behind it, spun the lazy susan and filmed it with his Hi-8 video camera. He did the same thing with old man Wayne then he gave the film to me. We put it together in Photoshop and After Effects in my spare bedroom because at that time, Warner Bros. didn't even know what a Macintosh was, let alone After Effects. We had to do it at my house since no one else knew what the hell was going on."

Last month saw the release of "Batman: Ego and Other Tales," a hardcover collection of all of Cooke's Batman work. The book includes Cooke's 2002 graphic novel, "Selina's Big Score," a prequel to "Catwoman." Of the graphic novel, Cooke said, "it took 18 months to get 'Big Score' approved and I had three months left to get it done. It's a hundred page story which meant thirty-three pages every thirty days, drawn, inked, lettered and off to the colorist. It's my favorite story, I think it's the best story I've ever put down on paper, but the haste with which we had to construct it... look at that lettering! It looks like I was drunk! I really had to resist the urge to go in and fix some of the things that got affected by the speed, but ultimately I started thinking about what I thought of George Lucas fixing his stuff and it's like, what a tool! So, you know, I thought, I don't want to be thought of as a tool - for that.

"Another good example is one of my favorite artists Neal Adams, he's done these wonderful hardcover collections now through DC putting all his work out there for us, but he's gone in and redrawn all these heads and he's doing it with like a magic marker in current Neal style, and it drives me nuts. It's like, Neal, leave it alone, this is where you were then and [the art] is representative of it. It was like a document of where he was at that time and it should probably have been left alone. If you think something could be better, than that's for your next job."

So, with his run on "The Spirit" ending, what's next for Cooke? "I guess if I had to be honest, in the next little while a lot of my work is going to concentrate more on emotional matters, things important to us emotionally, what goes on in the heart. You know, I've been blowing stuff up for 7 years now, so I'm really looking forward to doing some slightly more introspective work."

Cooke plans to release two graphic novels over the next two years. " I think it's about time I found out if anything I've come up with on my own has any value," he explained. The books will be completely different from each other, and from anything else he has done. One, he said, will be an "all-ages fairy tale... a big sprawling story that takes place a little in the future. It involves giant robots and all sorts of observations on society, all boiled down into a story meant for young people."

Though he calls it a fairy tale, Cooke said, "That doesn't mean there are goblins and fairies in it." Rather, he said, it has "a lot of imagination and the feel of things like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, things I loved when I was younger,"

The other book "will have sex, and violence and swearing," Cooke said, to cheering and applause from the audience. The story will center "around a 30ish guy who's life is unraveling as he tries to deal with modern life," he said. "It involves a lot of paranoia and craziness. I think it'll be a fun read for the adults out there." Both books have been planned out and Cooke has done some work on one, however, he said he still had work left to do on "The Spirit" before he would be able to "dive in wholeheartedly."

When asked if there were other Marvel or DC characters he wanted to work with, Cooke replied, "Honestly, with the super-jocks I got nothin' left to say. It's always fun to do a story but I imagine when I do that type of work in the future it'll be special work that I'm doing with a writer who has an idea that I can help bring to life, like Geoff Johns and I did with 'The Secret Files.' But you get to a certain point and you want to take your own shot and see what you can come up with yourself and a lot more of my focus is on that now.

"We're excited about seeing if we've got what it takes because frankly, and this is a big problem, there is no room in the direct market for new ideas. You can go in to DC and pitch new ideas all day long, but they don't want 'em. If you want to capture a new audience or take your work out into a broader area that's something you have to do outside because they're not built to do that type of work anymore."

With all the problems Cooke sees in the comics industry, from the so-called adult material, to the lack of fresh ideas, what would he change about the industry?

"I wonder if anything about it really needs to be changed right now," he said. "I honestly have to wonder if it isn't naturally heading where it has to go. By that I mean, it's a very exciting time for comics now, just not in the direct market. If we look at manga sales and graphic novels in bookstores and the fact that 'Fun Home' was named book of the year, not graphic novel of the year, but book of the year we see that comics have arrived.

"People are ready to enjoy and accept them and we're seeing growth everywhere, except in the direct market. So I'm not sure that a change needs to happen, as much as time is going to allow one aspect of the market to overtake another. At some point twenty-five years ago, the direct market made a strong decision about what they were doing and in one way it really saved mainstream comics by putting them in specialty stores and catering to the people who bought them. But let me ask you this, when we're all old and dead, who's going to be reading these things? Because, I don't see the kids here that are going to grow up to become the second generation or third or fourth.

"To be quite honest, I think that the direct market comics that we're all here talking about are on their way to extinction. I don't see any way around it. It doesn't matter how much money the Spider-Man movies make, if it doesn't bring anybody in to buy the comics. This theory's been floating for twenty years now that these movies will bring people back to comics - it doesn't work that way. Ask a twelve-year-old kid on the street, he probably thinks Spider-man was created for the movie, or for the cartoon. He doesn't know it's a comic book. Ultimately, the characters will endure in film and animation and other media but I really don't see how they're going to survive [in comic-form] past a certain point the way things are going.

"The monthly comic book is becoming less and less important. The collection is the key now. Thirty years ago, before they started collecting this material when books just came out once a month, it would be unthinkable that a book would ship late. It never happened. In the real world if you work at a magazine and that magazine ships an hour late, you're all fired. That's just the way the world works. It's no longer important in this industry whether books ship on time and that should tell you all you need to know about the emphasis being placed on the monthlies. Ultimately, I think we're going to see graphic novels, manga, superhero books, and everything else in album form in book chains and they'll have to fight it out with all the other product available, which is I think, the way it should be."

J. Bone ended the panel with the question on nobody's mind: "Boxers or briefs?"

"Boxers, of course," Cooke replied.

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