Darwyn Cooke Nails "The Outfit"

There is no doubt that Darwyn Cooke and IDW Comics took a bit of a gamble when the decision was made to re-imagine Richard Stark's "Parker" hard-boiled crime thrillers into a series of graphic novels. But man, did that gamble pay off.

Last year, Cooke landed an Eisner for "The Hunter," which he adapted and illustrated, and the 140-page hardcover book also found a home on "The New York Times" bestseller list.

IDW released Parker Book 2: "The Outfit" today and CBR News spoke with the critically acclaimed cartoonist about the title character's latest exploits.

Originally conceived by Donald Westlake, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Parker made his first appearance in "The Hunter" in 1962. The first novel was adapted into three different movies; "Point Blank" starring Lee Marvin, "Full Contact" with Chow Yun-fat and the Mel Gibson vehicle, "Payback." Parker, an anti-heroic criminal, ultimately appeared in 23 novels, including "The Outfit," which was published in 1963.

Cooke told CBR News that while he made some changes to the original story, every one of those types of choices was a difficult one. But he believed if he stayed true to Parker, a now deceased Westlake would certainly approve. Or at the very least, understand. He also revealed details about the remaining books in the series - "The Score" and "Slayground" - and teased a possible major project for DC Comics. And no, it's not a sequel to "DC: New Frontier."

CBR News: Being such a fan of the source material, is translating the Parker novels into graphic novels a daunting task?

Darwyn Cooke: Yeah, it really is. There are maybe three reasons to adapt something. The first one is a company calls you up and offers you a lot of money to do it. The second one is that you see value in something, but its execution failed and you think that there is a better way to tell the story. And then the third one is adapting something just because you love it and you want to sort of spread that love out and about. This definitely fell into that category. So yeah, it can be intimidating, but everything happens in sequence, I guess. And it wasn't that long ago that I had to deal with that with Will Eisner's "The Spirit."

What was your introduction to Donald Westlake and the Parker novels? Did you read him as a kid?

I kind of came into it backwards, I suppose. As much as a crime fiction buff as I was, most of the stuff that I was reading was all thirties and forties material, like [Dashiell] Hammett, [Raymond] Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich. But I was an avid film buff, too, when I young. I guess "Point Blank," the [John] Boorman film, was my first exposure to the actual story, I guess. That remains one of my favorite movies to this day.

At the time, I never stopped to consider if there was a source. I guess I was reading Stephen King's "The Dark Half" when that came out, and in his introduction, he sort of pinpoints where the inspiration for that book came from. That's when I put it all together and started scouring the second-hand bookstores. There was no eBay back then - you had to dig for this stuff.

It's one of those rare times where you've seen a movie you've loved and you've turned to the book it was based on and the book is actually much better. If you love a film, it's generally hard to go back to the book and then love it more, but that was certainly the case here.

Did you get a chance to meet Mr. Westlake to discuss these adaptations before his passing in 2008?

No, I never did get to meet with him in person, but we did have an email relationship that I treasure and really helped me to do this work. His insight and just getting to know him the little bit that I did through those exchanges meant a lot to me.

Did he tip his hand, at all, to any deep dark secrets of Parker's origin?

There were a few things. He very cleverly constructed a character that's almost exclusively internalized. The very last thing, perhaps, that you'd want to do is go a let the cat out of the bag. So he remained pretty tight-lipped about it, but there were a few key things, like the fact that he pictured Jack Palance when he created the character. That was sort of a real key. The rest of it was more about understanding Parker as a character as best you can. Westlake's No. 1 way to get you to understand a character was to say, and he said this in many interviews: "Think of him like a carpenter. Or a plumber. It's a different job but that's him. It's nothing but a bunch of wood or pipe that he has to turn into whatever it is he's creating." It's as dispassionate and as prideful and as craft-oriented as that. That's worth a million dollars, having that sort of way into the character.

Is part of the allure of Parker that he is so internalized; that we don't have his secret origin?

He's kind of like a coiled spring. He's kind of like if you had a bear trap in the room with you, a rusty bear trap, you're not even sure if getting up out of your chair will set that old mechanism off. It's just sitting there, it's inert, but it's the most dangerous thing in the room. There's just no question. You can't understand physically or emotionally what might set this thing off. And God help you if you stumble into it.

He's also has that Don Draper "man of mystery" thing going that women love.

My wife has read all of the books, now, and she just loves the character and the world. I think to a certain degree women just look at the character and they unmistakably see a man, in that old school sense. He's completely confident in his ability to navigate through any situation that's put in front of him. I think you can see that.

In Parker's world, crime is very much presented as a business as opposed to any sort of wrong doing. There is hardly ever any police intervention or FBI agents hunting Parker, or the other criminals that form The Outfit, down. Does that type of setup allow you to explore crime in a different way?

Absolutely. I think that this book is sort of the litmus test for what we are doing, because "The Hunter" is such a unique book in terms of the series. It's an emotion-based, revenge-driven plot and it's really the only time we ever see the character like that. The rest of the books reflect, and many people have noted this that are smarter than me, Westlake's love of process - just of the way things work, the inner workings of anything, be it a machine or an organization. When you're adapting something, you are constantly looking at it going, "What was it about this section that I found really rewarding? Or really great?" When we got into the robberies, it's all the details of the actual scams, the illegal money making and how it's done. It's not necessarily the mechanics of the guys busting into the room. It's more about the thing they're robbing. So yeah, it adds an incredibly fascinating angle to it all because it sort of gives you that sense that organized crime is fearless about the way it goes about its business. And, yeah, I think that's what makes "The Outfit" a litmus test. Just to see if fans of "The Hunter," get on board for this kind of thing, because from here on in, the books are all about the heists, the robberies and all the minute detail that go into them.

Having completed your adaptation of "The Hunter" first, to such critical acclaim, was it easier to get into "The Outfit" in terms of pacing and overall storytelling?

Well, I think the thing that made it easiest was that "The Hunter" was just successful beyond any of our expectations. [IDW Chief Executive Officer] Ted [Adams] and [editor] Scott [Dunbier] and I did not anticipate it working as well as it did. And to me, let's face it, I'm not making singular artistic statements here, right? This isn't Adrian Tomine country. This is what I hope is literate and engaging, but at its base, it's entertainment. Knowing that people were entertained really takes a load off of me. It lets me know that people are digging this. I can have confidence in what we're doing and where we're going from here. That's the most freeing thing. It allows you to do things like pull the stunt I pulled in the middle of the book when we do the robberies.

I want to talk to you about that and adding prose and cartoons to the storyline, but first, when you are translating from a novel or any other source material, how do you go about deciding pacing in regards to specific plot points and character-developing scenes? You obviously can't do a straight translation as you don't have enough pages.

You're sort of looking at finding a balance because, you're right, you do have to abbreviate to some extent. So you're looking for a balance between keeping a strong through line for the plot and the character moments, the aspects of the writer's work that make his voice unique. You are trying to preserve as much of that as you can. That is a long process, much longer than actually executing the book. I spent a lot of time re-reading. A lot of sequences even get drawn before I realize that I'm going to be over my page count and I've got to make a decision [about what pages to cut]. That goes on forever, to be quite honest. That doesn't stop until I ship the book. And there are fundamental decisions made up front. Like, there is a scene - and it's one of the best written chapters, I think, in the entire run - that I dropped where he goes to pick up the car. It's pure, perfect Stark. It hits all of these great character beats. But at the end of the day, it was the least important scene in terms of the overall story. So, that decision gets made, but not before all those characters were designed and the barn interior was done and the pages had been thumbnailed.

When illustrating, are there classic artists or cartoonists from the fifties and sixties that inspire what you do when working in the Parker universe?

Sure. A lot of it, to start with, has to do with the fact that I was in my twenties during the eighties, and in the eighties, there was a real graphic revival of forties, fifties and early sixties design and illustration. I got to see a lot of that work. Probably the best examples that I could give you that the readers could relate to would be the original run on "Mister X" with the Paul Rivoche covers, the way there was a double spread of just typographical design to lead you in.

There was a return to stuff like that, and I sort of saw it in things like "Heavy Metal." You'd see artists taking this old school style and breathing a contemporary sensibility and life into it. At that point, I was a magazine art director and a freelance illustrator, so I really gobbled up a lot of influences, and a lot of them were advertising artists. A lot of them were the nameless guys that did the little line art illustrations that would appear on matchbooks or menus. But I was really kind of well versed in that whole school of illustration, years and years ago, A lot of it was just calling that back up and maybe not at this age directly referencing other artists so much as, in my mind's eye, taking everything that I knew and putting it all together.

In the middle of the book, you drop five or six pages of prose in the style of a magazine article to describe one of the crimes. Later, you use kids' cartoons to explain the inner workings of the syndicate. What was the reasoning behind these stylistic choices??

I think at that point, for one thing, the narrative leaves Parker's world and so that sequence begins with our bad guys playing Monopoly - it also shows you that this notion that people are addicted to video games maybe isn't necessarily a new one. We're using the game board as visual metaphor, and I thought at that point, we're moving to different locations for different crimes, the actual robberies are all fairly similar; a guy with a gun is going to take money off somebody. I started to think about how, stylistically, maybe I could distinguish from each one. At first, I was just going to do one in pen, do one in brush, do one in pencil, but as I got into it, I thought, "Wow. It would be more fun to spread out stylistically."

Each robbery sort of lent itself to a certain approach. I did the first one like a "Reader's Digest" condensed thing with the Noel Sickles spot illustrations. I thought that was a great way to lead off, because you get all of those juicy details in Westlake's prose. You get a very complete picture and then the reader takes that sort of along with them as they go through the other ones. And they are sort of deliberately sequenced. The next one - the race track - it's kind of pushing it stylistically, but it's still just hanging within what we might understand as being valid for this type of book. Then we get to the third one and it goes completely off the rails because we're using a full-on kids' cartoon style. But again, that's the most absurd or comical of the heists, so it kind of works there. For the fourth one, we pull back and it's almost my usual style, but it's done in a more open line. But, yeah, I though it would just be a great to distinguish each robbery and keep that section from getting repetitive. Also, it really helps sort of highlight the difference between the players and how this is all going, all over the country, in different shapes and forms.

I'll slap a spoiler alert on this one, but one of the major differences between your graphic novel and the original novel is the fate of the character Quill. Westlake let him live in the closing pages, while you had Parker kill him off. Was that a difficult choice or did it just make more sense to you?

No, there was a lot of deliberation about that. If there is one thing that you can use at a time like that to decide whether you're making a move that you at least consider to be valid is asking yourself, does it all speak to the character?

Who is Parker as a character? He has gone through what now amounts to two years of his life trying to straighten this shit out and he's at the very end of the line. He's in a house full of dead men that he made dead, and the only guy on the planet who has seen his face other than Handy is this nobody named Quill, who works for the guy who is trying to kill him.

There is no way on Earth that Parker would have let him live. I think if I had been able to put it to Donald that way, he might have giggled and went, "Yeah, you now what? You're right." Somebody might have let him live, but Parker certainly wouldn't have. Again, when you're doing something like that, you can't be capricious about it. And in the second place, if I'm feeling in my gut that it's wrong, I gotta figure out why it's wrong and whether it's just a personal thing of mine or whether it speaks to the character.

I also thought it allowed me the chance to give it a more punctuated ending, because we then end up in Karns' bedroom. I've got to admit, I don't mind the ending in the book, but I don't want any of these four books to end with Parker and his friend about to head off on another adventure. It's the wrong tone, I think, because we only have four. We don't have twenty to play all the notes, so each of them has to end with him in a singular position, I think.

The next Parker story you're doing is "The Score," which features a much larger cast. In "The Outfit," you introduce a large cast, as well. Was that a conscience decision as you gear up for the next one?

Yeah, the next book is like "The Dirty Dozen." I thought it would be prudent, because there are scenes in "The Outfit" that involve anonymous criminals that you never see or hear from again, so I thought there were a couple of opportunities to seed characters in so the audience will feel a certain amount of ownership when they get to Book 3 and they go, "Oh yeah, that's that guy, Grofield, from the last book." It will take some of the weight off me in terms of introducing new characters. Like Dan Wycza is in my version of "The Outfit," just to place a couple of the characters and set it up, because, again, we only have the four books. The next one is cast heavy, but I'm not shaken by that because Westlake's description was so compact that it basically comes down to the information you need to design the character and then everything else is just what comes out of their mouths, for the most part. So it's not like pages and pages are needed to describe who everybody is. It's pretty much a pick-it-up-and-go situation. Anything you need to know about the characters is revealed through the narrative.

How did you land on adapting four of the Parker novels? Was it a timeline consideration? Were these your four favorite books?

Well, there are all kinds of things that go into a decision like that. One was that four did seem like a great number in terms of a legitimate series. The other was that I know, because of his attitude towards film adaptations, that Westlake wouldn't give the Parker name up to anything that wasn't a series. Now, I don't know if that would have been true in our circumstance, but I took it into account off the bat. I also knew that I was going to love to do this. I have a lot of pages under my belt at this point, so I wasn't really intimidated about the commitment. It just seemed sensible to me, and it would also indicate that IDW and the Westlake Estate, as it stands now, were behind it. Again, another big part of this is trying to reach more readers. Hopefully over the course of the four that's what we do.

Do you know if the Parker novels picked up any kind of bounce in terms of sales, following the release of "The Hunter," last year?

I certainly couldn't tell you that, but I can tell you from personal experience that one of the greatest parts of the show signings is people coming up to me in their teens and twenties who are on Book 7 because they read "The Hunter" and they couldn't get enough it. That's awesome. You place your bets on certain characters ,and this is one that I think transcends a lot of things. His appeal is still there. So, that's great. In terms of actual numbers, I don't know. I hope so. That was certainly the idea, on one level or another.

The plan is that you'll follow "The Score" in 2012 with "Slayground," correct?

That's the plan. It's just an amazing book. But you never know at this point. I'm not going to lock in yet, because we've already changed a couple of times. I think that book is a tour de force. It really is something, and I love nothing more than things like that, where a writer or a creator paints himself into a corner and then pulls it off with so much amazing personality. So yeah, that's where it stands right now.

But Parker is certainly a character I can see being associated with for the rest of my life, so who's to say after the first four, maybe a few years down the road, perhaps I'm going to want to do another one. And if we can do that, we will.

Well, we need time for you to do the sequel to "DC: New Frontier " too, right?

Don't hold your breath. I'll tell you what I tell everybody; which did you prefer, "Rocky" or "Rocky II?" "Jaws" or "Jaws 2?" And on and on it goes.

"Empire Strikes Back" was a better movie than "Star Wars."

I was just going to say there are a couple of exceptions, but rarely. But yeah, that's unlikely. I might have one more, big project of that type featuring superheroic characters but I doubt it would be much more than one.

I've put 10 years into that type of work, and it's been incredibly rewarding. It's gone better than I ever imagined, but I do want my primary focus to be spreading out and branching out. I will always being do this and that, here and there. I just did the "Weird War" bit for Joey [Cavalieri, and when they come and put a bag over my head at night and take me away for a month, I do a "Hex." I just did a couple of covers for the "Flash" anniversary and "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents." So I'm doing a bit of stuff here and there. And we are talking about something bigger.

With DC?

Yeah. They still talk to me for some reason. [Laughs] It's funny, because they all know me there. Well, I think they know me. And they just go, "Oh yeah. That's Darwyn."

Tags: idw publishing, darwyn cooke, parker, richard stark, the outfit, donald westlake

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