Robert Haines of the Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards Association (also known as the Joe Shuster Awards) hosted a Fan Expo Canada panel spotlighting Darwyn Cooke, which he began by asking Cooke about "Parker: The Hunter." Cooke said he began trying to secure the rights to Donald Westlake's classic novel in 2000, and that it has been quite a storied adventure from there. The IDW Publishing adaptation has sold out and is heading back to press. Cooke will be able to do more, letting those in the crowded room know, "We planned to do four in the series."
Cooke said he contacted Richard Stark - the pen name of author Westlake --and was not initially welcomed on the project. "Donald Westlake was such a prolific writer that he adopted pen names for all of the books he could produce," Cooke said, providing some background on why he was referring to Richard Stark as "Don." "He was the greatest living crime writer up until last year, when he passed away."
After seeing the first set of drawings, Westlake was not thrilled with Cooke's project. He gave Cooke feedback, and Cooke produced some new paintings and an email back-and-forth ensued. "It meant a lot to me to be able to go through it with him," Cooke said. Westlake never actually got to see any of the finished work as the first chapter was in the mail when Westlake passed away.
When asked who he modeled Parker after, Cooke said he always pictured the character as Lee Marvin. Cooke said Westlake would not let filmmakers use the name "Parker" in their adaptations of his work, and that the character was named "Martin" on the silver screen.
Westlake told Cooke that every character in his work was invented purely in his imagination, save for Parker. He pictured Jack Palance, more specifically a young Jack Palance from "Panic in the Streets," as his iconic criminal. Cooke avoided trying to draw Palance, saying it would have been a distraction in his mind.
Westlake asked if the story would be updated to reflect the America of the present, but Cooke felt "The Hunter" needed to remain set in 1962, during the year it was written. He wanted to be able to use all of Westlake's period-appropriate dialogue.
"This character Parker, he's a tough guy to like," Haines said.
"He has no morality, but he has an ethic that guides him," Cooke said. "In crime fiction, the number one rule is if you're writing a bad guy, you make the people around him even worse."
Haines asked, "This is a visually different book for you. Was there a learning curve, or was this your next step?"
For Cooke, "The Hunter" was like coming full circle. With "New Frontier," he had cleaned up his draftsmanship for a superhero story. With a project like "Parker," Cooke said, "[Stark/Westlake's] work is so stripped down; I wanted my work to reflect that." Cooke did all of the lettering on the drawing paper as well as the coloring. The tones were watercolor and applied with brushes. Any mistakes were worked into the art to make them seem deliberate. Cooke compared the process of creating "The Hunter" to a four-track analog recording session, "Raw but lively."
"The first chapter in 'The Hunter' is a breathtaking piece of prose," Cooke continued. The cartoonist wrestled with how to handle that, as Parker had only one line in the entire first chapter.
When asked if there was any panel or sequence he really enjoyed creating, Cooke replied, "I enjoyed all of it."
As for the next book in the Parker series, Cooke said work will begin in November for an October 2010 release.
In terms of reprinting, Cooke wants to have a version of "The Hunter" that's blown up twice the size of the original art. "We have a lot of plans. IDW is a very wonderful company to be working with right now," he said.
The next thing on Cooke's plate is "Jonah Hex" for DC Comics. "I've already done one. I didn't want to do it," Cooke laughed, sharing the tale of how his good friends and "Jonah Hex" co-writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti conned him into drawing the book. When they were out drinking, Cooke recalled, he drunkenly said he'd draw "Hex" and proceeded to list a bunch of crazy ideas he wanted to include, like drunk Canadian Mounties and Hex fighting off wolves with just a knife. Cooke feels the story Gray & Palmiotti gave him is the best of the "Jonah Hex" series to this point.
On the subject of "Justice League: The New Frontier," based on Cooke's epic superhero book, "DC: The New Frontier," Cooke said there were frustrations with translating his seminal work to animation. Specifically, Cooke had issues with the "New Frontier" script and its complete lack of female characters, save for Carol Ferris, who "seemed to exist just so Hal could slap her on the butt." Cooke insisted on rewriting it and Warner Bros. acquiesced.
Haines asked Cooke to expand upon the appearance of Wonder Woman in "New Frontier." "Wonder Woman is supposed to have the body of a fourteen-year-old and the boobs of a . . . their whole approach to beauty is limited," Cooke explained. "Basically women are a plot device. That's pretty sad to me."
Along those lines, Cooke insisted that the "Catwoman" series be designed in such a way as to attract female readers when he asked to work on that title.
Haines took the conversation to "The Spirit," which Cooke wrote and illustrated for a year, and asked Cooke to expand on the women in Will Eisner's classic mythos. Cooke revealed that Silk Satin was almost spun off into a miniseries of her own, and that he based the character on his wife Marsha, "Who's never at a loss for words."
Haines reflected on the covers of "The Spirit" series and how he perceived them as iconic. Cooke stated, "We just tried to mix it up the way Will did. We had a lot of fun with that book."
Haines then wanted to know, "When are you going to get involved in 'Wednesday Comics?'" Cooke said it almost happened, but character availability and schedules didn't work out. He hopes to get a shot in the next round, and insisted that "Wednesday Comics" editor and DC Comics Art Director Mark Chiarello is a genius.
Cooke feels that his work is viewed as too "old-time" by DC, saying the company doesn't want his work on a title because it fears that Cooke might drag the book down and shoo away potential readers.
When asked if he would pursue more work in animation, Cooke said it's a matter of avoiding the "idiots" who are in positions around the animation business. "I would love to do more animation, but it would depend on everything being just so." Cooke also revealed that a Spirit animated film "almost happened."
When asked what needs to happen for Marvel and DC to "smarten up" about developing strong female characters, Cooke said, "Men are idiots. You put five of us in a room and within two minutes the boobie jokes have started." He checked the crowd for children prior to discussing his views on "Identity Crisis," as he specifically pointed to Dr. Light's violent, sexual attack on Sue Dibny as something that didn't need to be in superhero comics."
Cooke said the only way that readers can direct a company's content is to vote with their wallets, and that there is a boys' club sensibility at the superhero publishers that he doesn't know how to defeat. "All I can do is manage my own piece of turf."
Is there a great Canadian crime story coming from Darwyn Cooke? "There is a great Canadian story, I don't know if it's a crime story," Cooke said. The writer-artist said he has "three or four threads" and needs to do some more research before he can tackle his "Great Canadian book."
Addressing the social stigma some comic books carry, Cooke said, "I think it's better than it's ever been. There's an awareness of the culture now that's never been there. It's ramping up, but it still has a long way to go to be appreciated as an art form."
Asked if he would approach a more "alternative" work, Cooke insisted that he is an entertainer. "I don't need to spill my guts on the page. I just don't think it's me," Cooke said.
As to why he chose to format "Parker: The Hunter" the way he did, Cooke said, "To adapt a piece of literature that I love, it would give me my fanbase and the fanbase of that writer. The direct market will order what they will, so the market for the book needs to be expanded." By choosing to create the book in a 1960s novel format, Cooke feels that it would put the book in front of Westlake's readers, assuming the bookstores would put the book in the crime section alongside the Stark novels.
Cooke concluded his Fan Expo panel with a statement about the future of the comic book industry: "The single-issue format is dying. How many more price hikes can you give a 22-page story before it goes away?" Cooke said. As evidence, he offered that the original "Jimmy Olsen" book from the Silver Age sold only 200,000 copies a month when it was cancelled. These days, 10,000 copies makes a book viable. Cooke said he waits for trade paperbacks to enjoy a more drawn out reading experience. The future, according to Cooke, is electronic. "The stuff that sticks will get collected and printed. [The digital future is] sitting right in front of us, but the only ones taking advantage of it are the smaller companies. The next breakout character will start there whether we like it or not."