Despite taking place in one of the biggest rooms of New York Comic Con, with well over 200 people in attendance, the Spotlight on Darwyn Cooke panel had an intimate feel to it. Cooke was accompanied by his editor, Scott Dunbier of IDW, who occasionally tossed in some observations of his own.
Cooke began by introducing his latest project, "Parker: The Outfit," one of a series of graphic novels based on the novels of Donald Westlake (who wrote the Parker books under the pseudonym Richard Stark).
"[Westlake] created the character back in 1962," Cooke explained. "He had never really thought the character had any longevity. It was a one-shot novel he did, and at the end of the novel Parker is actually killed by the police." Westlake's editor sent it back, Cooke said, saying, "You can't kill this guy. He's amazing. I want four more of these as soon as you can write 'em." Westlake ended up writing 23, and Cooke strongly recommended the audience check out the original source novels.
Cooke's voice faltered as he spoke of his relationship with Westlake, who died in 2008. The two never met, but they corresponded by e-mail. "I get this question at every show and I get choked up every time I talk about it, but he really helped me understand the character and what I was doing with him," Cooke said. "Unfortunately, he passed away just before the book was put together, so he never got to see what we've done with it, but I'd like to think he would be happy with it."
Westlake initially resisted making Parker into a graphic novel, Dunbier said. "He sent me a couple of e-mails that said, 'Parker is not right for comics. Nobody gets it' and he wrote me this long letter that was very funny. The last line was, '...but this guy (Cooke) is really good!' I just thought, 'Got him!'"
Cooke said he would be hesitant to do another superhero work unless he knew there was a plan in place for getting it out to the larger public. "I would have to know there is a strategy or a point behind it that was going to help to broaden the reach of this medium, because that is becoming a bigger and bigger concern of mine," he said.
"'The Spirit' is a very difficult sell to guys who read 'The Avengers,'" he continued, "but I don't think 'The Spirit' would be as difficult to sell to the mass population, if they enjoyed comic books. But we don't have a mechanism to get them out to them. I think digital is providing it now. We are on the cusp of that, where we are going to be able to reach the entire planet with whatever it is we do. I love doing that kind of work, but the companies are so locked into that event mentality, now, that there aren't many books out there where you can go out and do a book for them. You can do a one-off or a graphic novel, but to get into an actual book, there is usually an editorial road map, and your work gets plugged into a bigger thing, and that's just not how I picture myself working."
In terms of future work, Cooke said he has plans for a third Parker book and has also set aside time to do a completely creator-owned project, which will be available as an e-book only for a certain number of years. That book would be a love story, Cooke said, adding, "It's not flowers and chocolates. There's a horrible badass plot driving the story, because there has to be if I'm doing it. But it's a love story at its heart. It will look a little different and should be more intimate than the work you have seen me doing before." He also will have a story in the upcoming "Rocketeer" anthology.
Asked about his superhero work, Cooke professed distaste for complicated continuity and dark stories. "When DC approached me about doing a Justice League story, my first instinct wasn't to do a retro story or a period piece; it's just that's where I ended up after I did all my research. I don't read every comic that comes out every month, so you say 'Justice League' and I pick up the book, and I say, 'Where's Wonder Woman, who's that character?' So you start digging into the continuity, and it was just ridiculous - it was like, 'Oh, well, Wonder Woman didn't exist, you see. In the Crisis, it was actually Black Canary, and then, well, it changed and then Wonder Woman came back in, and then...' [Laughs] My head was spinning and spinning and spinning, and finally I said, 'Guys, can I set this story back in the day and then I don't have to deal with any of this nonsense?'"
His goal, he said, was to present the core characters the way their creators originally imagined them. "I didn't want to deal with the drunken Hal Jordan, I didn't want to deal with the mass murdering Hal Jordan, because that's not him. Do you know what that is? That's a lazy writer. The more I looked into modern continuity, the more I realized that what made these characters what they were had been stripped away from them. The costume was still there, but as people, they were almost unrecognizable to me. The question became, to me, 'Can we still be entertained and inspired by a story about people of virtue, heroic characters who put everything else ahead of their own needs, and were we still societally able to enjoy or be inspired by that notion, or was it just too flat and boring and childish for people to respond to?' I kind of took that as my challenge, to see if we could still relate to that sort of thing, and I think that to a great degree, 'New Frontier' was wildly successful."
The audience responded with applause, and Cooke added, "To each his own. There's an ass for every seat, but for me , I don't go to superhero books for misery, perverse violence, weird sexual things. If I want that, I go to Robert Crumb or Gilbert Hernandez."
"Back when 'New Frontier' came out, I remember reading the first issue and really loving it," Dunbier said. "At the time, I was at Wildstorm and I was working with Alan Moore on some of the comics for 'America's Best.' Alan is known to be slightly grumpy, and he had told me to take him off the comp list. He didn't want to see any more comics at all. Nothing. So I went ahead and sent him the first couple of issues of 'New Frontier' with a note saying 'Come and look at these - you might like these.' The next time I spoke to him, Alan said, 'All right Scott, you can send me these.'"
"Which is ironic," Cooke said, "because 'New Frontier' was really a response to 'Watchmen' and 'Dark Knight Returns' and where they had taken the industry. That wasn't a conscious thing I was thinking of when I put it together ,but in retrospect, I don't think I would have approached a project like that if it wasn't for what Alan had done with 'Watchmen.'"
Moving on, Cooke had harsh words for Frank Miller's adaptation of "The Spirit," calling it "a piece of shit." The creator shared equally tough words for motion comics, which he compared to 1960s television cartoons. He didn't completely rule out a return to animation, but he said, "I don't prefer the one medium over the other in general. I do prefer the intimate notion of sitting at the table and creating a world. It is a different dynamic." Coming to comics relatively late, after a full and successful career in animation, Cooke told the audience, he felt he only had one shot at a career. "I knew that on a draftsmanship level or a dazzle level, I could never compete with those guys, so I decided to make story my thing. I would be the guy you go to for a good story.
"Editors, companies, all of that is sort of a transient part of a freelancer's life," Cooke continued. "You make solid and really great relationships with people as you go, but when your career is over, that is not the part that is going to matter, it's going to be whether you connected with your readers and whether you forged a real relationship with them, and I think I was just old enough to understand this better than I would have when I was 20."