WC15: Cooke Gets Honest About "Before Watchmen," Turning Down Morrison

iFanboy founders Ron Richards, Conor Kilpatrick and Josh Flanagan reunited at the request of Darwyn Cooke to moderate the acclaimed writer/artist's spotlight panel on the final day of WonderCon. The discussion started with a question asking Cooke where he fits in with comics today. Cooke, known for his work on "Parker" and "New Frontier," offered a cantankerous answer that set the tone for the rest of the panel.

"I don't know that I actually do," Cooke said. "If we're talking about mainstream comics, I think there have been a lot of real tactical errors made in this century. I can't really read superhero comics anymore because they're not about superheroes. They've become so dark and violent and sexualized. I think it's a real wrong turn. I don't know how a company like Warner Bros. or Disney is able to rationalize characters raping and murdering and taking drugs and swearing and carrying on the way they do, and those same characters are on sheet sets for 5-year-olds, and pajamas and cartoons. I think there's a really odd and schizophrenic thing that's happened within the industry. Everybody's writing books for themselves. The median age of a creator is probably between 35 and 50 right now. Once they abandoned the notion that these characters were all-ages characters, they really limited the market.

"I think the bravest and smartest thing one of these companies could do would be to scrap everything they're doing and bring in creative people who would have the talent and were willing to put in the effort it takes to write an all-ages universe that an adult or a child could enjoy," he continued. "If either one of these companies were smart enough to do that, I think they could take huge strides for the industry."

Cooke then offered insight into how he views himself in relation to companies other than DC and Marvel. "I think that's where I see myself fitting in the future," said Cooke. "DC only brings me in when they want the old-timey, happy stuff. It's like a novelty to them. You'll notice I don't do a lot of work for DC. They don't ask me. I've never been asked, in the 15 years I've worked for them, if I wanted to do a regular book, if I wanted to try introducing a new character. They simply have no spot for me in their day-to-day operations, so I kind of work around the edges of it."

Flanagan pointed out that the end of Cooke's graphic novel "Slayground" promised that Parker, the character based on Donald Westlake's series of crime novels, would return in 2015.

"2015's a lie," Cooke said, adding, "There will be more Parker. I was so excited about the Parker work and so thrilled to be doing it, and it actually was successful. I was supposed to do four books over eight years, that was the contract, and I ended up doing four books in four years. And the problem was, by the time I got to the fourth book, there's a point where you start to become that thing that's just there. All the excitement or anticipation had gone out of it, I think. I thought it would be a good idea to put the brakes on it for a couple years and just let people miss him a bit before we get back to it. I'm not sure -- there might be two more, there might only be one more. Who knows what the future holds? Frankly, I could see Parker and I getting along for as long as I can hold a pencil. He will return, but it probably won't be until 2016. The last one I'm going to do is 'Butcher's Moon,' which is probably the masterpiece out of the books."

The moderators asked if Cooke would ever explore genres beyond crime fiction. "If you end up good at something, then that's what you do, that's who you are," Cooke said. "You tend to get typecast. I'm not bitching about that. I feel very lucky. You tend not to get offered work unless it's something you've done before. DC never calls me up to do anything different. They call me up when they need a Silver Age riff or an old-timey thing. Other than that, I get offered crime work.

"Grant Morrison wanted me to work on 'Multiversity,' so of course he offered me the story of the Golden Age heroes," continued Cooke. "I wrote him a very nice thank you, 'I'd love to work with you someday, but I'm not doing any more of that. I've already done it. If you were to come back at me with something like 'The Filth' or 'We3' or 'Seaguy,' then sure, I would love to dive in with you.' But I certainly don't want to be that guy. And I am that guy. Trying to break out of that mold can be difficult. The crime stuff is my favorite type of fiction, my favorite type of film."

Reminded of his interest in science fiction, Cooke then added, "All I can do is broadly hint that next year me and somebody are doing something. Next year I'm working with somebody I never would have dreamed I'd have the chance to work with, and we're doing a contemporary science-fiction story."

Richards asked Cooke why he hadn't released more creator-owned material.

"It's just been a matter of delay after delay after delay," Cooke responded. "If we go back to 2005, when I did 'Solo' for DC, on the back cover, you'll see a picture of Slam Bradley walking away into the distance, and that was going to be my last mainstream book. At that point, I was going to go into creator-owned and start doing my own work. And the problem is they keep dangling these shiny things in front of me. Three weeks into getting my own thing together, I got the call saying, we're doing 'The Spirit,' and if it's not you, it's going to be somebody. It was like, I can't let this go. Next thing you know two years go by. And then there was the whole '[Before] Watchmen' shit show. It was something I had never thought of doing. But once the opportunity came up, it was such a monumental challenge that it was hard to say no to it. 'Parker' was my first step into this area we're talking about. I thought, if I'm going to break into this area, I'm going to go into there with somebody. That's when the Parker thing all pulled together in my head. I thought, if I can go into this with Donald's audience and my audience, between the two of them we can probably not lose money on the thing."

Cooke explained that four years ago he came up with a story idea but had another artist in mind to draw it. "Paul Pope's got to draw this," said Cooke. "So I sent him the story, and he writes me this long email back telling me how great he thinks it is, and at the end he says, 'I really hate drawing cars and motorcycles, so no.' These things end up sitting around and accumulating."

Cooke's upcoming Image Comics series "Revengeance" is a story he originally pitched to artist Tim Sale, but after five years of waiting for Sale to be available, "I told Tim, sorry, I'm taking this one for myself."

On "Revengeance," Cooke said, "I think the title indicates that I'm not taking it entirely seriously." He compared it to the Mickey Spillane novel "I, the Jury," with a "young, liberal, nonviolent sort of party guy" as the protagonist. "It's incredibly dark. The ending of it is horribly dark. But on the way, I'd like to think there's going to be a lot of hilarious stuff."

The series is set in 1986 Toronto, where Cooke himself lived in his 20s. "There's a lot of me in it," he said. "I just kind of subtracted everything decent about me, and made everything bad about me twice as bad."

Cooke then unveiled a new image from the series, a sketch of the main character in an oversized suit, in front of an array of neon signs for actual Toronto business of the era.

The moderators turned next to Cooke's work on the controversial "Before Watchmen" series. Cooke co-wrote "Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre" and wrote and illustrated "Before Watchmen: Minutemen."

"It's a sensitive topic, let's face it," Cooke admitted. "It's the first time I'd ever been on the ass end of the internet deciding you're evil. It's really easy to think that 40 people on the internet are the whole planet. There were guys that just beat on that night and day for a year. It's amazing the degree to which a certain vocal minority are able to color your opinion of yourself or affect your approach to the work you do. Everything I say here I'm going to take shit for one way or another.

"I always loved 'Watchmen' as a book, but I never thought it was all that, the greatest book," said Cooke. "It was never the Holy Grail to me. I don't think I ever looked at it that way as the project evolved. For some people it means a great deal to them. The fact that you're not able to see it the same way they do can be really problematic."

Asked whether he was worried what original "Watchmen" writer Alan Moore would think, Cooke responded that it never crossed his mind. "I've never given five seconds thought to what Alan Moore thinks. I think Alan maybe on a good day can step back and see that a lot of the things he says are maybe a little hard on the rest of the industry. I never stopped to think about that, but I did say no. I said no for two years. Because I just couldn't imagine anything I could do that would measure up. Not just to the book, but to the book's cumulative reputation in the industry."

But when he came up with the central idea for the "Minutemen" series, he agreed to the project. "When I had that idea in my head, then it all clicked over, and then I went holy Jesus, this will work." At first DC wanted him to write all the "Before Watchmen" books, but he eventually talked them down to three, and then two, and then to co-writing the "Silk Spectre" series with artist Amanda Conner.

The moderators asked why Cooke hasn't done any work for Marvel in the last 15 years. "Do you guys remember a line of books called Marvel Adventures? The kids' line?" Cooke asked. "Marvel solicited me to develop that line for them, and I did. I put together a business plan, the line of books, I brought in the other guys. I have so much artwork at home, you would not believe it. They took it all, they said this is fantastic, this is amazing, this is a home run, and then they never called me again. They handed it off to a bunch of other guys. That was the end of my relationship with Marvel. As long as Marvel is who it is right now, I can't work for them."

With just a few minutes left, Cooke broke out the booze and started to mix drinks as he answered the final question about what drives him to keep making comics.

"There's nothing like comics," he said. "With comic books I'm able to create that fully realized experience without having to go to all that miserable trouble [as in film]. Comics is the only place where one man can sit down and put an entire visual story together all on his own and get it out to market for less than $80 million."

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