In today’s post: We pay tribute to artist, writer, designer, and animator Darwyn Cooke, who passed away last week at the age of 53.
On the morning of 13 May 2016, comics fans the world over were met with terrible news: artist and writer Darwyn Cooke had cancer, and things weren’t looking particularly optimistic.
In a post on Almost Darwyn Cooke’s Blog titled “fuck cancer,” Cooke’s wife Marsha wrote that the 53-year-old Canadian artist—best known for his landmark work DC: The New Frontier, his award-winning adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels, his redesign of DC Comics’ Catwoman, and his storyboard and title sequence work on TV’s Batman Beyond—was in the process of “receiving palliative care following a bout with aggressive cancer.”
The revelation came as a shock to many fans and industry professionals, seeing as how Cooke had been so active recently, having just wrapped up a four-issue miniseries collaboration with Gilbert Hernandez in the DC/Vertigo-published Twilight Children. Earlier in the year, Image Comics had announced that Cooke’s first fully creator-owned comics project Revengeance!—a “part crime story, part psychotronic melodrama, and a wholly fond look back at the author’s hometown” of Toronto—was set for a June 2016 launch date. Fans were still waiting for the fifth entry in the Parker graphic novel adaptation series. Cooke, despite his three decades as a professional in graphic design, animation, and comics, was still very much an artist in his creative prime, and he still had so many stories to tell the world. Fuck cancer, indeed.
The comics community often gives the impression of being fractious. One sometimes wonders if any self-professed comics fan actually still enjoys reading comics, given the frequently ugly tone of the online discourse, especially as it concerns industry practices and all manner of politics. As word of Cooke’s situation spread through the community however, something interesting began to happen. This community of artists, writers, editors, publishing professionals, retailers, journalists, bloggers, and fans, so frequently given to bickering over issues big and small and slights imagined and real, became united in their despondency over the news and—perhaps more importantly—their celebration of Cooke’s life and work. Tributes started pouring in across the Internet, donations to the Canadian Cancer Society and The Hero Initiative were made in his name, and everyone, it seemed, had a story about how an encounter with one of Cooke’s works or the man himself had brought them joy, revived their interest in comics, or pushed them to become better artists.
On what turned out to be his last day on this earth, Darwyn Cooke brought everybody together and made them fall in love with comics all over again.
Getting acquainted with Cooke’s work
As popular as Cooke is in the comics community, many younger readers and those new to the medium looking to become more familiar with his work might need some guidance navigating his substantial comics bibliography. Of course, the only real answer to the question of “what Darwyn Cooke comics should I read” is “pretty much everything,” but not everyone has the time or the resources to go that route.
Cooke’s first professional comics work actually dates back all the way to 1985, a “silent” five-page short the then-22-year old wrote and penciled (inks were provided by Tex Blaisdell) entitled “The Private Eye” which appeared in DC Comics’ Talent Showcase #19.
Page rates being what they were at the time, Cooke felt that a career in comics was not the most economically sound idea and for the next 15 or so years, he directed his talents to the fields of publication design (primarily as a magazine art director and graphic designer), advertising, and animation (most notably as a director on Men in Black: The Series and a storyboard artist and title sequence animator on Batman Beyond). Through this period, his only comics credit was a cover for the fourth issue of the Batman Beyond comic book tie-in series.
The years away from comics only served to make Cooke a better artist and writer. By the time he returned to comics in 2000 with DC Comics’ Batman: Ego, he had become a wizard of visual design and storytelling, with skills and inclinations informed by influences as disparate as Pablo Picasso, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff, John Woo, Bruce Timm, and the great magazine and advertising illustrators of the 1950s.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of what I personally consider to be the essential Darwyn Cooke reads—it consists mostly of comics he wrote and drew, but there are also a couple of entries where he served as an artist collaborating with a different writer.
Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street (2002, DC Comics)
While Batman: Ego was generally well-received by readers, it was Cooke’s collaboration with writer Ed Brubaker on Catwoman and his tasteful redesign of the eponymous character’s costume that established him as one of superhero comics’ most popular creators. This volume collects the “Trail of the Catwoman” back-up stories that appeared in Detective Comics #759–#762 (July–October 2001) and the first four issues of the 2002 Catwoman series.
Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (2002, DC Comics)
A prequel to the events in The Dark End of the Street, this original graphic novel written and illustrated by Cooke is more heist/crime comic than superhero adventure, and presaged his later work on the Richard Stark’s Parker books (more on those below).
DC: The New Frontier #1–#6 (2004, DC Comics)
Often held up as the pinnacle of Cooke’s superhero comics work, this miniseries is a sprawling, reference-laden tribute to the comics of the 1950s and 1960s and a celebration of the optimism of the Space Age. Nostalgic and sentimental, but also raises contemporary questions about Cold War-era American politics and the superhero as a construct and metaphor. Readers unfamiliar with the history of comics (and American history in general) are advised to pick up either the Absolute Edition hardcover (originally released in 2006) or the Deluxe Hardcover Edition (released last year), as they feature extensive annotations explaining the context of particular scenarios in the work.
Solo #5 (August 2005, DC Comics)
A collection of seven Darwyn Cooke strips showcasing his versatility as an artist and storyteller. Especially recommended for those looking to see Cooke work in styles not normally associated with his superhero comics work.
The Spirit #1–#6, #8–#12 (2006–2008, DC Comics)
Cooke pays tribute to Will Eisner in a way only he can, updating many of the storytelling tricks and visual quirks Eisner applied to The Spirit comic strip while still maintaining respect for the source material. Written and penciled by Cooke, with inks by long-time collaborator J. Bone and colors by multiple Eisner Award-winner Dave Stewart, each issue is a self-contained, standalone story. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
Jonah Hex #33 (September 2008, DC Comics), Jonah Hex #50 (February 2010, DC Comics), and All Star Western #34 (August 2014, DC Comics)
These collaborations with the writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti has Cooke in the role of the Old West comics artist, with his work taking on hints of Joe Kubert and John Severin. Jonah Hex #50 and All Star Western #34 are especially gorgeous to look at.
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (2009, IDW Publishing), Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit (2010, IDW Publishing), Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score (2012, IDW Publishing), and Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground (2013, IDW Publishing)
Cooke’s adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels (published under the pseudonym Richard Stark) have earned near-universal acclaim for their striking sense of visual design. Thoroughly accessible and entertaining crime fiction reading even for those who have never read Westlake’s work, but those who have will find Cooke’s visual interpretations of the original prose particularly intriguing and inventive. The Score might be my all-time favorite Cooke comic.