So comics lost one of its best over the weekend: artist and writer Darwyn Cooke.
If you’re reading this at all, you probably know the details already. It was announced late last week that Cooke was entering palliative care to treat what was termed an “aggressive” cancer. Then, what seemed like only 24 hours later, he was dead. Shocking, and sad. A lot of tributes have already been published, and because I didn’t have time to write my own this weekend, I almost didn’t do it. But he was too important an artist, and too much a personal favorite, for me not to celebrate him. And so here we are.
Cooke was, I will admit, kind of an odd person for me to like so much. He was never an innovator, exactly. He didn’t come up with new storytelling tools like Will Eisner, nor was he a creative powerhouse like Jack Kirby, constantly inventing new characters and concepts. No, Cooke was more in the mold of Alex Toth: a master draftsman who brought distinctive style and a great deal of talent to already-existing properties, often transforming them through his work.
Cooke’s biggest contribution on that front is probably the costume he came up with for Catwoman:
It’s a great design, simultaneously retro and modern, hinting at the kink that’s always been a part of the character, but in a way that’s also sleek and cool and appropriate for all ages (the goggles are what really pull it together). Cooke’s always shown a great understanding of Catwoman, too. Though he’s only written her once, as far as I know (in his OGN Selena’s Big Score), his drawings of her always capture an attitude of devil-may-care amorality appropriate for the master cat burglar:
I only wish Cooke’s Wonder Woman had taken hold as strongly. His portrayal of her as a boisterous warrior woman first appeared in his book New Frontier, where he presented her as smart, strong, and noticeably… sturdier than she’s generally drawn:
I’ve always really loved that take. There’s a boldness to her in New Frontier that you seldom see elsewhere. The bigger build is great, too. Still feminine, still attractive, but without resorting to drawing her like some willowy super model. That’s a woman who looks like she could kick your ass. Cooke stuck with that look in his later drawings of her, too, as seen in this recent “widescreen” cover:
But New Frontier gave Cooke the opportunity to put his own spin on a lot of characters, though. Set in the late 50s/early 60s period in which DC’s Silver Age characters were born, that book plays to Cooke’s strengths, and his favorite design aesthetics. So it gave us a sleek Flash…
…a cool-as-hell take on the original Suicide Squad that makes me wish they still told stories about them…
…a funny look at how the Martian Manhunter learned to be human…
…Cooke’s own version of Batman vs Superman…
…and the rarity of an original Darwyn Cooke creation: John Henry, a black super hero who fought the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
John Henry’s a pretty cool character, and there’s a part of me that wishes somebody would do more with him. But then there’s another part of me that knows how bad that could go in the wrong hands, so maybe it’s for the best that his creator is the only person who’s written and drawn him so far.
Of course, if everyone interpreted super heroes as well as Darwyn Cooke did, I would be one broke bastard. That was proven true to me when DC did a whole month of alternate covers by him, one for just about every book in the DC line. Looking at those covers was a real highlight of my weekly visits to the funnybook store, and they often made me want to buy the comics for those images alone. Unfortunately, I knew that the interiors weren’t going to live up to the covers in most cases, so I passed. Plus, you know… If I ever wanted to look at any of them again, I was pretty sure I could find them through the magic of the interwebs…
Yeah. That’s good stuff. Iconic takes, quiet moments, great action scenes, things that never happened but should have… Cooke even made books I kinda hate look good:
That’s from Justice League Dark. Though you might have to embiggen the image to see them. They’re not really important here. It’s those gigantic Easter Island heads that make this one awesome.
That cover also illustrates one of the things that makes Darwyn Cooke an artist worth remembering the way we’re doing here tonight. These widescreen alternate covers weren’t exactly a passion project for the guy. They were the equivalent of commercial art projects, the kind of work people take on to pay the bills. Though I’m sure Cooke was very well-paid to draw these things, he could have phoned them in. Faced with the prospect of that many covers, in fact, I’m sure most artists would have gotten slack on at least a few of them. But not Cooke. Always the consummate professional, he turned in great work on every single one.
The same was true of his work for Marvel Comics, who brought him into the artistic stable of the infamous Pete Milligan / Mike Allred X-Force run. His work there produced one of the most memorable covers that book ever had…
…and (with J Bone on inks) the fantastically strange Wolverine and Doop limited series:
So what did Cooke’s work look like when he really gave a damn?
Though I compared him unfavorably to the man earlier, Cooke was one of the only people in the comics industry I would have trusted to do an updating of Will Eisner’s signature creation, The Spirit. And while his version was maybe not quite as good as the original, it was still damn fine. This cover, especially. It takes balls to follow Eisner on anything, but to follow him on drawing rain… Well, hell. Cooke’s must have been solid brass.
But Cooke had a habit of associating himself with comics legends. Because he also recently worked with Gilbert Hernandez, of all people, on a sci-fi / magic realist romp called Twilight Children. The story of a Mexican village haunted by UFOs, it definitely has the horrific, mysterious feel of a Gilbert piece…
…but Cooke’s fingerprints are all over it, too.
None of this is my favorite work from Darwyn Cooke, however. For that, you have to look to his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. In those, we get to see Cooke making keen storytelling decisions, deciding what to cut and what to emphasize, and when he needed to just lay in Stark’s narration to get the point across. He was able to really cut loose artistically, too, his angular style and love of early-60s design suiting the hard-edged crime stories (all set in that era) like a glove.
…and making bold design choices that fairly leap off the page.
He let his line get rougher when working on Parker, too, trusting in a more minimalist style with heavy, scratchy blacks and looser lines that just look tremendous, especially when seen at full size:
He was able to work a bit in the abstract at times, as well, as with the cover for the “Martini Edition,” collecting his first two adaptations:
The covers for the actual books are quite nice, too, though. I especially like his cover for Slayground, in which Parker has to fight off a gang of killers in an abandoned amusement park.
After his adaptations sort of ran their course, Cooke also provided illustrations for reprints of the original Parker novels. I’m particularly fond of the cover below. I didn’t get to see Cooke work in paints very often, and this is really nice work.
A bit dismal, perhaps. That sky looks like a rainy bruise. But that’s Parker for you.
One last thing before I bring this tribute to a close. While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Darwyn Cooke completist, I do pride myself on at least being familiar with his body of work. But in digging up images for this piece, I ran across a “Batman Black & White” story I didn’t know existed. It’s called “Here Be Monsters,” and not knowing about it hurts double bad for me, because it was written by another favorite of mine, Paul Grist. But Cooke was the artist, and he did something in it I love, something I’ve never quite seen him do anywhere else: he was working in pencil.
I thought I was looking at gray washes at first, but once I found a sufficiently large image, I realized my mistake. That’s some beautiful, delicate shading there, and I admire the hell out of it.
But I admire Darwyn Cooke’s work in general. As I said at the outset, he wasn’t an innovator. Not really. But he was our finest interpreter. A skilled artist who always saw how to get the best out of any assignment he took on. He made an awful lot of comics I love, and I am sad that I’ll never get to read another. Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed.