‘The Hunter’: Darwyn Cooke and Donald Westlake pull off the perfect crime
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This is a longer version of my story that is running Monday on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section.
Even when the movies ended up bad — and they usually did — crime novelist Donald E. Westlake never had a problem taking Hollywood money for his ideas. But with his signature creation, the ruthless career criminal known simply as Parker, Westlake insisted that the names be changed to protect the guilty.
Westlake, who died at age 75 this past New Year’s Eve, saw seven movies made from his Parker novels (which were all published under his pseudonym Richard Stark), but in each film the main character’s name was changed; even when Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall or Mel Gibson was in the role, Westlake wouldn’t entrust his favorite brand name to anyone else. That changed, though, in the final months of Westlake’s life in an unexpected way that had nothing to do with Hollywood.
A Nova Scotia-based illustrator named Darwyn Cooke and an San Diego book editor named Scott Dunbier persuaded the aging author that the ideal visual medium for his terse, bare-knuckled tales of mayhem was the graphic novel. And, after Westlake saw Cooke’s spare and stylized artwork (think somewhere between the vintage-cool of “Mad Men” and the storytelling flair of Milton Caniff’s “Steve Canyon” comic strips), he enthusiastically agreed. The result hit shelves last week, the 144-page graphic novel “The Hunter” (IDW Publishing, $24.99 hardcover), a meticulously faithful adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name that introduced the scowling Parker.
The Cooke adaptation is already being hailed as a masterpiece by key tastemakers in the comics world and next week it will meet the public in a major way as Cooke and Dunbier take it to Comic-Con International in San Diego, the massive pop-culture expo that is a sort of Cannes for capes or a Sundance for sci-fi. Cooke will be on two panels, one of them a Thursday program entitled “A Darker Shade of Ink: Crime and Noir in Comics.” That might conjure up memories of the infamously lurid EC Comics of the 1950s, but hard-boiled crime is heating up in the word-balloon medium.
Superheroes still dominate comics but “The Hunter” is part of a surge in noir-minded projects that owe far more to the bloodied pulp of Westlake, James M.Cain and Jim Thompson than they do the cosmic melodramas of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
Next month, DC Comics, publisher of the bright-hued Superman, is launching a new imprint called Vertigo Crime that will be populated by bloodthirsty lovers and mob enforcers. The first releases are the sexed-up murder tale “Filthy Rich” by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos and “Dark Entries,” a locked-room mystery written by Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin.
Vertigo Crime hopes to match the high standards and low morals established by “Criminal,” the series written by Ed Brubaker for Marvel Comics imprint icon that created a tapestry of interwoven underworld tales that had a body count and multi-generational ruination that rivals “GoodFellas.” There’s also the horror-noir of Steve Niles, whose Cal MacDonald is a drug-addled version of Lew Archer roaming a (literally) haunted L.A. in the Dark Horse series “Criminal Macabre.”
Hollywood has been watching with interest. “History of Violence” and “Road to Perdition,” both well-regarded films, were adaptations of crime comics, and this September comes “Whiteout,” a blood-in-the-snow serial killer story based on the 1999 Oni Press series by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. There are at least half a dozen more in the pipeline, perhaps most interesting among them is David Fincher’s long-discussed adaptation of the true-crime series “Torso.”
Cooke’s pen-and-ink Parker may well lead to a new round of Westlake curiosity in Hollywood. (In a coincidence, there’s a stir of film interest in another 1960s tough-guy, author John McDonald’s Travis McGee.) If Cooke puts Parker back on screen it would be poetic justice; the artist became a Westlake fan after watching a late-night rerun of John Boorman’s 1967 classic “Point Blank,” regarded as Hollywood’s best take on the cruel charisma of the novels.
“The movie just blew my head apart,” Cooke said chuckling. “There’s only been a few movies that really rocked me. When I watched ‘Point Blank’ I felt like I was seeing a whole new way to do a movie. Lee Marvin was so brilliant in it and the story was very simple — a crime story, a genre story – but it was so compelling.”
“The Hunter” graphic novel (the first of four Parker adaptations planned by Cooke) is rigidly faithful to its 1962 namesake. It tells the tale of a battered and betrayed professional criminal named Parker who methodically seeks vengeance and dismantles anything (and anyone) in his way.
Westlake once told an interviewer that Parker was an “unreconstructed guy from a much harder age” and cited as compass point his own father, who once responded to an oncoming heart attack by reaching for a bottle of rye.
Cooke treasured his correspondence with Westlake and says now that it left a huge impression on him not just as a fan, but as a creator.
“One of the most valuable things in my professional life, one of the big gifts in my career, was the time I got to spend chatting with him through e-mail,” said the 47-year-old Cooke. “What I tried to do more than anything was to impress upon him my interest in one question: Where did other adaptations fail and what did they miss in the character. How can we get these things on the page?”
A big challenge: Parker’s visage.
‘Yes, it was a lot of struggle finding Parker’s actual appearance,’ Cooke said. ‘I had to wean myself off of that Lee Marvin prototype. We went through several evolutions. At one point he looked a lot like Jack Palance. That’s what Donald had said, ‘I always pictured him as a young Palance from ‘Panic in the Streets.’ Then I had that in my head. A big raw-boned guy. That led the way.’
At one point, Cooke’s ‘The Hunter” had art in three colors: black, white and something that might be called “drowning-victim” blue. But it was too jolting and the artist kept searching for the proper final color key and found it in a grim teal. “My wife,” Cooke said, “calls it gun-metal green.” (Note: The art in this blog post is from various stages so the color scheme varies.) The panels are shape-based with distracting details drained away.
“There’s very little line work and very little detail that isn’t just implied by a color plane or shape,” he said. “The idea was to subtract everything flowery or extraneous. The color is muted and I also had the pages antiqued with the very faintest amount of yellow.”
As Cooke circled in on the art, he also was finding the hues of Westlake beyond his public persona. “What came through all the e-mails was a really funny, affable guy, a man who at the age of 75 still had all the time in the world for these new things and ideas. When he granted us permission to use the name Parker – which is a really touchy issue – that’s when we knew he had confidence in this whole thing.”
Cooke said the lean Westlake prose is ideal for the graphic novel medium.
“The original novel was really an experiment to see if he could tell a story without any real emotional content,” Cooke said. “You’re only clue to the protagonist — if you want to call Parker that — and his emotional state would be physical action that might betray it. All of his emotions were internalized and that led him into an area where he was stripping things out. The clean, direct prose style brilliantly leaves things for the reader to fill in for themselves. I needed art that matched that.”
Cooke came to the project as an established star in comics. The Toronto native worked in magazines and graphic design in the 1980s before moving into animation where he was part of the team behind the Emmy-winning “Batman: The Animated Series.”
He moved to comics where his biggest success was “DC: The New Frontier,” the 2004 series that won Eisner and Harvey awards by reworking Justice League lore for a period piece that played out like “The Right Stuff” with masks. Cooke also revived Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” for DC with a sly verve missing from the recent film.
While most artists today have Kirby, the great Neal Adams or later stars such as George Pérez or Todd McFarlane as their north star, Cooke was more beholden to the graceful, dynamic realism of Caniff, Alex Toth and Al Williamson. Cooke, certainly, was strongly inspired by the photo-realistic work by Adams on Batman (‘Neal Adams was the guy, the one that got me into the idea of drawing comics’), but his eventual style was shaped by commercial illustrations, such as the paintings used in old G.I. Joe toy packaging and advertisements.
‘As much as I like comics and lot of things,’ Cooke said, ‘it was the paintings on these boxes that really made me want to draw stuff. They could put a whole story on a painting on box but also leave it open-ended enough that you could take it where you want.’
Cooke has an impressive collection of unopened G.I. Joe artifacts and recently installed a horseshoe-shaped display area with glass shelves for them at his home. The lanky Cooke and his wife, Marsha, live in “a wilderness place in Nova Scotia,” as he calls it, a coastal acre hemmed in by a creek and a ravine. It backs up against a 600 acres of Crown Land (the local term for government-protected preserves).
Cooke is a student of comics history and spoke at length about his influences on this particular project. Among them was ‘His Name is Savage,’ the great Gil Kane’s über-violent, magazine-sized comic from 1968 that is often overlooked when histories of the graphic novel are compiled. ‘When it comes to what I’m doing, that book by Kane was the first long-form stab at it. I was always a fan of Gil Kane inking his own work. But I also have to tell you that even back then, when I didn’t mind a little blood and thunder, I thought it went too far, with the gun barrels jammed through teeth.”
Despite his comics success with masked men, Cooke said he rues the spandex domination of comics. He said crime, romance, westerns, war and horror are still woefully overlooked by DC and Marvel, the dominant publishers. “If people want to go see Quentin Tarantino movies, why wouldn’t they want those comics? The scene is ripe for newcomers to come in with different ideas.”
Cooke’s ideas for Westlake and Parker have quickly seized attention. Douglas Wolk, writing in the Washington Post, hailed Cooke’s ‘space-age designs and stripped-down chiaroscuro…his loose, ragged slashes of black and cobalt blue evoke the ascendancy of Hugh Hefner so powerfully you can almost hear a walking jazz bass.”
Richard Burton, writing for Forbidden Planet, wondered if anything this year will be able to match up to ‘The Hunter.’ ‘It’s July,’ he wrote, ‘and this may well be the book of the year.’
Peers and elders are hailing it as well. This week, animation icon Bruce Timm said Cooke’s new work is ‘practically pitch-perfect.’ Howard Chaykin of ‘American Flagg’ fame said ‘The Hunter’ ‘demonstrates uncategorically that all it takes is a brilliant talent to take material I’ve known and loved for over 35 years and make it brand new.’ Brubaker, perhaps the top writer in comics at the moment, said the book is ‘Darwyn’s best work and the best version of ‘Parker’ outside of the novels.’
Cooke never met Westlake, and the author never saw the finished Parker adaptation. Last December, Cooke mailed Westlake a batch of finished pages but the parcel arrived at the novelist’s home in Ancram, N.Y., while he was away on vacation in Mexico. The writer suffered a fatal heart attack during the trip. The news left Cooke in a deep funk. He walked away from the project for a time. “I had been doing it,” he realized, “for an audience of one.” Eventually, he returned to the drawing table for a reason the straightforward Parker would respect. “He wanted this done and now it is.”
-- Geoff Boucher
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Images: ‘The Hunter’ in various stages. Credit: IDW Publishing and Darwyn Cooke; ‘New Frontier.’ Credit: DC Comics.