Darwyn Cooke, the timeless progeny of Kirby, Bass and cool things in general, has passed. He was 53, had drawn Wonder Woman taller than Superman, had most recently collaborated with Love and Rockets Gilbert Hernandez on The Twilight Children and was readying a new creator owned project. He was known for DC: The New Frontier, his Parker adaptations, a rebirth of The Spirit and too much more.
The other day, I read Cooke’s Solo. In 50 pages, he had Slam Bradley sit at a bar, telling stories to and about cards from the DC world. Without blinking, he juggled endless tone, dialogue styles, genre and colour – if he chose to tell a devastating story where a silent Batman chased after robbers foolish enough to gun down a mother and father in front of their child, he did it. If he wanted to tell a Cuban noir about double crossing CIA Agents and dropped under garments, he did that too. If he wanted sepia romanticism, we felt it just as vividly as we did brutal noir nightmares. Darwyn Cooke is not a writer. Darwyn Cooke is not a penciller or a colourist, an inker or an editor. To define Cooke by any single station in the Henry T Ford of the comic book assembly line, is to reduce him, inaccurately and unforgivably so. He is a creator and an artist, one who casually gave readers belly laughs just as he broke their hearts. It’s not the rarest compliment to offer, but there are few who merit it like this beautiful bastard.
Expressive and detailed, a Cooke image invites attention. It’s a modern style informed entirely from 40s art deco and noir imagery – the same stuff that Bruce Timm, who oversaw his first job in superhero animation, took from. Cooke built a new school to discuss the old school in his perfect compositions, his past life as an art director informed a visual strength that set him out from his peers. Remember the Pink Panther cartoons? Think that but plus, like, half a David Simon.
My earliest encounter with Cooke was, as I suspect with many people, the opening sequence to Batman Beyond.
What can I say about that? In 60 seconds, he gives us so many visual languages, so many moments, aesthetics, tones, ideas, character intros amongst countless others. Cooke turned bland commerce into an insane visual exhibition. This isn’t Kenner-Mattell Storytelling. This is a leap into a new place, this is not execu-thunk. He did it on a spare Mac in his garage.
Years later, I learnt the name. I’m a teenager at this point, doing teenager jobs and I have some cash spare. Some of it is earmarked for Strongbow. The rest, I’m in town and I’m in Forbidden Planet. I buy a Batman or two, but I want more. So I look around the stacks to find something of interest. I see The Spirit number 8.
I don’t ask questions. I don’t need a staff member to tell me where it is in the story of The Spirit, I’m just going to read it. To this day, it is the rarest of buys for me; I never buy single issues mid-way through the series. The amount of beautiful covers I’ve forsaken simply because it was for #2 and I didn’t want to miss a story beat. (On variants, too I’ve only expressly gone out and bought a few pieces by Cooke and a Frazer Irving.)
I want it. So I buy it and on the hills of Arthurs Seat that Saturday night, I read a story about a bomb and a basement, a bad guy, a grieving spy with a memory issue, the end of a city, incredible one liners, a bad boyfriend, wireless chainsaws and The Spirit. Characters, tone and setting that casually wandered between art deco and film noir, between tragedy and comedy – a common theme in Cookes rare talent. To this day, when you talk about The Spirit, I know I’m supposed to think of the essential role those Eisner pieces played in developing the medium, but I think about Darwyn Cooke. To me, his 12 issue run is possibly the single greatest run in comic book history. Imagine a perfect series of Doctor Who, where every episode was on the level of Blink – that was his run on The Spirit. A blend of individual stories, flash backs and devastating season arcs. I cannot recommend this enough. If your local library doesn’t have it in stock, berate your librarian, bribe them, go out, buy it, read it, leave it for someone else to enjoy. Then complain vociferously to your local authority about said librarian and maybe launch a judicial review. Launch 12. One for every issue.
The final issue, #12, with Sand Saref and The Octopus – oh man. Oh my god. It’s quite possibly my favourite single issue of anything, ever. It’s thrilling, impossible, daring and bittersweet the way good dark chocolate is. No, the good dark chcocolate – with notes and layers and a satisfying bite that sends that dollop of dopamine through you the second you touch it. It’s a detonation timer Annie Hall but in 22 pages and with a climactic battle with The Octopus, because Darwyn Cooke is that obscenely good a story teller. He wanders out, top trumps Annie Fucking Hall and walks away. The Spirit opens a letter in the rain, smiling, he burns it and walks back to his city. The title reads. The comic closes out. Cook ends a perfect run.
I saw it in Orbital for £2.20. Get Saga next month.
And his covers, just look at the covers to his DC: The New Frontier – an epic spanning decades from the edge of World War II. His covers tells stories with fonts, shapes, colours and textures – setting them against each other to let the reader have a sense of exactly the kind of adventure that lies beneath, without ever needing to resort a brusque car salesman catchphrase text graphic.
The New Frontier is the house Cooke’s stature was built on and for good reason, it’s an insane thing – an epic superhero story in a way the genre flinches from. It feels apocalyptic, every character is lent an arc, a voice truly of their own and bespoke character moments. It was funny, romantic, political, terrifying and inspiring – a piece that took the emotive depth that Moore and Miller had mined in the 80s and brought it back to the era we’d unjustly abandoned as Crayola crusades.
Outside what may well be seen as his magnum opus, Cooke took an extended stay in Gotham City, home to the characters that had given Cooke his initial visa into DC, breaking in as a storyboard artist on Batman: The Animated Series. Batman: EGO, a slim graphic novel that packed endless ideas on the tension between the idealism of a man trying to save a city and the brutality that comes as part of that compact.
From there, Cooke made moves that remind us how unique a talent we lost. He collaborated with Ed Brubaker on Catwoman, it’s rare to find a writer and artist who will draw to another writer’s drumbeat. But he did it, regularly supported by the esteemed J Bone, yielding a city scape full of the odd lights, grime and optimism you’d expect from a creator able to marry romanticism and barrel aged cynicism so easily. As mentioned above, he continued that collaborative spirit by working with Hernandez on The Twilight Children, which just looked grand. Think Cooke at the sea side, with a mystery and a cosmic knife.
In recent years, he took to adapting the Parker stories – suddenly old noir stories that were being covered in lurid colours and odd poses by Statham and JayLo or whatever, were given weight in shadows and narrative. The voice of Parker, speaking through an art director who could teach Huston about noir, was done with a controlled colour scheme and sparse text that always accentuated the page composition.
Cooke can never be discussed entirely in a single article. He was too broad, too brave, too happy to jump in and bring the stories of others to life. He brought realism to romanticism and soul to the cynics. He knew all the characters like old friends at the long end of a bar and just how to wring their humanity onto the page. There’s a world out there were we would have gotten decades more exploration from Cooke, tomes of comic book graphic design, albums of quietly suave character beats and so many more lessons in why there will always be a cooler drawer than you. There will be too many missed laughs. Too many classics, untold.
Here are some reccomendations:
DC: The New Frontier
Parker: The Hunt
Selina’s Big Score
Cut that to something like Mingus or BadBadNotGood, maybe something sippable and you’ll see why I’m blubbering on.