It’s comic creator month here on geekhardshow.com, so what better time to take a look back at some of my favourite creators and their greatest creations. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a selection of creators and listing what I think are some of their most masterful works. When it comes to creators that have made a classy mark on mainstream comics over the past 20 years, there is none more classy than cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. His visually nostalgic art style coupled with his ability to spin an entertaining yarn have made his projects less like comics and more like events to behold. His sensibilities are influenced heavily by the old school yet his pacing feels hip and modern. His work both as a writer and an artist have time and again proven that comics are no longer just funny books but high concept literature and art. What follows are five of the best stories by Darwyn Cooke to hit the comic racks. Some are beloved classics. Others are hidden gems. All are MUST reading for any fan of Darwyn. So take a look True Believers, you just might learn something.
Selina’s Big Score
(Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score GN – 2002)
If there ever was an indication that Darwyn was the perfect choice to adapt the Parker Novels, Selina’s Big Score would be it. A train heist on the Canadian border with a crew that not only includes Selina (sans her Catwoman persona) but also a man named Stark (Donald Westlake wrote the Parker Novels under the pen name Richard Stark). This drips with the DNA of Parker in all the right ways. When Selina Kyle finds that she’s completely tapped out of money and options, she returns to her Gotham stomping grounds to find a big score to set her up. Through her fence Swifty she’s introduced to a woman named Chantel who happens to be the girlfriend of mobster Frank Falcone. Chantel brings Selina in a heist of drug money traveling by train that’s destined for Montreal and a shipment of Asian Heroin. Selina knows it’s a big job and needs a crew. Her mind wanders back to an old job she did with a man named Stark. Her past is muddy with Stark as she double crossed him on that job and they haven’t talked since. But a job’s a job and Stark comes on board. Meanwhile, the mayor of Gotham has hired detective Slam Bradley to track down Selina. Selina has to deal with Slam while planning and pulling off one of the biggest heists of her career. Between this story and the relaunch of the Catwoman series that he collaborated with Ed Brubaker on, Cooke has had a major hand in revamping and developing Catwoman. Even after the New 52, a number of the elements that he brought to the character still stand today. This book was a big gamble as it was uncharted territory for the character at the time. To do a classic Noir tale with Selina remaining out of costume for the duration was a bit risky. But it paid off as it remains one of the greatest Catwoman stories to this day. It’s also amazing to see Selina as both the main protagonist and the femme fatale all in one story.
The New Frontier
(DC: The New Frontier #s 1-6 – 2004)
Basically a love letter to the silver age of DC Comics, no stone is left unturned as almost every superhero from that era gets their time to shine in this book. The story looks at both the decline and rebirth of superheroes in the post war era as well as the injection of the science fiction genre into the world of superheroes while also reliving the origins and development of beloved characters like Green Lantern, the Flash and more! The story follows these and more heroes as they must band together and stop a pending alien invasion. What’s fantastic about this mini series is that the big three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) take a back seat to characters like Hal Jordan, Martian Manhunter, King Faraday and Ace of the Challengers of the Unknown. Instead of taking the road that’s been taken so many times before and have Batman have all the answers and Wonder Woman and Supes save the day, we get to see the lesser known heroes strut their stuff. Also, if you ever wondered what a certain DC character would look like if Darwyn were to draw them, this book is for you as he tries his hand at a plethora of heroes from that age. This series was the 3rd DC comic story to be adapted for the DC Animation Direct-to-Video Features. While still capturing a great deal of what made this tale special, it’s only has a tenth of the magic the comic does.
(Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter GN – 2009)
Like I said, I can’t think of any other artist with the chops to adapt the Parker novels into graphic novels as well as Cooke has. Like many a fanboy, I had a high hopes for this piece of Crime Noir goodness and thankfully, I wasn’t let down. Over the years, a number of films adapted this one man rampage of a revenge tale but none have captured the cold and calculating demeanor of Parker as Cooke’s take does. The first of the Parker novels, we see a man who returns to New York with vengeance on his mind as he hunts down the woman that double-crossed him and the partner who betrayed him to get the money that was stolen from him. The story has a gritty undertone but the illustrations are clean and percise, just like Parker. What’s amazing is how Cooke is able to capture the uniqueness of the character. Westlake wrote the man as neither hero nor villain. He’s just a man who wants what he believes he’s entitled to and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty to get it. The film adaptions have shied away from this, choosing to play up humanity within the character. Cooke’s version shows non such quality as he’s more a force of nature than your average protagonist. The graphic novel was the start of something magical.
(Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #s 1-4 – 2012)
Artist: Amanda Conner
Although primarily a cartoonist and illustrator, Cooke has collaborated as a writer only from time to time. His work with Tim Sale on both Batman and Superman are great additions to the characters’ greatest tales. But even these do not hold a candle to his collaboration with Amanda Connor on this Before Watchmen series. Before Laurie Jupiter took up the mantle of Silk Spectre and started bumping uglies with Dr. Manhattan, she was just a young adult who wanted to rebel against her mother and go on an adventure. That’s what this story’s about as she runs away with her then boyfriend and moves to San Francisco in the middle of the flower power movement. In a psychedelic tale involving drug dealers, hippies and Frank Sinatra (only referred to as “The Chairman” throughout the tale) as an unlikely yet fitting antagonist, Laurie must accept her destiny and become a costumed crime fighter. With guest appearances by the Comedian and the original Nite Owl, this was one of the Watchmen prequels that actually worked and brought an extra layer of character to the original mini series. I got the chance to interview Amanda Conner as the book was coming out and she spoke about her collaboration with Cooke as one that was perfectly 50/50 as they plotted and scripted a great deal of the story equally. Cooke would also do a Minutemen Series looking back on the original heroes of the Watchmen world and it too would be a smartly presented companion series.
(Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground – 2013)
The most recent release from IDW in the Parker line, this was a shorter, faster tale than what I was used to with the character. A heist goes wrong for our “hero” and he must go into hiding with the money in a carnival that’s been closed down for the winter. The problem is that there’s only one way out of the theme park and it happens to be guarded by mobsters who’ve found out about Parker and his score. So now he must face off against a group of thugs, hoods and a few crooked cops to make his escape. The classic “one man against many” storyline, the graphic novel reads like an old school Die Hard except that everyone’s the badguy in this tale. Out of all the Parker graphic novels to date, this proved to be the most visually interesting due to it’s environment. The amusement park setting and the winter season add not only tons of eye candy but also raise the tension because you know that for the most part, Parker is out of his element. A game of Cat and Mouse never looked so cool. Also included is a shorter tale staring Parker called “The 7th” that was released previously as a special feature in the Parker: Martini Edition.
So that’s the list. Some of you might disagree with a few of my choices or omissions, but these are the Darwyn Cooke stories that stand out as the hallmark of quality. So check ‘em out and enjoy.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!