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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Comics Talk: A Tribute to Darwyn Cooke

Needless to say, I really wish I wasn't writing this column but there was no way I was going to let the untimely death of  one of my all-time favourite comic book creators go unmentioned.

This is obviously from the point of view of a fan. I certainly didn't know the guy at all - didn't even get to meet him at a comic-con like many American or European fans might have - but he did seem pretty damn cool (if utterly intolerant of bullshit) based on the interviews with him I've seen, heard or read. For a particularly lovely tribute to Darwyn Cooke as a man, be sure to check out Josh Flanagan's (from the excellent iFanboy podcast) thoughts on his friend at his blog here and in an emotionally-charged episode of the podcast here where Josh and fellow iFanboys Ron and Conor dedicated the last half hour or so of this week's episode talking about him (as well as their friend and up-and-coming comedian Timmy Wood who also tragically died that same weekend).  

For now, though, here is just another fan's glowing tribute to a true one-of-a-kind comic book master, who passed away all too soon at the age of 53 on 14 May 2016.

And, yes, I will be featuring loads of his spectacular art in this post (it's tempting to feature nothing but). No infringement of copyright intended.

My first encounter with the work of Darwyn Cooke was a backup story in Detective Comics where he revitalised and all but rebooted Catwoman after years of the character being reduced to little more than a T&A machine in a purple costume (thanks, Jim Balent!). Between this backup story in which the Siegel-and-Schuster-created PI, Slam Bradley, seeks out the apparently dead Selina Kyle; the then-new Catwoman book that he launched with Ed Brubaker and, most especially, his utterly brilliant original graphic novel, Selina's Big Score, Cooke took the best of the past five decades of the character and combined it into something that has informed the character ever since; ensuring that Catwoman once again easily stands tall as one of the best female characters in comics. He also understood that there's a huge difference between sexy and exploitative and that's always something he's brought to the numerous female superheroes and femme fatales he's drawn since busting into comics some 15 years ago. Yes, only 15 years - more on that later, though.

Even more striking than Cooke's beautifully precise and lively writing (he really has never, ever written a bad comic), though, is his utterly gorgeous artwork. Taken on its own, his stripped down art has always emphasised expressiveness, clarity and composition over photorealism or over-rendering - just look at literally any cover that he provided for the special "Darwyn Cooke" month to see how just how much can be achieved with, apparently, so little. Frankly, with covers this beautiful, the interior art had something of an uphill battle trying to match it.

Like two other "cartoony" artists that also died far too young (Mike Wieringo and Mike Parobeck), Drawyn's work was filled with a joy that is hard to match. Unlike those other two masters, though, he didn't just bring all the joy back to superhero comics that all too often teeter on the brink of dour, humourless, so-called "maturity" but he even brought, if not "joy" then at least real love and vitality to the numerous gritty crime projects he worked on. His adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker novels aren't afraid to go down some pretty twisted and disturbed routes, but Darwyn's passion and love for the material always shone through nonetheless. The Parker books also showed just how far he could stretch his very distinctive style, adding heavy doses of impressionism and abstraction to his incredibly expressionistic art.

Of course, talking about Darwyn's writing and art as separate entities is rather pointless. Aside for the odd exception where he only writes a comic (the Kryptonite arc in Superman: Confidential; Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre with Amanda Conner) or only draws it (The Twilight Children - as near as I can tell, his last work), a comic book by Darwyn Cooke usually involves him on both writing and pencilling duties. Or, as he himself liked to think of himself, as a cartoonist. Which is why, however much I may love his covers or individual panels (and oh how I love his covers and individual panels), to truly appreciate Darwyn Cooke you really need to take a look at his comics as a whole.

Just look at the understated brilliant storytelling of that wordless image above. There are many, many fine storytellers in comics but no one, and I mean absolutely no one, has ever been better than Darwyn Cooke. As good, sure, but better? Not even Will Eisner. Speaking of Eisner, not only did Darwyn win a whole bunch of the awards named after that great comics pioneer (the Eisners, duh), he was the only one who could match the timelessly innovative work that Eisner did with his signature creation, The Spirit, when he took on a twelve-issue-long run on the character for DC Comics. From the frame-worthy title splash pages to the ingenious layouts to the perfect balance of noirish darkness and sunny comic booky fun to, yup, those Femme Fatales, Darwyn Cooke's Spirit is a stone cold masterpiece that more than does justice to one of the most important comics titles ever.

Darwyn Cooke's absolute masterpiece in a short career filled with masterpieces, though, must surely be DC: The New Frontier. Modern comics that take a more contemporary, sophisticated look at comics' goofier, more childlike Silver Age (the mid '50 through the early '70s; or from the introduction of Barry Allen to the Death of Gwen Stacy) have basically become their own genre by now with titles like JLA: Year One and Marvels being particularly great highlights. New Frontier, though, might just be the best of the lot.

New Frontier tells the story of the dawn of a new generation of science-based superheroes in the middle of the Cold War, mainly through the eyes of future Justice Leaguers like the Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and the Martian Manhunter (J'onn J'onzz). The actual plot is well developed but it's not really the point of the story, which is much more about characterization, the cold war setting and its pitch-perfect tone that contrasts the optimism of the superhero with the paranoia of the Cold War in ways that comics from that time could barely hint at. Darwyn's characterizations of Barry Allen and, J'onn J'onzz are up there with the best but no one has ever written a better Hal Jordan.

As for his cartooning, the panel layout in New Frontier is inarguably his most basic with most of the pages featuring the kind of three-panel, widescreen layout of the above example but, as I think is pretty clear from this stellar example of the Flash in action, that doesn't make his storytelling, sense of energy and expression any less astounding. Indeed, with such simple layouts, he really gets a chance to focus his art and, in the process, give us some of his best work ever - and one of the best superhero comics to date.

Obviously, Darwyn's loss to his friends and family is on a whole other, more profound level but for us fans, for all that we sympathize with those close to him for their loss, there's just nothing sadder for us appreciators of the man's work than the fact that it almost feels like he as just getting started. Darwyn came close to getting involved with comics as far back as the mid-1980s but a series of disappointments forced him to abandon his dream job and he threw in his lot in animation, working with Bruce Timm as a storyboard artist for the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series (whose art style bears a definite resemblance to his own).

He finally made his big break into comics with his typically wonderful Batman: Ego graphic novel in 2000. Since then, he hasn't been the most prolific cartoonist in the world but he has released quite a bit nonetheless - mostly for DC but with his eye on independent, creator-owned work as well. It's hard not to pine for what was to come next and for the fact that we will never see more comics from a comics creator for whom most superlatives barely do him justice, but he did at least leave a hell of a legacy behind. Everything he released ranged between good and excellent, with the stuff he both wrote and drew almost always leaning more towards the latter so you really only need list the comics he did in the last sixteen years of his life and you have something that would read like a "Greatest Hits" for just about anyone else.

I could list all of his brilliant work but, really, if it says Darwyn Cooke on the cover, you don't need any more words of recommendation. Instead, I'll leave you with an image that perhaps best reflects his unparalleled take on the world of comics.

Get all your Darwyn Cooke comics and graphic novels (and more) from Zed Bee's Comics, in Edenvale, South Africa.

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