misterpeace: STUFF I DIG: Parker Book 1: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke
Published by IDW
It feels a little redundant writing a review for this comic as it’s been talked about all over the place, from mainstream media to comic book blogs and everything in between. But it’s worth recommending again and a time or two after that.
Donald Westlake was a prose writer who authored his most famous series, the Parker novels (named for their anti-hero protagonist) under the pseudonym Richard Stark. These books have acted as the inspiration for a few different Hollywood films, namely Payback starring Mel Gibson and Point Blank starring Lee Marvin, but in all cases, the author never wanted the main protagonist of these films to bear the name Parker.
Enter Darwyn Cooke, an animator-turned-comic book artist whose back-catalog boasts a lot of gorgeous revisionism of DC’s classic superhero characters, mostly done in a mid-20th-century style that somehow marries Dan DeCarlo, Alex Toth, film noir, and any given Audrey Hepburn movie. Cooke has given us a modern interpretation of Eisner’s The Spirit, a re-imagined version of the old Silver Age Justice League, and the absolute coolest redesign of Catwoman ever, and these works are all done in the clever “this artwork looks 50 years old and modern at the same time” mode of Batman: The Animated Series, where angular art deco skyscrapers and dirigibles meet cell phones.
Cooke was the only talent big enough to convince Westlake, who died before the publication of this volume but after Cooke had been given the OK to do the adaptation, to leave the main character’s name making this, arguably, the only official Parker novel done in a new medium. And it lives up to its name.
The entire package seems to be designed from the ground up to embody the kind of pulpy, seedy revenge story that it is. I mean, it should go without saying that this comic should put the reader into the mindset of someone picking up a Richard Stark novel but they go all the way, with every small detail just so. To begin with, it’s hardcover bound, which gives it a real heft and severity literally before you open the cover. Secondly, the title and credit pages use Dubiel font (or something in that family) which brings to mind an old Truman Capote that you picked up from the public library. See, the story takes place in 1962 and they do a remarkable job, in every aspect of design and execution, to make the book feel like it was published in 1962. Did I mention the slightly off-white page color? It’s very cool and retro and it fits the story in a way that’s tough to describe but you feel it instantly. IDW has gone all out, cementing their place as one of the industry’s best publishers.
So once you’ve opened it up, you see the artwork. You can’t NOT notice the artwork because, if you’re a fan of retro and vintage styles, it’s stunning. Cooke is a cartoonist in the classic sense of the word, with his simple style conveying character and story with straight-forward elegance and, as one of the Robot 6 reviewers put it, “Toth-like dynamism” so it’s probably not a surprise that nearly every reviewer of a Darwyn Cooke piece is smitten. As I mentioned before, Cooke’s style is firmly rooted in the mid 20th century. His men are broad and angular and masculine, his women are curvy and sophisticated and cute, all wide smiles and big eyes. The fashion and technology and general atmosphere of society are rendered with a pitch-perfect eye towards the past. Anatomy and character design emphasize a simple honesty and accuracy while, at the same time, you are definitely aware of this book’s place as a piece of cartooning. It’s the perfect comic book, as the clean, angular artwork immediately draws your eye to the characters and what’s happening to them, instead of cramming as much clutter into a panel as possible.
About the coloring: It’s brilliant. This is a black and white comic but it’s a black and white comic with a bluish shading that’s used for shadowing, depth, and mood. My verbosity fails me right now… I can’t quite explain how but this choice seems to just push the artwork even more firmly into the year 1962. It looks like a classic New Yorker or Playboy cartoon or something by Noel Sickles. Again, just look at the damn thing and it speaks entirely for itself.
Have I gone this long without discussing the plot? Shame because it’s very, very well-written. While the source material is impeccable, it’s pretty easy to fuck up an adaptation but The Hunter goes against all types by somehow improving on the original, simultaneously providing a superlative book in and of itself, deepening everyone’s appreciation of the prose novel, and celebrating what Richard Stark stood for in the first place. There’s a stigma that hangs around adapted work that wouldn’t be there if people had half the elan and craftsmanship of a Darwyn Cooke.
Parker (one name only, we never learn his full name or his back-story, save the bits that tie directly into this plot) is a career criminal out for revenge. He’s just gotten back to New York and is looking for the ex who betrayed him and sold him out to his friend and partner-in-crime. His motivation is simple: strike back at those who wronged him and get the money that should have been his. Westlake obviously comes from the overtly masculine school of hardboiled writing, where men are men, they don’t speak, they don’t care if you care, they only want what they want, and every aspect of dialogue and storytelling, all of which is as cold and bare-bones as possible, reinforces this unflinching masculinity. Never mind Chandler’s flair for the poetic, this is the Hammett/Spillane school… it’s about hard, 20th century men who have big hands that were made to punch and nobody better get in their way.
Parker, I think, is the character that embodies this mode better than any other (forgive me, Mike Hammer). Ed Brubaker is quoted on the dust jacket saying that Parker is his favorite criminal character of all time and can you think of one better? He is a bastard’s bastard and this is his story through and through.
The plot is pretty simple. Parker goes through one underworld figure after another, getting closer and closer to the big fish, the background leading up to this being told in flashbacks. The betrayal, the revenge, it’s nothing you can’t wrap your head around but, as is the case with the artwork, the elegant simplicity is an art in and of itself. Maybe I’m not communicating how lovely the writing of this comic is. By calling it simple, hard-fisted and brutal and conveying the rugged straight-forwardness of the main character and the narrative, I might have understated how fucking quality the wordcraft is. It’s really good and there are parts that read like Pulp Fiction Shakespeare.
There’s one scene that really stuck with me. It is, if I may make so bold a statement, the toughest and most masculine scene I think I’ve ever encountered in any work of fiction in any medium (OK, it’s in the running). In the fourth chapter, Parker has completed his revenge mission and is now on his “get me my money” mission… he wants what’s his and has to kill some people to get it. His search has lead him to the head of this criminal syndicate, who is ensconced in a posh penthouse office when Parker saunters in and the negotiations begin. In a scene that would give David Mamet a wet dream, the two of them have their little back-and-forth. If I said “negotiate” I apologize, that’s the wrong word. Parker is making his demands and fuck you if you don’t like them. Never has a character been so cool and so hard and so insistent. And he knows that killing this guy will cause all hell to open up and he doesn’t care. Not for a second is he even the slightest bit worried. There’s no violence in this scene (except for the single gun shot where our “hero” dispatches the “villain” as we knew he would) it’s all about the intensity and drama of a conversation between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Before killing him, Parker forces this guy to call HIS boss just so he knows he’s on his way. It’s chilling. I think Parker is Clint Eastwood’s uncle.
I’ve rambled enough. All that’s left is for you to go pick this up. Now.
- Dorian Peace
Also, check out: http://violentworldofparker.com and my review from last week of Azzarello and Santos’ Filthy Rich.
Excellent review of an excellent comic book.