Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Darwyn Cooke (1962–2016)

What to say about Darwyn Cooke?

He's dead, and that is awful. That's the first thing, the reason I'm writing this. He was only fifty-four. Cancer. I can't imagine what his family and friends are going through. My heart aches for them.

For the rest of us, well, it's a version of that pain many of us felt recently when Prince died. The grief that can't help but be awkward because it's simultaneously real and attenuated--it's genuine grief felt about a person we knew only through their work. Yet . . . I have no qualms about calling it actual grief. We develop a relationship with the people who make the art we love, the art that gives our world so much of its depth and richness. The "they" whom we love may ultimately bear only a passing resemblance to the person grieved by friends and family, but if the art is genuine, there's nonetheless a reality there: the self bleeds through; the artist, if we take engage with them seriously, takes on a form and role not wholly dissimilar to that of once-close friends who are now distant, encountered mostly in virtual spaces. I have no trouble saying that I love, actually love, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Rex Stout, Barbara Pym, Henry James, Anthony Powell, and on and on. I wouldn't have wanted to spend a country weekend with Tolstoy, let alone be married to him, but lord, I love that man despite. It's real, and it is a powerful force in shaping the world--so much of it constructed, moment to moment, by my own reflections on it--in which I live and act every day. Darwyn Cooke made my life better, and I'm my grief that he won't be able to keep making beautiful, creative art is genuine.

I never met Darwyn Cooke. We exchanged e-mails a couple of times in the course of his work illustrating and designing the cover of my dreams for The Getaway Car. But mostly I knew him as any fan did: through his wonderful comics art and stories. Let's start with Parker.

In the fifty-plus years since Donald Westlake sat down at the typewriter and discovered Richard Stark's voice, there's been no one who translated Parker into a visual medium as effectively and faithfully as Cooke. His clean-lined midcentury style, redolent of both the silver age and, in its backgrounds, architecture, and use of watercolors, midcentury magazine illustration, put Parker squarely in his era. And Cooke's creativity in storytelling and narrative technique, which saw him combine panel-to-panel comics, fake magazine stories, cartoony comic strips, and more, enabled him to turn Stark's brilliantly clockwork plots into suspenseful pages.

At the same time, he captured an aspect of the Parker novels that is often overlooked: their humor. Richard Stark was Westlake's hardboiled voice, but like a recidivist criminal, he wasn't a man who could ever go wholly straight. I love these two panels from The Score on that front--we've all wanted to say this to Grofield at one point or another.

The Parker adaptations were wonderful. But they're not even Cooke's greatest achievement. I've been reading comics off and on for thirty years. I have a deep and abiding love for superheroes, and a considered awareness of what they can be at their best--and of what we all too often find ourselves accepting as good enough, through some mix of nostalgia and appreciation of comfort food. I'm the twelve-year-old boy who wore out issues of The Amazing Spider-Man with re-reading and can still access reverberations of those feelings, yet knows, to quote (let's imagine) Ben Grimm, that most of it ain't Proust.

The New Frontier, a six-issue miniseries written and drawn by Cooke and published by DC in 2004, is better than that. It's the best comic I've ever read. Hands down. In it, Cooke re-tells the story of DC's Silver Age--of the characters and the moment that people still think of when they hear "comic book" or "superhero," the birth of the Justice League and team-ups between Batman and Robin and Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and all.

Cooke does so in a visual style that honors, without wholly aping, the style of the 1950s comics he's drawing on--and setting it within the larger visual and design sensibility of the period. An attentive reader of The New Frontier stares at least as much at furniture and signage as at super-sculpted physiques.

This was a beautiful era visually, among the cherished remnants of which we live today, and Cooke gives us that almost casually throughout the series. But that's only part of his period aim. His larger point was to put these stories themselves, and the characters who powered them, into the actual context of their era.

Written out that way, it sounds like a terrible idea, a recipe for tendentious tales of nuclear fears and the Red Scare. In Cooke's hands, it becomes something different, something that feels honest and organic. Re-reading it now, it calls to mind the later seasons of Mad Men, when the writers had gotten past the first season's tendency to superciliously gawp at history and instead were telling actual stories of a time now lost--which enabled them to generate the only nostalgia that's not toxic: an honest, clear-eyed nostalgia, one that acknowledges that every passing of time entails loss, no matter how it's balanced by gains.

That tug, the pull of the imperfect past, is powerful in The New Frontier. We feel the energy, hope, and technocratic drive of postwar America, even as we acknowledge its darker side.

At the same time, Cooke avoided two major contemporary pitfalls, darkness and irony. His Silver Age is beset by actual problems, the Cold War being the source of most of them. But the tone of the comic is light and hopeful: these are superheroes, people who can do things we can only imagine--and the whole point of imagining them in the first place is to give us people to look up to, to trust in, to thrill to. Cooke lets them be heroes. And he also lets the relative simplicity of the era remain untroubled. Look at this full page, where Robin meets Batman for the first time.

That's powerful earnestness, and Cooke is letting it stand. Throughout the series, he shows us the 1950s inflected by our own time-shifted understanding, but at the same time he lets the era be itself, with nearly all its relative innocence. These are that rare thing: comics that adults and kids can enjoy alike. It's a genuinely thrilling, exhilarating series.

Nearly seventy years after the creation of Superman, sixty-five since Batman, and half a century after the creation of the Justice League, who would have thought there would be anything new to say? There will always be new adventures, of course; that's the beauty of mythological-style characters and serial narrative. But who could have imagined that there would be anything to say, especially looking backwards, that feels as fundamental as what Cooke created in re-telling the story of these heroes? With due deference to the giants, not just from DC but from Marvel and indies, on whose shoulders it was built, The New Frontier is the greatest comics series ever written.

Rest in peace, Darwyn Cooke. You made something truly special, and we'll never forget it.

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