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.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bakewell on Montaigne

I'm currently reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, an account for the smart generalist of the roots, thought, and key figures of existentialism. I'm not deep enough into it to share anything more detailed than good impressions thus far: if the existentialists interest you at all, it's probably worth taking a look.

What brings me here today--breaking an irritatingly long work-driven hiatus--however, is what I found when I pulled Bakewell's book off my shelf: the handful of pages that I tore out of the galley of her excellent book on Montaigne, How to Live, after I read it in 2013. Torn-out pages, you gasp? I had a reason: I read the book while traveling in Japan, and I was carrying so many books that I was ready to lighten my load any way possible--including throwing out the galley after I'd read it. But . . . what was I to do about the pages I'd dog-eared to share with you folks later? Rip!

So here, four years, a change of address, and another trip to Japan later, they are. First, there's this, from a section that compares Stoics and Epicureans, emphasizing their interest in thought experiments that involved imagining the last day of your life:
Some Stoics even acted out these "last moment" experiments with props and a supporting cast. Seneca wrote of a wealthy man called Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, "He has lived his life, he has lived his life."
Which, we can all surely agree, seems a bit much.

Though if we're honest can we say that's any worse--for the servants, at least--than this silliness?
[Montaigne] was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition--sleep--that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him.
Then there's this, on Montaigne's dislike of small talk:
As well as banishing formal etiquette, Montaigne discouraged tedious small talk. Self-conscious solo performances bored him too. Some of his friends could keep a group rapt for hours with anecdotes, but Montaigne preferred a natural give and take. At official dinners away from home, where the talk was merely conventional, his attention would wander; if someone suddenly addressed him, he would often make inappropriate replies, "unworthy of a child." He regretted this for easy conversation in trivial situations was valuable: it opened the path to deeper relationships, and to the more pleasant evenings where one could joke and laugh at ease.
While I am frustrated by small talk in theory, Montaigne here hits upon one of the reasons I admire those who do it well: it puts others at ease, and it begins the labor of opening a space of comfort in which, down the line, we might place more meaningful conversation. Sports and the weather have been the first steps in many a friendship.

In the following passage Bakewell identifies one of the most lasting, important aspects of Montaigne's genius: his "sense of how one could survive public catastrophe without losing one's self-respect":
Long after the sixteenth-century Stoic Montaigne was forgotten, readers in troubled times continued to think of him as a role model. His Essays offered practical wisdom on questions such as how to face up to intimidation, and how to reconcile the conflicting demands of openness and security. . . . Just as you could seek mercy from an enemy forthfrghtly, without compromising yourself, or defend your property by electing to leave it undefended, so you could get through an inhumane war by remaining human.
Throughout the twentieth century, Bakewell points out, readers--Stefan Zweig one of the most prominent among them--found in Montaigne a shelter and a guide, a reminder that troubled times pass, and that extremism is always best opposed by openness and moderation.

Part of that openness comes down to a willingness to accept that one's own knowledge has limits--as in this passage, which Bakewell glosses nicely:
"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

That final coda--"though I don't know"--is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
Indeed. And it's better to live with it alongside Montaigne than without him. If you've only read some Montaigne, or none, or even if you'd already count yourself a fan, I heartily recommend How to Live: it transformed me from an occasional thoughtless dipper-into the Essays to someone who finds them endlessly readable and--perhaps more important--thinkable, and Montaigne himself from some forbidding, white-ruffed figure from the distant past into someone with whom I feel we're having a conversation. It's a remarkable achievement.