A Man Of His Time: The Brief And Wonderous Life Of Darwyn Cooke

Darwyn Cooke self-portraitOn John Siuntres Word Balloon Podcast, IDW CEO Ted Adams described comics creator Darwyn Cooke, who passed away on 5/14/2016 from cancer, as an illustrator “that could do anything” which was true, but only in a way that is singular to Cooke. Given the right parameters, most comics illustrators could “draw anything” but a Darwyn Cooke comic had a paticular aesthetic that was was clearly referential to the medium historically while also being idiomatic to only him. So much about Cooke’s style and story was abberant to his peers or collaborators during his time in the industry. While having primarily published the majority of his work with DC Comics, Cooke was the rare big name creative talent that never had a definitive run with the big name properties, yet the imprint he left on the publisher and comics themselves is undeniable.

Spider-Man's_Tangled_Web_Vol_1_11Cooke first entered comics with a short story in New Talent Showcase #19 in 1985 but quickly stepped away for the more stable world of publishing, doing various art director and design roles with Canadian magazines before taking another crack at the medium in the 1990’s. Unable to find comics work, Cooke ended up replying to an advertisement from Bruce Timm and becoming the storyboard artist for the seminal Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series & Batman Beyond. It’s arguable that Timm’s animated work might have had a greater influence on the companies superhero universe then any of the comics of the same time period and it’s impossible to look at those shows now and not see Cooke’s DNA all over them. The design and aesthetic of the series characters and environment, the convergence of modern tropes with classic golden/silver age signifiers, how the all ages stories could handle sophisticated themes and concepts in a way that respected the intelligence of it’s broad audience; these would be the hallmarks of Cooke’s comics career and it was all there from the outset in his start on DC Animation.

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Cooke’s first published comics work at DC Comics would be the strange Batman: Ego one shot.
Cooke describes it as:
“This was my first project for DC. […] Bruce Wayne and Batman discuss all the important moments in their life from different angles. […] I staged the story in the aftermath of a severe psychological trauma. Our set is the landscape of Bruce’s tormented mind, allowing us to move from place to place without transition. Upon review, I consider EGO an earnest but flawed first effort.”
Cooke arrived in comics with DC at a time when the publisher & it’s many subimprints would see several of the most important creators of this century ascend; including Geoff Johns, Mark Millar, Frank Quitely, Warren Ellis, Brian K, Vaughan, Bryah Hitch, JH Williams III, Ed Burbaker, Brian Azzerello & Greg Rucka. Cooke himself was every bit the contemporary of that class yet in a category all his own amongst his peers as can be ascertained from work like Ego or similar comics he created in that period. Cooke was a visual story teller in the purest sense of the word and that’s readily appparent in his early work during that period on books like Ego along with the holiday themed issues of Spiderman’s Tangled Web #11 & #21 or the heatbreaking exploration of family, identity and memory in X-Force #146. You can see Cooke exploring his writing voice on some level in this early work but in terms of comics illustration as a device for narration, Cooke was fully formed from the outset.

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Wolverine-doopfightxmas7In spite of his excellence, Cooke’s highly cartoonish style was complete different to what the industry was doing at the time. While his style leans heavily on golden age & silver age tropes, it was always far closer to what readers would expect from Sunday newspaper funnies then a superhero comic at the turn of the century. Much of Cooke’s early work is spent navigating that on some level, trying to make superhero comics fit to his voice as opposed to conforming to industry standard’s. But in a short period of time, Cooke would master the medium in his next three projects with his extended work on Catwoman, Solo #5 and his epic DC New Frontier.

Cooke would work with now legendary writer Ed Brubaker in redesigning Catwoman, first in the backup stories of Detective Comics and later in the charachters own ongoing series along with the Selina’s Big Score Original Graphic Novel. Catwoman is where Cooke truly creates his own pocket within the DC Universe with Brubaker, revamping the character and making her the most interesting she had been in years. Cooke & Brubaker use Catwoman to focus in on urban crime and feminity from the perspective of Selina as a reformed criminal while introducing an expanded cast including the doormant Slam Bradley as a lovable oaf of a private eye. Cooke’s extended work on the character with Brubaker & later on his own is where you see the artist hit a groove that would make for one of the most prolific runs in comics of this century by clearly establishing a singular noir aesthetic within DC Comics continuity by taking the pre-established narrative and shaping it in his own image, a funhouse mirror of classic old Hollywood films retrofitted to modern comics. Cooke’s Catwoman work shows the artist breathing life into the intellectual property in a naturalistic re-imaging of a character that had become ubiquitous.

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If Catwoman established what Cooke was truly capable of in work for hire superhero comics, his contirbution to the Solo miniseries in issue #5 is Cooke completely uncut with some of the most wildly imaginative storytelling in the artists career. Solo is an anthology that finds Cooke showing his unbelievable range in doing stories ranging from a child getting his first art set, a cold war spy thriller, a mediation on the US’s counter terrorism efforts, a Sunday funnie’s page, a killer vacuum cleaner & an excellently dark Batman adaptation. Each story is notable for how Cooke’s art, style and direction differ’s slightly from one to the next but is still clearly the work of the artist, all the while pausing in between strips for Slam Bradley and a group of drinking buddies that includes Aquaman, Black Canary and Darkseid winding down at the local watering hole. The comic would rightfully win best single issue for the 2006 Eisners.

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If Cooke’s Catwoman & Solo #5 work represented different ends of the spectrum for the artists approach to straight forward work for hire and his creativity uninhibited by concerns of continuity and commercial viability; DC New Frontier is smack dab in the middle of the two as the creators masterpiece. New Frontier was a six issue miniseries that attempts to bridge the gap between DC Comics Golden & Silver age continuity in a near perfect exploration of the medium in the context of America in the 1950’s. It’s a beautiful and fully realized visual story that get’s to the heart of it’s complex subject matter with ease and naturalism. Influenced by comics of the early sixties and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a non-fiction account of Nasa; DC’s New Frontier is perhaps Cooke’s best work and most indicative of his strengths. History, superhero fiction and adventure blend together seamlessly in Frontier for a comics epic unlike any other.

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Cooke would follow his breakout success in the industry on a series of work for hire comics. He collaborated with Jeph Loeb on a Batman/Spirit crossover and then relaunched the seminal Will Eisner creation in an ongoing as the books writer & artist. He wrote the first six issues for the launch of Superman Confidential with kindred spirit Tim Sale on illustrations. He would take excellent spot illustration work in books like Jonah Hex, Green Lantern or Weird War Tales. In 2012, he would be a major figure in DC Comics controversial Before Watchmen series of prequels to Alan Moore & David Gibbons 1980’s maxiseries where he would write and draw the Minutemen comic while writing for artist Amanda Conner on the Silk Spectre title. In spite of the initiative’s lackluster reputation, it’s generally agreed that Cooke’s work is by far the best and most fully realized of the ill fated comics. In that same time period, Cooke would find a second life in his adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novel’s to comics via IDW. Cooke’s work on the title is beloved by fan’s and newcomers to the character alike in it’s brutally unflinching portrayal of the character. Like New Frontier, Cooke captures the spirit of the era yet in a way that is almost a polar opposite to his previous work. Parker is a study in contrast, the suave and the grime of urban living, the elegance and savagery of it’s cast and the shifting morality of crime and violence. Like all of Cooke’s best work, it stands apart from the comics of it’s day by taking elements of the past and reconfiguring it for his own voice.

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More recently, Cooke began dipping his toe in the creator owned waters with the announcement of his first Image series Revengence, a crime graphic novel based on his youth in Toronto & the excellent Twilight Children through Vertigo with Love & Rockets co-creator Gilbert Hernandez. What’s perhaps most disappointing is how the medium had probably not yet scratched the surface of the creators full potential. As creator owned comics has increased the parity in genre from the industries major publishers,  who knows what Cooke would have come up with untethered by the pressures and expectations of corporate comics. His life was a brief one and his time in comics was even briefer. His work was forward looking by mining from the past; always inching towards that new frontier.

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