I’ll admit it. I’m coming to this story cold. I’ve read and re-read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptation of Parker: The Hunter, a noirer-than-noir 1962 American classic and now I find I’m thinking and writing in its infectious, terse, clipped, corrosively acidic thug-speak. I’ve never read any of these Parker novels before; Donald Westlake cranked them out under the pen-name Richard Stark.
Nor have I seen any of the movie versions either. Though I’m well aware of iconic Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s Point Blank in 1967. It’s no coincidence that the following year Marvin’s big-chinned mug graced the cover of His Name Is Savage, Gil Kane‘s magazine-format, proto-graphic novel for adults whose violence, definitely not approved by the strangulatory Comics Code Authority, upped the ante in 1968 in what you showed and how you wrote crime comic books. Savage faltered after one issue and the crime comics genre took a while to resuscitate in America. But ever since Ms. Tree, Maze Agency and especially Sin City and Stray Bullets, the weed of crime comics has sprouted lots of fresh shoots.
And as part of that comeback, Canadian comics creator Darwyn Cooke is now embarking on a series of four graphic novels, the first ever to adapt the Parker novels. Strictly speaking, this is not actually the first time that Westlake’s prose has jumped ship from prose to panels. The Hot Rock, his comedy caper about unlucky burglar John Dortmunder, was adapted in 2008 into a bande dessinée album in France by Lax, nom-de-plume of Christian Lacroix, for Casterman’s Noir line as Pierre qui roule.
Sadly, Westlake died in December 2008, but he was evidently enthused by what he saw of Darwyn Cooke’s preliminaries for this graphic novelisation as it got underway. In a Comics Reporter interview, Cooke explains that Westlake felt assured by Cooke’s process of adaptation:
“I don’t think I’m going to have to write more than a couple of dozen sentences for each book. Your words are there. Your dialogue for me is perfect. And when I need narrative, it’s there for me. So this is not going to be an attempt to interpret your words with my words as much as bringing this whole story into another medium.” I think he was happy to know what the words coming out of their mouths would be.
The Parker Portfolio, an IDW retailer incentive giveaway.
Clockwise from top-left: Westlake portrait by Cooke; the portfolio cover;
Cooke illustrates Westlake’s favourite moment from Butcher’s Moon.
Comics have traditionally tended to require a leanness and economy of text, pared down to avoid overly florid literariness. So Westlake’s prose almost reads like comics and can be edited and transferred smoothly. It’s a mark of the respect which Westlake developed for Cooke that he allowed him to use the name of his cherished character Parker for the first time - an honour no film-director had ever been granted. In 1962, Westlake was asked by the publisher of Parker’s debut The Hunter to allow his cold-blooded criminal to escape the law at the end, so that the door could be left open to write more stories about him. And more stories followed and a good number have been reissued last year from the University of Chicago Press. Parker is harder than hard-boiled; his egg-timer was set for at least one full hour, he’s that hard. He is no cop or detective, no hero or anti-hero, he’s the bad guy, a ruthless thief, loner and heister, carrying out jobs to finance his discreet lifestyle in resort hotels, trusting no-one and “never taking anything but unmarked and untraceable cash.” And he’s been double-crossed and wants his money back, no matter what it takes.
Cooke is in his element and in total control here, stripping down his drawing to brutal black brushstrokes worthy of Alex Toth, this choppy, rough-edged swagger matching the protagonist’s personality perfectly. I was in touch with Cooke as he was frantically busy on this book’s final stages, because I fervently hoped to include him in the Atom Style exhibition I’ve curated for the Atomium in Brussels. Cooke is a big admirer of this Euro-style, as he enthused in his extensive 2003 interview in Comic Book Artist Vol.2 No.3:
”[Heavy Metal] were reprinting Daniel Torres and Chaland, and when I discovered those guys - holy shit! - did it all snap together! At this point, I’m art directing fashion-oriented stuff, so I’m being really exposed to New York illustration and European illustration, and this whole move towards a ‘40s look is going on. And I loved the stuff! And then I saw Torres and Chaland and thought, ‘Oh my God, it translates into comics!’ I became a devout student of that work.”
Those Atom Style chops shine through clearly on Cooke’s new pages, as he leaves areas paper-white to be completed or complemented by a second blue overlayed in watercolour washes, solid blocks and crayon finesses. In my advance reader’s copy, this blue was much too bright, almost cobalt; I am glad to see that the proper finished book is closer to the subtle hues, printed on cream paper, visible in this online preview. Here you can get to see the masterful opening sequence of eleven pages, in which Cooke follows Parker’s arrival on foot into the Big Apple and refrains from showing him full face, until we turn to the twelfth page and see him glowering with fury at us reflected in a seedy restroom mirror. This recalls Steve Canyon’s striking entrance by Milton Caniff, and in turn the opening sequence in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Cooke uses no dialogue and shifts smoothly between objective and subjective viewpoints. Right from his first line, “Go to Hell”, when he refuses the offer of a lift, we understand Parker’s obstinacy and sheer force of will driving him to seek revenge all the way to the top and get back the $45,000 stolen from him. There’s also no mistaking Parker’s massive, lethal, Kirby-esque hands, almost gorilla-like, as we first spot them throwing away a cigarette packet or clenched as he strides through the traffic over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Cooke has chosen to avoid all panel borders and, I’m glad to say, has hand-lettered all the text. To stay close to Westlake’s text, he presents at times some longer passages of explanatory prose in a left-hand column next to a single vertical illustration. That said, Cooke uses the strengths of comics on other pages to portray action and atmosphere, often without a word, while to convey flashbacks he switches to a Ben-Day screen-dot effect, like a Roy Lichtenstein painting. Violence and sex, in that order but inseparably linked, seethe through Parker’s presence in this decidedly macho, male-orientated tale of vengeance: “She had good legs - but not now. After it was over and Mal was dead - he’d want somebody then.” Bitter over his wife’s infidelity and betrayal, admittedly at gunpoint, and her failed attempt to shoot him dead, Parker is taciturn, distrustful, remote from any affection, and shows no regret at his wife’s death from overdosing on sleeping pills (he’s suggested she do it) nor any remorse at mutilating her face to avoid identification.
On this and several other points, I was curious to compare this present-day graphic novelisation with the original 1962 novel to see what Cooke has adjusted, omitted or added. In this potentially grisly scene, Cooke drops all text narrative and shows only six panels of Parker with knife in hand, close up, body out of shot, and blood dripping off it only in the last panel. Westlake in the original only has words, and what Cooke avoids portraying here is this preparation of the corpse: “he stripped off the dress and the shoes again.” In other places, Cooke pumps up the visual impact. At the end of the first chapter, for instance, Westlake had Parker simply throwing his empty vodka bottle into the wastebasket; Cooke has him hurling it out of the window to shatter on the wall opposite.
On the one hand, Cooke can up the swearing and abuse now that they can be coarser in the mass media and adult comics than in the early Sixties when the “F”-word was mostly taboo. And he shows some of the violence more graphically now, such as Parker’s strangling of Mal, no more than a closing sentence in the novel but unfolding here eventually on a whole nine-panel page, with the added twist of him spitting on the corpse. Similarly, Westlake had Parker shrewdly shoot Carter “into his belly, to muffle the sound”, whereas Cooke shows him blasting his victim away through the head, the bullet bursting out of the back of his chair, accompanied a large “BAM”.
But on the other hand, Cooke pointedly chooses not to show as fully how certain innocents lose their lives. Intriguingly, there is almost a political correctness adjusting this contemporary retelling. For example, Parker is described as knocking out a beauty parlour receptionist, whom he ties up and gags using a piece of her slip. None of this assault is visualised, however; all that Cooke shows us is the final result in one full-page image. Tragically, Parker finds that she dies because she has sinus trouble, or maybe she’san asthmatic, with an inhaler in her handbag. Cooke hides Parker’s eyes as he rings the police to notify them about the body, so it is left uncertain whether his uncharacteristic stuttering - “I-I’ve found a woman… I-I think she’s dead” - betrays any real regrets on his part or more likely is actually all part of his act to sound like some anonymous tip-off. None of this takes place in the original novel. These and other amendments do not detract at all from the compelling momentum of this tale. Cooke revealed that Westlake “wrote me the one time that the whole point of the series was an exercise at the beginning to see if he could write a character who’s completely internal. Where all the emotional content is internalized to the point where the only indication you get of how they might be feeling is how they act physically.”
Responding to this, Cooke rarely shows Parker’s face close up or fully lit, and even adds a joke that he can be mistaken for Jack Palance. At times, to me this deadpan monomaniac seems faintly Pythonesque, like an American gangster version of one of the Dinsdale boys. In spite of (or maybe because of) his misogynism - Parker obviously belongs to that same early Sixties, pre-women’s lib, era of James Bond - and rather tragic isolation and self-denial, somehow Parker remains a potent fantasy, for a good many males and perhaps females too, of emotionally dysfunctional machismo at its most primordial and unstoppable. It is telling that his only moment of weakness is his fear of his wife’s sexual allure - “The tree wasn’t dead” - despite all she has done to him.
Although Cooke’s work has been undoubtedly impressive on established properties like DC’s superheroes in New Frontier, or Will Eisner’s The Spirit, it’s a special pleasure to see Cooke cutting loose here in the noir genre he was born for and on a character and story that clearly mean so much to him. I hope this series will also mark another example, like Frank Miller, David Lapham or David Mazzucchelli, of a creator graduating through first illustrating and then also writing familiar franchises before setting out to create their own storyworld on their own terms. In time, I feel sure Cooke will take that further leap and come up with his own personal, wholly originated magnum opus. But in the meantime, he will be back on Parker in 2010, “Cooke-ing the books”, in the second of his projected quartet of adaptations. Westlake’s legacy is in good hands, as strong and extraordinarily gifted as Parker’s own.
Posted: August 16, 2009
From the signed bookplate limited edition of The Hunter
on sale at Gosh! Comics in London.