Posts Tagged ‘Darwyn Cooke’

Canada Reads Revisited


Thursday, February 17, 2011

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Over at the National Post, there is a panel discussion about the recent Canada Reads contest and how various comments made by the jury reflect popular attitudes about comics and the graphic novel. The panel consists of me, Chris Butcher and Darwyn Cooke. Go here to read.

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Random New Releases Riff Round-Up


Saturday, October 30, 2010

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Hey there. I am traveling this week and do not have access to a scanner. So that means I can’t really continue my grid talks. Forgive the interruption, True Believers. However, while driving, I pondered many topical goings on in comics. Here are my notes:

-I really liked Seth’s new Palookaville comic book. The story in the back is an interesting example of grid layout. It feels very natural and unaffected. I also liked the story because it seems to me that he is purposely playing around with public assumptions about himself and the genre of autobiographical comics. (Yes, indeed, I believe that autobio comics are a genre with their own conventions and tropes). (more…)

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New Comics riff


Saturday, July 17, 2010

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Comics shop reverie. Ah, the new store. Up in the clouds. Heaven. Copacetic rules the roost in Pittsburgh. Best feeling shop in town. I guarantee it! I work Sundays folks, come on down! Take a seat in the easy chair and read the funnies. Have a coffee.

This was a big week for a fanboy/wanna-be-critic like myself. Can you say “paradigm shift?”

Let’s count ’em off: Bulletproof Coffin #2, Orc Stain #4, King City #7 (I know, that came out weeks ago but I missed it and had to re-order it), The Man with the Getaway Face preview, and the new Matt Kindt graphic novel, Revolver. What was I saying about the Direct Market being dead? Sorry, I was high. This has been a great summer already for my new drug: Fusion comics. My term for what Charles Brownstein calls “Boys Comics.” And the Direct Market is delivering my fix, so who’s complaining?

Leading off, The Bulletproof Coffin #2 By David Hine and Shaky Kane. This is my dream comic. I’m in love. This comic is my girlfriend. At this point I wouldn’t care if she fucked my best friend. This comic can do me no wrong. For me, it’s a perfect mashup of styles that POPS with bright colors and dripping blood. The whole book looks really sharp, I think, and the story’s clever unfolding owes a lot to its design. There’s another comic-within-a-comic interplay (Shield of Justice cover to your left) that twists up the story and makes it all swing. If you couldn’t find issue one, I’d say you could still jump on board with #2 and not miss the train. There’s a great synopsis on the inside front cover that made me laugh. Reads like a comic book, like serial entertainment. And for me, really, it’s just the joy reading a Shaky Kane comic. Talk about Fusion – Shaky’s able to somehow subtly, easily shift styles that it really creates a jarring, discordant note in the story. (more…)

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The Hunter


Monday, August 10, 2009

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Darwyn Cooke‘s graphic adaptation of the late Richard (actually Donald Westlake) Stark‘s The Hunter is one of those books that I wanted to like: An adaptation of a novel I love, obviously the work of a dedicated artist, respectful, well crafted, and nicely put together. So it’s with some regret that I have to report I found it oddly lifeless, a storyboard in the guise of a comic book.

The Hunter, published in 1962, is the story of a criminal named Parker who, after being betrayed and left for dead, makes his way to New York City to take revenge and claim his stolen money. It is the first in a series of crime novels that follow the anti-hero Parker as he first takes his life back, then fights for it, and finally goes about living it (which means more crime). I’ve read about a half dozen of Westlake’s Parker books, including The Hunter. They are precisely constructed suspense stories told in surprisingly minimal and propulsive prose. This isn’t the hard-boiled-yet-baroque language of Chandler, but something closer to Hammett or even Hemingway. The books are so well written and so disciplined that I sometimes wonder if Westlake/Stark invented Parker partly as a way to experiment with pauses and silences in his writing.

So, I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that Cooke fundamentally misread Stark: Though nearly all of the action and dialogue of his adaptation mimics the source, he somehow took a minimalist novel and over-visualized it as a maximalist, over-the-top orgy of genre cliches.

Parker’s entrance into New York City, vividly written as an unstoppable dark march by Stark, he is rendered by Cooke as a grandiose overture, logos a-swirling and dames a-swooning. It’s so hokey and so mannered that I expected a baritone to appear and belt out “New York New York”.

For example, here’s Stark:

He walked north till he came to a leather goods shop. He bought a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of good luggage, a matched set of four pieces. He showed the driver’s license for identification, and they didn’t even call the bank. Two blocks he carried the luggage, and then he got thirty-five dollars for it at a pawn shop. He went crosstown, and did it twice more–luggage to a pawn shop–and got another eighty dollars.

And here’s Cooke:

From the start every room Parker walks into has an Eames chair and a Noguchi table. Every clock is by George Nelson. All the women are outfitted like cheesecake “dames.” And none of it tells the reader a thing about the story or the characters. I’m all for establishing a sense of place—it’s just that all of Cooke’s places appear to be mid-century modern catalog photos. I’ve seen reviews likening Cooke’s set pieces to the use of period detail in Mad Men, but on that show those material goods are not only symbols of status, power, and sophistication, but also objects that suffocate, reduce, and entrap the characters. In The Hunter they just seem extraneous. The absence of such clutter from Stark’s prose is partly why it works; writing that lean allows the reader to fall into the creator’s rhythm. Cooke just piles it on, bogging down the action in a mess of suits and ashtrays.

It strikes me that what Cooke has done here is basically understandable: He overlayed his ideas of crime fiction on top of Stark’s. The beauty of Stark’s work is that it’s elusive and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It’s modest and seductive in that way. But where another artist might have retained that simplicity of form and language, Cooke seemed to want to fill in the gaps and transform it into a grand production. I can see how he got there, but I don’t think it works.

Even if I’m wrong and Cooke’s reading is utterly faithful, this adaptation doesn’t work very well as a comic book. Cooke’s character design is strangely generic, his storytelling is often unclear, and his drawing, while polished and stylish, is dull. Parker looks like a generic sort of Bruce Wayne, with a face and body language that betrays not a hint of an inner-life. Panel-to-panel and particularly page-to-page Cooke has a difficult time clearly conveying where a scene is occurring and what, precisely, the action and emotions are that he’s trying to draw.

The spread below is a perfect example. Like a noir film director Cooke wants to move the reader around Wanda’s room with variously sized panels to enliven a couple pages of dialogue. But this isn’t film; another cartoonist might have just used body language and facial expressions, along with a concrete sense of place to do the same job. Cooke shifts his p.o.v. multiple times on a single page, and I can’t get any fixed idea of where the two characters are in the room, what the scale is, and what the atmosphere might be like. This would be a little less disorienting if only there was a compositional scheme tying the panels together. Add to that the fact that figure and ground have the same fuzzed out line-weight and you have a very confusing spread.

On the rare occasions that Cooke keeps his p.o.v. and his panel size steady, allowing his characters to carry the narrative load, he’s seems unable to imbue his drawings with life. Below we see Parker killing his first target, his figure abstracted and repeated to heighten the drama. But the abstraction is limp and lifeless: There is no tension in the figures and no sense of the force and weight of this struggle, so what should have been a climactic moment is just another page.

And when Cooke does go in for some form of inky expressionism I wish he’d stuck with more genericized forms. This spread fails on a lot of levels: The figures are stiff, the brushwork tentative at best, and the composition decidedly not dramatic.

When I think of this work I think of what Mort Meskin would have done, with his vibrant, almost ecstatic brush marks; what Toth might have done with his sense of page design and the figure in space; or what the younger Mazzucchelli might have done with his figures weighted in space and rooted in fully imagined environments. I think of all that and wonder at such a missed opportunity. Those guys used cinematic set-ups, but they never allowed style to overtake content. Krigstein, for example, was a master of adapting filmic rhythms into comics. But at the heart of his experimentalism is a drive for clarity.

Oddly, I like the idea of Darwyn Cooke’s work, particularly the notion that he’s some sort of standard bearer of the great action cartoonists of the 1950s. He clearly loves what he does, and his graphic novel is obviously a thoroughly planned and executed book (however wrongheaded). But the trouble is that I never actually enjoy reading him. A stray image here or there is attractive in the same way I like looking at a drawing by his closest aesthetic relative: Bruce Timm. But for me there’s never been any sense of character underneath all that style, and no particular interest in the surface marks either.

I read The Hunter within a few weeks of reading Melvin Monster by John Stanley. Granted, this is a very odd comparison, but stay with me. The material in Melvin Monster was drawn around the same time as The Hunter was written, and Stanley’s verve and control are not unlike Stark’s. Stanley’s storytelling is clear but never didactic, his drawing has a palpable flourish to it, and his stories are consistently funny and surprising. What more do you want from a comic that has to play within certain genre rules? On a formal level seems to have done everything Cooke is trying to do, and with a light touch, too. Cooke wants to make classic, mid-century comics, but seems too rooted in the trappings of storyboards and animation short-hand to allow himself to pare down, simplify, and let the story tell itself.

Stanley, a master of multi-layered storytelling in a variety of genres, makes it all look so easy (though it’s obviously very very difficult). In a way, Stanley would have been ideal for Stark: Each was a master of concise storytelling and rhythmic language. Cooke, while surely talented as stylist and animator, just isn’t capable of that kind if hard-earned comic book simplicity. Not yet at least.

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The Streets of San Francisco


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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Tastes change. Styles change. Everyone knows the story about Hitchcock’s Psycho, right? After filming lots of big-budget color movies in the mid to late ’50s, Hitch decided to take a different approach with Psycho. Convinced that he could do it better with his smaller TV crew (from Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he shot Psycho in black-and-white and structured it very much like the short-form pieces he was doing for TV. I think Hitch also understood that tastes were changing and that people liked the small-screen, simple and clear, episodic format that hearkened back to radio (and to Hitch’s own films from the ’30s). Also, many of the people who worked in TV in the ’50s and ’60s were former filmmakers from the pre-Technicolor, pre-Cinemascope era.

Contemporary filmmakers can attempt to evoke older films (Todd Haynes’ Sirk-themed Far From Heaven, for example) as much as they like — but in my opinion they will never be able to truly match or copy exactly what the old timers did BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT FORMED IN THE SAME CAULDRON. (Of course Haynes didn’t want to copy Sirk exactly. Haynes was investigating Sirk’s LANGUAGE.) The dominant style of staged movement, proscenium stage “blocking”, nuts-and-bolts “shot/reaction shot” that one can easily see running through all films of the ’40s and ’50s began to give way eventually. Interestingly enough, it was the French New Wave that had a lot to do with this because they themselves were looking back, like Hitchcock, to the older, formative films of Hollywood, to noir, and to westerns. This back to basics approach was picked up on by the ’60s and ’70s auteurs, but by then they could inject new flavors in to the form (more skin and sex) and the whole paradigm shifted.

Comics have a similar trajectory. All the talk that comics artists today can draw BETTER than their forebears is meaningless. The point is that this common language I’m describing IS NO LONGER IN USAGE. It’s all but dead because the people who were formed by it, who passed it on, are gone. Toth was an innovator; he was more forward-thinking than Caniff, yet he was still a “Caniffer.” Darwyn Cooke can attempt to evoke Toth in some of his Batman stories, but he will never be Toth because he was not formed in the same 1950s cauldron. So subtly, step by step, each generation puts its own spin on the dominant style. Any attempt to resurrect these “house styles” is seen as retro and somewhat conservative. The bland illustration style that ruled ’50s and early ’60s comics was part Caniff, part advertising, part hackwork. The practitioners of this style, though, knew how to construct a page that read clearly, much like directors of the ’50s films knew how to stage action.

Steve Rude is a great example of an artist who, like Toth, builds on the existing nuts-and-bolts style of comic storytelling without resorting to drawing in a more stylized approach like Frank Cho or Dave Stevens. One hundred issues of Nexus continuity prove Rude’s determination to remain a “classicist” and document his development. He’s committed to telling a story and frames the movement across the page in order to extract the maximum dramatic impact. Rude’s choices work for me as a reader because the clarity of it all, the simplicity of the drawing, allow the narrative to retain its momentum. Cho’s flourishes of technical wizardry, I think, actually prevent the narrative from assuming center stage. His transitions from panel to panel are generally awkward and ham-fisted. Compare the clarity of the Rude page (below left) to the clumsiness of Cho’s page (below right) in sequences that have a similar “action.”

Does Miami Vice look like Dragnet? Does a Dave Stevens page read like a Caniff page? Would I rather watch The Streets of San Francisco or Law & Order? Would I rather read Don Heck or Frank Cho? For me, the last is a litmus test. If you think Cho is a better draftsman, fine. But if you think Cho is a better comics artist than Don Heck, then I’m sorry, but I do not agree. In fact, I think it’s pointless to compare the two. For the reasons I’ve explained above, I think Cho is an ILLUSTRATOR first and a comics artist second. Don Heck, long reviled as one of the worst hacks in the Marvel Bullpen, was a solid storyteller. He had a great sense of comics “naturalism” and is a perfect example of the kind of “nuts-and-bolts” non-photo-referenced approach that prevailed before 1970 or so. In my opinion, artists like Cho and Stevens have contributed very little to the development of the form. Except maybe to impress upon a generation of young comics artists that technical virtuosity is more important than basic storytelling.

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The Nostalgist


Sunday, February 4, 2007

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I recently picked up Darwyn Cooke‘s Spirit and Batman/The Spirit. Cooke specializes in nostalgia-inflected revivals of superheroes. His mini series New Frontier was an epic re-imagining of the DC Comics heroes. It was good fun–a light, affectionate version of Watchmen. I’m not sure it adds up to much more than beautifully drawn fan-fiction, which, minus the “beautifully drawn” is more or less what a lot of superhero comic books are these days. In Cooke’s case, the drawings really make the work. His style is the best version of the contemporary strain of comic book drawing that began with Bruce Timm‘s Batman animated series. Influenced by the design atmospherics of Alex Toth and, in a later generation, the smooth renderings of Steve Rude, it’s a cartoon language that embraces the dynamism inherent in superheroes while glossing over the violence and darkness that has been so prevalent in comics in the last 20 years or so. I like it for its elegance and it’s always-1920s look (even if that clean nostalgia feels extremely easy), but am slightly put off by how sexless and toothless it is. Toth had bite, especially in his pre-1970s work, with grit piled on top of his impeccable formalist sense, while Cooke smooths out all the rough edges, replacing all tension with a soft-focus nostalgia for an imagined past. But really, I buy most of Cooke releases, just to peek at the elegance of the drawing. With these two comics, though, I realized that problem is that appeal is, in fact, just the drawings.

The two Spirit comic books, both with Batman and without, are fun exercises, but feel soulless, like a storyboard more than a story. The Batman/Spirit emphasizes the humor in both characters, but does little with either, and The Spirit comic just demonstrates that the fun of that character was not super heroics, but rather the incidental, O’Henry-esque stories creator Will Eisner used the Spirit as an excuse to tell. But more interestingly, while the drawings are, as usual, slick and fun to look at, it turns out that Cooke isn’t a great comic book storyteller. Comic book storytelling requires pictures that flow into one another, and a sense of the page as a whole. Cooke, however, thinks more like the animator he once was, creating single isolated moments in sequence, as opposed to groups of pictures that work together. His panels are often crowded with information, weighing them down in a way that works against his smooth surfaces and slick drawing. It’s a curious problem–a good cartoonist who can’t quite frame a story. The similarly talented Steve Rude suffers from it too. I wonder if that level of polish simply works against the flow of comics. It’s over-determined, in a sense, preventing the motion of the story and keeping readers at a remove. Toth worked in a cartoon shorthand, always emphasizing both elegance and minimalism and allowing readers to enter the story with him. Cooke, in his eagerness to describe every bit of his nostalgic world, over-renders, weighing it down and leaving the rest of us to watch with disinterested curiosity.

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