by Dan Nadel
Monday, August 10, 2009
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.