Darwyn Cooke, One Year Gone

Darwyn Cooke Graphic Ink cover

Today, May 15, 2017, marks just over one year since Darwyn Cooke passed away. I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without writing something about it, but honestly, I’m not sure if I have much more to say than what I wrote immediately after his passing. Since I didn’t have a column on the Atomic Junk Shop yet (because AJS didn’t exist yet), I wrote this as a Facebook post, largely to tell the non-comic book fans on my friend list exactly who Darwyn Cooke was and why he was so cool. To my amazement, it ended up getting 54 shares over the next few days.

Except for some formatting adjustments, added images, and links, it’s all exactly what I wrote back then, when my mind was reeling and the emotions were still fresh.

So without further ado, here is what I wrote in the wee hours of the morning of May 14, 2016:

I’m torn up to read confirmation of Darwyn Cooke’s death this morning. It was only publicly announced that he was suffering from cancer yesterday, so there hasn’t been much time to process that he was actually terminal.

It’s frustrating to think of someone SO talented leaving us SO young. He was only 53 and still in the prime of his career. In a better world, we could look forward to several more decades of work from the guy. A nice thing about comics is that you can still do them well into your old age as long as you have the motor functions, eyesight, and your mental faculties.

Darwyn Cooke photo

There’s another level of frustration in that this guy was one of the most talented, prominent, respected people in his field, and 99% of people outside of comics have never heard of him. Imagine if someone on the level of Prince or David Bowie passed and most of the outside world could only say, “Who?” That’s what it’s like with Darwyn Cooke right now. So I’m going to write a bit about who he was & what he did for the benefit of people who DIDN’T know his work.

Darwyn Cooke was one of those guys who absolutely, positively GOT it. He had a spectacular level of craft to his work, but there was also a palpable sense of JOY to his work. Look at the piece below. It’s a single image, but it still tells a great story. You know exactly where you are and what Superman & Batman have gone through in the last few minutes. Look at the happiness & relief on their faces and the great body language at play. He doesn’t need any dialogue to tell you that these two are friends, despite any differences they might have. You can see it all over their faces. There is more of the pure essence of superheroes in this single image than there was in the entire 2 & 1/2 hour runtime of Batman v. Superman.

Darwyn Cooke Batman Superman cover

Batman Ego Darwyn CookeCooke seemed to burst out of nowhere into the comics field with a work called Batman: Ego in 2000. It wasn’t as polished as some of this later work, but it was obviously the work of a major talent. Cooke had been working in the magazine and animation fields before he broke in to comics, and he brought that knowledge and craft to the comics field. Too many people in comics only know, or care about, other comic books, so it’s easy to get diminishing returns as the talent draws on a smaller and smaller pool of material. That wasn’t the case with Cooke.

Catwoman Darwyn CookeIn 2001, he was the artist on a revamp of Catwoman. The book, and the character, had degenerated into something that was just being marketed to sex-starved fanboys, with Selina Kyle being drawn with spherical boobs the size of her head. Cooke gave her a new visual that was simple, practical, and striking and with Ed Brubaker, crafted stories with her that were cool film noir-inspired crime stories. Cooke’s revamp of Selina Kyle is still the one that’s used today, 15 years later. For a redesign to last that long in comics today is pretty exceptional.

DC The new Frontier Darwyn CookeIn 2004, he came out with The New Frontier, a wonderful piece of work that told a tale of the DC Comics heroes in the mid 50s to the early 60s, when many of them were first published. It was like a Ragtime for comics, tying in fictional characters with the actual historical events of the time, like the space race, the cold war, and the civil rights movement. It ended with the heroes united, in all the optimism of the Kennedy era. This is probably the definitive Cooke work.

Spirit Darwyn CookeIn 2006, he took on The Spirit. The Spirit was the trademark character of another giant of the comics field, Will Eisner. The Spirit is not a character, or a series, that you should take on unless you’re really, REALLY good. Cooke did it for a year and did a spectacular job of it, updating the character for the modern world without losing what made him special in the first place, and respecting the original every step of the way.

Darwyn Cooke Parker The HunterAfter that, Cooke took on a passion project, adapting the Parker crime novels of Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) to comics form. He completed four of them, The Hunter (2009), The Outfit (2010), my personal favorite, The Score (2012), and Slayground (2013). These are great, great comics, folks. If you love crime stories, do yourself a favor and order these off of Amazon. They’re absolutely terrific.

Darwyn Cooke Lorna cover Stalker page

There was other stuff that he did, but those are the big highlights for me. I never met the guy or even exchanged an email with him, but his work spoke to me and I would’ve loved to have had the chance to meet him face-to-face and tell him how much I loved it. It stinks that I won’t have that chance now. And it stinks that I won’t be able to walk into a comics shop and buy a brand new thing by Darwyn Cooke again.

R.I.P., Darwyn. Thanks for everything you gave us.

John Trumbull Darwyn Cooke tribute

P.S. – Cooke’s family made the request that donations in his name be made to the Canadian Cancer Society and/or The Hero Initiative, an organization that helps comic book creators in need. Even one year later, I’m sure the gesture would be appreciated.

Of course, buying Cooke’s work is also a wonderful tribute. Go over to Amazon, search for “Darwyn Cooke” and buy something that looks intriguing. No matter what you pick out, it’ll be good.

Darwyn Cooke Drunk Iron Man Back Issue 28

2017 Postscript: The day after I wrote this piece, I realized that Darwyn Cooke had a positive effect on my life by proxy. My BACK ISSUE editor Michael Eury wrote on Facebook that Darwyn’s work helped re-ignite Michael’s interest in comics after he’d become disenchanted with the field. Without Darwyn’s work affecting Michael at that crucial time in his life, Michael might never have created BACK ISSUE magazine for TwoMorrows. And without Michael starting up BI, I wouldn’t have pitched an article to him via Facebook in 2012 and made my first sale as a freelance writer. And without me taking that first step into a writing career, it’s very possible that I wouldn’t be doing this column today.

The good things you do in your life can affect other lives. Often more than you realize. Darwyn Cooke never met me or even knew my name, but he made my life better in more ways than one.

See you next week.

15 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I’m torn up to read confirmation of Darwyn Cooke’s death this morning. It was only publicly announced that he was suffering from cancer yesterday

    Hunh… reminds me of the death of Freddie Mercury. 🙁
    Speaking of the deaths of famous singers…

    Imagine if someone on the level of Prince or David Bowie passed

    Did you write this before or after they both died?

    Too many people in comics only know, or care about, other comic books

    I’m not sure I understand this line.
    Is that as opposed to prose books, movies, music, etc…?
    If so, what other sources did Darwyn Cooke draw on? (Well, Richard Stark’s Parker crime novels, obviously…)

    1. Did you write this before or after they both died?

      After. As I said, I wrote the bulk of this on May 14, 2016. David Bowie passed away in January. Prince passed away in April.

      If so, what other sources did Darwyn Cooke draw on?

      In the sentence before the one you quoted, I wrote, “Cooke had been working in the magazine and animation fields before he broke in to comics, and he brought that knowledge and craft to the comics field.”

      Basically, I was saying that he had influences besides other comic books.

    2. Jeff Nettleton

      A lot of later generation artists who got into comics had only previous comic books as their inspiration. They learned to draw by copying comic books, they learned anatomy from it, fashion, everything. the generations before had other inspirations: pulps, literature, movies, comic strips, book and magazine illustrators, industrial designers, etc…. Cooke was one of those guys who went beyond comics. Just look at New Frontier; it is obvious that Cooke did real research, not just read old issues of Flash and Green Lantern. He did more than copy Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino; he mixed in Tom Wolfe (the Right Stuff, when Hal meets Chuck yeager, at Pancho Barnes’ bar, near Edwards AFB), mid-Century Modern design architecture and design (buildings, space age aesthetic signs and streamlining, Noguci tables, Sarinen chairs, etc…) period correct aircraft and cars, fashion, tv designs, the quirks of said tvs (rolling pictures, snow, etc…), hairstyles, the way government agents operated, etc, etc… He filtered a lot of art, architecture and design background into his stories, which helped make them feel real. New Frontier felt like a comic that stepped out of the Silver Age, with a more sophisticated story.

  2. Eric van Schaik

    A year already. Sigh 🙁
    I saw a review of Graphic Ink : The dc comics art of Darwin Cooke a few days after his death.It made me buy the book straight away.
    If some of you don’t have it, that’s the book to buy as a tribute IMO.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Cooke’s animation background really helped his comic work pop. He had detail; but it was always just enough detail. He didn’t waste lines. he knew how to use facial features and body language to convey emotion, rather than spending too much time on excessive dialogue or narration. His title sequence for Batman Beyond was way cooler than any episode of the series (and the series had a lot of good episodes).

    I felt the same way when Mike Parobeck died, suddenly. Way too young for such a talent. Kirby’s death stunned me; but, he had a long and rewarding life. Parobeck and Cooke were guys who had just reached the summit or were just about there. They should have had more years to dazzle and bask in the glory.

    1. Cooke’s animation background really helped his comic work pop. He had detail; but it was always just enough detail. He didn’t waste lines. he knew how to use facial features and body language to convey emotion, rather than spending too much time on excessive dialogue or narration.

      You know, now that I think of it, you can also see Jeff Smith’s animation background in his comics work (I’m thinking of BONE in particular here). His figures have a lot of life and movement to them. There’s also a nice economy of line to his stuff.

  4. I feel blessed to have met the man in Boston, about 6 years ago now. He was seated next to Tony Harris, as I recall, and also with his wife and I believe J. Bone was also around there. I’ve mentioned before (on some Hatcher columns) about hearing Cooke tell the story of the “glue sketchbook” guy (we’ll tell ya about it sometime if you don’t know the story), and it was great fun to hear him tell it.

    I felt like a schmuck, though, because I had him sign one of the X-Force/X-Statix issues he drew and I’d forgotten what happened to the character in question, so I just sort of stared blankly at him while he told of how he’d welled up with tears knowing what was going to happen to the character. Me dumb.

    I do believe that I had him sign that Spirit image that you used here, as that was part of the Comic Book Artist Eisner tribute issue, which I got a number of contributors to sign while I was in Boston.

    Another fine comic he did was his issue of Solo, which he also signed and added a cigarette smoke wisp to the cover when he signed. I’ll have to post that image here some time.

    I know I’ve seen the explorer girl cover before, but I can’t recall what it is. Enlighten us, please?

    Very nice tribute to a very nice and very talented guy. Such a shame that he didn’t get a chance to do more creator owned, completely original stuff. But what he left us with is so good.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Travis: The explorer girl is the cover of Lorna: Relic Wrangler, an Image one-shot that came out in 2011. It’s not bad. Not great, but not bad. No Cooke interior art, though, which is sad.

      1. The interior art for LORNA is by Loston Wallace, one of my classmates from the Kubert School and my best friend for 23 years and counting. He was the one who gave me a high-res scan of it to use in this column.

        The Batman page next to it is an original Cooke page from Cooke’s issue of SOLO that Loston owns. The story was based on the classic story “Night of the Stalker,” a favorite of Hatcher’s.

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