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.
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.
Cooke 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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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.