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Tue, June 2nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 2nd, 2009 at 2:56pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

PARKER: COOKE GOES NOIR

I can picture Darwyn Cooke, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Frank Miller, and Brian Azzarello sitting around a campfire (or on a San Diego panel) and talking about noir storytelling -- the movies, the novels, the authors, the characters, the dames, the shadows, the whole nine yards. Brubaker has "Criminal" now, and Rucka has his upcoming "Stumptown" detective series at Oni. Azzarello just wrapped "100 Bullets" and Frank Miller did that "Sin City" thing you might have heard of.

Darwyn Cooke steps up to the noir plate on July 22nd with "Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter." It's 140 pages of noir bliss published by IDW, feeling as authentic and as period-specific as your gut tells you a tale from this school of storytelling ought to be.

Let me backtrack: I've never read a Richard Stark (actually, Donald Westlake) novel. I've never seen any movie that was based off his book. I've heard the director's cut of "Payback" is worth it, but that's about it.

I come to this adaptation of Westlake's work without any preconceived notions of what it should be, only what it is. And what this book is is a slap in the face from a surly protagonist who, by the end of the story, you find yourself rooting for, in spite of his shortcomings. Parker is not a nice guy. He's a very direct guy. He's prone to doing violent and seemingly-irrational things to get the job done. He does things that make you wince, with ramifications that often make you shudder. This isn't all an elaborate ruse, either. He's actually a very nasty guy. And yet you can't help but cheer him on. It's fascinating to me.

Even better is the way Cooke illustrates his characteristics. He doesn't need to tell you Parker is a shady figure. When Cooke devotes the first 19 pages to Parker walking into New York City, committing an act of identity theft (in 1962!), spending up a large bill at all the finest places while never leaving a tip (so it's not just professional, but also personal), and then drinking himself into the night - you just know it. Most of that sequence, by the way, is completely silent.

Cooke doesn't attempt to rehabilitate Parker. He doesn't try to soften his edges or make him more relatable to the average reader. It's nice to see a story that doesn't pander like that. I'm sure that's been the downfall of other Hollywood adaptations of this series. If all of the novels are like this, I can't see Hollywood sticking straight to Parker's guns.

In this story -- based on the first of the "Parker" series of novels -- Parker is coming back to New York City to find the guy who double-crossed him in the world of professional crime, and who also stole his wife. The bodies start flying fast, and not in the action movie guns-a-blazing way you might expect. Organized crime plays a large part, small-time street crime and social engineering are used, and gun-running South Americans mix it up with Canadian flights. What more could you ask for?

At the heart of the whole thing is Parker. He's not the typical hero of a mystery novel. He's a street tough guy with his own set of hang-ups. He's trapped in a world of his own making, and he takes steps to get deeper and deeper into it. He is a very active protagonist, not afraid to ruffle feathers or turn over stones that other lead characters might ignore. And his actions have very real consequences for the characters around him, who wind up living the latter part of the cliché, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." Trust me: You don't want to be in Parker's way. There are too many ways to die from that.

For all those reasons, this isn't necessarily a comic for the faint of heart. It is a graphic novel suited for adults, as there's on-panel sex (mostly silhouetted) and violence with a dash of language, though not as much as you might expect. Still, it needs to be said that this is crime fiction that doesn't blink. It's not for the kiddies.

ON THE ART

I don't know if that retro-60s style is simply something that Cooke likes to draw, or if it's something that comes natural to his style, but it always works well for him, whether it's in "DC: New Frontier" or here on "Parker." Everything sits well in this book to the time period, from the props like phones and cars, to the fashions, architecture, and logo designs. The book doesn't wallow in being a period piece. It's just there for you to see. It doesn't intrude on the story. It adds atmosphere. I was reminded a couple of times in the book of the movie "Catch Me If You Can," but maybe that was just the Pan Am bag a character uses at one point near the end.

The book is published in a 6 x 9 inch format, but Cooke's art isn't constrained by the page size. His "simple" figures are done with an amazing economy of line, and his background in animated storytelling helps him to tell the story completely visually with as few distractions as possible. If that means he needs to squeeze a dozen panels to a page, he does. And it works. Occasionally, you get a text-heavy page to get the exposition out there, but by that point you're so engrossed in the story that you don't noticed the pacing slow down. Those moments are well-chosen; they might have been told with sequential art, but you would have flipped through a lot of pages for less reward. It's better sometimes to get it done and over with so you can get to the more visually-oriented parts.

To balance that out, there are a few double page spreads that illustrate gasp-out-loud moments. The first is a cityscape of New York that establishes the opening scene. It's a picture of the city that’s been inked and colored over, obviously, but it's still an impressive site to see how he chose to illustrate over the buildings and keep the light patterns and enormous sense of scale

The later double page spread is too spoiler-fraught for me to get into, but it doesn't involve Parker jumping through a window.

The use of a single color throughout the book might be a controversial choice for some. I can still remember the howls from people complaining that they paid for a full color issue of "Detective Comics" and yet Shawn Martinsbrough and the gang at WildStorm FX were only using two colors. Silly then, even sillier now. It's a little more accepted now, I think, though it is a style that takes a little getting used to. After a awhile, it becomes second nature. After you read the book, though, it's worth going back through the pages to see how the blue is used. It's an interesting exercise to see when the color is used for lighting, to define an area, to add texture, or to convey an emotion. Cooke uses the color splashes for all of that, and it's remarkable to see.

He also does away with panel borders, something I pointed out in Bryan Hitch's "Fantastic Four" art last year as a style we were bound to see more of. To be fair, Eisner was doing it 30 years ago, and I'm sure plenty of others have done it since. The time is right to see it used in a lot more places again now.

If you liked Cooke's art in "Selina's Last Score" and "The Spirit," I think you're going to love what you see in this book. It's obviously from the same artist, but with enough of a difference to make it a completely new look, just as skilled.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Credit goes to IDW for producing an ARC ("Advance Reader Copy") edition of this book -- in hardcover format! ARCs aren't uncommon in the book publishing world. They're useful for making sure everything prints out OK, and for sending out to reviewers, friend, fact-checkers, etc. But those books are done on months and months of lead time. A book publisher today already knows what they're publishing this winter. Comic book companies generally don't work that way. Comics once had cheap "ash-cans" which became collectibles for a brief time in the crazy 90s, but have since disappeared. So much comics work is produced so close to the printer's deadlines that they don't have the time to do actual printed copies months in advance.

The expense of publishing an ARC like this one can't be a minor line item on the IDW budget sheet, either. It's a hardcover book. The fact that the book only has one color in it helps on the printing expense side, but using a hardcover brings the costs back up. And they didn't go cheap on the paper stock. If this is the same stock they use for the final book, you won't have any cause for complaint. The stock is heavy and white, with zero black or blue ink bleeding through.

This all, to me, indicates that IDW is looking beyond the comics world Direct Market for sales on this book. They're going after the Westlake fans, the noir fans, the mystery fans, and the general book market folks. They're planning for more than an optimistic 5000 copies sold through the Direct Market, like most OGN publishers in this market would be thrilled with.

And this book doesn't look like a comic book compilation, either. This one might be a little harder to describe, but everything about the beginning of this book screams "big New York City book publisher." Maybe that's because the book is printed in Korea instead of at Quebecor. Maybe it's because the layout of the book -- down to the typeface and design of the Library of Congress information for the book -- is done to specs more common in the book publisher's world. I don't know.

For those reasons, this will be one to watch on the sales charts this summer. I expect we'll see it on the New York Times best Seller list in the crowded summer post-San Diego time frame. It should be a lock for the Diamond charts, as well.

San Diego is still a couple of months away, but I think we have an early contender for "Book of the Show" here. "Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter" is due on July 22nd. Reserve your copy now, because it's an impressive accomplishment that's worth the read.

Next week: Assuming nothing else terribly exciting surprised me by landing on my desk this weekend, we'll finally go back to 1997 for a very fun book that really needs a collection again. . . As I recall, its initial collected editions ruffled some feathers for reasons that are not head-turners today. We'll talk about that next week.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com winds up its Memorial Day pictures and moves onto some zoo pics this week.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive. I'm stockpiling some stuff for it now to get a little momentum going again.

And there might still be a new blog on the horizon yet. . .

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Really, are you still reading this? I'm cutting-and-pasting now.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, parker, darwyn cooke, idw publishing, richard stark

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