The tone for Darwyn Cooke's Saturday afternoon spotlight panel at this year's WonderCon was set right at the beginning, as moderator Scott Dunbier, Cooke's editor on his IDW "Parker" series of graphic novels, asked the crowd, "You want a rundown of his career?" Laughing, Cooke answered "Nooooooooooo," and then said that he would rather answer audience questions instead of solemnly reflect on his work to date. "I think these [spotlight] panels, generally, are rather boring," he admitted, before giving fans an hour that was anything but.
Asked why "Parker" creator Donald Westlake had allowed Cooke to use the name of his character instead of renaming him, as in movie adaptations of the novels, Cooke joked, "My wonderful singing voice seduced him," before saying that his intended approach eventually won the author over: "If he was going to let someone use the name, he wanted someone to commit on a deeper level. He could tell I wasn't interested in taking his work and interpreting it in an abstract way. He knew I was interested in doing a series, [and] he knew I was very sincere." The book's period setting, keeping it in the time setting in which it was originally written, was an example of Cooke's sincerity; he said that he had told Westlake, "I think your words are perfect," and not updating the material allowed him to "keep it as true as to what he'd written."
Dunbier talked about receiving an email from Westlake in response to an initial pitch on the project, where the author talked about Cooke's previous works. He said that he knew there was a chance Westlake would eventually agree when he saw the last line of the email, in which Westlake had ended a long list of reasons why the project wouldn't work by saying, "But this guy is really good." Cooke laughed that Westlake had never told him that, adding that the writer hadn't been impressed with early work Cooke produced for the project: "The first batch of artwork I sent him, he didn't like it at all." Amongst other advice Westlake offered was that Cooke pull back on the passion he tended to give his central characters: "He kept bouncing it back. He said, think of him as a carpenter. He's a man of his trade... The minute I thought of him as a guy with a toolbox, that's when it clicked for me."
Asked how his work on the Parker books would influence future projects, Cooke said that the series has had a "great effect" on him, and is so rewarding that it ceases to feel like work. "I'm producing cartoons that reflect me. It's taken me to a great place." That doesn't mean that his post-"Parker" projects will be more of the same, however: "It'll push me in an opposite direction, to be honest. By that, I mean something more optimistic... Hopefully, it'll make me a better storyteller, and push me in a different direction."
Those new projects, he said in response to a question from the Comic Reporter's Tom Spurgeon, may come as early as the end of 2011; although he didn't talk more about that, he did talk about a project he feels he's not ready to tackle yet: "I want to do an incredible fantasy that's going to appeal to children and have long-lasting appeal. I hope at some time, I'll have the facility and clarity to do it." He admitted that, although he's enjoying working on the "Parker" books, "it's been really hard for me to put my own thing on hold. [Ed] Brubaker is giving me a hard time, but I'm like, 'Ed, I work with better writers than me.' If I have to choose between me and Donald Westlake, I'll choose Westlake."
That doesn't mean that he doesn't give his artists an easy ride. Admitting that he "beats up" writers ("The only writer whose words I haven't touched is Peter Milligan's," he said), Cooke described an example of his ability to fight for what he believes is the best story possible: At the end of his four issue 2001 run on the relaunched "Catwoman" title, he felt so dissatisfied with Ed Brubaker's original finale that he refused to work on the book for two weeks before plotting, and submitting an all-new climax that he felt made Catwoman a stronger character. "[Editor Matt] Idelson said, 'This doesn't match the script,' and I said, 'I know. I wouldn't draw that.'" Brubaker was forced to rewrite his script around the finished pages, despite (thankfully short-lived) animosity. "I found a way to patch it all up and we're good friends now," Cooke said.
He talked about the ways in which working on the "Parker" series was a risk as a creator: "You get worried because of how far your readers will go with you. 'Are they my readers or Green Lantern's readers?' I was worried. I sweated that, I sweated that a lot." Part of his concern was the rougher style of art, which he said he'd been consciously avoiding since an earlier attempt in the "Catwoman" prologue that ran in issues of "Detective Comics" in 2001 met with editorial disapproval: "You're trying to make a living, and you don't want to alienate the guy, so you drop it, (but) if you look at those Slam Bradley pages and 'The Hunter,' they look like they were done a couple of weeks apart." This was a symptom of a larger problem, he suggested, as creators try to meet expectations of fans and editors: "It's hard to explain, and I'm not whining, but in the mainstream direct market, none of us are drawing they way we want to draw," he said, before saying that his "Parker" art was influenced by the way in which Joe Kubert's art became looser in the 1960s: "It gets harder as you get older. I loosened up to hide that I was getting decrepit (by pretending that) I was already getting decrepit."
When asked about the origins of his distinctive styles, he called it "a disaster with characteristically great timing." He first tried to break into the comic industry in 1994, when Image's cross-hatching and detailed rendering was the hot look, but purposefully tried to stay true to his own tastes. "I always thought, I don't want t be part of the crowd, even if I fail. A lot of people said, 'This is pretty good, but you're not going to get any work.'" Noting that his 1994 submission for "Batman: Ego" took 6 years to become a comic, he joked, "People ask me, 'How do you get into the business?' I dunno. Dumb luck."
Later, he expanded on this by saying that he'd made a name for himself by staying true to his own tastes and style instead of trying to fit in. Calling Eduardo Risso "the modern master of page layout," he went on to say "Every time I try to do page layout, it fails... It's about finding a place." His place, he said, was the strength of his storytelling. When he was breaking into the industry, he said, "Image had taken over and storytelling had been left on the side of the street with a condom in its ass."
Despite the isx year delay, "Ego" wasn't his only project to require patience. When it was finally released in 2000, DC's editor Mark Chiarello asked for a proposal for a follow-up, which eventually became 2003's award-winning "DC: The New Frontier," a project that Cooke almost walked away from when Dan Didio suggested updating the setting to the modern day ("It should be easy to do," Cooke paraphrased Didio as saying, "Space capsule, space shuttle..."). To a somewhat surprised audience, Cooke said that he told Didio that he'd rather walk away from the project altogether than update it. Two days after walking away from the project, Didio relented on the period setting, and Cooke began work. "There's nothing heroic about it," he said. "I was just old enough to know I was going to get hosed if I let these guys drive my bus."
Not that Cooke isn't aware of what he perceives as his own shortcomings, namely, coloring and lettering. Asked about the use of color in "Parker: The Hunter," he said, "I don't think I'm good at it. It takes me two days, it takes Dave (Stewart, Cooke's colorist on projects like "DC: The New Frontier" and "Catwoman: Selina's Big Score") two minutes. It's hard for my self-esteem. It's a horrible experience." Nonetheless, he hand-colors and hand-letters the "Parker" books, working only with period-specific tools. "I wanted every day to be 1962 when I was drawing," he explained. Of course, he's not rejecting technology down the line: "I think there's a spastic nature to my lettering. But you don't see it, because I fix it all in Photoshop."
Asked what he's currently reading, Cooke mentioned James Ellroy's latest novel before saying, "I'm not a literate man, I'm not a learned man. I read for entertainment. I don't read as much as I want to... I can't find enough to interest me." When asked specifically about comics, he paraphrased John Reed with a smile: "Comics? For God sakes, I'm a 47 year old man, I don't read comics." He does, however, collect comic art; he talked about owning artwork by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Lee Elias, Joe Kubert and Alex Toth, whom he called "probably one of the most primary influences on me [and] probably one of the greatest designers and craftsmen of the American comics industry." Praising his design and storytelling skills, he added "I also thought he had this incredibly cool aesthetic. It just looked wicked cool."
Currently, Cooke's future consists of more "Parker;" he plans four books, but he can't guarantee which novels they'll adapt, as the choices change as he continues to work on the series. After that, he'll "absolutely" work on more noir stories, he said, adding "I'll probably take a break after 'Parker.' It's like, lasagna's your favorite food, but you eat it day and night for five years, and you'll never want to eat it again." That over-familiarity has chased him away, he said, from superhero work for the time being; when asked what it would take to get him back to either Marvel or DC, he said bluntly, "Money is the only thing. But it'd have to be buckets of money. Right now, I feel like the happiest guy in the world, I make enough for me and Marsha to live on. So it'd have to be buckets of money." Enough, he joked, to buy a whole new body for Gene Colan and pay for the surgery to attach his head.
With the panel ending by Cooke telling fans to buy IDW's $2 oversized con-exclusive preview of the next "Parker" book, October's "The Outfit," perhaps it's time for publishers to start saving.