At the 2011 Long Beach Comic Con, artist Darwyn Cooke and IDW Publishing Special Projects Editor Scott Dunbier joined forces on the Darwyn Cooke panel to talk about Cooke's ongoing IDW work adapting author Richard Stark AKA Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels into graphic novel form. Immediately opening the floor to audience questions, a "Parker" fan in the audience wanted to know how Cooke and Dunbier got Westlake to agree to let them adapt the novels.
"For years, this had been a dream project for Darwyn," Dunbier answered. Getting in touch with the author by email, Dunbier sent Westlake Cooke's artwork to try and convince him of the viability of a graphic novel adaptation. "Westlake wrote me back a really long email where he basically said, it can't be done -- but these drawings are great!" said Dunbier. After that, it was just a matter of having Cooke email Westlake and pitch his ideas in order to convince him.
"I think most writers are very wary of getting their work adapted," Cooke told the audience. Corresponding with Westlake, finally convinced the author after telling him that Cooke was planning on using the regular novel's dialogue and that "it would be a very easy job for me as a writer -- I'd only be writing to bridge two scenes where we cut or edit. I think he could see how sincere I was at that point."
The next audience member asked the artist how he decided upon his artistic approach to "The Outfit," a Parker novel about a robbery. Cooke said he thought it would be boring to have three masked guys break in over and over again as per the plot, deciding, "[since] Parker's not really involved in this part, why not have a stylistic change?"
"I remember thinking as I executed it, this is it! I think this works, but I don't think anyone else will!" Cooke added with a laugh.
"I said it was brilliant, but I said it was one of the bravest things you've done artistically because it was such a leap," Dunbier added.
Cooke told the audience that adapting the books was incredibly challenging, as they were very static crime novels. Cooke said he felt it was his job to find a way to make the adaptations an interesting visual experience without drawing anything away from the story. Going along with that, the next audience member asked him why he did not just go back to writing his own work rather than adapting.
"The answer is simple: I want to work with the best writer I can find," Cooke said, adding with a laugh, "And my writing sucks!"
Explaining he's always likened himself more to a director than a writer, Cooke said he believed he worked best coming into someone else's story. He also told the audience that as a fan of the "Parker" novels, he felt his own writing would not have "stood up" to what Westlake accomplished.
"Especially now that he's gone, to be able to carry his work forward -- " said Cooke before noticeably choking up.
Composing himself, Cooke continued, "I assumed 'Parker' would come and go and everyone in line would still be going, 'Green Lantern! Green Lantern!' But that doesn't happen! A lot of people have really turned on to this stuff. I have 23-year-old guys coming up to me and saying, 'I didn't know this was a line of books. I picked up five of them -- they're amazing!' So, in many ways, working with Donald -- in this sense, I'm doing more than I would have on my own."
The next audience member wanted to know what was Cooke's greatest regret in his art career.
"Am I supposed to say stuff like that out loud?" Cooke asked as the audience laughed. "Well, Tim Sale is a real asshole -- no, I'm just joking!" Cooke joked.
He then said his biggest regret was actually the "Superman: Confidential" books he did with Tim Sale, because Cooke thought he was not a good enough writer for the book. Cooke also told the audience that said he was a terrible artist to work with. "If I think a scene isn't right, I'll change it; if I think a page doesn't work, I drop it." As a result, it was an extremely difficult process to sit down and write a full script for another artist, as when he collaborated with Sale.
"I'm going to be working with a creator I admire quite a bit with next year," Cooke said, telling the audience that he had to warn his collaborator they should change, drop or rearrange things however they see fit in Cooke's material. "Otherwise, I'm a hypocrite!"
Future projects-wise, Cooke said he was continuing to adapt the "Parker" books and that the next one was one of his favorite of Westlake's, "The Score." Featuring a plot revolving around Parker and a group of thieves banding together to rob an entire town located in a box canyon, Cooke showed the audience the cover image with the silhouettes of Parker and his gang on a ridge overlooking the town.
"It's nice, with Parker, that we're past his problems with the Mafia, because now we get into the heists-proper and they're more interesting. They're a lot more fun for me," Cooke said of the book, which is slated to come out sometime in the summer of 2012.
Cooke is also collaborating with James Robinson on a vigilante book, but had no ideas where they will distribute or place the book as of yet. Dunbier then announced that rather than stop at four "Parker" graphic novels, IDW will now publish a fifth "Parker" adaptation by Cooke. "I don't think I'm ever going to stop doing Parker," Cooke added.
The next audience member asked if he planned to do another story set in the "Rocketeer" universe as the audience member was a huge fan of the story he did in a "Rocketeer" anthology.
"He told me it sucked!" joked Cooke, pointing at Dunbier. Describing the short story as a labor of love, Cooke said he doubted he would do another. "It's a lot of weight, dealing with somebody else's thing," the artist explained, adding, "Dave Stevens was such a talent, you can't help but feel diminished working in his world." Cooke told listeners that he was in awe of Stevens, and when they first met in San Francisco Stevens invited him out to dinner with a group of legendary creators such as Jim Steranko and Mike Kaluta.
"I'm just like you guys, I just grew up reading [comic books], so I still have that, 'Oh my God, it's Chuck Dixon!' I still feel that way." Choking up again, Darwyn jokingly demanded that the audience stop asking him questions about dead creators so he'd stop tearing up.
Acquiescing, the next fan asked Cooke a technical question, wanting to know whether Cooke prefers to work on larger, thicker paper or smaller, thinner paper. Cooke regaled the audience with a story of how Steve Ditko used his old, thick boards of artwork as cutting boards, destroying pages and pages of original art in the process.
"My eyes are getting worse as I get older, so I work larger," Cooke said, adding, "I try to mix it up sometimes. It depends on the job." Explaining that he works smaller on Parker than when producing work for DC Comics because Parker is a smaller book, he also feels that the brush or pen he uses had an influence on how the work turns out. "It can make all the difference, changing the size [of the paper] or changing the brush," Cooke explained, adding that he uses a brush-pen, a marker that uses archival ink, to draw his art, noting that they were inexpensive and can be thrown away after they run out, allowing him to work faster.
A Cal State LA professor in the audience then told Cooke that he uses the "Parker" graphic novels in his class to teach his students about adaptations. He asked what was Cooke's inspiration when changing and adapting work, so he could tell his class.
"There's two reasons to adapt something: it's junk that has a brilliant kernel in it -- or it's brilliant," Cooke answered. Telling the professor he wanted to convey the same feeling he felt when he first read the "Parker" books, he said, "It becomes my challenge to figure out how to present it." Cooke also said that as an adapter, it's important to to step out and ask, "Why am I adapting this?"
Turning to his own work on the "Parker" novels as an example, Cooke touched on one of the only times he actively changed something in the novels -- the dream sequence in "The Hunter." After Parker finds out about his wife's infidelity, Cooke said that in the actual novel, Westlake writes that Parker is afraid -- the only time in 24 books the author ever says his character is afraid.
"I thought this was too important a thing just to let go by. This is a very important statement about [Parker] and how he feels about women or things that effect his control over a situation," Cooke explained. "It's the only way to humanize a guy like that." Therefore, Cooke emphasized the wife coming to Parker in his dream sequence, really playing up his fears.
"It's not that I'm contradicting what he wrote; I'm just trying to find a visual way to make sure everybody gets it," Cooke added.
Another fan wanted to know Cooke's thoughts on Jason Statham negotiating to play Parker in the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of the Westlake stories.
"It's a total mistake -- [and] I love me some Statham!" Cooke replied. Calling Hollywood a "rarefied greenhouse" where they grew "boys," Cooke said he did not think there were any actors he would call real "American Men" left.
"There's no one there to play this character," Cooke lamented. Giving Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson as examples of American Men, Cooke said that he felt part of the charm of old Hollywood was that many of the male stars "looked as if they have really lived," having fought in World War II, bringing their life experiences with them to inform their acting. Cooke believed that America had lost that, pointing out that Christian Bale from "Dark Knight" is Welsh and upcoming "Superman" actor Henry Cavill is British. Cooke continued, "We've got a generation without any American Men. We have a lot of styling American boys, but no men.
"Comics too -- same thing. The guys who made the first generation of comic books came from everywhere into comics, and now we're bred to draw comics with all this inside history and all this stuff, so it's very different."
A European fan wanted to know Cooke's influences, as his comics and art were very popular in Europe.
"My influences regarding art are mostly classic. Maybe that's one of the reasons Europeans respond to my work, Europeans never lost their love for adventure strip artwork like Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff, Alex Toth -- those guys are the foundation of my work," Cooke answered. Naming classic Spanish painters and Norman Rockwell as influences as well, Cooke said he deliberately tries to go for a classical look.
Cooke then began to discuss the current state of the comic book industry, saying that while he sees "heart-stopping talent all around," he feels the "boutique" way comics are sold has hurt the industry, not just in a business sense but also as far as storytelling is concerned.
"We often forget what we're doing here. There is this cult of celebrity that has sprung up in the digital age, so a guy with a comic book or two under his belt can have a website and a Twitter account and he's a superstar. It used to be that people used to like to read them. I think our focusing on that is more important than it ever was."
Touching on the new day and date digital release initiatives being slowly instituted by the major comic book publishers, Cooke said, "I'm hoping that as digital forces us back into a mass market that it will become important again, because I don't think we'll be able to go at it this boutique way that comics are if we're forced to meet the mass market again. On of the questions that's always fascinated me is -- myself aside, let's take a good example: Grant Morrison. How well would Grant do in the mass market? It's a fascinating question because his work is so completely screwed into the nuance and the multilayered stuff that has gone on in comics for the last 30 years. Would it mean anything to anybody outside of it?"
The next audience member wanted to know why the "Parker" graphic novels changed from black and white to color.
"Money," Cooke replied as the audience laughed. The books shave sold well enough for IDW to move later releases into the realm of color, something the publisher did not think possible when Cooke first began his adaptations. "Scott's initial thought was ,we'll get Dave Stewart. I said, 'We can't afford that!'" Cooke said as the audience laughed once more.
Cooke also noted that while he enjoyed the project immensely, money was also a problem while working on the "New Frontier" animated DVD.
"It was one of the most laughably small budgets I've ever worked on in animation. You have to be prepared to be let down -- but it doesn't mean my book disappeared. My book's here. If anything, it's great to see people are interested in this stuff."
Wrapping things up, the very last fan asked Cooke how he began his career in comics. Cooke told the audience that he first "broke in" when he was 20, after he participated in the DC New Talent Showcase and DC bought his sample. However, when Cooke looked at the artist voucher DC gave him, he realized he would only get paid 35 dollars a page, and at that time it took him a week to draw a page.
"I didn't have the luxury to live like that. I came out of a blue collar home and I had to provide for myself," Cooke explained. Putting his comic career on hold, Cooke spent the next 15 years of his life as an art director, illustrator and designer. When he reached his 30s, however, Cooke realized the last time he had been truly happy, "was when I was 13, just sitting at the table, drawing." He sent DC the pitch for "Batman: Ego," and, four years later, they called him to work on it. Cooke had to put it off again as he was working with Bruce Timm on the animated "Batman" series, but after that, Cooke finally was able to finish the story and began getting other comics work.
"None of it went according to my plan; it was all crazy circumstance!"
All photos by Caitlin Holland.