In one of the last panels of the New York Comic Con, Paul Levitz sat down with two masters to talk about Graphic Noir. Darwyn Cooke has the next Parker graphic novel “Slayground” coming out in December. Additionally, IDW announced at the con that they will republish hardcover editions of the original prose Parker novels designed by Cooke. Joining them on stage was one of the great living cartoonists, Jules Feiffer, whose graphic novel “Kill Your Mother” is coming out next summer.
Levitz opened the panel by asking if Feiffer could talk about noir's origins in literature, film and the early comic strips.
“It can’t be understated how much movies of the time, the early talkies, had to do with adventure strips,” Feiffer said. “The angles and lighting, but also the dialogue–which came out of movies but also the Broadway wiseguy style of plays."
He pointed out that this was before color television or color movies, but newspaper comics were much larger than they are today.
“When I was a kid in the thirties, newspapers were these huge broadsheets,” Feiffer said. “Sunday supplements had one comic on a page, so the art back in the thirties and forties was infinitely more seeable and more impressive than what you see in newspapers today.”
During that time period, there were strips like “Wash Tubbs” by Roy Crane, but he said the first one that was “noir on paper” was “Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff.
“Caniff was a wonderful writer as well as a wonderful illustrator and wrote better than anyone else at the time–except possibly Eisner–but he wrote the best wiseguy dialogue,” Feiffer said. “If you were my age, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it.”
The situation was very different when Cooke was young.
“During the 1960s, if you read comic books past the age of 8-10, you were considered mentally challenged,” Cooke said, who ended up buying a Romita-Lee Spider-man comic when he spent the summer with his uncle and aunt. “I had always drawn and when I saw that book I thought, wow, this would be a lot more fun to draw than trees and whatever else. Then next week I bought another and it was by Alex Toth. Neal Adams drew the cover. When I opened the book the lead story was by Alex Toth, and it didn’t look like the cover, and I was very frustrated."
Cooke said that for the longest time he found it simple and hated it, but he always kept coming back to it. “I kept going back to that one I thought I hated and figuring out what it was that drew me back to it,” Cooke said. “I finally realized that it was better and I sought that work out.”
“His figures were beautiful,” Feiffer added.
“About eight months later, we were going by a bookstore, with my mom, and there was this gigantic book–‘The Great Comic Book Heroes,’" Cooke said referring to Feiffer’s famous 1965 book.
Feiffer gave the credit for the book to his editor, E.L. Doctorow.
“I just started writing about my love of early comics and the impression they made on me as a kid,” Feiffer said. “In a sense I haven’t stopped since.”
Cooke mentioned one chapter of the book that told the story of a group of cartoonists who holed up in an apartment to produce a 64-page comic in a weekend when the city was shut down by a snowstorm. “I must have been a really weird kid, because I thought, 'That’s the life for me,'” said Cooke.
Feiffer said that story mostly came from Jerry Robinson and said that even years later when Feiffer worked for Will Eisner, he described the atmosphere as “both dismal looking and terribly glamorous at the same time.”
Levitz seized on that phrase as being very emblematic of noir.
DC wasn’t very gritty, Feiffer said, but the work of a lot of people like Brio and Wood was. “Biro was a wonderful artist.” Wood–who ended up killing his girlfriend–“killed better than he drew,” according to Feiffer.
Cooke told the story of his first job at DC when he drew a six-page story for "New Talent Showcase," which he said didn’t go anywhere. What always interested him was crime and war and western comics, for which he gave credit to the late Robert Kanigher. “Bob, who wrote most of his own material, understood how to tell a cinematic story better than anyone,” Levitz said.
“The only cape comic I read was 'Batman.' That was because he was a detective and dark,” Cooke said. “With Parker, I thought, this is the work I was meant to do.”
Cooke mentioned that Ed Brubaker asked him why he wasn’t writing his own stuff and Cooke’s answer was simply, “He’s a better writer. Crime is where my heart is.”
Levitz turned to Feiffer and observed that he’s stayed away from crime comics for a long time. “Only 75 years,” Feiffer joked.
“You’ve been busy doing some of the best comics ever,” Cooke said.
“I wanted to be Caniff and then I wanted to be Eisner,” Feiffer said, before listing all the things he couldn’t draw, which kept him from such a goal, including cars, guns and planes. “What I became famous for, a satirist, was my fallback position.” Seeing Eisner's facility with a brush convinced him that he couldn’t draw like that. Recently Feiffer has found he’s been able to approximate what he couldn’t do when he was younger by using a Micron brush marker.
Levitz mentioned that he was able to see some pages and what blew him away was that for someone who hadn’t worked in that style before, Feiffer uses light and shadow in careful and specific ways.
“I can’t understate the importance of Turner Classic Movies,” Feiffer said, arguing that the big screen television he bought a few years ago enabled him to see details. He said he pauses the movies so he can borrow fashions or angles from the 1930s and 1940s, when his new book is set.
“With Parker I did the same thing,” Cooke said. “It’s set in the 1960s and I gorged on hundreds of films from that era.”
Levitz asked them how important and powerful the details are when talking about noir.
Cooke argued that the reason why noir is so popular is because of the amount of time that's past since the mid-20th century.
“What was the most popular type of TV show in '50s? The western. A period of time that’s closed out. Just close enough that young people didn’t know how it was and the romantic details sell it. Midcentury noir is the Western of our era, and the details are going to sell it,” Cooke said. “You’re creating a false authenticity of a period that didn’t really exist and trying to sell it your reader.”