Earlier today it was announced that cartoonist Darwyn Cooke has died. Even though I never met the guy, I feel like I’ve lost a friend, somebody who was there when you needed him and offered advice and comfort.
Allow me to elaborate. I started reading comics fairly late in life, having been raised on Franco-belgian bandes dessinées for most of my youth. By the mid-80s I discovered American comics, which by then had decided that they didn’t have to cater to kids. And so super-heroes, those colorful mirages of the past, became broody and gritty and bloody. Computer coloring introduced a huge new palette of mostly greys and sombre tones. Any situation was threat to the very existence of human life and required intimate knowledge of some fifty years of backlog. Comics, in a word, became tiring and bland, the opposite of the excitement I’d felt when I read my first BDs.
I kept reading Batman, though, and came across Ego, in my opinion the best Batman book ever written. And I mean ever. Ego is a child of its times, focusing on Batman’s (and Bruce Wayne’s) psychology and the almost freudian aspects of his motivation. But that art! Those layouts, those amazing settings, it was like a super-stylised noir movie had come to life to discuss Bergman.
And then came The New Frontier, Darwyn’s masterful retelling of the origin of the Justice League. Against the threat of ugly, dully colored flesh monsters, he put real humans in colorful costumes, with a background of slick 50s design, years before Mad Men made it mainstream. And like only a true genius can, he also managed to combine global political and social trends and evolutions with individual psychological strains and burdens of his character. But never, ever was this a dull comic. The moment the Martian Manhunter enters the story still gives me goosebumps.
I can go on. His Parker adaptation must be the only real hard-boiled crime book series I’ve ever read. And his take on the Minutemen was, in my opinion, about the only Before Watchmen story that actually was on a par with the original (again focusing on psychology and internal motivation).
I simply love Darwyn’s pages, the way he draws his comics as if he’s directing a 70 mm cinemascope movie. The New Frontier‘s typical page only contains three frames, about the size of a widescreen TV, and still he manages to play with the rhythm of the story. The playful, almost sketched lines in Parker insinuate more than they show, and the single supporting color adds depth, meaning and atmosphere at the same time.
A giant has passed, who was able to turn any “property” into something valuable again by adding a touch of humanity, history and pizzazz. Hats off, gentlemen!