Darwyn Cooke was a giant talent in the comic book industry and a titan as a sequential artist. Last weekend, at the age of 53, the world lost the award-winning writer and illustrator to cancer.
I, like many others, became familiar with the work of Darwyn Cooke through his DC: The New Frontier (2004), a six-issue miniseries that reexamined DC Comics’ stable of superheroes within the confines of the mid twentieth century and the changing political shape of America after World War II and into the Cold War era. DC: The New Frontier introduced readers to dozens of world-famous characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and even not-so-famous-but-beloved characters like the Challengers of the Unknown, meeting each other for the first time – in the same chronological order that they were originally published during the mid-twentieth century. It brought characters and ideas through the Golden Age of comic books (1930’s to 1950’s) to the burgeoning silver age (1950’s to 1970’s), with the story actually culminating in the foundation of the Justice League of America.
It was a brilliant idea. A tribute as much to the publishing history of comic books as it was a rollicking superhero adventure, the acclaimed series would garner multiple awards including Eisner Awards for Best Limited Series, Best Coloring and Best Publication Design. It also won Harvey Awards including Best Artist, and a Shuster Award for Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Cartoonist. DC: The New Frontier has been collected in numerous formats include a Deluxe and Absolute version, and was made into a direct-to-video animated film which preserved Cooke’s distinctive artistic sensibilities.
None of this is surprising when it came to Darwyn Cooke. His visionary art style reminisced an earlier, more precious era, even if modern sensibilities were at his storytelling foundation. Still, his unique artistic stylishness probably prevented him from receiving more work from mainstream publishers whose interest has generally been in more hyper-realized visuals over the last thirty years.
Still, a vocal leader in the industry, Cooke pushed the envelope of sequential storytelling in terms of the kinds of stories that should be published by the large comic book companies and what art styles could grace the covers of even the world’s most well-renowned superheroes. He described himself as a cartoonist first and foremost – an integrated artist whose storytelling was encapsulated in both the image and the printed word, a true merging of disciplines.
At a Toronto comic book convention nearly a decade ago, I recall Cooke giving a lecture that touched upon the state of the comic book industry – an industry whose publishing fortunes had waned in the decades following the end of the Silver Age of comics. Paraphrasing, he mentioned that comic books from the largest companies now circulated in the thousands or tens of thousands per issue, where once a Jimmy Olsen comic book, a series dedicated to a non-super-powered secondary character, circulated at near a quarter of a million copies during the 1970’s. In terms of publishing reach, how far had comic books fallen? Not shy to express his opinion, and wary of what over-saturation had caused to the market, he added that if he were Editor-in-Chief of one of the big publishers, he would cancel all comic books and instead, only publish a handful of their most popular characters along with some special projects. He added, laughing, that he would never be hired as Editor-In-Chief by any of the big publishers.
But that was Darwyn Cooke: opinionated, intelligent and caring of the industry that he loved to work in, aiming to trail blaze further. He went on to produce outstanding and award-winning comic books and graphic novels including the graphic interpretations of author Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter series of novels. Hardboiled and noir, Cooke brought the famous Donald Westlake character to a new generation, in a wholly new way.
As one of the main artists behind the DC Comics series of publications baring the Before Watchmen name, Cooke attempted both the sacred and the profane in following in the footsteps of industry legend, writer Alan Moore, and continuing the stories of that man’s seminal and revered creation, Watchmen.
Here was an endeavor that many deemed unfathomable and unconscionable. Watchmen has been valued as the high-water mark of comic book storytelling and DC Comics received unprecedented scorn from fans and critics over their decision to produce new work based on a story by a writer who had such a famous falling out with the publishing company, no longer wanting to work with them in any capacity. But there was notoriety and money in more Watchmen and, importantly to Cooke, he had new Watchmen stories to tell. Much like Scorsese and De Niro presenting the honorary lifetime achievement award to Elia Kazan at the Academy Awards in 1999, Cooke was one of a very select few that had the industry presence and respect to tackle the project. He accepted the challenge and produced arguably the best tales in that particular umbrella of publications.
They say that only Nixon could go to China, but it’s equally true that only Cooke could go to Moore.
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Darwyn Cooke on only one occasion: a signing at a comic book convention some years ago. I remember diligently and patiently waiting in a long line of like-minded fans, burdened by the heavy weight of two Absolute editions of DC: The New Frontier – one for me, and one for a friend who could not attend the con. Cooke was gracious with his time, happily signing both volumes of the book and spending a moment or two with me as I lingered, enthusiastically answering questions I had for him about DC: The New Frontier, his own influences and what he thought of the state of the industry. I remember being thankful that he was so courteous and interested in my thoughts and comments and questions, and so proud that a man whose work was so respected in the industry I loved, was also a fellow Canadian.
A massive influence and a pervasive genius, Darwyn Cooke was, to many people, also a colleague, a compatriot, a friend and a family man. He will be missed, certainly. His influence, will be with all of us, forever.
Rest in peace, Darwyn Cooke – a life that has truly been a Golden Age.